During World War II, roughly twenty-five percent of Belarus’s population died. Some died as what is so charmingly called “collateral damage “. Others were murdered; the Jewish population effectively vanished in the death camps. So did Roma, suspected collaborators, and the mentally or physically defective. The Nazi killing machine was gruesomely efficient.
Belarus, just south of today’s Lithuania and just northwest of Poland, is about the size of Kansas and a lot of it is, like Kansas, farmland. In 1940 it was, among other things, the path of the central thrust of Hitler’s three-pronged invasion of Russia. The entire German war machine rolled over those farms and through those cities.
The battles were horrendous. Nothing was given up without a fight.
After the invasion and the battles and the destruction, the Nazis occupied Belarus until the war ended. The country was devastated, the cities in ruins. For people whose land has been ravaged by war, just because the shooting stops doesn’t mean they can sashay off to the mall and buy new clothing. There is no mall. There is no clothing. There is no transportation or food or fuel. War takes everything and leaves nothing in its wake.
Late last night, in cold and rainy Minsk, we were in the metro, returning to our apartment after enjoying a colorful ballet performance at the Opera House. As we walked the long, damp, underground passage toward our exit, we saw a lone flower seller. All other vendors had gone home.
She was in her seventies. An infant at the end of the WW2. Her father had probably died fighting and maybe her mother had a Hero of the Soviet Union medal to show her. She had grown up hungry year-round and cold in the winter. In her youth, she’d lived well behind the Iron Curtain. Stalin’s purges and other insanities had probably touched her family. She’d had to toe the party line, no matter how ridiculous it might have seemed. People had vanished from her life without warning or explanation.
And then, in 1986, they got Chernobyl. Eastern Belarus was directly in the prime fallout zone. Thousands died; more will die. Even today, produce from that area can be unhealthy to consume.
In 1992, by the end of Russian rule, she perhaps had children and grandchildren. But after Russia left, Belarus got their very own home-grown dictator. The country is the only dictatorship left in all of Europe, with KGB-style “law enforcement “. (Nearby Azerbaijan, also a dictatorship, is in Central Asia.) The economy of Belarus is precarious. Median annual income is the equivalent of $5000USD.
Does the old, tiny, sweet-voiced flower seller make that? Selling boquets of home-grown flowers in the subway at ten o’clock at night? We were leaving in the morning and had little money but we managed to buy one boquet. Her hands were very cold. I’m five feet tall; she was shorter than me and probably weighed twenty five pounds less.
Belarusians are nice, pleasant, welcoming people. She had a sweet, kind of fluty, voice. I speak no Russian and she had no English. I’ll never know her story. But she has a story and my guess is it’s astonishing, heartbreaking, tragic, scary, joyous, uplifting and depressing.
The point? Everyone you meet has a story, and it’s often buried. Even the most benign or inconsequential-appearing person knows things, has done things, has survived things, you’ll never imagine. That little old guy at the senior center may have flown sorties in Korea, or gone undercover in Eastern Europe. The little old lady nearby could’ve been a real life Hot Lips Houlihan.
You have to listen carefully to get the stories. Ask questions. Writers are a combination of magpie and vampire. We collect bits and pieces that can often be someone’s life blood. You need to hear those stories. Not only for your sake, or for the sake of enriching your craft, but for those who will share their lives with you.
Never miss an opportunity to learn someone’s story. And never think that anyone you meet doesn’t have a story.