A Frightening Repeat’: Ukrainian World War II Survivors Face Conflict Again

Nearly 80 years after Ukraine emerged from a devastating world war that killed more than five million of its people, Russia’s invasion has stirred memories that the country had struggled to overcome.

Borys Zabarko, a survivor of World War II, fled his home in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, and is now in Stuttgart, Germany. 

By Emma Bubola

Published March 24, 2022 Updated March 25, 2022

Borys Zabarko was 6 years old when the Nazis invaded what is now Ukraine in 1941 and his hometown, Sharhorod, became a Jewish ghetto. Women, children and old men slept in packed rooms with no bathrooms or water, he said. As typhus epidemics raged, the ground was too cold to dig graves, and bodies were thrown on top of each other. Mr. Zabarko’s father and uncle, who fought with the Soviet army, died in combat.

After the liberation, Mr. Zabarko said he became convinced that nothing like that would ever happen again.

Now 86, he spent a recent night in the freezing train station in Lviv, in the west of Ukraine, standing on a crowded platform, as he tried to get on a train to escape another war.

“It’s a frightening repeat,” he said by phone from Nuremberg, Germany, where he fled with his 17-year-old granddaughter, Ilona, before eventually settling in Stuttgart. “Again, we have this murderous war.”

Most Ukrainians watched in shock in recent weeks as their country was hit by violence and destruction on a scale they had never seen before, with children killed, mass graves, and bombing of homes and hospitals.

For some older Ukrainians, Russia’s invasion has revived painful memories of World War II, in which more than five million people were killed in Ukraine, even if the toll and scale of the current conflict is incomparable.

Echoes of the world war have been omnipresent since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.