I Don’t Want One More Child to Become a Refugee In Ukraine Like I Was

The violence in Ukraine and the developing humanitarian refugee crisis have transfixed me. As the daughter of a war refugee, the sights and sounds of the misery of the displaced makes me feel helpless and hopeless. It fills me with a boiling rage. 

As the mother of three young men, the images of families being separated bring me to my knees. When men between the ages of 16-60 are forced to stay in the country, what does a mother of young adult sons do? Stay or go? What kind of decision is that for a mother to have to make? 

Author’s mother together with a Polish woman who hid Jews during WWII (photo credit Joanie Schwarz Portraiture)
Author’s mother in Poland after WWII

I know something of those people and of that place. I know something about lives and families being torn apart. I know something of impossible decisions. And, I know that it takes a lifetime to build a life and mere moments to destroy it. 

During World War II my family faced similar inconceivable choices. My grandmother and my mother, who in 1943 was a child of 11, were interned in a ghetto in Tarnopol, a city currently in Ukraine that was then in Poland. My grandmother who was Aryan looking would steal out of the ghetto for food and smuggle it back in. While on the outside, she heard rumors that the ghetto would soon be liquidated. 

She was able to escape the ghetto with her husband and young daughter into the nearby woods. Somewhere in those woods, my grandfather, who I never met, decided to leave his wife and daughter and go his own way. 

Was it a Faustian bargain? Did he leave them to up his own chances of survival or theirs? Was it courage or cowardice that sent him on his lone path? Or neither? That answer is no longer discoverable. But nearly eighty years later, as a witness of the fallout of that time and that decision, I do have one answer; some wounds never heal. Wars end but the trauma they inflict goes on and on.

The world will see the survivors and believe that they have moved on but the echo of what they endured becomes the legacy not just of the next generation but of the ones that follow. It’s a legacy of fear, insecurity and a feeling of never quite belonging. That’s what makes my insides twist as I watch the suffering unfold.

The Ukrainians were brutal during World War II. Mom never made her feelings about them a secret, but when I asked her what she feels as she watches the news. She said she feels devastated, “Why would I want another child to become a refugee like I was?” she asked. 

The other day a Russian airstrike (the Russians liberated my mother in 1944) hit the site of Babi Yar where 33 thousand Jews were murdered by the Germans. Later that day I found myself cheering an announcement by the German government that, in light of Russian aggression, they were re-arming. And on the cusp of that cheer came another thought-how foolish it all is; how deeply, horrifyingly, frustratingly senseless. 

When will we ever learn? When will we ever learn?

About Helene Wingens

Helene Wingens has always been passionate about painting pictures with words. She graduated from Brandeis University with a degree in psychology and three years later from Boston University School of Law with a Juris Doctor. In a year long clerkship for an appellate judge Helene honed her writing skills by drafting weekly appellate memoranda. She practiced law until she practically perfected it and after taking a brief twenty year hiatus to raise her three children she began writing a personal blog Her essays have been published in: Scary Mommy, Kveller, The Forward, and Grown and Flown where she is Managing Editor. You can visit Helene's website here

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