When my mother was just 7 years old, Hitler began World War II by invading Poland, aided by the Russians. Soviet forces came in the middle of the night, took her family from their home, and placed them on cattle cars in a long train to Siberia. They took hundreds of thousands of people; many died of cold and illness on the way, and still more in Siberia.
My mother and her family spent two years as prisoners of war in a Soviet internment camp. The Russian soldiers were brutal.
I am the eldest of three. My entire life, I’ve had a visceral, irrational, mystifying, embarrassing fear of running out of food despite always having enough to eat.
During Covid, we skyped with my aunt, who is 90. She too was the eldest of three, with my Mom and a younger sister. She told us the fear of going hungry made perfect sense: When in Siberia, she was given by the Russians one piece of bread per day, to be shared by her and her two sisters, one of whom was my mother; they often wept from hunger.
After two years, the Poles became refugees, and were sent to various places. My mother’s family was sent to Uganda, then known as British East Africa (multiple layers of colonialism here), where they remained. After the war ended, she completed high school .
The Yalta Agreement that ended the war gave a huge chunk of Eastern Poland to the Soviets. Poland lost 28,400 square miles, roughly the size of the Czech Republic. Like so many other Polish families, they relocated to another foreign country: In my mother’s case, the U.K.
And like so many other Polish families, we have no way to access family records before the time of my grandparents.
We lost our parents early, in part because by the time they got together and had children, they were old enough to be our grandparents. I’ve heard similar stories from other people whose parents were involved in the war.
It’s also striking that my mother, her father, and all her siblings but one died of cancer, which we know is connected to the epigenetic impact of trauma.
Most people don’t know that an estimated 5.5 million Poles were killed in World War II. About half of them were Polish Jews. Another 150,000 Poles died at the hands of the Soviets.
As recently as 2018, the Soviets claimed that they are owed reparations from Poland for “liberating” the Polish people. (This, despite the fact that they installed a repressive communist regime that would take Poland 40 years to overthrow.)
My siblings and I all have Polish names: Mine is Bozena, which contains a sound not often made in the English language. Early in my life, it was shortened to “Bo” to make it easier for Americans to hear and to say. That, of course, is part of another kind of forgetting.
It took the United States a full two years to become involved in World War II.
And in modern times, the U.S., the U.K., and other countries looked the other way as Russia steadily bankrolled its autocracy in our countries. This allowed Russian oligarchs and autocrats to build vast fortunes and ultimately, to build an authoritarian force.
This invasion of Ukraine is Putin’s attempt to return Russia’s status to where it was before the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Ukraine is “in the way” in much the same manner that Poland was in Hitler’s way.
History isn’t GOING to repeat itself; it IS repeating itself. Right before our eyes.
It’s not just power that fuels autocracy.
Apathy does, too.
We are all affected by these events. And part of the epic task facing us now, I believe, is to hold multiple and seemingly disparate truths with nuance and grace.
Here’s one: In both Poland and Ukraine, for example, there have been multiple reports of racism toward Africans seeking refuge. Officials (see, for instance, multiple reports including here and here, officials have forcibly removed African and Indian students from buses going to the border, and have refused them border crossing. We’re seeing a similar racism in journalism: CBS news anchor Chris D’Agata, for example, referred to Ukranian refugees as “civilized” in direct contrast to Iraqi and Afghan refugees, launching a firestorm of justified criticism.
Poland is my family’s ancestral history. In World War II, East Africa welcomed tens of thousands of Polish refugees; among them was my mother.
And like Ukraine, Poland has a history of anti-Black racism and anti-LGBTQ+ oppression. Though both countries have suffered greatly, they can and must do better.
We can continue to support Ukraine heartfully, while also holding them to task and demanding that they (and Poland) recognize the humanity of all people who seek safety.
And we can hold the countries we inhabit (I’m thinking strongly of the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and Europe) to the same standards.
Liberation in its many forms can’t just be for some of us; it is a human right for everyone.
Solidarność, Ukraine. Full solidarity to Ukraine.
And Solidarność, World.
May we work toward solidarity and social equity in all the ways that matter.