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“What Must It Be Like for Children?”

Remember the orphans and refugees of Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine—and of wars past.
March 18, 2022
“What Must It Be Like for Children?”
Children look out from a carriage window as a train prepares to depart from a station in Lviv, western Ukraine, enroute to the town of Uzhhorod near the border with Slovakia, on March 3, 2022. - Russian forces have taken over the Ukrainian city of Kherson, local officials confirmed March 2, 2022 the first major urban centre to fall since Moscow invaded a week ago. (Photo by Daniel LEAL / AFP) (Photo by DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images)

The story starts like this: Aggrieved over the humiliating terms of surrender from a lost war, an authoritarian bully wipes out his political opposition. He (it’s always a he) invades and occupies territory in surrounding countries, claiming they are rightfully his. The world shrugs.

Then he does it again.

In 1938, Hitler annexed Austria, claiming it belonged to Germany. He welcomed Austrians “home.” That same year, he demanded part of Czechoslovakia, arguing the population was ethnically German. Then he took most of the rest of Czechoslovakia in 1939, and when he invaded Poland that fall, the Second World War began. Six years later, after the deadliest military conflict in history, with 70 to 85 million people dead, there were 7 to 11 million refugees.

While the war raged, President Franklin D. Roosevelt conceived of an international organization to prevent future wars; he was to speak at its opening conference in May 1945 but had died the month before. By October 24, 1945, enough governments had ratified the U.N. Charter that the organization officially came into existence. The first U.N. group intended to help WWII refugees was established in early 1946, and by 1950, a permanent new refugee agency had been established, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Flash forward to our own day.

In 2014, Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, calling his annexation of Crimea a “homecoming.” Then Russian troops crossed into Russian-speaking parts of eastern Ukraine. By 2021, 7 percent of Ukraine was in the hands of Moscow-backed separatists and some 15,000 Ukrainians had been killed.

Now, as Putin’s new war in Ukraine enters its third week, over 2.3 million Ukrainians have fled the country.

“By far the largest part of the refugees are women and children,” says Katarzyna Oyrzanowska of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees office in Poland. “They have been torn from their familiar surroundings, miss their fathers and do not understand the situation. All this is difficult for adults to cope with. What must it be like for children?”

The effects of war on refugee children can last for generations—their lifetimes and their children’s. It took decades to parse the details of my mother’s childhood when she escaped Vienna in 1938.

After Hitler marched into Austria, my mother and her parents became refugees overnight. She was raised Catholic, but her father, a respected professor of history, was born Jewish. He converted to Catholicism in 1938, hoping to keep the family safe. They were not. Sharing one suitcase, they left secretly and separately at night, making their way by train first across Switzerland and then on to France. My mother was 10 years old.

For a year they hid in Lyon, living with relatives from my grandmother’s side of the family. The Serins had a vineyard and grew vegetables. When my mother talked about her time there, she made it sound like a holiday. She grew close to aunts, uncles, and cousins. She learned how to make an omelet.

When, in 1939, her father accepted a teaching post at King’s College in Cambridge, England, they couldn’t all go. He claimed there wasn’t enough money. The family split up in London at a train station. My mother’s parents headed for Cambridge, while my mother boarded a train south to a town where an English family agreed to take her in. She spoke German, Italian, and French but no English. Her father gave her an English dictionary, which she began reading on the train to teach herself. She was 11 and alone. Already, she was learning the languages of survival.

The Stevens family was a mirror image of her own: a mother, a father, and a little girl her age. There was a governess. My mother won the town spelling bee. She learned about Egypt. She struggled with math. She was called an orphan, a refugee, and a dirty Jew, likely confusing a devout Catholic child.

My mother never forgot her experiences living with the Stevens family, living away from her parents, and what people said to her.

When England joined the war, Mr. Stevens said he could no longer afford to keep my mother. They put her on a train headed north to Cambridge to join her parents. Even though they were always hungry, my mother recalled being happy because they were together.

All her life, my mother hated airports, train stations, crowds, and saying goodbye. She rarely talked about her parents or her formative years in Vienna. I wonder now if my mother ever really trusted her parents again.

When does war begin for a child? And when does that war ever end?

When Johns Hopkins University offered my grandfather a teaching position in the history department, my grandparents and my mother obtained visas and traveled together to Washington, D.C. My grandmother worked three part-time teaching jobs and enrolled my mother in Sacred Heart, one of the schools where she taught.

Before she died this past October, my mother often imagined she saw brown-shirted soldiers in her room, come to arrest her. Once, she asked me to show her a picture of her mother and father. She held their framed photographs for a long time, until she pointed to her bedside table, saying, “Put them there, near me.”

My mother never considered herself a survivor, “just” a refugee. She got used to keeping quiet about her past. After all, she had no marks, no numbers etched on her forearm, no shrapnel, no visible wounds.

Still, I taught my son what my mother taught me: You are never 100 percent safe. History can always happen again.

We watch the news from Ukraine with heavy hearts.

We all worry what Putin might do if he feels trapped.

When he knew he was losing the war, Hitler issued commands from his bunker: kill any remaining Jews. And so, in March 1944, at the tail end of the war, after my mother and her parents found safe harbor in the United States, German Nazis worked with Nazi-Hungarians (the Arrow Cross) to arrest, round up, and force any remaining Hungarian Jew into cattle cars. Most of our family were among those sent to be murdered.

But the story doesn’t end there.

Through the years, I stayed in touch with my cousins in France, the Serins. I attended a wedding, then spent a summer in Avignon, where I learned how to make an omelet. I became godmother to Diane-Charlotte Serin, a spunky baby who loved yogurt and playing on the swings with her brothers and sisters. When she was 13, Diane-Charlotte visited my parents and me in Chicago, where we went to museums and played tennis. By the time I married and had a son, she was 17, and visited us in California, lugging a stack of philosophy books. She played with our son. She prepared a messy omelet.

Today, Diane-Charlotte is one of the brave young women at the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees—working to save lives, protect rights, and build a future for refugees.

Diane-Charlotte is gifted with languages. Before she travels, she teaches herself English, Spanish, Italian, and now likely Ukrainian.

She knows how generations of families pay the price for war.

She knows that my mother paid dearly.

The pendulum of history continues to swing between war and peace; insanity and sanity; destruction and resilience; death and survival.

Meanwhile, leaders use the same disinformation, the same scapegoating and dehumanizing language to brainwash citizens, arbitrarily shelling civilians, shooting children, bombing hospitals, mass-murdering.

Like the millions of refugees before them, Ukrainian refugees need help finding safety.

Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova says we are in the 1939 moment of choosing between good and evil.

Who will we be? What will we do?

Margaret McMullan

Margaret McMullan is the author or editor of nine award-winning books, including the novel In My Mother’s House, the anthology Every Father’s Daughter, and the memoir Where the Angels Lived.