Ann Manheimer: Mirror Image

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Massive movements of refugees in Eastern and Central Europe are not new, but Ann Manheimer has hope that the welcoming of Ukranian refugees marks a change.

I grew up knowing my grandparents came from Russia; my grandfather, from a shtetl called Shpola. I pictured a tiny village, like in Fiddler on the Roof, which told a story similar to his – how he left to escape anti-Semitic pogroms. My grandparents spoke Russian, argued about whose accent was better, whose was more correct. For years, we searched for Shpola on maps but never found it. Until a month ago, there it was – in an Atlas owned by a friend, south of Kyiv. In Ukraine.

The kinship I’d been feeling with Ukrainians came closer. Initially, it had been a matter of recognizing the stories – sheltering in basements, in train stations; families fleeing for their lives; fathers fighting for their country. The images echo pictures I’ve imagined of my husband’s family: sheltering in a cellar in 1939 while Nazis attacked Warsaw. My father-in-law joining the Polish army. My mother-in-law fleeing eastward. A mirror image of today’s scenes.

The difference being that, like my grandparents, my in-laws were Jewish, and the world turned its back on them. By luck only did they escape Europe before the mass murder of Jews, and by luck only did they find a refuge of extreme hardship in Shanghai.

But now the world calls a Jewish Ukrainian a true hero in the face of a crazed authoritarian. And nations welcome Ukrainian refugees. To reverse the French adage, 'La plus ça reste la même, la plus ça change'—The more things stay the same, the more they change.

Yet, not long ago, Europeans turned their backs on Syrian and Afghan refugees. Recent reports describe acts of discrimination, even violence, against people of color trying to escape Ukraine. The welcome seems to depend on whether refugees are non-European. Or non-Christian.

So I’m tempted to return to the original saying: The more things change, the more they stay the same. But hope stops me. Maybe this time, the world – including America – will care about all refugees.

With a Perspective, I’m Ann Manheimer.

Ann Manheimer lives and hikes in the East Bay hills and writes stories for people both young and young-at-heart.