The look in her pale blue eyes was one I had never before seen. My grandmother-in-law laid her iPad on the bed beside her, looked at me with pure anguish, and said, “There’s going to be another World War.”
At almost 97 years old, Grandma would know; she’s seen it all before. Born in Czechoslovakia in 1925, she lived through the Nazi invasion of her homeland, and experienced the hellish conditions under Hitler while residing in Germany and Austria — and the subsequent horror that came with that — all by the time she was 19. For years, we have talked of writing a book about her life, but I never knew where to start because her story truly could fill volumes.
When news of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine broke, I was with my husband and two kids visiting Grandma on Hawai’i’s Big Island, where she now lives. Nearly every conversation that ensued would somehow circle back to stories about her life during those war-torn years living under Hitler.
She recalled digging for wild turnips because there was no food. In one hair-raising moment, she jumped out of a window to avoid Nazi soldiers, luckily escaping with just a sprained ankle. Her neighbors, caught listening to BBC radio war broadcasts, were shot and killed. In the dark of night, she tried in vain to fall asleep to the stomp, stomp, stomp of Nazi boots parading down the street outside her house — unable to sleep a wink until the marching had fully passed by. Her father was put in a concentration camp for refusing to divorce his wife, who was born Jewish but converted in order to get married. She also was sent to a concentration camp. (Both survived.)
Grandma married a Russian soldier who saved her life from two other Russian soldiers. They were married only two months before continued military action forever separated them. He never knew he had a son and to this day, the fate of her husband remains unknown.
Desperate to finally capture the riveting stories of how this tough-as-nails woman came to be, I thrust my phone in front of her and hit record on my Voice Memo app. Although I now have hours and hours of her priceless recollections on record, there are so many more stories to be captured.
Grandma told me she’s been hesitant to share her stories for fear that she’d be deemed a “ranting old lady,” but I told her it’s quite the contrary. These stories — the first-hand accounts — are raw true history, un-sanitized by time or historians that put us front and center to past events. They are how future generations learn about the failures and successes of bygone days.
Dear readers, we are living in a most historic time right now. The only way to keep history from repeating itself is to keep it alive, long after the voices that lived it have gone silent and stale accounts in textbooks are all we have.
While we can’t change history, we certainly can learn from it. As the world watches yet another historical event unfold, we must not only keep the people of Ukraine in our thoughts and prayers, but also join those Russian civilians raising their voices in protest, so people like Grandma, who vividly recalls the horrors of living through it — do not have to endure the ravages of war.