OSWIECIM, Poland: In late February, on a cold night in Kharkiv, Viktoria Naumenko caught a bus to a bar where two of her closest friends were waiting to tell her about their engagement.
Outside, she lit a cigarette to calm her nerves before stepping into the noisy cafe. She texted a friend in Canada: “I feel like this might be the last time I’ll see my friends alive.”
Naumenko, 39, had been warning those around her since the beginning of December that war was imminent. A war historian who spent 20 years interviewing survivors of past European conflicts, she thought she knew what was to come. She stocked up on food, urged friends with children to leave the eastern Ukrainian city, and sent all of her research to her boss in the US for safekeeping in case something happened to her.
Most of the people she knew listened patiently, but dismissed the possibility of a full-scale Russian attacks. To placate her, some of them booked tickets out of Kharkiv and then quickly cancelled them. Naumenko’s boss insisted war was unthinkable “ but seeing how worried she was, he paid her two months’ salary to put her mind at ease.
She left home at 17 to study history at Karazin Kharkiv National University, later completing her PhD thesis on economic policy in Nazi-occupied Ukraine and spending over a year in Freiburg and Berlin buried in archival research. At the same time, Kharkiv, the former capital of Ukraine known for its imposing constructivist Soviet architecture, was going through its own rebirth.
“Nobody believed me,” Naumenko said. “Even my parents laughed.” The morning after the engagement drinks, February 24, Naumenko was jolted awake by a call from another friend. It was 5:30am.
“Vita, the war is starting, what will we do?” Kharkiv, less than 50 kilometres from the Russian border, was one of the first Ukrainian cities in the line of fire of Russia’s invading army. Within three weeks of that wintry night at the bar, Naumenko’s youthful and vibrant home was reduced to rubble. Days after celebrating his engagement, her friend, Viacheslav Saienko, was dead.
Saienko, 34, was working as a volunteer in the Territorial Defence Force in the centre of Kharkiv when he went missing. For more than a week his friends and family tried to find him, calling hospitals and posting pleas for help on Instagram, even searching among the more than 2.5 million Ukrainian refugees who fled to Poland. Saienko’s body was finally found, buried under rubble.
Although Naumenko spent two decades studying European conflicts, the reality of war always seemed far removed “ something that happened to other people. As a historian, she interviewed hundreds of survivors of Nazi German aggression and Soviet occupation. But listening to them describe the horrors they experienced, she never fully grasped how aerial bombardment felt. She had not expected the explosions to be so loud “ so all-encompassing that it felt like you were dying again and again at the centre of the blast.
“I believed that if somebody dies because of military action, it’s over in a second and that you can’t feel anything.
But now I understand: you can feel it. And a single second can feel like an hour,” she said.
When she decided to leave Kharkiv, in early March, it took her 28 hours to reach the western city of Lviv, largely beyond the reach of the Russian bombardment.
Disembarking the train in Lviv felt like going back in time.
World War II refugees
The station, with its vaulted glass ceilings and long lines of mothers with children queuing to board departing trains, resembled the black and white photographs of World War Two refugees.
In those images, the faces were blurred and indistinct. Now, Naumenko was in a similar crowd, a nameless face in a mass of people all desperate to get away.
She was one of the 10 million displaced Ukrainians whose lives have been upended by Russia’s attacks. Her newfound status felt alien, something belonging to the elderly survivors she’d interviewed from decades-old wars.
Caught in a sea of refugees at the Polish-Ukrainian border, Naumenko had no idea where to go next. She met up with her sister’s family, who’d fled Zaporizhzhia in the southeast of Ukraine after Russian forces attacked the nuclear plant there.
Volunteers eventually took Naumenko and her relatives to a youth centre, dedicated to preserving the memory of the Holocaust, that operates 2 kilometres away from the former Nazi German death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau. Some 1.1 million people, most of them Jews, were murdered in Auschwitz in World War Two.
“I fled Kharkiv and I’m trying to survive in Auschwitz,” she said, marvelling at her own path to escape war. “I never really wanted to emigrate,” she said. “I see the problems my country has but I didn’t see any reason not to live in the country I love.”
A ONCE VIBRANT CITY
On February 24, hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the “special military operation” against Ukraine, Naumenko stood on the balcony of her ninth floor apartment as fires flared in the distance. Below her, air raid sirens howled along the city’s wide and empty avenues.
On March 2, a Russian plane flew low over her building to bomb an apartment block 200 metres away. Her room shook violently from the blast.
For two days afterward Naumenko lived underground, shivering under a flower-patterned duvet in a dank basement of a neighbouring building. Shelling continued all day and late into the night. Though her house was full of food that she had stockpiled before war began, she found herself unable to eat. On March 3, Naumenko finally made a decision to leave.
“I felt like a traitor. But I understood I couldn’t help my country by being in this shelter, doing nothing,” she said a week later, sitting in the noisy dining room of the youth centre in Oswiecim. She flicked a strand of blonde hair out of her eyes and exhaled deeply.
“I don’t have pity for destroyed buildings because I understand that we will rebuild everything,” she said, her face lit by the soft morning light that filtered through her window in Berlin.
“But my dream is that my people will survive.” Sitting among someone else’s furniture in a country that was not her own, Naumenko felt certain of only one thing.
“I left everything. And it doesn’t matter if I ever have it again. The most important thing is to have this possibility to return and I want to return very, very much,” she said, tears rolling down her face.
“It’s my dream to return.”