On Being Brave

I sat in the middle of a long table, a spread of foreign food laid out before me. It was hot in there, bodies compacted together, unfamiliar syllables and consonants mingling with the smells to overwhelm my senses entirely. I took it all in quietly, not really sure of my place inside this boisterous bunch. After a few minutes of simple observation, the meal was served, and I finally asked the question burning in my heart.

“How did you do it? How did you survive?”

It was 1995, and I was Kiev, Ukraine, in the home of Maria Ivanovna. I knew her story, having been told by her granddaughter who served as the translator for our group. I knew that she’d been sent to Germany at the age of 14 to serve in a slave labor camp. I knew she’d survived starvation and brutality, and at least one severe beating.

I knew that when the war finally ended, she found her way back to Ukraine by jumping on trains, sometimes clinging to the outside of a train car for hours.

I knew that her father was one of the few who survived Babi Yar, the killing ditch where nearly 34,000 men, women, and children were massacred in two days time in 1941.

I knew all the details, but what I couldn’t wrap my mind around was how.

How did this little woman with the silver hair and hearty laugh survive those years with her spirit in tact? How could she sit before me and tell her story without slipping into the horror of those years again?

How was she so…happy?

I wish I could remember her answer. I asked this question as a sixteen year old girl, long before the thought of writing a book ever took shape. I was just curious, and I remember the room growing quiet as my question was translated into a language I did not yet understand.

While I do not remember her exact words, I do remember the way she looked at me. Her eyes were a smile, peace shimmering in the depths as she focused tenderly on my face.

Though I don’t remember the exact words spoken at that dinner so many years ago, what I do remember is how I felt when we left that night. Maria made me feel brave. 

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I’d never really thought of myself as brave before that night.

Adventurous, maybe. Impulsive, gregarious, excitable. But brave? Not really. 

Like any sixteen year old girl, I battled insecurities on a daily basis. I found myself constantly fighting against the impulse to tuck into the corners of my life and reside in the shadows, because wouldn’t it be easier there? If I could minimize expectation, perhaps I could also minimize the threat of failure, of heartache, of any sort of emotional pain.

But there was something about Maria that made me feel like I could step out of the shadows.

It was the way that she carried her story, the way she so willingly gave her experience to me, like it was a treasured gift. There was no animosity, no bitterness, in her memories. She didn’t wear them like an albatross, walking victimized through the rest of her life.

Years later, I returned to Ukraine and I spent the afternoon with Maria’s granddaughter, Helen. Maria was sick and couldn’t take visitors at that time, but she took my questions over the phone through Helen’s translation. Even then, though grown and preparing to be a mother myself, I still wrestled with the cruelty and brutality of those dark war years.

I still didn’t understand how she did it – how any of the men and women who survived World War II did it.

But I’ve learned in the years since then that bravery isn’t something you’re born with – it’s something you learn.

Bravery is birthed in the trenches of life, when we’re pressed from every side and hewn from the cloth of hardship. But where does it come from?

“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1:9

If we truly understand the origins of bravery, then we just might see the potential waiting for us in the hard times. Bravery isn’t something that I can muster up on my own strength, though I suppose I could convince myself of that.

No, bravery and courage are most alive inside the power of the One who wove them into me in the first place.

The potential for bravery is knit into all of us, whether we see it or not. But the recognition of God as the author of that bravery unleashes a power far greater than any of us realize.

This is one of the many lessons I learned as a young woman in a foreign land. Bravery isn’t defined by rank or uniform, or even by experience. Bravery is simply lived and shared, and acknowledged in the hard places of life.

Be brave today, friends.

Wisdom From The Front Lines: Where it all Began

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This is the final installment in my series of stories from Ukrainian World War II survivors. I leave you with Maria. I first heard Maria’s story as a sixteen year old, while on a mission trip to Kiev, Ukraine. Her story sparked a passion in me to know more – to understand better how this Great War affected the world.

Maria’s story is the one that started it all. My entire life shifted when I heard her retell of the days she was taken to Germany and forced to build artillery for the enemy. Maria was a delightful woman to speak with. Her eyes danced, moving in rhythm with her words. I will forever be grateful to her for entrusting me with her history.

A story I now share with you.

 “The morning came when we were to go to the station.  My sister Anna and I left together. My older brothers were already gone, fighting on the front for our safety.  Papa was very ill so he could not accompany us.

When we arrived [the Nazis] forced us all to stand in line for hours while they walked around screaming at us.  Finally, we were inspected and separated onto different trains.

When I reached the front of the line, a German woman grabbed my hands and inspected them.  She did the same to Anna.  I found out later that they were looking for young girls with large hands who would be good at physical labor.  I guess my hands were what she wanted because as soon as she looked at them, she pulled me away and pushed me onto a train by myself.  Anna was sent to another train.  I thought I would die of grief and fear that day.

I was only fourteen years old when they sent me away to work in an underground chemical plant.  There were many other children there with me.  Our job was to fill German bullets with gunpowder all day long.  During that time, I never saw the light of day.

We worked long hours with very little food.  For some reason the other children in the camp turned to me for support and protection.  I don’t know why I was given so much responsibility, but I felt that I could not let them down. I soon became very angry as our captivators cut back our meals from two per day to only one per day.  And worse, the food was often infested with bugs.  We were all ill, and some children even died.  I had to do something.

I refused to work one morning and, using broken German, I demanded better treatment.  Instead, the two officers in charge beat me very badly.  It’s a miracle that I survived.

I woke up days later.  A young woman washed my face and as I began to stir, she sang to me.  Her voice was beautiful, and I thought she must be an angel.  It turns out she was a young German nurse who took pity on me, and had been nursing me to health.

I was sent to a textile factory after I recovered.  This was a much nicer job.  I was given regular meals and the work was easier.  But I didn’t stay there long.  After only a few months I was transferred once again, this time to a tank plant.  Here I helped assemble German tanks.  This was terrible work for a sixteen year old girl.

A few months after I arrived, word came that the war was over.  The next day, I tasted freedom for the first time in two years.  I walked out of the terrible camp with great joy, and also great fear.  I didn’t know where I was or how to get home.

After a few days of wandering, I came to a train station.  As a refugee, I had to sneak onto a train just before it left.  I rode wherever I could find room.  Sometimes, I could not find room inside a train car, I and was forced to hang on to the rails outside the car for hours.

After two years of near starvation and hard labor, I finally arrived home.  It was many weeks before I found my family again.  And I found them quite different.

My brothers were all killed in the war. My father had been sent to Babi Yar (a killing ditch outside Kiev, where the Germans killed over 33,000 Jews in three days). He survived this awful place, but not without emotional pain that haunted him. The life went out from his eyes.  He tried desperately to continue to be strong for us girls, but he felt defeated.  He missed my brothers very much.

Anna survived her years in Germany as well.  She had a better time than I did.  She was a servant in the house of a wealthy family.  She was treated with some kindness though she was often scorned and abused verbally.

Those were very hard years for our country.  No one was untouched by tragedy.  Everyone lost a loved one.  But we survived and we persevered.  And now I am an old woman, but I’m happy.  I have a wonderful family, and I am always loved.”

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