My mother fled Ukraine in World War II. She says this is worse

More than 5 million people have fled Ukraine since Moscow’s brutal invasion began, the United Nations reported last week. I wonder how many of the children forced from their homes — some escaping by train, others on foot — will see their fathers again? How many will become war orphans, like my mother? How many will go on to raise a child who has a ghost family, like me?

My mother fled Kharkiv in 1943 at age 9. Caught between the Germans to the west and the Russians to the east, she and her older sister, Galina, escaped first in a Nazi officer’s car and then on foot. They had no passports, no documents, no spare clothes. Only a photo album, which was lost within days to the rasputitsa, or mud season, a twice-yearly seasonal phenomenon that not even tanks can overcome. Rasputitsa is not a word my mother knew, despite her native Russian. But she remembers how the mud sucked at her feet, pulling her down.

When my mother describes her flight through Europe, she talks not about her pain but about the boots her sister wore: shoes pried from a dead soldier’s body that later had to be cut from my aunt’s blackened and bloodied feet. Still, the girls kept walking. Across Poland and then countries that didn’t yet exist and some that no longer exist: Hungary. Yugoslavia. Romania. Czechoslovakia.

Two years after they fled, the sisters were separated at the German border. In the chaos that followed, my mother’s name — existing only on her lips — was changed and changed again. It was Germanized, then Americanized, then buried under her husband’s surname. Her identity, a last tie to her homeland, lost its tether.

In 2014, I found my aunt’s obituary online. The last person who could answer my mother’s questions about what had happened to her family had died 18 months earlier. My aunt had lived well into old age and left behind a daughter named after my mother. The obituary’s last line was a plea to anyone reading: Where is her missing sister?

I called my mother at midnight, waking her. “Mom, I found Galina”, I said. My mother’s voice shifted awake in an instant: “Quick, tell me, is she alive or dead?”

Seven decades of questions dissolved in seconds. Galina had emigrated to Canada a few months before my mother sought refuge in the United States. My aunt had been living five hours’ drive away, in Toronto. I had found the ghost that haunted our family — and she was gone. At least now we knew what had become of her.

In 2019, my mother and I journeyed to Kharkiv. We went to search for records, clues — anything that would lead us to her parents’ names, their birthplaces or other answers. Galina had not spoken of her family, it turned out, even to her daughter. Like me, my cousin had grown up with a ghost.

Kharkiv embraced my 85-year-old mother. Strangers smiled and nodded with looks of knowingness as they listened to my mother’s memories. Five kind people — now my friends over Facebook, Telegram and email — generously gave their time to help my mother search.

In the reading room of the Kharkiv state archives, in a quiet building on a side street shaded with linden trees, we held my grandfather’s handwritten “confession”. Through the whorls of blue ink faded to purple, my mother touched her father for the first time since she was 3. We held the arrest paper — the one my mother had seen thrust at her father’s chest in 1937 before he was yanked over their doorstep and disappeared. We learned his birth date, his birthplace, his wife’s — my grandmother’s — patronymic. We beheld my mother’s full name in its original Cyrillic script and learned finally, definitively, how to spell it.

On the sidewalk outside the archives, my mother’s walking stick ceased clicking. As she halted, her face reflected wonder and sad joy. “My name is in the record!” And then: “I exist”.

It is a perverse irony that the meticulous record-keeping of Joseph Stalin’s killing machine preserved this tiny bit of my grandfather, who was executed two months after his arrest, his body dumped in a mass grave outside Kharkiv, along with 4,000 other persecuted Ukrainians.

Regulations legalizing the use of mass graves during military conflicts took effect Feb. 1 in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Last month, I asked a friend if she would please leave Kharkiv. I don’t want her to lose her family, like my mother did. She has chosen to stay with her loved ones.

Sometimes I wake at night, afraid to check my phone, fearful Ukraine has fallen. I search Facebook for signs of my friends. Their posts are few. I don’t know how to ask: Are you still alive? So instead I look for their status. “Last seen 46 minutes ago”. “Last seen three hours ago”. Some have stopped logging on. I tell myself that their phones are dead but that they are surviving. They are Ukrainian, I remind myself — they will survive, just as my mother did.

The first day of the invasion, my mother said: “This war, it’s so much worse than what I went through. My war — it was nothing compared to this. It was just pop, pop!” When I tried to understand something “worse” than World War II, I focused on what my mother hadn’t mentioned: the unanswered questions she lived with, the ghosts that haunted her life, and so much of mine. Another generation is on the same terrible path. How many more millions will live with ghosts?

Alexa Schriempf, a writer in Alexandria, is working on a memoir that includes her mother’s experience.

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