This photo of my father's family when he was a small child in Volyn, Ukraine is the only photo I have of my Uncle Pavlo, after who I am named. Some years after this was taken, Uncle Pavlo would be drafted into the Red Army and killed at the Battle of Konigsberg. I post this for "Victory Day", when we are supposed to remember those who fought against the Nazis.
Also in this photo are:
- My grandfather, who was executed by Russian NKVD (KGB) at the Lutsk Massacre.
- My grandmother and Aunt Nona, who were raped and shot in their home by one of Stalin's "Sparrow" Teams, teams of armed foreign militia brought into Ukraine to "pacify" the local population (sound familiar?).
- My Uncle Mykola, who was blind, but was shot by the same Sparrow Team (before or after they raped his mother and sister, we don't know).
- My Aunt Jenya, who hid in the barn on the day that her mother, sister, and brother were shot. The communists took the family farm, but she stayed in the same village, raised and buried two children, and is still a strong grandmother at 90-something.
- My dad, who would leave home as a teenager, be arrested by the Nazis, and spend the end of the war in a Gestapo prison and then a forced labour camp.
I have no photos of my mother's family. Family photos would have been too dangerous for my mother, who was trying to hide her Jewish identity, to keep . Her parents and brother were all killed at the Yanowska Concentration Camp outside Lviv.
So, in 1939 allies Stalin and Hitler divide Eastern Europe. Their armies invade their neighbours, and meet in Poland, where they party together and hold a big Victory Parade. Later, they turn on each other, and turn Ukraine, Poland, and Belarus into a killing ground. My family's story is pretty typical. Each liberator brought their own camps and massacres, and each liberator drafted locals to help them.
In May of 1945, one of the two gave up, while the other kept killing.
On Victory Day, I will remember all those who died, and pray for their souls. I will remember the horror of war and the horrors that surround war, and pray for peace. I will remember how incredibly hard it is to make the right choices in times like this, and will pray for wisdom and strength for all the people struggling in Ukraine today.
Ribbons of Victory? I can't; I just cannot. I never could, and especially cannot this year, with Russian troops back in Ukraine.
Poppies? Oh, yes, please. These I can embrace with my heart and my tears. These I can understand. These connect me with not just Uncle Pavlo, but with all my family, and with all families whose spilled blood is mingled with theirs.
There may never be a victory, but the poppies can remind us of the cost, and of the costly currency in which these debts must be paid.
Please God, not again.