It was a come-uppance of sorts a while back from my former exchange colleague and longtime friend, Ingrid Klimke-Schmoll. We often discuss politics in our respective homelands, but let me be clear: Ingrid is sharper and much better informed, sometimes even about the American political scene. She has been talking about Russia and Ukraine for months now, with myself kind of following along. Recently as invasion began to seem inevitable, something in one of my tepid responses caused her to exclaim that Germany was not so far removed from Ukraine and that allowing Putin to advance at will could have serious repercussions for all of Europe.
It was then I fully realized that Ingrid and family, along with numerous other friends and acquaintances there, might eventually be in danger. My brain and I committed to better informing ourselves about the situation. A country full of people – be it the US or Germany or Ukraine or even Russia – is more than its politics or governmental format; that I learned firsthand through many years of student exchange. Anyway, I make my best considerations when I focus on the people involved. Ingrid and I, plus millions of other Boomers on both sides of the ocean, grew up in postwar conditions. Ingrid was born to the wife of a German soldier even as the Allies declared victory in Europe. Her parents lived in the Hannover area, having been forced to flee their original homes. The Germans succeeded in putting their country back together, making it one of the powers of today’s Europe.
I experienced the war through the eyes of my Army dad, who told and retold stories of using his farming skills to drive an officer’s halftrack and to help a German farmer deliver a calf. I am not sure, however, if farming helped him during that final Battle of the Bulge.
For people like Ingrid and me, having experienced the war up close and personal, albeit second-hand, it is understandable that our blood runs cold when Putin portrays his actions as correcting an historical mistake, his euphemism for grabbing as much power as the world will allow. It is understandable that Germans are concerned that the Russian border suddenly seems much closer. It is understandable that the invasion of Ukraine feels like a declaration of war on Europe. Ingrid warns against allowing Putin to stroll unfettered across the continent, his only barrier the border of France with its nuclear capabilities. At the moment, Ingrid reports most Germans have concerns tucked into the backs of their minds. One concern of Ingrid is Germany’s military preparedness, or lack thereof. When we began our school partnership in 1976, every German boy was required to undergo two years of military training before continuing with future plans. As communist influence waned in the 90s, the time requirement steadily lessened until the German army became the voluntary group it is today. In fact, Germany is not the only European nation counting on a rock-solid NATO response.
Curious to hear from the next generation down, who knew about WWII from their grandparents, I asked Roxanne Zerkle Shively to contact her exchange partner from our first visit in 1976. Detlev Ascher responded that in the end “there will be only losers in Ukraine but also among the Russian people.” He also opined that “we must stand closer together in the western world to defend our democracies, freedom, and values against aggression or threats.”
I also checked with Lucy Dawson, often involved in our exchange program, wondering about the reactions of her German contacts. While retired teacher Christiane Oehlerking-Heinze, of similar age to Ingrid and me, agreed with us, her daughter Larissa, now a doctor with a two-year-old son, responded: “It is frightening what is happening so close by. War was something that always felt far away, until now I never felt ‘in danger.’ It scares me to realize how dangerous a man like Putin can be for the entire world, for Germany, my family, my child. It makes me even more grateful for all we have…we take too much for granted.”
My gravest concerns, however, are for the people of Ukraine. Thousands have fled to Poland with just a suitcase, men between 18-60 must stay to fight, citizens make Molotov cocktails from TV instructions, parents sew labels with blood type information into their children’s clothing…there are just no words…
Tony Hoyt, GHS grad who spent his Peace Corps years in Ukraine, responded to my inquiry: “I have been reaching out to my friends there. A couple made it out, some are staying in Kyiv. Those I have spoken with are safe but very scared. It really breaks my heart knowing the children/younger adolescents I worked with are now at the age to be out there fighting. I am heartened by how much pride Ukrainians are showing for their country. And Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, is staying with his people, well aware that if he is caught, he will probably be executed. Their country means so much to them.”
I was particularly moved by SNL’s cold opening over the weekend. The Ukrainian Chorus Dumka of New York performed a “Prayer for Ukraine.” On the table in front of them stood bouquets of sunflowers, the national flower of Ukraine.
Let us join the Ukrainian people in this thought: “Even on the darkest days, sunflowers stand tall and find the sunlight.”