Op-Ed: The Lessons of “Never forget” We are Teaching Today

Volunteers collect bodies of murdered civilians, in Bucha, close to Kyiv, Ukraine, Monday, April 4, 2022. Russia is facing a fresh wave of condemnation after evidence emerged of what appeared to be deliberate killings of civilians in Ukraine. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
Danyela Egorov

The war in Ukraine is very personal for my family. My children’s great-grandmother, Nadia, an 85-year old WWII survivor has been surrounded and bombarded by Putin’s military in the second-largest Ukrainian city, Kharkiv. The lesson we were taught as children from Hitler’s Holocaust was “Never forget.” This was instilled in us so we knew to never allow past injustices to repeat themselves. It makes me wonder what we are teaching our children about similar injustices today. How are we explaining to them our nation’s response to Putin’s genocidal war against Ukraine?

When Nadia was 5 years old, her mother laid on top of her in the streets of Kharkiv to protect her from Nazi bombs. When the attack ended, Nadia’s mother died and she became an orphan. She lived her entire life in Kharkiv, and despite going through some of the worst events of the 20th century, she built an honest and decent life. Nadia got married, had two daughters, worked, and became the plant manager for a local company. She built a simple and beautiful home and helped raise her two grandsons.

When Nadia was 75 years old, she started revealing to us that she was Jewish. In truth, we all thought she was getting old and losing her mental capacity. But then she explained to us, “Before my mother died, she told me to never tell anyone that I was Jewish.” So she hid her Jewish identity for 70 years, even from her family.

Until last month, Nadia was living peacefully in Kharkiv and felt satisfied with her life. She enjoyed talking to her grandsons and great grandsons over the phone and looking at the pictures we sent her daily. She very much looked forward to our family visiting Kharkiv every Easter and cooking varenik and borsch for all of us.

Since Putin invaded Ukraine, Nadia’s neighborhood has been relentlessly bombed and devastated. Nadia and her husband, Eugene, spent 10 days in a shaking building, hiding in the bathtub, and afraid of walking to the nearest shelter. Despite having difficulty walking, they descended eight floors of stairs in their building to escape. They then drove several hours through shootings until they reached the countryside. They are now living through the brutal Ukrainian winter in a house without hot water, without insulation, and with limited access to food and medicines. Last time we called, she had a cold.

When I last visited Ukraine, I finally convinced Nadia and Eugene to tell me their life stories in video so I could one day share them with my sons. They both described how they grew up during WW2, and then lived through communism and Stalin’s regime. When I asked Eugene what was the biggest difficulty in his life, he answered, “Nothing, everything happened at the right time.”

As we continue to respond to Russia’s aggression, I hope we remember people like Nadia; how she lived her life and what her generation sacrificed for all of us. When our children are older, I want them to look back in pride at our demand for justice.

President Biden must make it abundantly clear that the injustices of today will not be tolerated any more than the injustices of the past. As a nation, the United States must lead in a call for unity and moral courage to every democratic nation around the world stating unequivocally what we have learned from history in our demand for peace today.

It is only by never forgetting that we will ensure a better tomorrow for all of us.

Danyela Egorov is a Democratic candidate for State Senate in New York State’s 29th District, in Manhattan.