The Forest of Souls is published. Always an edgy time – two years work condensed into published pages. Are they going to like it? (good) Hate it? (bad) Ignore it? (terrible). The launch party is in a couple of days, publicity events here and there.
We travel across the Pennines to Hale in Cheshire – book event at the library. There’s a good crowd, about 40 people. They had to turn people away as they’d sold all the tickets. Wine, tea, coffee. I want wine, opt for coffee, and talk about the book.
I tell them about my father, about the stories he used to tell about his childhood in Belarus, about the house that my grandfather built in the forest, and as I talk, I can remember writing this bit of the book: Once upon a time, there was a forest….and a man called Stanislau built a house…. It seems like a long time ago. I read a couple of short sections – the bit about Eva and the trains in the forest, and the bit where Sophia Yevanova tells Jake about the prisoners in the cellars of the NKVD building. Lots of good feedback.
The launch party went really well. A bit too well. I’m distinctly hungover, but everyone seemed to have a good time and the bookshop sold loads of books. I talked for about fifteen minutes, but didn’t do any readings. It would have interrupted the party a bit too much. I didn’t have time to talk to people for very long – just raced round hello, lovely to see, you, thank for coming, hello
We went to The Mediterranean after for something to eat, and with the release of tension, we all got high and drank far too much wine, but it was all good.
Interview with the Yorkshire Post today. I’ve done the local papers – interviews over the phone. They all want to know why I’ve changed my name. They want to keep Danuta Reah, Sheffield writer. I explain that The Forest of Souls is a bit different, and the publishers think they can reach a wider audience with a new name. Carla Banks, found on a gravestone in Highgate cemetery. Hi, Carla.
The journalist from the Yorkshire Post wanted more background on my father, so I went through his papers. I found some of the things he had written in the last few years, and was reminded again of why I wanted to write the book. There was a poem about the last time he saw his mother:
I didn’t see you
was too late.
Do you remember when
you came to see me
standing on Gorzon Station?
‘Where is Janek? Did he forget to meet me?’
And when I crept behind you
picked you off the ground
and twirl. And you pleaded
‘Put me down.
Put me down Janek.
What all these people will say?’
And then you kiss me and ruffle my hair.
This is what we did to their leaders. What about ours? What about the war criminals Churchill and Roosevelt? What about Berlin? What about Dresden? This is all lies and propaganda. David Garrick-Smith’s book Damned Lies: The politics of truth and the politics of persuasion will tell you what’s really going on here. The Nazis were fighting a war. They were trying to put down Stalin. They had to execute terrorists and insurgents, same as we do now.
Katarina Bahaikuk: (former resident of the village of Zialony Luh)
The shootings began here in 1937. At first, three times a day, dawn, early afternoon and in the evening. They bought truck-loads of people into the forest and shot them. We were children. We used to hide in the forest and watch what they were doing. They threw the corpses into deep pits that had been dug there and when the pit was full, they covered it with sand. I remember the yellow sand piled high and the blood on the ground. In my memory, sometimes the sand heaved, as if the grave was breathing. But maybe that is just a child’s nightmare. Later, they enclosed the site, and the shootings became more frequent. We could hear the trucks arriving all through the nights.
The graves were dug in the first part of the day. The people were shot in batches. They were lined up in front of the pit, and gags were put in their mouths. The executioners wore NKVD uniforms. They fired their rifles from the side, into the head of the end person, so that the bullet went through two people.
There was a great deal of blood, and groans. Even those who were buried still groaned.
I have seen your query and I have some information you may find useful. I have not been able to track down your Marek Lange, but I have access to the archives at Hrodna where such information may be kept.
I am an archivist here in Minsk, and I have access to many papers relating to the last war. Your talk of the Auxiliary Police Battalions brings bad memories to those of us whose families lived through the war. I have attached a picture — you can see the original in our museum here, the Museum of the Great Patriotic War. This is what happened in Minsk, under the rule of the Nazis. This is what the ‘volunteers’ did.
If you should ever travel to Belarus in the course of your researches, I would be happy to assist you in any way.