M. takes out his phone: his grandfather young, his grandfather old with M.’s mother, with a joyous smile and a funny cap, family pictures in slightly faded black and white, black hair, expressive eye(brow)s, long robes. His grandfather was 16 when he escaped home to join the “Rostov” battalion in WWII, fighting Nazi Germany. Two huge suitcases, more bags, a 9-month-old baby and two adults on the sunny-hot train platform, almost summer. Time stands still for a moment.
Before, I meet M., his wife L. and the little A. at the info point. Their questions are simple, their bags heavy. I show them up to the platform, dragging a maxi-suitcase behind me. They still have time, and in that space a question that I don’t recall invites M. to tell a bit of his story. M. is from Azerbaijan, his wife is Ukrainian-Azerbaijani, and they haven’t had it easy. After 20 years in Mariupol (him, if I remember correctly), they had to leave in 2014, away from the war, and since then had been building some normality in Kharkiv. And then…
Their escape from the big war led them first to Azerbaijan, bringing the little boy back to the house where M. was born. But they weren’t welcome there – there is the whole Europe for you, they were told. No place for you here, besides a 90-day tourist visa. Now they are going to Northern Germany. He shakes his head, at everything happening, this can’t be possible. Solid and light. I imagine his grandfather, who walked 4 years to Berlin (I can’t confirm that information) turn around in his grave. Back in the present, they want to know about life in Vienna, and standing there I think that it’s not that bad here. After all, I love this city and feel it deep. The air is filled with pride, grief, incredulity and new beginnings. Contagious smiles, curiosity and baby energy. We exchange numbers to keep spaces open, I leave though I don’t want to.
They were on vacation in Sri Lanka, when they returned it was 24 February and war. (Whether it was really the 24th or another day on this eternal 24 February doesn’t really matter.) Then, their bag with all the childrens’ toys gets stolen in the train to Vienna. We joke about the power of the bible that lay inside. Romania, Hungary, Austria, Germany – geographies condense in split seconds. Volunteering here is problem-solving and logical thinking on steroids, clearing out debris of assumption and everything one as no idea about. I’m happy that someone’s waiting for them, in the German city of one of my best friends.
She lies under the drip stand, the container is white, an almost-summer breeze. Unexpected medical emergency. Kiev. Pain. I feel at ease with the young doctor while I translate and enjoy being in this parallel reality. Later we walk to the pharmacy, O. with her child, a friend staying in Poland with hers. The friend: for two months we sunk into a depression, now we want to distract ourselves. Travel, be in a different place. The shopping street is full of people. You have to survive after all.
This baby is 7 months old, lying in the arms of his mother. I won’t forget H.’s words, the child wasn’t even 5 months old when it entered the basement. I don’t inquire further, one word is enough: Mariupol. When H.’s phone can’t be found there’s a moment of panic, but all good. The only object you take with you, when you leave with nothing. The family of 5 – mother, daughter and 3 kids – has a lot of luggage, with things gifted in Zaporizhzhia and beyond, the tiny baby at the focus of everyone’s attention. I remind myself of our job as volunteers: do all we can to help with the most basic needs: a stroller for the baby, coupons for the hotel, food and our presence. Our reassurance. What follows, are moments of metro (“is that our train approaching? omg the wind is so strong”), city-centre streets, fancy reception, hotel corridors, metro again, food at at the train station (Tageszentrum). A homeless person is asking for help in the metro, the mother: we also consider ourselves homeless. In the silences I chew on questions that I could ask. I don’t find many, while my brain probably joins the family in processing the reason why we crossed paths in life. The kids are distant. I want to reach them, and I don’t even try hard enough. Then I learn that Ukraine has lowered the military conscription age to 16.
I’m dumstruck by a banality. Of how most of us look “normal”, maybe exhausted, while storms rage inside. We’re all just humans, but with whole world to uncover. These hours, translating and volunteering at the train station have been a school of life in making the invisible visible, subtly, while helping. Of being present, giving everything you have, receiving the gift of gratitude (albeit in a reality that shouldn’t be here), looking back in the eyes. Of laughing despite everything, setting boundaries, sharing bits of lives. Of walking away and letting go.
At home I remember M., I head over to Wikipedia to check up on the battalion:
“The 339th Rifle Division was first formed in late August, 1941, as a standard Red Army rifle division, at Rostov-on-Don. As it was formed in part from reservists and cadre that included members of the Communist Party from that city, it carried the honorific title “Rostov” for the duration. In late November it was part of the force that counterattacked the German 1st Panzer Army in the Battle of Rostov and forced its retreat from the city, one of the first major setbacks for the invaders. During 1942 the division was forced to retreat into the Caucasus, where it fought to defend the passes leading to the Black Sea ports. In 1943 it fought to liberate the Taman Peninsula, and then in early 1944 to also liberate Crimea. In the following months the division was reassigned to the 1st Belorussian Front, with which it took part in the Battle of Berlin in 1945.
Decades and centuries of past are condensed into the already tiny space left since 24 February. It is hard to bear, but while I walk down the escalator, back to others and the anthill of a station, I swear to myself that I want to dive deep into history. In the end, it is my history too.