A little girl lost in a forest, bewildered, in peril, not knowing when she’ll find a clearing. Such a quintessential and universal image would have been a fantasy for my mother, who watched the forests burn along with houses, as loved ones, friends and other children ran screaming usually to be greeted by death elsewhere. Survival seems like a way out. And for her there was an escape, but not to some idyllic land rich with frisky wildlife, ripe berries and fragrant flowers. Instead her path out, a forced one, was paved with the stench of death and not so much as a crumb to eat. The harsh environment wasn’t the worst of it. Losing others when she, for no good reason in her young perception, made it out alive came with a lifelong condition: guilt that ran deeper than the Dnieper River and stung more than a bullet wound.
Belarus was effectively flattened in World War II, leaving little of historic interest for tourists who flock to monuments and battle sites. But within those thick primeval forests and picturesque villages is buried a history of death and destruction.
Between 1937 and 1938, Stalin's NKVD secret police executed more than 1,000 people per day, most with a shot to the back of the head. As many as 1.6 million people were killed in Belarus during the Stalin-era purges, according to historian Ihar Kuznyatsow, even as officials claim only 600,000 Belarusians were killed. By any account, it’s a staggering number. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has downplayed Stalin’s reign of terror, claiming that mass graves don’t contain the NKVD’s victims. For parts of modern-day Belarus, little has changed. The country still has Soviet-style collective farms and there has been very limited privatization.
To the best of her recollection, my mother was born June 21st or 23rd by the Gregorian calendar (now internationally the most widely used civil calendar) in either 1936 or 1938. As a Russian Orthodox Christian, my mother observes holy days, or moveable and immovable feasts, by the Julian calendar, a reform of the Roman calendar introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 BC. The Julian calendar served as the civil calendar in some countries until as late as the 20th century. But her birthday, for all practical intents and purposes, has been July 5th since she immigrated to the United States in 1950. It has nothing to do with the differences between the two calendars. “When my father was interrogated, when we were prisoners in Germany (circa 1946), he had made a mistake about (some other fact) and he got scared and that's what he gave as my date of birth,” she explains.
Whether she was born before or just as Stalin unleashed his murderous rampage is irrelevant because her earliest memories would be of a world ruled by this evil beast. As today’s evil dictator, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko (who was born in Vitebsk Oblast) continues to undermine the magnitude of the country’s losses, such historic events become mythical. Without any records of births and deaths and no markings on mass graves, it’s as if those who perished never existed outside the memory of survivors like my mother. Most of my mother’s close relatives, including all three of her brothers, and childhood friends were denied any burial ritual, all becoming lost in the very soil they identify with using a term zemlak (or zemlachka for women), literally meaning those from the same earth. For my mother’s parents, there was a culture to identify with before all the bloodshed. For my mother, there was nothing positive until she made it to a displaced persons’ camp in Germany.
My mother has no truly youthful memories. Her memories from youth don’t include any childlike whimsy that lends to the lighter side of fairytales. She didn’t learn many of these tales until she was older. As a little girl, these tales were passed down to me, both orally by my grandparents and their friends, many much older and from vastly different villages and cities, or in various tellings and translations. It’s unsurprising that my mother identifies only with the tales of the church, as her first happy memories are tied to hearing and singing liturgies.
Had my mother’s brothers lived, their story could have been more like the classic tale “The Metamorphosis Of The Dnieper, The Volga, And The Dvina,” of which the first and third run through Vitebsk Oblast.
The account recorded by 19th century Russian scholar and translator William Ralston Shedden-Ralston, a close friend of Ivan Turgenev, begins like this:
The Dnieper, Volga, and Dvina used once to be living people. The Dnieper was a boy, and the Volga and Dvina his sisters. While they were still in childhood they were left complete orphans, and, as they hadn’t a crust to eat, they were obliged to get their living by daily labor beyond their strength. “When was that?” Very long ago, say the old folks; beyond the memory even of our great-grandfathers.
Well, the children grew up, but they never had even the slightest bit of good luck. Every day, from morn till eve, it was always toil and toil, and all merely for the day’s subsistence. As for their clothing, it was just what God sent them! They sometimes found rags on the dust-heaps, and with these they managed to cover their bodies. The poor things had to endure cold and hunger. Life became a burden to them.
One day, after toiling hard afield, they sat down under a bush to eat their last morsel of bread. And when they had eaten it, they cried and sorrowed for a while, and considered and held counsel together as to how they might manage to live, and to have food and clothing, and, without toiling, to supply others with meat and drink. Well, this is what they resolved: to set out wandering about the wide world in search of good luck and a kindly welcome, and to look for and find out the best places in which they could turn into great rivers—for that was a possible thing then.
Depressing to most, this would have been a far brighter outcome for my mother’s siblings. For her, along with a childhood stolen, all hope is lost.