A week ago, my neighbor across the street asked me how I was dealing with the news of war in Ukraine. She and other neighbors thought of me as they watched horrific images of war coverage. They were concerned about my mental and emotional well-being. They are aware of my childhood under the Russian occupation in my native country Lithuania, and my refugee journey to Germany in World War II.

I reassured my neighbor that I was OK. I was touched by my neighbors’ concern. I do find the images in the news disturbing, but I’m able to cope with their impact. In our chat, my neighbor recounted a story she had heard about a Russian soldier who had surrendered to the Ukrainians. 

The young Russian appeared panic-stricken. A Ukrainian soldier stepped up to console him, and asked, “Do you have family in Russia?” The young man nodded yes. He said his mother back in his homeland was worried about him. The Ukrainian asked, “Does she have a cellphone?” Again, the Russian nodded yes. The Ukrainian reached into his pocket, brought out a cellphone, handed it to the tearful Russian, and said: “Call her. Tell her you’re safe, out of combat, and out of danger.” 

The story is compelling. Such a gesture surpasses the dictates of the Geneva Convention and the guidelines of international laws for humanitarian treatment of war prisoners. It reveals the kindness and compassion of the Ukrainian people.

Later, in the solitude of my home, my mind generated visions of the transaction between the two enemies. I felt my emotions churn. I squirmed in my easy chair and my feelings came in a runaway chain reaction. They overwhelmed me. 

I became tearful, recalling a moment at age 8. 

It was a Sunday, early in June of 1941. My parents, some neighbors, and I watched the Germans advance over the fields of our farm. On a road nearby, a truck with Russian soldiers drove toward the Germans. A firefight ensued. In the skirmish, the truck was run off the road. Several Russians were killed and some were captured. The driver of the truck sustained a head wound and was brought to our farm for first aid. 

I looked on as my mother bandaged the wounded man’s head. He begged for water. I realized that the truck he was driving was like those used for deporting my relatives and neighbors. I thought he could be one of the Russian soldiers who had trashed our house a week earlier in their search for us. At that moment I would have felt compassion for any wounded animal, but I felt no compassion for that Russian.

Loss of compassion at age 8 seemed like the end of my childhood. Three years later during our refugee journey, my mother and I were comforted by many compassionate strangers, and my unconditional compassion was restored. 

Fred Natkevi is a longtime Oak Park resident, who grew up in Eastern Europe during World War II.

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