The Rescue of the Girl in the Red Coat: Gratitude for One Ukrainian Dad

April 17, 2022

It wasn’t until my tenth day home from my Poland-Ukraine trip that I really had a chance to process what the experience meant and why I felt so different upon my return. I knew I was different but I wasn’t sure why or how. I could write it off, as I had been describing it to friends, as a “thimble full of PTSD,” but it was something else. My therapist asked me for the one resonating image of time in the conflict zone. There was no hesitation in my answer.

Before crossing into Ukraine we went to a town on the Poland-Ukraine border called Korzowa. The Polish government had taken a massive abandoned shopping mall called Centrum Handlu and turned it into a refugee resettlement center. We were there to retrieve a mother and her kids and get them to a safe house. When we arrived in our passenger van, I immediately recognized the building from the news reports I had watched in Portland. I saw the chef from World Central Kitchen, José Andrés, preparing meals outside the building and the trucks bringing in supplies from across Europe.

Sally, our fearless leader, reminded me not to take pictures inside, as these severely traumatized people needed compassion and not to be treated like zoo animals. That was fine because the memories of the sea of displaced humanity inside the mall will forever travel with me.

It was midday so the thousands of cots were mostly stacked up but there were still many parents and children trying to sleep in the bright industrial lights. We found our family in an arrangement of couches they had made their “room” for a few days, a mother, six girls, and a Pekingese, who peed on the floor while we waited for their shelter discharge papers. It was clear that many of the Ukrainian children were afraid of strange men because of what they witnessed from the Russian soldiers who drove them from their homes, so I did my best to be cheerful, always sharing pictures of my daughter, Cozy.

While we waited to be released, I scanned the countless people who were trying to figure out the next steps in this insane disruption. My eyes stopped on a father sitting in the middle of the floor with a few bags and his daughter, who was wearing a red coat. The look on his face was of complete loss. His country was suddenly at war, his life as he knew it had evaporated, and he had no idea what was going to happen next. He had his hand on his daughter and occasionally stroked her hair, but he kept his face from her eyes. I held my phone at my waist and took one picture. I didn’t want to forget his face. That could be Cozy and I so easily.

Reflecting on the moment with my therapist, my first feeling was of sadness. While I was there, I saw so many families turned into “refugees” overnight as the Russian rockets crashed into their homes. But the more I thought about it, I started to see him as a hero. He was Atticus Finch, making the tough choices to protect his child. The refrain across the border was “Heroyam slava!” (“Glory to the heroes!” In Ukrainian.) This father wasn’t shooting at Russians, but he was still doing something heroic.

And his daughter was wearing a red coat. The girl in the red coat from Schindler’s List had haunted me during my day at Auschwitz the following month. But unlike that girl, who would end up in a pile of corpses headed for the crematorium, this girl in a red coat would escape to safety. Because of her father.

While in Poland and Ukraine, I routinely reflected on how lucky I was. A home, a family, safety. There was a moment when we were heading west, across the Ukrainian countryside with another displaced family in the van, that I noticed the color of the sky was the same color blue as on the Ukrainian flag. I thought about how that same sky was over my daughter who was safe with her mother, over 5000 miles away. The endless pain caused by stupid anger was evident on the faces of the Ukrainian children I met. What could I do to reduce the pain from anger in my own home?

When the momentum of the global travel began to subside (my sleep schedule is still on Poland time), those images and lessons began to settle in the front of my brain. Andi and I had an honest discussion about our relationship, her relationship, and the likely direction of things. The anger that had been there just lifted. I’d seen too many families ripped apart by pointless anger. I’d seen the trauma on the faces of kids whose parents were pulled in opposite directions and unable to be fully present. Things immediately improved between us. Yesterday we took Cozy to an Easter egg hunt and Andi put her head on my shoulder as we watched our child race across the grass. And today we are going to a Thorns game as family. It feels like a spring rebirth. All it took was me seeing that Ukrainian father and his girl in the red coat.

I don’t know how the war in Ukraine will play out. The same is true with events in my life. We both have some rough months ahead. In Krakow, I started the process of getting “лава Україні” (Glory to Ukraine) tattooed on my arm and finished it in Portland. The blue of the Ukrainian flag inked into my skin will serve to remind me that the love that connects us across the planet will always win out over the anger. This Easter Sunday, that suddenly means enough. Upon returning home I learned that Oliwia Dabrowska, who played the girl in the red coat on a Krakow street in Schindler’s List is now 32-years-old and has been doing refugee work in Poland at Centrum Handlu. We probably crossed paths. She’s a hero, and, OK, maybe I’m a thimble full of hero to my daughter and to those little girls I helped get to safety. Heróyam sláva!

Where I’ve Been, What I’ve Seen, Who I Am: A Brief Reflection of My Time in Ukraine/Poland

April 5, 2022

After my epic journey from Poland to Portland, that included another two missed flights and a night spent in the Newark Airport, I had the brief honeymoon of home. As if written in a screenplay, my Lyft driver at the Portland airport was a Ukrainian named Ruvim. He dropped me off in front of my house and Cozy ran out to great me. After over two weeks away, I fell to my knees and hugged her, thinking of all the dads in Ukraine who long to hold their kids but can’t because they are saving their nation from sociopathic Russians who are raping Ukrainian women in front of their children.

Coming home to Cozy and Andi felt like a dream. They are my sanctuary, my reason for everything. As is tradition, I gave Cozy her snow globes (from Paris and Krakow). I gave Andi a neckless and cross that had belonged to a Ukrainian mother who we got to safety. It felt like I was finally home. But it wasn’t really home. Andi had boxed up her things while I was away and was already entrenched in another relationship, and my silly plan to return home like a badass Rambo and sweep her off her feet with stories of glory was lost in my lack of sleep and the ghosts of what I had seen while I was away, not to mention that I was now only her husband on paper. I just wanted to take hot shower and fall asleep cuddling with my daughter, which I did.

The next morning, I jumped back into the routine and got Cozy to school. I hopped in the car after dropping her off and switched on NPR and that was that. The news was the horror stories coming out of Bucha, where Russian soldiers had tortured and murdered Ukrainian civilians in ways that make ISIS look like kindergartners. My heart raced and my first and only thought was, “ WHAT THE FUCK AM I DOING IN PORTLAND? I SHOULD STILL BE THERE GETTING PEOPLE OUT!” The intense guilt of leaving. I knew these kids that they were killing. I knew their mothers. I knew the men who were living lives like me in one moment and thrown into an unexpected and unwanted war the next. How dare I be on my way to grab a latte when Russians are cutting their tongues out?

I don’t know if this is trauma but I do recognize my brain has changed. I have to imagine this is exactly what veterans experience when they return home from combat, the intense compulsion to rejoin the fight. And it’s not like I did 12 months in Afghanistan. I did two weeks in Poland and Ukraine and already I’m all Deer Hunter, ready to go right back. There’s also the adrenaline rush that a former cop recently told me is the attraction for many in law enforcement. If my cognitive patterns were changed in a fortnight, imagine how it must be for career military. 

The guilt is intense. While I was there, it seemed like things might be winding down and the Russians would go home with their tails between their legs, having underestimated the strength and courage of the Ukrainian people. Au contraire, mon frère. The Russians just leveled up their savagery. I should have stayed. I should have driven vans full of ammo straight to our contacts in Irpin so they could have taken these monsters’ heads off. I proved that I can do this work, racing around sandbags and hedgehogs in western Ukraine. I mean how old was Pablo in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls

It’s a race of emotions that is balanced out by the very real fact that I have a beautiful daughter who needs her father here. I know she was proud of the fact that I was helping kids like her on the other side of the planet. She needs to know that she’s my priority. But the reality is, she’s not worried about Russian rockets slamming into her school and the children of Lviv are.

I’m just writing this, processing this, in this, getting it out for my own sake. You’re welcome to continue reading. I’ve had several espressos today, doubled my Zoloft, and am blasting Napalm Death’s “Suffer the Children” on my stereo. Not sure what the real world has to offer, especially after my day at Auschwitz on Friday. Is the world being destroyed or recreated? Will something wonderful emerge from the ashes, or will the illogic of the Putin-Trump cults lead us into a dystopian nightmare?

I’ll be OK. I have a great therapist, a good job, friends, an amazing kid, and a roof over my head. I can find ways to help Ukrainians from Portland and I can loose myself in music and books (although I might have to finish For Whom the Bell Tolls later). One thing I did do is ditch being called “Randy.” I’ve grown up. Call me Randall. I’m not the person I was. It’s time to be better at being better.

These two weeks did a number on me. My heart is in Ukraine. My heart is with all the veterans experiencing PTSD. My heart is with every refugee who wishes they were home. My heart is with my daughter who deserves a better world than the one we currently have. I’ve learned not to expect empathy, but I have a feeling there are countless people who understand what this feels like.

Panic in Auschwitz: Putting the Present Moment in Context

“The present moment began with fire. And still, it burns.” – Ben Okri, Nigerian poet

April 2, 2022

Once again, I find myself in a white van, crossing the, now snow-covered, fields of southern Poland. My very first record, Elvis Presley’s “Burning Love” is playing on the radio. The lyrics hit at an odd angle, “I just might turn to smoke.” Because we are headed to Auschwitz. Seeing the upside down world of April Fools Day, I try to make a joke with my fellow passengers, but my wartime dark humor is not received well. I was scolded earlier in the week for posting that the guy who was snoring in the bomb shelter we were sharing in Lviv, Ukraine made me pray for a bomb. I get it. But humor is also a way to cope with the endless trauma of this world. The DJ, sharing my skewed take on the day, next spins Ella Fitzgerald singing, “Let it Snow,” a Christmas classic in April.

Maybe the awkwardness was to prepare my brain for what was to come. How does one plan a day-trip to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi death camps? How do you transition from this moment to that one? I’ve been a student of the Holocaust for as long as I can remember and lectured about the camps for 30 years. In my recent Research Methods class at the University of Oregon, I presented gut wrenching evidence of how Auschwitz doctor Josef Mengele perverted the values of science in a sadistic attempt to demonstrate Aryan superiority. My life’s work revolves around studying neo-Nazis who both pretend to believe the Holocaust never happened and fantasize about perpetuating similar acts of genocide. The previous day, I had wandered around Krakow’s old Jewish district that had been emptied of Jews by the Nazis, except for the lucky few who were rescued by Oskar Schindler. It was important for me to do this.

The van carried a varied lot, an English couple from Birmingham, a Norwegian couple, a young German woman who must have been filled with dread and her English friend who puked, on and off, during the hour drive from Krakow because she had had too many shots of vodka the night before. Our driver, who went by Mike, was wise enough to ease us into the arrival into hell. He took us to his “secret location,” which was an abandoned box car on a track between the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps that had been used to carry the doomed to their final destination. There, in the snow, I began to slip through time.

Auschwitz is where it is because Oświęcim, Poland was a railroad hub, and industrial town that could manage the importation of countless slave laborers and then the millions who were to be exterminated. It still feels like such a town, ringed with McDonalds and KFCs when you arrive. For better or worst, the area around the camps has been preserved in amber. When we arrived at the Auschwitz tour center, with the crematorium chimneys visible behind it, snow fell gently down, smelling cleaner than the ash that fell 80 years earlier. In the gift shop, I bought a copy of Ellie Wiesel’s Night and watched the other tourists. Some stared somberly, some teenagers laughed, as teenagers do, and a group of Israeli students, draped in their flag, did both. I held my breath.

My group got their headsets so we could better hear our tour guide, a Polish woman in her late sixties who had lost two uncles in the camp. We stepped back into the snow and walked under the “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work makes you free”) gate as she began to describe the buildings. For the first time, I had a 360 degree view of this thing. I could see the grey clouds above and the mud below my boots. This was not a fantasy, a conspiracy, or a scene from a film. This was real.

The tour had just started and I began to hyperventilate. Then I began to sob. I got light-headed and thought I was going to pass out. I had to lean against one of the barracks that had housed 500 prisoners at a time. Nothing like this had happened to me before. I think I was having a panic attack.

It was the realization that this was a real place and that horror had actually happened. Holocaust deniers be damned, the systematic annihilation of millions of men, women, children, and babies was carried out with methodical precision here from 1940 to 1945. I could feel the terror and it was too much to bear. All those books and lectures and movies and documentaries and sitting listening to Holocaust survivors, choking on the pain in my throat. It all happened in this spot and my body convulsed at the realization. The weight of what humanity was capable of in its darkest moment.

I sat down for a bit, half listening to our presenter, half trying to get my bearings. I flashed to a scene in Schindler’s List. The black and white film had one moment of color. A little Jewish girl in a red coat, her body later appears in a pile of corpses. It was 1993 and she reminded my of my then 5-year-old friend in Prague, Suzanka, who was living too close to the genocide in Yugoslavia. I burst out sobbing in the Phipps Plaza movie theater. The memory, as I sat on barrack steps in Auschwitz, caused be to burst out sobbing again.

Gradually, I wiped my eyes and rejoined the tour as we entered the slightly warmer barracks and viewed their displays. Our guide returned to the refrain, “You must remember,” and how the total count of those exterminated may never be known, because the Nazis burned the paperwork along with the bodies. Each display was more devastating than the last; children’s shoes, human hair removed from the gassed to make into fabric, luggage waiting to be claimed. The one that put me back in my panic was the massive collection of crutches, canes, and prosthetic limbs of the “invalids,” deemed too defective to work and put to immediate death. That specter of ablism did not fade with the Third Reich.

I soldiered on for the rest of the tour, through gas chambers, past the gallows, in front of the “wall of death,” where prisoners were shot, and down to the ovens, and finally to the spot where Auschwitz Commandant Rudolf Höss was finally hung on this day (April 2) in 1947. But this was only the first half of the trip. Auschwitz had a sequel, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, ordered built by Heinrich Himmler in 1941 to accelerate the extermination of the Jews. Mike ferried us over to the second, much larger camp, much of which was destroyed by the Nazis at the end of the war in a futile attempt to hide their crimes. Our guide walked us along the train tracks where prisoners were divided between those who would be forced into labor than those who were marched straight to the gas chambers. Babies and small children were thrown into open burning pits. I stood there, as a father, unable to move. Where was goodness? Where was God? Where was the empathy that should have been present among Hitler’s willing executioners?

On the ride home, we were all silent, including puking girl. I thought about what I had seen in Ukraine; the faces of frightened children forced out of their homes by an unprovoked war-monger. I thought about the concerns of my Polish friends, that nuclear weapons would turn them to ash like those who left Auschwitz and Birkenau through the chimneys. I thought about the new rise of authoritarianism in the form of Putin and Trump, that gleefully weaponizes hate and the threat of violence. I thought about the anti-trans laws and voter suppression acts that are slowly eroding democratic freedoms in my “beacon of liberty” home country.

The first chapter of Ellie Wiesel’s Night is a cautionary tale. The Jews who lived in his Hungarian village thought they were far enough from the war nor to worry about the rumors of Nazi anti-Semitism. When they were pushed into a ghetto, many thought it was to protect them from the violence of the Allied invasion, and when they got to the platform at Birkenau, and Wiesel saw his mother and sister forced into the line for the gas chambers, many thought that no such horror would be allowed in the mid-twentieth century. The Holocaust was not a sudden tsunami of death. It was a slowly rising tide that drowned those who never realized they were so far from the shore.

That tide is rising again. I will not sit on my hands and hope things get better. I will use every tool at my disposal. This trip has taught me that I must.