Recently, I had occasion to reminisce about a story my grandfather, or dido Emil, used to tell me about his childhood. In 1942, while he was living near the Ukrainian border, the Nazi Army rolled into his hamlet and forcefully recruited him, as well as his best friend Alexander, to dig trenches in the nearby town of Snietnica. They were accompanied by a slightly older Russian man. The Nazi officers presiding over the group, told my dido and his friend, that should the Russian man escape, they would be shot. After a Nazi officer brutally beat Alexander for his supposed laziness, my dido reasoned with his friend that they had to find a way out; escape could have certainly cost them their lives, however it paradoxically seemed like a safer option than continuing to dig trenches. So, late one evening a little after midnight, Emil and Alexander fled through a little hole they found under the fence of the Nazi encampment. Liberated, they ran roughly a dozen kilometres, in the pitch-black darkness, through hilly, heavily wooded terrain, back to their home village of Berest. They were ten years old.
I had first heard this story many years ago, yet, had not consciously thought about it for nearly half a decade. Why, I asked myself, had it suddenly impressed itself onto my mind? I doubt that it was a coincidence, that earlier in the day when the story re-emerged from my subconscious, I had been reading an article from a public health expert on COVID, urging Canadians, despite increasingly low number of cases, to continue social distancing. He justified his plea drawing a historical analogy to World War Two, noting that if our grandparents could have made even more painful sacrifices, we could endure wearing masks and putting off dinner parties for a couple more weeks.
That article may have been the impetus, but I have lately found that my own life sits at a unique nexus, a confluence of political, social and personal events, that have made me reflect on the relatively privileged existence I enjoy. The dimensions that underscore this privilege are manifold. As already noted, the most stressful political and social crisis I have so far endured in my life, COVID, has had me “painfully” confined to my mid-sized suburban home and compelled me to wear tight masks, anytime I go do the groceries. A remembrance of my dido’s interwar trials seems to mute these complaints. The Black Lives Matter protests have likewise made me realize that as a white woman, I inhabit an unfairly privileged racial position that confers countless automatic advantages, that others might never enjoy. I had also worked myself into regrettably serious stress thinking about what I would want to do after my undergraduate degree – pursue a master’s course, travel through Europe, attend a baking school in Paris –all options that reflected the relatively plush privilege that characterizes my life. My language is perhaps slightly overdramatic. I am undoubtedly lucky, yes. I could, however, be luckier. Yet, in juxtaposition to a person like my grandfather, my luck at times feels revoltingly undeserving.
Baking school in Paris is a dream if anything, a wonderful thing if it could come true, however nothing to be taken really seriously. Returning to my grandfather, the option of considering or even dreaming about baking school as a twenty-year-old, was unfathomable. At that age, dido was serving his mandatory two-year service period in the Polish military, at the height of Stalinist totalitarianism that gripped Eastern Europe. Five years before, when he was only fifteen, he was forcefully expelled from his ancestral home as part of Akcia Wisla – the home his family had inhabited for centuries – and relocated to staunchly Polish territory that was geographically and culturally very distant from his Ukrainian homeland. For decades, he lived as an ethnic outsider, in a hostile anti-Ukrainian Polish environment, surviving under Communist rule, driving faulty Lada station wagons as a taxi driver and waiting in long grocery store lineups, for whatever loaves of bread remained. Finally, in his early fifties, unable to understand a single word of English, he moved his family to Canada.
The knowledge that my grandfather lived such a difficult life weighs on me, especially, when I find myself upset at some triviality, such as my recently frustrating inability to decide whether to paint my nails yellow or blue. There is a guilt I feel, whenever frustration and impatience mount at my internet slowing down, seeing a long line at the ice cream parlour or logging onto Netflix hoping to watch a long-awaited movie, only to find that it is on the American and not Canadian version of Netflix. These are admittedly immensely privileged concerns, the kind my grandfather would have never dreamed of having.
However, at times, this weight of this privilege is repelled by a true assessment of the moral reality of my situation. Guilt can be remedied by restitution, but what moral recompense is there for the fact, that I will probably never live a life as difficult as my dido’s. Even if I feel guilty for this life not lived, would I want to live such a life? I know my dido would not want me to. He came to Canada, and made many of the tremendous sacrifices he did, precisely because he wanted a better life for his children and grandchildren, a better life that those grandchildren, my brother and I, do enjoy. My dido loves his grandchildren. While he does occasionally jokingly remark, whenever my brother wakes up after noon that he could use a year or two in the army, my dido is content knowing that his tribulations were his own, and not his grandchildren’s.
So, how do I resolve this taut moral tension. Do I feel guilty? If so, how much? What is the appropriate way to atone for my guilt? These are still questions, even despite this meditative piece, that I regularly ask myself. In reckoning with this one, specifically Ukrainian dimension of my privilege, I doubt there is a definitive moral answer. The narrative of my dido’s life is one of difficulty and selflessness; the sacrifices he made, are the reason I am privileged enough to worry about summer nail colours. And I do not mean to write that glibly. It is unfair, unreasonable and silly to live a life of asceticism and pain, in atonement of the guilt of a privileged birth, that one really has no agency in controlling. So, I will still stress about my nails, but do so acknowledging my position of great fortune, and the immense sacrifices that not only my dido, but also my baba, mother and father made, to get me to where I am today. I will moreover honour the difficulty they endured, the kind I hope I am fortunate enough to never experience, by working hard so that at some point, I can make that same sacrifice for someone else, whether it is a friend, future partner or child. I will hope to bear my own pain, so that one day, they may feel less of their own, and enjoy the comfort truly required to get stressed about summer nail tones.