Essays On War

Bohdan Kutsenko. From Lviv to Kharkiv

From Lviv to Kharkiv

We always have to say our goodbyes, and each consecutive one merges with the last. In 1941, my grandfather gathered all that his wife and children could carry – clothes, household items, a little money, and simple jewelry – as they fled to the local railway station to embrace each other as a family for the last time. My grandmother and her two children were evacuated, while my grandfather immediately enlisted in the army. This is how small ripples form where a pebble has just dropped, how people hug goodbye not knowing what the future holds. The fate line is the inner highway of the heart, with the West and East erased on the palm. It is the road to those we have lost, where war has already passed and should never have occurred.

Grandfather never spoke about the war. He was a man of few words and even when he did speak, it was always in a loud voice, a result of a contusion and shrapnel wound to the neck. He was captured by the Germans somewhere between Kupyansk and Izyum, where in September 2022, the Ukrainian Armed Forces surrounded the Russian horde. Years before that, he was a part of a tired army, defeated in battles from Lviv to Kharkiv. He managed to escape from captivity and made his way through the front line, only to be met with a Soviet military tribunal and  sent to the concentration camp and later to serve in a penal military unit.

He was taken prisoner by the Germans while unconscious in the trenches, and after escaping from captivity, he did not have any documents with him. Some soldiers hid them, others burned or buried their papers to come back for them later. But none of them ever returned to those places.

My grandfather’s life was saved by the family album which my grandmother grabbed along with their children and important documents once she found out that he was in one of the Soviet  camps. She rushed there to prove that he was not a spy, that he had documents, a family, work with photos and children. They were not given a date, but his sentence of execution was changed to service in a penal military unit.

In my memory, my grandfather is a large man with gray hair. When he washed, there were strange marks on his chest and neck, like dried wax or glue stains. He had difficulty hearing and spoke so loudly that it would make the chandeliers and dishes in the cupboard rattle. My grandfather only came to see my father shortly before his death and would speak to him from the threshold, still outside the door. My father grew up without him because even though my grandfather returned from the war, he had an affair and my grandmother never forgave him.

Right up until his death, my father and grandfather would spend hours playing chess, sitting motionlessly under a chandelier with a long golden cord. They would stay up late to make up for lost time, arguing only to reconcile. The lamp in the kitchen would rattle from the force of grandfather’s words, and then they would continue playing. In the morning, my mother would shoo them both out of the kitchen to make breakfast.

Half a year after my grandfather’s death, my father and I made our last trip to Kharkiv together. On the way back, my father would stop in the lobby of the Kharkiv railway station, gaze up at the chandelier hanging high under the ceiling, take my hand, and we would leave without looking back, never to return to that place together again. For me, now an adult, the railway stations in Lviv and Kharkiv are impossible to simply pass through on my way to the city. I see and hear my father and aunt among the crowds of refugees from 2022, their mother with bundles, and my grandfather’s back in a military smock. Walking through the tunnel from the platform, I feel protected from German bombers. I feel the last hugs of my family under the magnificent chandeliers and high ceilings of 1941 and 2022.

In March, I see my family off just as calmly, and the sirens sound just as shrilly, announcements are made in the same monotone voice, and people are jostling for space. The driver of the Vinnytsia-Warsaw bus scolds me fiercely when, for the last time before departure, I try to jump on the platform and catch one more glimpse of them, before the flow of time erases the traces on the asphalt and the scent in the house. I stand and watch the children’s palms wave in the dark window until the bright bus disappears around the corner. Points of no return for thousands and thousands of generations to come. Every time I stand under the large chandelier in Lviv, I see all of my relatives: standing, hugging, looking into each other’s eyes, not knowing what will happen. And I already know. A long separation and doubts, despair, a difficult victory, a life spent at a distance from human destiny in different cities, on streets with different names, in houses with different numbers on the walls. I know almost everything about each of them from that moment in 1941 at the Lviv railway station. I stand right next to them and try not to think about what will happen to us now.

I walk with my backpack among the crowd through the station to the fountain, stop under the chandelier, stand for a moment and look up. I call a taxi to my new address and set off to buy another car for the army, which will be heading to Kharkiv again. There, on Pravda Street, is the house where we fled to our grandfather when the Chornobyl disaster happened. The garages are no longer the same, but they seem familiar, and the bridge to the zoo is already different, and the gate is new and huge. Even after all these years, if you close your eyes tightly, you can still hear the predators behind the fence in the dark. My little brother and I would stay awake, wondering whose voice sounds so scary? Is it a lion, panther, wolf or tiger?

Now let’s think together, what cluster munitions are humming through the labyrinths of Kharkiv streets at night and how far away are they? The house sways as if it’s dancing. Tomorrow we have to give away the cars and medicine, the grace of God permitting.

I think back to 1986 in the Kharkiv cable car: Chornobyl is on fire, but my mother and I are traveling in a red cable car high above Kharkiv. It stops abruptly because a boy and girl in another cabin have started dangling their legs outside. They sit comfortably and smoke cigarettes, and people shout at them from other cabins, but they are fine there and my mother and I are fine. We have the whole summer in our pockets, ice cream in waffle cups, and eternity ahead of us.

I can still see all this and I look up from the cabin on the cable car, which seems to hang just as helplessly above the May leaves, as I drive under these cabins to the recently-liberated Derhachi, then to the North, and then to the East, all the way to the place where grandfather half a year after saying goodbye at the Lviv train station would be captured by the Germans, the only survivor of the entire anti-tank gun crew.

Translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan