Saturday 5 March 2022

Ukraine: the best and the worst of us

 Wars – all wars – inevitably show humanity at its worst. They show that we are capable of unimaginable cruelty and barbarity, causing unimaginable grief and suffering.

But wars also show humanity at its best. Thousands, tens of thousands, of ordinary people, men and women, reaching out to help their fellow humans in their hour of need.

The war in Ukraine is no different, and it has set me thinking about past wars, in particular the last war that rendered Europe asunder, the one that consumed our continent between 1939 and 1945.

Only the very oldest among us now remember that war, but most of us will have heard the stories, from parents or grandparents who lived through it. Stories of bravery, fortitude, and defiance, as well as of death and destruction on an unprecedented scale.

The stories today that fill our screens and front pages are no different. We see the smoking rubble of destroyed cities, and the tear-stained faces of terrified civilians. 

But we also see the volunteers at the Ukrainian-Polish border, welcoming hundreds of thousands of refugees with offers of food and shelter. We see the hundreds of Berliners waiting at the city’s main railway station with cardboard signs offering accommodation to fleeing Ukrainian families.

And we see the grim humour of Ukrainians under attack, exactly the same humour that in another age, in another place, was called the ‘Blitz spirit’. The short wave radio hackers blasting out the Ukrainian national anthem on wavelengths being used by the Russian military; the Ukrainian motorist helpfully offering to tow a broken-down Russian tank back to Russia.

At an institutional level, we see the EU lifting all visa restrictions for Ukrainian refugees. We see British MPs giving a standing ovation to the Ukrainian ambassador, even as the UK government proves shamefully incapable of rising to the occasion.

Both my parents were refugees. They fled from Nazi Germany in 1939, made their homes in the UK and never failed to voice their gratitude for the welcome they found here. But nor did they forget the hostility they also encountered: the visit from the police when my mother was denounced by someone in a pub who had heard her talking with a German accent, the abuse from local people on the Isle of Man when my father was interned there as an ‘enemy alien’.

My maternal grandmother was refused asylum in the UK, was deported to Lithuania by the Nazis in 1941 and murdered at the Ninth Fort in Kaunas, shot by an execution squad made up of Lithuanian partisans. (Many Lithuanians backed the Nazis because they believed that they would restore their independence after the Soviet invasion in 1940.)

When I visited the site of my grandmother’s murder some years ago, my guide was one of the very few Lithuanian Jews still left in the country. (Before the war, Jews made up about 7% of Lithuania’s population. Today, they are estimated to total 0.1%.)

And he told me how his mother and her family had spent the war years being sheltered by non-Jewish farmers, who hid them in the full knowledge that if they were discovered, they would all be killed.

The best of humanity, and the worst, side by side.