A nonverbal man sits on a bench on a village street. With his hands, he tells the story of his village. His hands say that all of the villagers were herded together into a barn. His hands say that the barn was set on fire. He uses his fingers to show that those who broke out of the burning barn were shot to death with machine guns. His fingers say that all six of his children were murdered in that fire.
This footage comes from the documentary Khatyn, 5 km, a 1968 collaboration between filmmaker Igor Kolovsky and writer Ales Adamovich. “The face of a man who survived—who tore himself by a miracle out of fire!” writes the Belarusian Adamovich (1927–94)—a former partisan in a country where every fourth person was killed during the German occupation of 1941 to 1944—in describing his encounter with this silent man, in autobiographical prose that he published later. Instead of offering the consolation of a commentary, this exclamation states the obvious. There can be no further comment. You have to come and see the face of a man who survived.
The village of Khatyn, located thirty miles from the Belarusian capital of Minsk, was the site of a massacre that took place on March 22, 1943. (This is not to be confused with the better-known massacre at Katyn, the Russian forest where a few years earlier the Soviets had executed many thousands of Polish military officers.) On that day, a police battalion formed by the Nazis rounded up nearly all of the 156 inhabitants of Khatyn, half of them children, trapped them in a shed, and set it on fire. The executioners did their best not to leave any witnesses. Afterward, they looted the village and burned it to the ground.
In 1965, when Adamovich started writing his book Khatyn—a fiction, sourced from witness testimonies, that would be published in 1971 (and later translated into English), and become a primary inspiration for Elem Klimov’s Come and See (1985), whose script Adamovich would also write with the director—nobody yet knew the exact number of Belarusian villages burned down along with all their inhabitants during the war. At the 1969 opening of the Khatyn Memorial, the official count was 185 fire villages. Each is represented by a tomb in the memorial’s Cemetery of Villages.
Over the next two decades, however, the count would rise to more than six hundred. Large as it is, this number includes only the most destructive raids by the Nazis. It is estimated that more than five thousand Belarusian settlements experienced various punitive actions. Thousands of civilians—women, children, and the elderly—were burned to death inside the largest buildings in their villages, usually a barn, a school, or a church. All the executions were justified with the same pronouncement: the mass murder was a punishment for unlawful partisan activity against the Nazis. For instance, in response to the killing of two German soldiers near the village of Ola, in the south of Belarus, 1,758 of Ola’s inhabitants were burned to death, including 950 children. This massacre, almost twelve times the size of Khatyn’s, is just one example of a fire village remembered in neither film nor literature.
Considering the extent of civilian deaths with no mercy to infants, small children, and the incapacitated elderly, there is no doubt that what is at stake here is a genocide.
“The reading of Adamovich’s books should be accompanied by some kind of breathing exercises, gardening, music practice, or prayer. They offer no catharsis. They testify to the failure of humanity as a project in humaneness.”
When Adamovich begins to write in postwar Minsk, he is aware of a tendency to harmonize the national war narrative. The Soviet ideology demands uplifting literature that zooms out of the local, personal tragedies in order to present history from a high vantage point. In a personal narrative, one violent death is the end of one’s world. The redeeming role of literature, then, is paradoxical: to diminish a personal tragedy in order to make it meaningful. The high vantage point provides a view of the new generations whose lives are saved, a whole nation saved, mass murder only one page in its immortal history. The deaths belong to everybody—generally, abstractly.
As he writes, Adamovich also begins traveling around Belarus with documentary filmmakers, in order to record survivors’ testimonies. Literature of documents is not new, but in Belarus, where documents either have been burned or remain under lock and key in the state archives, the only available document is the voice of a survivor. This voice is the narrator of a new literary genre that Adamovich will call “superliterature”: a voice document, a face document.
After writing Partizany (Partisans, 1960–63) and Khatyn—fiction inspired by his war experience, and informed as well by the testimony of others—Adamovich begins working in this new mode. With two cowriters, Vladimir Kolesnik and Yanka Bryl, he interviews three hundred surviving fire-village witnesses all across Belarus. Their words make up the monumental 1977 work Out of the Fire (the original title translates literally as “I’m from fire village”), another important source for Come and See. The oral-history form of this book—coedited, multivoiced—is a response to the question of what kind of literature we should be writing after what we have witnessed in Belarus. Adamovich’s next—and final—full work of superliterature, A Book of the Blockade (1977–81), cowritten with Daniil Granin, gathers the voices of survivors of the siege of Leningrad.
For a Belarusian reader, Adamovich’s books—particularly Khatyn and Out of the Fire—are still painfully difficult to read. The reading of these books should be accompanied by some kind of breathing exercises, gardening, music practice, or prayer. They offer no catharsis. They testify to the failure of humanity as a project in humaneness. Humaneness, as the stories in these books clearly show, is a quality not inherent in human beings. Humaneness is simultaneously cultivated and tested during the trials of history initiated by the failure of humaneness in others.
Ales Adamovich is born in 1927, in the village of Kanyukhi, in the Minsk region, to a medical family. But his childhood memories begin in the village of Glusha, where his parents move shortly after his birth.
In June 1941, when the war comes to Belarus with the eight-day-long battle for the Brest fortress and an eight-hour-long bombardment of Minsk by the German Luftwaffe, Ales is thirteen. The Germans arrive in Glusha on the sixth day of the war, as he will later write in his autobiographical prose, collected in the 1986 volume Viberi zhizn (Choose life). In Glusha, located on the route that crosses Belarus connecting Warsaw with Moscow, children have always seen the road signs with the mileage to the Russian border and to Moscow as mundane elements of their rural landscape. Now, with the arrival of the Germans, these signs acquire a militaristic meaning and inflict fear. In the woods surrounding the village, a partisan brigade forms; Adamovich remembers his mother taking a basket with medical supplies to the forest in September. The Belarusian partisan movement will become one of the largest in Europe.
Ales joins the partisans in 1943. Later, during the last year of the war in Belarus, he travels over three thousand miles to the Altai Republic in southern Siberia, where, for the benefit of a student’s stipend and a dorm room, he enrolls in college. Upon returning to Minsk after the war, he continues his studies, defending two dissertations while writing the two interrelated novels of Partizany, which will take him fifteen years to finish. These books focus on womanhood and motherhood in a war-torn Belarusian province. “War’s face is not a woman’s face,” writes Adamovich. “Yet,” he continues, “nothing comes back to me as vividly as the faces of our mothers.” With Partizany, Adamovich creates a memorial to his own mother: “It is my mother who wrote this novel with her own life.” Both volumes will be turned into films.
The writing brings on frenzied nightmares. The more survivors Adamovich interviews, the more he doubts literature’s capacity to house their stories. “After collecting all the stories, it might appear natural to want to write a novel,” he writes. “But why? After the truth you’ve heard?”
The writing of Khatyn starts with Adamovich’s visit to the village of Kovchitsy, for the opening of a memorial to fellow partisans who were killed in its trenches. After the official ceremony, a woman tells him the story of how the villagers were chased into the trenches, which were already piled with corpses. The living were placed on top of the dead like logs and then shot. As the executioners threw wheat straw on top in order to set the corpses on fire, the woman lay there thinking: How curious, I’m dead, yet I understand everything so clearly. Next to her body, warmed by the blood, her son was sleeping (Adamovich will hear a lot about the sleepiness people felt during such moments, the mind’s defense against madness). Adamovich films the woman as she speaks. Later, at home, looking at the woman’s face, he begins his Khatyn.
Klimov’s Come and See—which dramatizes the horrors of the war in Belarus, as seen through the eyes of a young partisan (as Adamovich himself had been)—offers many opportunities to see face-to-face. Shots of characters, full-face and up close, articulate, using some invisible muscles of the human soul, “Look at me, see me.” For Belarusians who survived the war, the question of what it means to be human is not an academic exercise. The war embodies this question’s dangerous probing, and serves as a host for its inhuman revelations. Belarusian Jews were murdered in concentration camps, while in the countryside entire villages were burned at a time.
In Khatyn, we meet young Flyora, who is relieved that his mother and small sisters are all dead. Their deaths are a promise that they won’t have to die again. Later, when Flyora confronts a group of captured Nazis, he feels in his bones that killing them is not enough of a punishment. He tries to muster a punishment much greater than a death sentence—a great, just, most horrid punishment beyond human imagining. Does he sound pathological? Upon the release of Come and See—whose protagonist was inspired by Khatyn’s and bears the same name—some American reviewers criticize it for dwelling on the pathological. But who are they to know how somebody with Flyora’s experience should feel? Belarusian suffering is outside the American scope of understanding. They can only come and see.Meetings with Western writers at various postwar European conferences leave Adamovich exasperated. The West is interested only in its own war narrative, and, for them, this war has already become a closed chapter. Nobody in the West has seen what Belarusians saw during World War II. “Can America imagine fifty million Americans dead and all of the country except for its East Coast bombed out?” Adamovich asks. For Belarusians, the war has not retreated into the historical past. The war has not separated from families and persons. One cannot step back from it as from a painting on the wall. What is the meaning of the term postwar in a country where all landscapes and relations are still marked by the war?
“Adamovich demotes the writer from his godlike position. After World War II, there cannot be any omnipotent puppet master writing Belarusian war prose.”
In the nineteenth century, Gustave Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary, the first masterpiece of realist fiction, insists on the omission of authorial judgment and didactic moralizing for the sake of pure style. After World War II, Adamovich withdraws commentary and authorial style as an ethical choice. Adamovich demotes the writer from his godlike position. After World War II, there cannot be any omnipotent puppet master writing Belarusian war prose. No characters, either: real people, survivors and witnesses, speak for themselves. Their voices move in the chaos and darkness of history.
Adamovich’s superliterature has no single author, no single protagonist. It is a chorus—the communal voice of witness in Greek tragedies—that includes the voices of rural Belarusian communities after the three years of massacres. In his essay “On Grief and Reason,” Joseph Brodsky writes, “In a real tragedy, it is not the hero who perishes; it is the chorus.” After World War II, Belarus honors the heroes, while what is left of the chorus is bones and ashes.
Adamovich’s disciple Svetlana Alexievich wins the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.” “There are voices around me, hundreds of voices,” she begins her lecture, which pays tribute to Adamovich, who “felt that writing prose about the nightmares of the twentieth century was sacrilege.” “Nothing may be invented . . . The witness must speak,” she says in summarizing Adamovich’s philosophy. She also mentions Flaubert: “Flaubert called himself a human pen; I would say that I am a human ear.”
What can you do with the fact that 628 Belarusian villages were “burnt to the ground with all of their inhabitants”? This appears as a title card at the end of Come and See. After the action of the movie has stopped and the narrative arc has closed, Klimov and Adamovich still feel the need to cite the exact number. Realism, whether in fiction or in film, fails to hold up the unimaginable reality. The number of villages, 628, is not about quantity. Rather, the number functions as a communal name, signifying the failure of words to measure the loss.
After World War I, Ernest Hemingway feels a great devaluation of language. He writes: “There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity.” The somber dignity of the names—both the names of Belarusian villages and the names of the perished inhabitants—is the language to remember. When we look at the lists of names of those murdered in the fire villages, it is not out of curiosity. The lists look like elegiac poetry, wherein the names of the members of each family form a single stanza. In these stanzas, all the words ending the lines—the family names—rhyme. These are most somber, most horrific full rhymes—from great-grandfathers to great-grandchildren, representing names passed from generation to generation for centuries. Thousands of lineages—families working the same spot of earth for five hundred years—burned forever in claustrophobic barns in the name of superior racial purity.
Our world is not “of the living.” Our world is a space where the living and the dead meet—a world of cemeteries, memorial sites, and documents. The reading of these names is a pact between the living and the dead. Likewise, the space of superliterature holds the dead by not letting them go into nonexistence.
Belarusian peasants for centuries lived largely out of view of the colonizing powers of Poland and Russia. This social invisibility is how they escaped both cultural assimilation and the deathly repressions directed at artists and scholars congregated in the cities. This is why each renewal of Belarusian literature brings a return to its peasant roots—a tradition tied to the land, trees, plants, animals, and myth. When the survivors of the fire-village massacres recounted the stories of their communities to Ales Adamovich and his cowriters, the two traditions—oral storytelling and literary war prose—merged into a document of history that, unlike history as it usually goes, is local, personal; a history where one single death is the end of one world, where the names of ahistorical people and places are preserved in the dignity of black ink on the white page, where justice is served through reading, seeing, remembering.