Thanksgiving: Do you take your safety for granted? little boy in this 1945 photo is Bogdan, the brother of my grandmother who survived dysentery in the cellar.THIS WEEK, we welcome Dmitri Barvinok for Thanksgiving stories taking us far away—to reflect on the basics of life here, at home, today. Dmitri’s family homeland is Belarus. Read Part 1 for more background.
Here is Part 2 in his series …

As you get on the road this week to join your family for Thanksgiving, you probably are taking your freedom of travel for granted. That truly is a blessing here in America. You also may be taking your safety for granted. So, today, I’m sharing a story about a time when hiding in a cellar was the only hope for survival.

In 1944 toward the end of World War II, the Red Army began to advance on the city of Slonim, Belarus. The German forces had already decimated the entire town, shelling nonstop from the top of a hill. The resulting battle dropped further shells onto gardens and homes. During the four-day retreat, my grandmother’s family sat in their cellar, underneath their barn. It was four square meters, almost exactly, and inside were her father, mother, a relative, two grandmothers and her little brother, Bogdan, who was sick with dysentery.

Their neighbors, the Talachinskiye, had dug themselves a shelter, which was little more than a hole, but they had uncovered a landmine, so the shelter was unusable. They were invited into my family’s cellar, which brought the total to thirteen. These people spent four days and four nights in this tiny, underground room. It was a hellishly hot July, and over the cellar lay pillows and blankets, to stop shrapnel and bomb fragments from breaking into the cellar.

Four of the Talachinskie family were able to escape to Poland after the retreat: two young boys, the mother and the daughter. After leaving their cellars, the people of the city began to clean up their yards and roads, littered as they were with the remnants of shells, as well as whole shells that did not explode, and lay dangerously exposed amid the trampled garden plants.

Sbignev Talachinskie, one of the escaped boys, became a well-known poet and several years ago he came back to Slonim. He entered the old cellar and photographed every inch. He died of a heart attack not too long ago, but his memory lives on in his poetry.

Bogdan survived the cellar as well. Some claimed the key to his recovery was that there was no food. It was impossible to cook, or even leave the cellar to get something. There was nothing for his body to expel and the dysentery did not kill him—at least that’s the way the family story is told.

Cellars were a common hiding spot. In the 1930s, during the Ukranian famine, Tatyana, a dear family friend, hid in her grandmother’s cellar for three years, before she was able to escape to France in a metal box, smuggled out by a German officer. Tatyana’s grandmother said that she was protecting her from cannibalism that reportedly was tempting others in that devastating famine.

When was the last time were you confined to your home?

What’s your biggest public safety fear?

Please, leave a Comment below.

Originally published at, an experiment in civil dialogue about American values.

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