Khatyn Memorial, BELARUS -- The U.S. Air Forces in Europe Band’s Ambassadors Jazz Ensemble traveled to the Khatyn Memorial outside Minsk, Belarus, to pay respect for the lives that were lost here during the Great Patriotic War.
The bandsmen toured the memorial and placed flowers at the feet of the Unbowed Man statue that depicts the only adult survivor of the Khatyn massacre, Yuzif Kaminsky, holding his dead son.
The statue was constructed where a barn once stood, in which 149 of the villagers were gathered and burned to death on March 22, 1943. There were 26 homes that were also destroyed, leaving nothing to stand.
On their way to lay flowers, the bandsmen were approached by Grigory and Vladimir Yarygin from Moscow-Oblast, Russia, former service members with the Soviet Union that had fought in WWII.
Curious as to why the U.S. Air Force would be at the memorial, or even in Belarus, Grigory, a retired colonel and air force wing commander for the Soviet Union, spoke with Lt. Col. Michael Mench, USAFE Band commander. With the help of a translator, Mench replied “We are from the USAFE Band and we are here to pay respect to the lives lost in the massacre that happened here during the Great Patriotic War. We have also played concerts in Minsk and Mogilev to commemorate the alliance that ended the greatest conflict of the 20th Century.”
With gratitude, Grigory thanked the bandsmen for paying their respects to the many lives that were lost, while adding “I’m sorry I don’t have my medals on, I did not think we would see anybody here.”
Mench placed his hand on his shoulder and said “Don’t be sorry, I can see the medals in your eyes.” Grigory smiled happily and embraced Mench for the sincere words.
As stories continued to be exchanged, Yargin, a former submariner with the Soviet Union, pulled Mench to the side and handed him a comparative pin as a sign of friendship and to thank him for remembering the shared effort of their nations. The colonel returned the generosity and took one of his own silver oak leaves and placed it on the lapel of Yargin’s jacket.
Yarygin smiled and shook the hands of all the bandsmen and said, “We need to not be afraid of the shadows and become friends to make peace. Our younger generation need to find a way to continue to get along and preserve peace for a prosperous future.”
As the time came to say good-bye to their news friends, Grigory concluded “I will tell my story from today. I will tell my family and friends. Thank you for remembering. It is a good thing. I remember we were allies, partners.”