From World War II to the Russian Invasion, Ukrainians Fight for a Normal Life

An emigre turns to her grandmother’s memoirs to understand the war today

From World War II to the Russian Invasion, Ukrainians Fight for a Normal Life
A Feb. 14, 2023, photo shows a rainbow in front of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra Orthodox Caves (Genya Savilov via Getty Images)

A year ago, in the first few hours of Russia’s full-scale invasion of my native Ukraine, I decided to put my life on hold. Naively hoping that the war would end soon, I was certain that everything would go back to normal within months, if not weeks. But for the time being, I was going to focus all my time and efforts on helping Ukraine. Sleep became an inconvenient necessity for me. It distracted me from knowing what was happening back home, forcing me to disconnect from the realities of the war at night. This fueled my guilt as an outsider because I was in London, where I had moved for school when I was 16, almost half my life ago. I watched events unfold from afar while my friends and family were going through the unimaginable.

I got used to waking up every other hour to check for more news and then still opening my eyes in the morning to the newly familiar feeling of fear. Fear about what I was going to discover about the events of last night: Did the Russian army reach Kyiv? Did their missile strikes hit a familiar place? Did they kill someone I knew? Did my grandmother — who was escaping war with my uncle and aunt by car — finally reach safety? This fear was with me from the moment my parents’ screaming woke me up in London at 4 a.m. on Feb. 24, 2022 as they learned the news of Russian missiles hitting Kyiv, to the moment I picked up the phone two weeks later and heard my father, then in Hungary, say, “Grandma has passed away.”

As I walked down the stairs into my living room to share the news with my partner, my eyes stopped at a green paperback in our bookcase. Exactly 10 years earlier, my grandmother, Maria Voshchevska, wrote a book called “My Land — the People and Their Stories.” In it, she spoke bravely about the erasure of Ukraine’s history by the Russian Empire and Soviet Union and the importance of bringing it back by telling the stories of families, including ours. She was a fighter. She grew up in a rural village in the northern Chernihiv region and often nostalgically recounted her time there as a child. I opened the slim volume and started reading:

Together with Babusia Gorpyna, my grandmother, we walked down a narrow village road, and then down another one. A light warm breeze started blowing from the direction of the factory, and we felt the scent of my native village Halytsia –– the scent of mint. The mint was reworked at the factory, it was grown on the fields, the hair of young girls who worked there smelled of mint, too. This fresh scent was so close to my heart and my home, I knew it so well. Up until this day, it is that scent that I associate with my hometown and my childhood.

But at the age of seven, her peaceful childhood was taken away from her. She became orphaned after losing her parents; they died fighting Hitler alongside the Russians. She had to hide from Nazi soldiers in a haystack. She lived through the Soviet era of repression and control. She writes:

We grew up with the belief that everything which existed before the revolution was bad, or it was almost as if it did not exist. We were taught to love someone else’s fictional made-up country and be ashamed of our own roots.

Grandma Maria rebuilt her family from scratch. That is why it was impossible to believe that, at the age of 85, in 2022, she had to experience war again. While I was sitting on my couch in London, she was hiding from Russian missiles in a basement in Kyiv, and then making the tough decision to flee the besieged city. She crossed the border with her son, Mykola, in an ambulance from Ukraine to Hungary and passed away on arrival in Budapest. A few weeks earlier, my post about her went viral on Twitter — over 32,000 people felt compelled to share her story. It helped thousands of strangers online understand the absurdity of the war that was forced upon Ukraine by Russia. What I didn’t know at the time was that her experience of war almost 80 years earlier would also help me make sense of my life today.

She wrote about her own tragic story of loss and revival, recounting her experience of living through the war that ravaged Ukraine eight decades before the one she saw again in 2022. As a rebellious teenager, I never took any interest in my grandmother’s story; I didn’t know how prescient her words would be. As it turns out, history repeats itself –– including in the experience of war.

As someone living outside Ukraine, all I knew about war was what I saw on television and online — both before and after the invasion. In hindsight, this was probably one of the biggest causes of the crippling fear and guilt that overtook my life in the early days of the war. My university degree in war studies did not actually prepare me for the real thing. Apart from reading detailed theoretical articles on the war, I never came close to seeing it, let alone experiencing it firsthand. Occasionally, I would get updates from friends and family who were there, but there was no time to engage in long exchanges about our feelings. Receiving an answer to “are you safe?” became the number one priority for millions of Ukrainians living abroad, while everything else took a backseat. War, all of a sudden, became more real than it ever was before, yet knowing what it was really like for those back home, including my grandmother, remained a mystery.

In a desperate bid to find answers, I opened my grandmother’s memoir and started reading. There were so many similarities between the wars that were separated by decades and generations. It was as if I lost all sense of time and different periods in history. But what struck me the most was my grandmother’s determination to show the reader that, through all tragedy and heartbreak, war did not stop life or destroy hope. It united people and made them resiliently cherish life:

Already by the end of June 1941, all conscripted men were taken from the village but many people still remained. In July some were sent to build airfields in Pryluky, Velyka Divitsa, and Makiivka. Others were often taken to dig anti-tank ditches. The inhabitants of Halytsia spent their summer days in constant commotion, which changed only in the evenings when it was time for young people to have fun. Just like before the war, girls and boys gathered on street corners near roadside benches, played musical instruments, and sang. Only sometimes, they spoke about the Germans. They often laughed that our army would defeat them in a few months.

Now, I was determined to find out for myself whether this was true again in 2022.

For some reason, those who have never experienced war –– like myself before all of this –– tend to imagine that all people do is sit in dark bomb shelters 24 hours a day and constantly fear for their lives. That adults stop going to work, that children stop going to school, that teenagers stop going on dates and that dogs stop going on walks.

Of course, there are times when people do what many imagine they do in the context of war. And there are times things are much worse than we usually imagine, such as what the people of Mariupol went through from Feb. 24, 2022, until May 20, 2022, during Russia’s blockade of the city. Then, life did stop for many. Constant bombardments combined with the total lack of food, water, sanitation and electricity made it hard for people to simply survive. The industrial city in the south of Ukraine was turned by the Russian army into an open-air graveyard.

This was also the case for the people in the towns of Bucha and Irpin, who experienced Russian occupation, and with it death and destruction right near the capital of Kyiv. Once a place where thousands of young families bought their first homes, these towns became synonymous with death and torture. The day I saw photos of burned corpses, I started getting flashes of those images whenever I would close my eyes. It was the first time that I called my doctor because I knew that I wasn’t okay and that life was not normal, for me or anyone else who had seen those images. But my grandmother’s book made me think: “Were there ever times when life felt normal?”

I think that the guilt many Ukrainains abroad felt and feel –– for having the ability to live normally when millions of others could not –– has prevented us from seeing that war hasn’t always stopped life. This guilt drove many of us to behave in ways that were toxic –– to those around us, and to ourselves too. We started developing various self-destructive behaviors that helped us stay numb. For many of us, doing something that would generate even the smallest amount of endorphins would make our stomachs churn with guilt. How could we have fun when our friends and family were in a country at war? How could life go back to normal when it objectively wasn’t anymore? For the first few months of war, I rejected every single invitation to go for drinks, dinners or nights out. I stopped listening to music or watching any junk TV. I stopped eating properly or exercising and only allowed myself to work, help my family, watch the news –– and sometimes sleep.

After months of vicariously experiencing war from my home in London, I decided to cross the border and go back home to Ukraine, the country my grandmother was forced to leave five months earlier. It is cathartic now to record my own memories of war, after having read those of my grandmother from 80 years ago. Her words guided my determination to see life in Ukraine during wartime with my own eyes, like she did in the 1940s and then, again, in 2022. Soon, I found that she was right. Going back home gave me the ability to breathe again –– showing me that normal life and war can coexist.

I was apprehensive and scared, up until the moment I boarded the train from Krakow to Lviv in the west of Ukraine. You could no longer get to Ukraine by plane, so trains or cars were the only two options left. I was so anxious about my trip that I decided to change my ticket to an earlier date and time than I initially booked, because the anticipation of what I was to discover was preventing me from sleeping at night.

Yet, as our train crossed the border, I saw no big change in life. There was no dark gloomy filter that all of a sudden changed the way I was seeing the outside world. There was no dramatic music in the background that created a tense atmosphere. Bombs were not being dropped all around me, either. I was not living in a blockbuster movie about World War II. Everything seemed pretty normal.

The one thing that did change was that strangers I met on my train journey were eager to share their stories with each other in a way that I’d never seen before. Everyone was open and wanted to know more about the fate of those they were traveling with. Our stories became our main weapon against the lies Russia used to justify its invasion of Ukraine. All of a sudden, I understood why my grandmother was so determined to document her story. On my train ride, I met a journalist from Sweden who was going to report from Odessa, and a woman from Kharkiv whose house was destroyed, who had just come back from visiting her daughter in Georgia.

But my most interesting travel companion was a young Roma girl who was about nine years of age. Her mother was struggling to get their big suitcase into the train because she had six of her children with her –– so I helped her and found their seats for them. Arina sat next to me. At first she was shy, but then she couldn’t stop talking to me, so much so that the whole train car was mesmerized with her honesty and humor. She asked me where I was going, and I answered that I was going to Kyiv. I asked her the same question in return.

“I’m going to Ukraine, you know Ukraine? That’s where I live –– you know, we have this big blue fence, it’s broken right now but we’re going to fix it. Have you ever been there?” I smiled and told her that I’ve been to Ukraine but didn’t know their house. I was embarrassed, because she spoke beautiful Ukrainian, and mine was only in its testing phase (I grew up speaking Russian with my parents). I asked her what she liked to cook.

“I love to cook borscht, first you cut up some beetroot, then onions, then carrots and boil it all, it’s easy!” As the train was pulling into Lviv, she told me that her father was fighting in the Armed Forces of Ukraine and that she missed him very much. War all of a sudden returned back into our conversation and into our lives.

I spent a few days wandering around the busy city, at first on my own and then with my parents who joined me. My grandmother’s description of her village during World War II could apply to modern-day Lviv. I drank cold-brew coffee from hipster cafes, went to a bookstore and stocked up on as many Ukrainian books as I could carry, took loads of photos and videos to capture the spirit of the ancient city and listened to street musicians who were playing enchanting Ukrainian melodies. Then we made our trip by car to Kyiv. The night before, I heard my first ever air-raid alarm. I opened my eyes to a 1984-George-Orwell-style voice and a siren that called on all the hotel’s guests to immediately go to the bomb shelter.

It’s hard not to notice the destruction as you drive into Kyiv through the Zhytomyr Highway –– industrial buildings and ordinary houses decimated by Russians, with many lives lost. This was the highway that the Russian invaders took to get to Irpin, Bucha and Kyiv in the early days of the invasion. This was also the highway where they shot cars full of people who were trying to escape from besieged Kyiv. I couldn’t stop thinking about how lucky my grandmother and uncle were that they chose a different evacuation route.

Yet, as soon as you drive into Kyiv, you feel the power of the city. The statues are all wrapped up for protection; cars pack the roads and the city is full of people continuing their lives. Kyiv, the beating heart of the country, gave me hope. It continued beating to support other parts of the country that were still under constant bombardment, occupation and terror.

In the first few months of the war, I thought I would never see my home in Kyiv again. My street, my room, my books, my friends, my family. When I would see people go home for vacation, I felt like a piece of me was missing because I couldn’t go home.

For the past five years, my grandmother lived in our house in Kyiv because she had Parkinson’s disease –– she could barely move and so it was best for her to live on the ground floor, where she could easily get around in her wheelchair. She became a big part of our family house. So when I walked into our house for the first time since the invasion, I couldn’t believe I was home again –– and yet, something was missing.

Many things had stayed the same: the big indoor palm trees my mom had inherited from her mother; the garage that contained my late grandfather’s old car; the big staircase that led to the second floor. All I wanted to do was record the familiar images, sounds and smells of my house and remember the slightly shaking walls from the metro line that went right under it. I didn’t know whether this would be my last time back. But walking into an empty house in August 2022, knowing that my grandmother spent her last days here hiding in a basement, broke my heart all over again. Reading her memoir over the past couple of months made me feel like I was still able to talk to her, but seeing her room empty yanked me out of that dream. The war was not over, but her time with us was.

I was so happy to see my friends, because our last interactions were all via Instant Messenger in the first days of war — as I obsessively checked where everyone was and whether they made it out of Kyiv. Yes, people in Kyiv still went out –– even though the curfew meant that everyone had to either go home at 10 p.m., or stay over long enough for it to be over at around 5 in the morning. As I walked down a central street in Kyiv with four of my closest friends, I saw that young people chose to keep living life, but respectfully, with the awareness that many others across the country did not have that luxury. Many of these young people had their own stories of war and so conversation became much more substantial than ever before. And, of course, just as my grandmother described conversations more than 80 years ago, they were full of optimism about defeating our enemy.

It was only after we crossed the Polish border on the way out of Ukraine that I noticed how tense I was during my whole trip back home and how little space for self-reflection my brain had had. There was always a possibility that something would go wrong, which made me slightly apprehensive and blocked my ability to analyze anything complex. All I could do was take in what was happening immediately around me. But as soon as my nerves started to calm and the anxiety lifted, I started realizing all the similarities between what I read in my grandmother’s memoir and what I saw with my own eyes. War indeed did not stop life. And even though the wars were separated by decades, the experiences were not.

I had translated 10,000 words of my grandmother’s book in under two days. Reading how she lost her sister, mom and dad in the space of one month made me an emotional wreck. For days after, I was stuck between my new reality of war and that of my grandmother from 80 years ago. I refused to believe that she had to go through war again in 2022. But I also knew that her story did not end there.

The trip made me realize why my grandmother was so determined to record her own experiences. As the only surviving member of her family, it was her duty to not only share her story but to inspire others –– like me –– to record our own. As someone who has the privilege to cross borders when many others do not, it is my duty to help others get through this tough time of collective trauma and loss by bringing back stories of hope.

At my grandmother’s funeral in Hungary a few months back, the wreaths on her coffin read, “To a loving wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and friend.”

My grandmother was able to build her life up from nothing, like many Ukrainians, and raise a family that would be with her until her very last moment. She was driven by her determination to never be alone again, and fought hard for her story to continue. Now I was determined to find out how she did that as an orphan in a destroyed postwar village in Ukraine. Thankfully, her words were there to guide me.

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