Prisoners of History


Like most of the world, I’ve been following the Ukraine War with great interest. This past week, there were headlines about the first Russian prisoner of war, charged with war crimes. A 21-year-old Russian has been found guilty of shooting a 62-year-old man on a bicycle. He was ordered to shoot and he did. The widow of the civilian feels sorry for the young soldier, now sentenced to life in prison, but can’t forgive him. Of course not. Forgiveness and healing take time. Will we ever forgive Putin for starting this mess?  

Besides perpetrators of specific war crimes, there are regular prisoners of war. The Ukrainian survivors of the valiant Mariupol siege are now prisoners of war. Supposedly up to 1700 Ukrainian soldiers are in Russian hands. Not an enviable fate. Being formally registered by the Red Cross so that humane treatment can be guaranteed under the Geneva Convention, doesn’t seem all that reassuring.


During the Second World War, because the USSR had not signed onto the 1929 Geneva Convention, the Nazis did not feel obligated to follow it.  Soviet soldiers captured by Nazis were thus doomed to death by starvation or complications from disease. (And they’d thought life in the Soviet Union with Stalin had been tough.) Two out of every 3 Soviet prisoners died without any ammunition wasted on them.

Public Domain, Russian prisoners of war near
Sumy, April, 2022

Revenge was inevitable and when Germany finally capitulated, people like my dad—once a pilot for the Luftwaffe, later a member of the Military Police on the East Front—ended up in terrible camps with equally high mortality rates. And to make-up perhaps, for all those forced Ostarbeiter, people like my mom—who’d never been in the military, or any Nazi groups, a young woman, forced to spend the war years in a munitions’ factory—slaved like a workhorse in open pit mines of the Urals. 

And now with social media and instant news, there's so much more propaganda regarding treatment of war criminals I can barely believe that the news headlines today are about current events. How can this all be happening again? 

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