Then and Now: The Tragedy for Families in Ukraine

Then and Now: The Tragedy for Families in Ukraine

I cannot look at the images of desperate mothers and children at the Polish border without thinking of my parents, both now gone. In 1939, when the Germans invaded Poland, my mother‘s life changed in a heartbeat when my grandfather, an engineer on the Polish railroad, was killed during the initial assault on September 1. This left my grandmother, my aunt, and my 14-year-old mother on their own for all of World War II. The German occupiers forced her to leave home during the day and work in a German factory, miles away.

My father, age 17, was imprisoned in that same factory. His Jewish family was destroyed; his mother and younger brother were probably killed immediately in a concentration camp while my grandfather tragically lived until just before the liberation. My father‘s separation from his family was even more horrific, as his father pleaded with the Nazis who had rounded up the family to save his son because he could “work with electronics.” My father always said that he was fortunate that he did not know the fate of his family until after the war.

When the war ended, my mother had to walk the 18 miles from the factory to her home, a trip she had previously taken by train. She told us that she needed to walk in the exact middle of the street so she wouldn’t be mistaken for a sniper. I’ve never been able to imagine that level of terror for more than a few minutes.

These traumatic separations from family are among the casualties of war. The family is the basic unit for comfort and support, and when torn apart, the damage to all, especially children, is enormous. I know that we are but one story of a family among the millions of refugees and immigrants. The world sees it again now in Ukraine.

Long-term, the story moves on. My parents met in that factory, fell in love, and married. After the war, they were sponsored by some cousins in the United States and a resettlement agency, ultimately to live in the Midwest. Over time, they were able to establish a successful building and development company. My father retained his charming manner and my mother her sharp sense of humor. Although their schooling was cut off, they were extremely well-read and placed a large value on education. They lived to raise four children, send us all to college, and see the grandchildren, even great-grandchildren.

When they finally arrived in New York in 1947, my mother, holding my 1-year-old sister, was approached by a photographer and journalist for a cover story in Newsweek on “displaced persons.” We didn’t talk about “the Newsweek cover,” often because she never forgave them for the condescending attitudes revealed by that article and the fact that, since she didn’t look quite “displaced” enough, they made her wear a headscarf.

I tell this story to remind us of the horrors of war and the long-term impact of family separations. My parents were teenagers, so at least they had the cognitive ability to understand and process what was happening to them. They had their memories of loving families. If they are fortunate to survive, what will happen to the young children of Ukraine, their mothers refugees, their fathers fighting at home, their extended families scattered?

These traumatic events have consequences, both immediate and long-term. After the initial years of grief and mourning for family, country, and a way of life, there was more suffering to come. My mother never totally recovered from the four years of constant anxiety and fear. My father suffered from periodic nightmares for the rest of his life. Both were incredibly resilient and productive despite their history.

We have seen this before: the Russians in Syria, in Crimea, in Georgia, and in Chechnya. The world has paid even less attention to genocides in Africa. And race continues to play a role, in that there are reports of black Ukrainians being turned away at the border. And as Americans, we have the shame of the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

As a psychologist, I am pleased that the American Psychological Association has issued a statement of solidarity: “The American Psychological Association stands in solidarity with the National Psychological Association of Ukraine, the Ukrainian people, and colleagues in the Eastern European region, as the Ukrainian nation defends itself against military invasion.”

We must condemn this invasion and war crimes and do whatever we can to help Ukrainians and all refugees.

At the same time, let’s embrace and appreciate our own families.






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