Heroes of Belarus Remembered
Belarus is celebrating Independence Day, timed to coincide with the anniversary of its liberation from Nazi occupation. As a result of the Lublin–Brest Offensive 75 years ago, the Soviet Red Army started to clear the Nazi German forces from western Belarus and Eastern Poland. On July 3, 1944, they liberated Minsk
Students there train for that role. They must not only learn how to march correctly, but also take exams on the history of defense. That includes remembering the names of each Soviet commander who helped liberate the city of Nazis.
“It’s definitely an honor for students. They can join this guard from the age of 14. If they are younger, it is impossible,” student Ksenia Kondratiuk said.
In June 1941, Hitler’s forces advanced on Brest. Red Army soldiers, surrounded and outnumbered, fought beyond all odds to defend the city. The 100-foot statue has become a symbol of resistance. It’s not only tourists who come here, but also movie directors. They use the complex to shoot historical and documentary films.
“It’s an amazing place! It feels quite a sacred place to me. And all the people that’ve come here have got quite quiet when they arrive because I think people know – the power of the loss of life here really,” British director Philip Armstrong Dampier said.
In the fortress, search groups found the remains of over a thousand soldiers. Only 277 people were identified. One of the large mass graves was found by pure chance – with the help of a photo. As a result, search groups found over 50 remains in the debris.
“The photo from Germany was sent to the museum. German soldiers used the first prisoners to remove corpses and clear debris. In that photo, there are captive Red Army servicemen and German soldiers and there is a huge hole for corpses. It was this photo that helped to reveal the location of this hole. Then, a search battalion arrived,” guide Olga Ignatovich said.
One of the original inscriptions found in Brest is now being kept in the Museum of the Second World War.
“On June 26, there were three of us. But we did not lose courage and died as heroes,” it says.
The museum — founded on October the 22nd, 1944 — became the first dedicated to the Second World War – in the then-Soviet Union.
During the war, partisans blew up more than 5,000 bridges, and destroyed over 11,000 trains, as well as 300 aircraft. The operation at the Osipovichi station entered the Guinness Book of Records as the largest ground sabotage during the Second World War. At that time, partisans destroyed 65 wagons with ammunition destined for the German forces.
“In 1943, 374,000 people took part in the partisan movement. Partisans controlled 60 percent of the area. Just imagine this occupied territory, 60 percent of which is controlled by locals,” Tatiana Polityka, the head of the research department at the museum said.
By 1943, almost 400,000 local residents were involved in the partisan movement. Pit-houses, shown in this museum, are replicas of those the partisans built. And this is how schools, surgery rooms, and even printing houses looked like. Partisans printed leaflets. Sometimes, they wrote them by hand – using berry juice and ashes instead of ink. The museum has more than 150,000 exhibits.
“Soldiers’ flasks like these were used as Molotov cocktails. At that time, they didn’t have Molotov cocktails like we have,” Polityka said, indicating one of the displays.
Steel breastplates served as bulletproof vests for assault groups.
“These breastplates protected from ricocheting bullets or shrapnel wounds, just like bulletproof vests. But often they could not protect a person from a sniper’s bullet,” Polityka said.
One out of every three Belarusians was killed in World War II. About 3 million people perished, including almost 50,000 partisans and underground members. There were 250 death camps in Belarus. One of them is called Stalag 352 – or
the village of Vasiukovschina.
“It was a prison camp. Stalags were prisoner-of-war camps, where ordinary, non-commissioned officers were held. In the Vasiukovshchyna camp, 80,000 people were killed. Prisoners of war were kept in terrible conditions. They were forced to leave their shoes at the entrance. Instead, they were given wooden shoes,” Polityka said.
Over 600 villages were burned to the ground, and about 400,000 Belarusians were forced to work in Germany.