Belarus and the day when X really did mark the spot

It was 6.15 am on a deserted railway platform in western Belarus. The early morning sun was shrouded in thick cloud and a light drizzle greeted us as we stepped off the train. There was no sign of the driver who I had been promised would be waiting for us. And then as we started to head for the shelter of the waiting room a short, burly man walked across and waved a greeting to us. He ushered us into his white minibus and soon our group of nine were settled down and listening to the latest Belarusian hit parade.

We had met in Warsaw on the precious evening and caught the night train eastwards. There were nine of us: brothers, cousins and parents. My father was returning to the place of his birth after 68 years and we wanted to be there with him when he finally returned. As our driver left the station and headed northwards, he asked me “Why are you going to Niechniewicze? There is nothing there!” He rarely saw visitors to his homeland, and never from England. For us to travel from far away just to visit an insignificant village in rural Belarus was beyond his understanding.

PICT0050My father was born in the village of Niechniewicze in 1930. Back then it was part of Poland, and among the mix of Belarusians and Jews was a group of Polish residents, many who were army officers, given land as a reward for military service. My grandfather had moved eastwards to this place following the Polish-Russian war in 1920, and had brought up his family here and lived off the land, selling his harvest in the nearby town of Nowogrodek. It was to Nowogrodek that we now headed, through thick forests on either side of the wide and empty road. We would spend a day here exploring the town, before heading to the village and the plot of land the next day. Having confidently identified where his house has stood using Google Earth, my father was now excited at the prospect of being so close to his first home.

Church in Nowogrodek

Church in Nowogrodek

It had been a difficult trip to organise. The only way of getting a visa for this totalitarian state was by invitation, and we had stated clearly that our purpose of visiting was tourism. I had even requested a Polish speaking guide to show us around the town of Nowogrodek, before our incidental detour. The visas had taken nearly three months to arrange, and when they finally came they had only given us two days in the country, meaning that our plans had to be condensed into a very short itinerary.

We spent day 1 exploring Nowogrodek, the market town where my father remembered visiting with his father as a young boy. He would ride on the cart and watch with fascination as people went about their business in this, the biggest settlement for many miles. Now, he found several familiar landmarks and it was our turn to hang on to his words as he recalled his adventures there as a young boy. We had heard many of these stories before throughout our childhood. To hear them again but actually “on location” was something special for us all. In the evening we shared a meal and enjoyed a drink, remembering those in the family who had never been able to return here.PICT0067

Visiting rural Belarus is rather like stepping back in time. Roads are quiet, and many people still use horses to get around. Secret police are everywhere. Even when I took an early morning stroll the next day, I noticed on almost every street corner there was a man reading a newspaper in his car, watching me as I passed. The people we spoke to had been friendly and cheerful, but became immediately uncomfortable if we asked anything that directly or indirectly might lead them to comment on the government, the economy or their standard of life.

On the second day the rain had cleared and we left our guest house in bright sunshine as we boarded the minibus for our trip to Niechniewicze.

PICT0094My father’s family had been deported from here in February 1940 by the Russians, taken to Siberia where they would stay in a camp in terrible conditions for nearly two years before continuing on a long and tortuous journey across three continents, eventually reaching England in 1947. His father had been arrested five months earlier at the very start of the war, taken eastwards to work as a prisoner and never seen again. For my father to have returned here after 68 years was something he had long thought about but had never imagined would actually happen.

On arrival in the village, we were taken to the local administrator and she came out to greet us and act as our chaperone. By now we expected this attention and accepted it as the way things happened here. We soon drove to the field where my father believed the house had stood and stepped out onto the dirt track. Surrounded by long fields of wheat and with the houses of the village visible around half a mile into the distance, my father led the way along the track with us following eagerly in tow and the local administrator, our guide and our driver standing back, puzzled as to what we were doing here. Leading us past a small clump of trees my father told us how his father had built a cross here to mark the Polish settlement, and how the cross had been a welcome signal on a journey to confirm that they were nearly home. Another hundred yards along the track, and he stopped and declared that this was the spot.

I was surprised, given that he was 9 years old when he last saw this land, that he remembered anything here with confidence. Yet here he was, recalling exactly whose house stood in which spot and where he had played as a child. We stood around him, in this empty field sloping gently upwards from the village to a nearby ridge, and tried to picture the stories that we had heard many times before: of happy times at home with his father, of playing with his older sisters and finally of running for cover as wartime brought almost daily dangers.

PICT0079All the time our local hosts had stood back, allowing us to hear this old man’s stories and wondering what to make of it. They seemed relaxed enough; clearly we were not looking to claim the land, or seek anything other than a set of memories to take away. My father asked about the cross, and they had said with certainty that no such thing had existed here for at least the last forty years. Yet as we listened to his story, we wondered whether the trees on the corner of the track held any secrets. One of our group went into the little clump and shortly afterwards pulled back the branches of a large old tree to reveal a wooden cross, exactly as our father had described. We were stunned, as were our hitherto indifferent hosts! This relic of the Polish presence in the village had survived through so many years of hardship, where the wood would surely have been used for essential building material.PICT0084

Our guide seemed to adopt an immediately increased respect for my father, now that there was no doubting the accuracy of his memory and the motives of our visit here. He suggested to us that the cross might now be registered as a monument of national historic importance, and we hope this process has begun.

Maybe if one of us returns here someday there will be a plaque with the story of my grandfather and the other settlers for all to see. That would be fitting tribute to those who had sought to live here in peace and had to endure the worst torments of war. For the family group who came to Belarus it was reward enough to stand in that field, with my father, as he finally returned to the place of his birth.

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Freelance travel writer

One Response to “Belarus and the day when X really did mark the spot”

  1. I love the way you write. This truly moved me to tears.

    November 6, 2009 at 7:02 pm