On the banks of the Volga River in 1942 there was a message post. It acted like a community mailbox – sharing the whereabouts of Stalingrads’ citizens.
People fleeing the Germans in the spring, summer and fall of 1942 used message boards to let loved ones know where they were. Often these departures were made with haste and were quite treacherous.
It was expected that the Germans would break through at any moment. The people – women, children and the Soviet troops were surrounded. It was only a matter of time.
Day in and day out they were bombarded by the German onslaught – dive bombing Luftwaffe, incoming artillery, explosions and gunfire terrorized the people. People starved. There were corpses in the streets – buried amongst the rubble.
So when the end was believed to be behind the next wave of terrifying explosions – citizens risked the river barges and retaliation from Soviet soldiers to cross the Volga. These corridors were constantly strafed by German planes.
Before boarding – a quick handwritten note on a scrap piece of paper was pinned to this post with the hopes of informing separated family members where they were.
Mariupol to Molochansk
Eighty years to the day history is repeating itself. The same scenes of Stalingrad are occurring in Mariupol.
For weeks, Ukrainians are fleeing through paper thin corridors – dodging missile strikes, artillery and gunfire. Tens of thousands of people already dead – hundreds of thousands have fled. As I write the last of the civilians from the steel plant in Mariupol were able to escape.
“They are ghosts, showing up on our doorsteps.”
In Molochansk, home of FOMCU – 200kms to the west of Mariupol – our staff are collecting their stories.
They arrive with nothing. They have walked the whole way. One man was shoeless – his pants charred at the bottoms.
Our staff and contacts feed them – clothe them – sit with them – and cry with them. They tell their story. Before they continue their journey they leave messages with us – some are told orally, some shared in photos and some written on scraps of paper. They leave them for family members who may never come.
Our staff, center and contacts – have become the message post.
“I cannot not calmly talk, I will cry.”
“Today we arrived from Mariupol. I can not calmly talk, I will cry. Corpses in the city. The hospital is full of corpses. They constantly bomb. The stench is terrible. We had such a city! Modern, beautiful. Real European city! Nothing left. We lived in the basement for 20 days. Daughter – diabetes, almost died. There was no humanitarian aid. There is nothing to treat with in the hospital. There is no water, they took dirty water from the only well. We went to the hospital, they had stocks of fish, and either a nurse or one of the workers cooked soups every day. We ate. The Russians wanted us to go to Russia. We decided to break through to ours. We have dogs, we took them. A column of 1000 people left. They bombed, there was no humanitarian corridor. Slept in cars. Got out of hell. Like a horror movie.”
“I buried mom near the kindergarten.”
“To Dima (Last name)
Phone number: ****
from son of Anatoliy (Last name)
Building 5 apt.57
Dima, mom was killed. 9 march 2021. She died fast. Later the home burned. Dima, forgive me that I failed to save her. I buried mom near the kindergarten.
Drawing of the map where mom was buried below with markings (South, tree, etc)
I love you.”
My grandfather had a school friend named Lisa – they shared a school bench together in Nikopol. My Opa described her as one of the ‘gang.’ They went to school together, played soccer together, swam in the Dnieper together and played in the sand dunes across the river.
My Opa described her in our conversations,”
“She was a beautiful spirit – she was beautiful; she had dark hair and dark eyes that just melted your heart. We shared a bench together at school. Every day I would walk her home.”
She was Jewish. When the Germans invaded in June, 1941 she and her family were taken outside the city and shot into a ditch.
When Ukrainian forces took back the communities of Bucha – outside of Kyiv and the world saw the images of what they found – my Opa’s school friend Lisa came to memory.
Zelensky’s face after visiting Bucha stays with me – the pain, the tremendous loss and mental anguish. Again, I think of Lisa , “she was a beautiful spirit,” I hear my grandfather say.
Finding out if my son is alive
Molochansk and the communities around the Mennonite Centre are under Russian occupation. Checkpoints are everywhere – cell phones are being checked. Lists are being made of potential people who might be collaborating with the west.
People are being arrested and taken for saying bad things about the Russians. Loved ones don’t know if they are safe, hurt, injured or dead.
There is a woman in Molochansk (withholding her name), let’s call her, Maria. Maria found out her son (let’s call him Vladimir) was arrested for having a disparaging word on his cellphone about the Russians. At a check point Vladimir was pulled with his friend from their car. The friend was able to bribe his way out of being arrested by offering the soldier his new iPhone. Maria hadn’t heard anything for 3 days. On the morning of the fourth day she packed up some food and walked to the new Russian headquarters.
“Is my son alive?”
My great-grandmother did the same thing in 1932. Many Mennonite mothers made the same type of trek in the 1930s.
My great uncle Hans – born in 1908 – had been taken in the night. He worked in the Nikopol flour mill. After a few days my great-grandmother packed up some supplies and went to where other, “undesirables” had been taken.
“He had been sent east (Siberia),” she was told. She hadn’t had the chance to say goodbye to her eldest son. A short time later my great-grandmother and family were informed that he had died – heart failure. I guess that is partially true as when he died his heart did stop beating – from starvation, being shot or torture.
I often wonder what that walk back home must have felt like. The emptiness – the fear. Did she think of Hans as a baby in her arms? Did she think of Hans as a grown man on his wedding day – a life full of possibilities? Or was it just pure pain and tears on the way home?
One thing I know is it aged her – it was another weight put around her neck. She had faced so much hardship – her husband to Siberia, now her Hans. She later faced the same scenario with her son Andre and Harry. In all the photos I have of her I sometimes think I can see the weights wrapped around her neck and shoulders – pushing down on her posture.
When I heard about Maria and her son Vladimir – I saw my great-grandmother walking down the same roads. I saw her walking along side Maria – hand in hand together back from the Russian police station.
“One foot in front of the other, dear sister,” I imagine my great-grandmother saying.
Ukrainian mothers are asked to carry the world – this constant weight on their shoulders – pulling them down to the ground. But still they carry on – despite history repeating.
Vladimir was released after a week in prison. He is now safe.
May 1, 1948
There is no coincidence that I am writing this in May. May 1 is an important day in our family. It is the day my grandfather came to Canada. We celebrated like it was a birthday. The celebration was a culmination of what came after his arrival – the expanding family, accomplishments and memories. But it was also what he and family went through to get to Canada – the pain, trauma and loss.
I find myself in such reverie over the last two months. I think of my grandfather and family – their trek surrounded by so much pain and suffering. But I am also constantly thinking of this next generation that is just starting their journey. How can history repeat itself like this?
In Canada we have begun to see the arrivals. We hear their stories – every one is as frightening as the last (the above are but a taste).
It is this last thought that is beginning to transform this date for me. I remember my grandfather – I remember his journey and I am thankful for his life and the life I now have, but I also will remember those who did not make it.
Я буду святкувати твоє життя. Ми з тобою.
I ask those who are able to donate to the cause. FOMCU can bring direct aid to the people that need it. People are seeing the messages and it fuels their resiliency.http://www.helpforukraine.ca