More than 5 million people have fled Ukraine since Moscow’s brutal invasion began, the United Nations reported last week. I wonder how many of the children forced from their homes — some escaping by train, others on foot — will see their fathers again? How many will become war orphans, like my mother? How many will go on to raise a child who has a ghost family, like me?
My mother fled Kharkiv in 1943 at age 9. Caught between the Germans to the west and the Russians to the east, she and her older sister, Galina, escaped first in a Nazi officer’s car and then on foot. They had no passports, no documents, no spare clothes. Only a photo album, which was lost within days to the rasputitsa, or mud season, a twice-yearly seasonal phenomenon that not even tanks can overcome. Rasputitsa is not a word my mother knew, despite her native Russian. But she remembers how the mud sucked at her feet, pulling her down.
When my mother describes her flight through Europe, she talks not about her pain but about the boots her sister wore: shoes pried from a dead soldier’s body that later had to be cut from my aunt’s blackened and bloodied feet. Still, the girls kept walking. Across Poland and then countries that didn’t yet exist and some that no longer exist: Hungary. Yugoslavia. Romania. Czechoslovakia.