Every migrant is a part-time schizophrenic and language is my witness. And believe me, I know. I am an emotionless adult in German, still a child in Russian and Ukrainian, an Erasmus Student in English and Italian, but never myself in any of these languages. Instead, I am permanently trapped in between them. While it has been a long integration process of twenty years that has grinded my identity as a migrant in Germany, war carves identity like a sharp blade.
When I picked up Olena who fled from Ukraine with her 5 year old child from the central train station in Berlin, we barely spoke. We walked in silence, sat in silence, and ate in silence. Once her adrenaline wore off, she started telling me her story in Ukrainian; a language I grew up with but never spoke. My family was a mix of Ukrainian, Belarus, Polish, Jewish, and Russian people who were spread all over the place.
Although I didn’t understand every detail of what Olena was saying, I felt her pain and experienced tragedy. I understood her fear, helplessness and especially her sense of anger. Through her voice, I heard my worried aunt pronouncing the soft “g” every time she put a deadly curse on the „invaders“ and my grandfather who was once imprisoned in Siberia by Stalin’s regime. Olena, who is in her forties, told me she was scared for her partner who couldn´t flee. I told her that “I am so sorry“, that “this is unbelievable“, that “I understand“, and asked her to “just let me know”, in case she ever needed anything.
Olena was angry that Germany and the rest of Europe decided to sleep for the past eight years. But then again, Ukrainians have been sleeping too, even if it wasn't for that long. As late as 2015, the process of decommunization began in Ukraine. Stalinist, Leninist and other communist names of streets and public spaces have been renamed and returned to their original pre-soviet names. In Olena's eyes, this all happened far too late. Russian propaganda made her angry the most. There is something inherently violent in considering Ukraine as a ”fake state“ and its inhabitants as “lost Russians”. Olena was sad to leave her family album behind. She missed her home. That evening we spoke about the Holodomor, denunciations by the Soviet Regime and the language bans that passed on as generational trauma in Ukraine. Olena told me how the Russian language reminded her of all of this. It reminded me how scared my Jewish mother was when we first arrived in Germany. She was afraid to hate the German language or that she would never be able to learn it.
Olena admitted with hurt that when I spoke Russian with her, I was talking the language of the invader that she just fled from. I imagined how my voice might have sounded, maybe it was like a siren. My parents never taught me Ukrainian. If they would have, maybe I could understand and comfort Olena better. But comforting her in Russian, which she considered to be the language of the invader, was the only option on the table.
Iryna, who was fleeing alongside Olena, told me that there is no way back. When the war started eight years ago, Iryna was kidnapped and tortured by Russian separatists. She told me the story in an absurdly funny way, and mentioned something about the costumes that the Russian separatists were wearing while trying to convince her that she was some kind of sniper. It took Iryna years to process and report the crimes that happened. Later, she met other women who were kidnapped, tortured and raped. Iryna considers herself lucky because she wasn´t raped. But when she talked with me about her brother being trapped in Russia by a family who believed the propaganda and approved of the war, a sadness took over her voice like a prolonged torment.
Olena and Iryna have both agreed that Russian is a language of fakers and liars. After Iryna explained to me how it became necessary to know some Ukrainian for self defense, she told me how her partner, who was now in his forties, now has to learn how to speak it for the very first time. She misses him. When they spoke on the phone in the evening, I would hear them sharing words of intimacy and love in the language of fakers and liars. She said: “If it is friends, you don’t have to test each other in Ukrainian.”
It seems like Ukrainian became some sort of a lie detector test against Pro-Putin and Russian propaganda. Although Olena was aware of the fake news that was being spread both by Ukrainians and Russians due to her journalist background, she only trusted the news that were written in Ukrainian, because at least those didn’t deny the horrors of war.
While her kids were naming Lego pieces with Ukrainian names and predicted optimistically that they would soon return back home and see the rest of their family and friends, Iryna was preparing for her next steps, whether it was to learn German or improve her English. I kept repeating to myself the slogan that hunts migrants in Germany on a daily basis: “There’s no work without German”. But I didn’t want to upset Iryna with the fact that her children would probably start forgetting both Russian and Ukrainian, languages that are considered pretty useless in Germany. Regardless, it is difficult not to get lost in translation as a person – as a carrier of identities. Paul Celan put it once into a beautiful piece of advice: “Schreib dich nicht zwischen die Welten” (“Do not write yourself in-between worlds”).
Iryna’s phone rang. A friend of hers was stuck at a train station in East Ukraine. Iryna warned her: „Don’t dare to stay there“. I asked Iryna if she knew how I could convince my aunt, uncle and nephew to leave Ukraine, as their chances of survival became more difficult with each passing day. But since they are stubborn, they were convinced that the war would not affect their small village next to Kyiv. When I asked my nephew when they would leave and come over here, he asked me, “What is out there for us, in Germany?” I knew the word “peace” wouldn't cut it, and that “safety” wouldn´t convince him either. So instead, I offered him help although I knew he would deny. While I watched the children build their world with Lego pieces, I reflected how war has already left its destructive marks on them, programming a new trauma. I couldn’t help but wonder what part-time schizophrenics they might become, and how they could reconnect with what has been separated.
 The name was changed.
 The term Holodomor describes the systematic murder of the Ukrainian population by starvation between 1932 and 1933 by the Stalin Regime, that has killed around four million people.
 The name was changed.
 Quoted in Kübra Gümüsay: Sprache und Sein. Berlin: Hanser. 2020. S. 59.
Beyond the Horizon,
@ Michikazu Matsune / Photo: Owen Fiene