by Kaia Gallagher
The story of her harrowing escape remained etched on her face. Years of fear, grief, and sorrow carved deep worry lines around her mouth while her eyes glazed with the vacant look of someone who lost everything and has nowhere to go. The haunting photograph was taken while my grandmother was living in a displaced persons camp in postwar Germany.
Now I see my grandmother’s desperate stare in the faces of the refugees fleeing from Ukraine. I see her hopeless expression in the shell-shocked eyes of mothers who clutch their children’s hands, and I see her furrowed brow in the war-weary expressions of elderly men and women who struggle to keep up with the crowds as they stream towards safety.
Although the tragedies have unfolded decades apart, the frantic scenes of panicked flight and despairing evacuees are the same. One crowd rushed toward a harbor, the other toward the trains. While one group fled from the Soviet army, the other tries to escape the Russian military. Different countries, different eras, but eerily similar in all other respects.
It was a crisp fall day when my grandmother, my mother and the rest of her family escaped from Tallinn harbor. Black clouds spewed from burning oil depots, as terrified men, women, and children, clinging to their suitcases and small bundles, cried for help, as they pushed forward hoping to find space on the few remaining boats.
I watch in horror as similar scenes play out today at Ukrainian border cities where millions of civilians leave everything behind as they run for their lives. Children wrapped in blankets stumble behind mothers overburdened with backpacks and roller bags while tearful grandparents struggle behind them. The refugees are overwhelmed, fearful, and worried about the future, the same emotions my mother’s family experienced when they evacuated from their homeland a day before Estonia was occupied by the Soviet army in the fall of 1944.
When I was younger, I took for granted the good fortune that enabled my Estonian family to create a new life. But looking back at that time, I have begun to question what would have happened if they had not been able to leave Estonia. What would their lives have been like and what would have been my fate? The same unknowable questions challenge Ukrainian refugees who cannot know whether they will be able to return home and whether instead they will need to forge new identities far from Ukraine.
Since travel to Estonia was restricted by the Soviets while I was growing up, my connection to my mother’s former life was limited to a few family photographs and the nostalgic stories they told about life in Estonia before the war. As many Ukrainian cities are pummeled into rubble, the refugees’ connection to their past will likely become similarly ephemeral, as they try to hold onto memories of what once was before war entered their lives.
The appalling scenes from today’s battles in Ukraine may someday fade, but the scars will remain, in some cases lasting for generations. My mother always said “The past is gone,” but as I grew older, I realized my family’s past never really left us. Even though I was raised to be American, there was a part of my Estonian family’s history that defined who I have become even if this legacy was, for most of my life, out-of-reach and seemingly unreachable.
The nightmare the Ukrainians are experiencing is likely to have long-standing echoes, ones that in my own family I have only been able to uncover years later, as part of my upcoming book, Candles for the Defiant and Forgotten. The legacy of trauma, I have learned, never fully disappears, as I reexperience my family’s plight through the scenes of war that reveal once again the cruelty of what once was and what continues today.
Kaia Gallagher is a free-lance writer who lives in Denver, Colorado. As an author, she enjoys exploring the ways in which the past and the present are intertwined. Her upcoming book, Candles for the Departed and Forgotten, details her mother's Estonian past and the family's struggle to survive during World War II. Kaia earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of California-Riverside. She also has a Ph.D. in Sociology from Brown University.