Saturday, February 16, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Won’t Fund Memorial to Circassian Villagers who Saved Leningrad Orphans from the Nazis

Paul Goble

Baku, February 16 – The Russian government, which like its Soviet predecessor, has devoted enormous sums to building memorials for those who struggled against the Germans during World War II, has not been prepared to find any money for a monument to a Circassian village that saved a group of Leningrad orphans from the Nazis.
Indeed, instead of memorializing their noble act, Moscow and regional governments have failed to acknowledge what the Circassians did. But now, the story has come out anyway in the current issue of the appropriately named journal, Sovershenno Sekretno (
Taisiya Belousova, a journalist who writes frequently for that magazine, said that she had first heard about what the residents of the Circassian aul of Besleney had done from her own relatives in Cherkessk. And she was able to write the story only after interviewing survivors of those long ago events and their descendents.
In August 1942, she recounts, a group of trucks appeared near the village, and the residents assumed that it was a retreating Red Army unit. But they quickly discovered that the trucks contained not soldiers but more than 100 orphans who had succeeded in escaping the Leningrad blockade but were now at the edge of death.
The children, who had been in trains and trucks for many months were starving and ill. “They didn’t cry; they didn’t call out for their mothers. They were quietly dying.” This touched the hearts of the aul’s residents who brought food and offered to take them into their own homes.
But the orphans and the adults will them assumed they had to go on: “Don’t you notice,” one asked, “how many Jews there are among the children?” Once the Nazis arrive – and they were advancing toward the Circassian region at that point -- “the Germans will shoot [the children and] any who have given them protection.”
Indeed, one of the leaders of the group said that other villages had refused to take them in for precisely that reason. But the Besleney headman responded that his aul would behave differently, even though some of its elders objected. “These children have gone through hell,” he said. “We will not leave them in their misfortune.”
Approximately 100 of the children decided to go on, but the 32 in the worst shape were taken in by the aul’s families. Tragically, the Germans eventually caught up with and killed all those who went on, but with only one exception, they did not kill any of the children who remained in Besleney.
The villagers gave the children Circassian names, entered them into the city’s records, and in general treated them as their adopted sons and daughters. When the Germans did arrive and began looking for the children, they denied there were any such children there and hid them when the Nazis launched their search.
Someone did betray one of the children, Belousova recounts, and the Nazis “shot the child on the street.” Eventually, the villagers were able to bury the child. The next day, they discovered the woman who had adopted the Jewish child lying dead from despair on his grave. The villagers then tracked down and shot this traitor.
The danger to the children and the villagers lasted throughout all five months that Besleney was occupied. But finally the Germans pulled out and eventually the war ended. Those children who had been put in an orphanage but whose parents remained alive eventually left the village. But the real orphans remained in Besleney.
Not surprisingly, given the centrality of World War II in the minds of Soviet and now Russian citizens, their fate attracted a certain amount of local attention beginning in the 1960s. And students of local history compiled a list of the children and their second set of parents, which Belousova gives.
The Sovershenno Sekretno journalist concludes her article with the following cry from the heart: “From my aul contacts, I found out that [the children and their descendents] have been trying for many years to have a monument erected in Besleney to those who saved the Leningrad children.”
“They have written to the republic government, to St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matvienko, and even to President Putin. But “none of them has the money for this.” One hopes that other and better people will remember the Besleney villagers and their heroism and find a way to put up a monument to them.

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