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‘War found me again’ A German aid network provides vital support for Ukraine’s elderly survivors of Nazi persecution 

Source: Meduza

‘War found me again’ A German aid network provides vital support for Ukraine’s elderly survivors of Nazi persecution 

Source: Meduza
Public relations officer Eike Stegen outside of the House of the Wannsee Conference
Public relations officer Eike Stegen outside of the House of the Wannsee Conference
The Beet

Story by Anna Conkling for The Beet. Edited by Eilish Hart.

In a video address in honor of Victory in Europe Day on May 8, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that “everyone who remembers World War II and has survived to this day is experiencing déjà vu.” As The Beet has reported previously, for some elderly Ukrainians, Russia’s full-scale invasion has indeed stirred childhood memories of another war — one in which Germany was the enemy rather than an ally. Meanwhile, in Germany, Russia’s aggression has reignited the issue of historical war guilt, prompted a reckoning with decades of foreign policy, and helped fuel Berlin’s current support for Ukraine. This sense of collective responsibility also undergirds the work of the Aid Network for Survivors of Nazi Persecution in Ukraine, an organization formed in response to Russia’s 2022 invasion. Journalist Anna Conkling reports from Berlin. 

This story first appeared in The Beet, a weekly email dispatch from Meduza covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Sign up here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.

Zinaida Safronova was one and a half years old when Nazi German soldiers invaded her village in western Russia. It was June 1943, and her father had long since gone to the front to serve in the Red Army, leaving her mother Yulia, then 27, to care for Safronova, her seven-year-old brother Vyacheslav, and her four-year-old sister Tamara

The soldiers loaded Yulia, her children, and all their neighbors onto carts and transported them to a concentration camp in Gomel, Belarus. The Nazis were rounding up civilians throughout Eastern Europe and taking them to concentration and work camps that were killing millions. Safronova is one of the survivors, but she has no memories of her time in the camp; she was far too young to remember the torturous conditions, which left her family on the brink of starvation. But stories from her family members offer glimpses of that period in her life. 

Prisoners leave a Nazi concentration camp in the Gomel region of Belarus after its liberation in March 1944
Semyon Alperin / Belarusian State Museum of the Great Patriotic War Archive

According to one story, Yulia had been allowed to go to a nearby village to get milk for her family when an air raid hit the camp. She ran back to her children but only found Tamara and Vyacheslav. After two weeks of searching, Yulia feared her youngest child “had died or been lost among the corpses.” But then a German soldier brought Safronova back to her mother. 

The Red Army liberated the camp in October 1943, and Yulia and her children returned home to their village. By that time, Vyacheslav had lost sight in one of his eyes due to an injury sustained during the air strike. Safronova never met her father, who died at the front. And Yulia avoided talking about the war for the rest of her life. 

“My mom always said that we didn’t appreciate the food we had or the fact that bombs weren’t falling and there was no war going on,” Safronova said, recalling how the absence of war defined the rest of her childhood. 

Safronova studied to become a math teacher, and in 1964, she moved to Odesa, Ukraine, to be with the man who would become her husband. They had two children together and, as the decades passed, Safronova came to think of herself as Ukrainian. “I lived there for almost 60 years and in Russia for less than 20,” she explained. 

Safronova had no desire to leave her home in this city on the Black Sea. But everything changed after February 24, 2022, when Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. At 82 years old, Safronova was thrown back into a life of war, and she and her daughter Hanna, 51, soon decided they had to leave Ukraine. Like more than one million Ukrainians, they fled to Germany. In the very country that had stolen the earliest years of Safronova’s life, she became a refugee. 

Church personnel inspect the damages inside the Transfiguration Cathedral in Odesa, Ukraine, following Russian missile attacks. July 23, 2023.
Jae C. Hong / AP / Scanpix / LETA
People walk over rubble that carpets the ground at a residential complex following a massive Russian missile and drone attack on Odesa. December 29, 2023.
Ukrinform / SIPA / Scanpix / LETA

‘They told me it’s déjà vu’

Relations with Germany have long been a source of pain for Ukraine and other countries that once made up the Soviet Union. By some estimates, the USSR lost around 27 million people in World War II, including both civilians and soldiers. According to historian Stephen Cohen, at least 60 percent of Soviet households lost a member of their nuclear family in the war. Of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust, more than 1.5 million were shot to death in Ukraine, Belarus, and other Soviet republics. 

In turn, most Germans have had to grapple with the topics of responsibility and guilt for Nazi-era crimes. History classes in grade schools focus heavily on World War II, and most Germans have some ties to the country’s Nazi past, whether that be through parents, grandparents, or distant relatives who were involved in the Third Reich. In confronting this history, Germany has turned many sites of suffering and pain into historical landmarks where tourists and locals can engage with and learn from the country’s dark past. And the administrators of many of these memorials have also mobilized their resources to do good in the present.

The German NGO Kontakte-Kontakty (stylized as “KONTAKTE-KOНTAKTbI” in Cyrillic script) counts the children of committed National Socialists among its founders. For the last 21 years, the NGO has been working with survivors of Nazi persecution in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, in an effort to make reparations. Through education, historical documentation, and financial and humanitarian support for survivors, they have played a crucial role in supporting these aging people in their final years. And since Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, they have directed all of their attention towards helping elderly Ukrainians, like Zinaida Safronova, who found themselves living in a wartorn country once again.

Coordinator Ragna Vogel at the Kontakte-Kontakty office. On the wall behind her are portraits of people who survived German captivity during World War II. 
The Beet

Beginning in March 2022, Kontakte-Kontakty partnered with 50 organizations and historical sites in Germany to form the Aid Network for Survivors of Nazi Persecution in Ukraine. “We met via Zoom with memorials and museums in Germany who work on this topic — persecution during the time of National Socialism — [and] we decided we want to support [survivors] in this very hard and special situation, during the second war in their life[time],” said Ragna Vogel, the Aid Network’s coordinator. 

Vogel estimates that the network raised 40,000 euros (nearly $43,000) to help Ukrainian survivors and their families in its first three weeks alone. In total, these organizations have managed to raise 680,000 euros (roughly $726,000). Part of that money has been delivered directly to 160 survivors still in Ukraine, providing each with a monthly stipend of 40 euros ($43). Some of the aid recipients are Jewish Holocaust survivors, while others are former Soviet citizens who were taken to camps as children or were born to imprisoned mothers. 

With the youngest survivors in their eighties, it’s nearly impossible for those still in Ukraine to rush to basement shelters when Russia launches attacks, and many have been re-traumatized by air raid sirens — a sound that evokes memories of their wartime childhoods. “They are very old or too weak and cannot go downstairs [to] the basements; some are confined to bed. Some of them told me it’s déjà vu from their young years,” said Vogel. 

Ragna Vogel at the Kontakte-Kontakty office
The Beet
Inside the Kontakte-Kontakty office
The Beet
Inside Kontakte-Kontakty’s archive
The Beet

According to the coordinator, some elderly survivors aren’t so much concerned about their own safety as stressed about the prospect of losing their children and grandchildren. So far, most have decided to stay in Ukraine rather than move abroad. The money from the network has helped them afford medications and food, as well as electricity and heating during the cold winter months. Though 40 euros may not seem like much, a payment they can rely on gives the survivors a small sense of security in times of immense uncertainty, Vogel said. 

“This is money from private persons who give very small donations. It’s really a collection from normal people in Germany who donate something like 50 [or] 100 euros,” she told The Beet. “We have so [many opportunities] to help because of these small donations. It’s really good to know a big part of society is supporting this.”

Guilt about the past

Vogel believes that a sense of collective responsibility drives many Germans to help people who suffered under the Nazis. “When we were youngsters, it was a feeling of guilt. But then, later, it left [us] a bit. It’s a feeling of responsibility, the feeling that there are things [that need to be done] to make up for the sins of the past,” she explained. 

The House of the Wannsee Conference, where high-ranking members of the Nazi Party and the Schutzstaffel (the Nazi paramilitary organization better known as the SS) met to discuss the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question,” is one of the Aid Network’s members. Located just outside of Berlin, the mansion has changed hands throughout its history. After the end of World War II, it served as a summer camp for a Berlin school district, and in 1989, it was declared a memorial and educational site. 

The House of the Wannsee Conference
The Beet
Inside the Wannsee House’s memorial center
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Nazi leader Hermann Göring’s 1941 order to SS General Reinhard Heydrich concerning the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question”
The Beet

When Moscow’s full-scale invasion began, The Wannsee House issued a statement condemning Russia’s aggression and expressing solidarity with Ukraine. The memorial center had worked with Ukrainian partner organizations for years, and the staff immediately began looking for ways to support their colleagues in Ukraine, said Eike Stegen, the Wannsee House’s public relations officer. 

“I think we were all quite surprised by the violence. I think most of us never could have imagined that there would be a war in our neighboring country and that rockets would be [raining] down on our colleagues in Kyiv. [It seemed] impossible, unimaginable. And I think we all felt that shock,” Stegen told The Beet. 

Eike Stegen in the Wannsee House’s library
The Beet

Two weeks into the full-scale war, on March 8, Berlin had a public holiday in honor of International Women’s Day. Normally, the Wannsee House would have closed for the day, but it remained open and put out a donation box to raise money for Ukraine. All of the money made from audio guide sales was also put toward this fundraising effort. That day, the Wannsee House collected 2,000 euros ($2,171) to send to Ukraine. 

“We knew there was so much more to do and that we cannot deal with that all on our own. So, we joined the [Aid] Network,” Stegen explained. 

The Wannsee House has collected donations from visitors ever since and worked to secure government funding for the network. But as the war has raged on over the last two years, they’ve seen a dip in the number of donations. At the beginning of the war, Stegen said, Wannsee House could collect around 500 euros ($537) a month, but now it takes two months to reach that goal. (Vogel has noticed a decrease in donations to the Aid Network, too.) 

The history of the Nazi regime is personal for Stegen. His grandfather was a member of the Nazi party’s original paramilitary wing, the Sturmabteilung or SA, and during the war, forced laborers from Eastern Europe worked on the family’s farm. Stegen’s father, who was seven when the war ended, told his son that he doesn’t remember much from that time. The family hardly spoke about the people who were forced to work their land; they referred to them as “The Russians,” though Stegen suspects that at least some of them were likely from Belarus and Ukraine. 

Eike Stegen stands next to an educational display in the Wannsee House’s memorial center
The Beet

“There was no critical reflection on that situation. So, in that sense, [they were] a very typical German family. ‘We had to. We couldn’t do anything else,’” said Stegen, describing his family’s attitude towards life under the Third Reich.

Stegen’s work with the Aid Network over the past two years has brought him into direct contact with the survivors of Nazi persecution in Ukraine. He says that sometimes, when survivors thank him and his colleagues for their work, he feels a sense of shame, knowing how much Nazi Germany took from them. “There is so little that we can do as historians [and] as memorial sites. We wish the government would do more and that the support would be stronger. So, for me, it was always a little shameful,” he explained. 

‘It’s impossible to go back’

Originally, Safronova and her daughter planned to stay in Odesa despite the full-scale war unfolding around them. During the first two months of the invasion, Russia launched airstrikes on cities across Ukraine daily, and Russian warships also targeted Odesa from the Black Sea. Hanna could hardly believe her eyes. “My aunts and uncles live in Russia, and suddenly they were attacking us. How? This [was] completely impossible to understand,” she recalled.

On April 23, Easter Sunday, the house opposite Safronova was destroyed in an explosion, and the blast seriously damaged the 82-year-old’s already poor hearing. She and Hanna decided to leave Odesa that very day. 

A stormy sky over the Black Sea. Odesa, March 2024.
Yulii Zozulia / Ukrinform / Future Publishing / Getty Images

As Hanna set about making plans, she remembered that a German foundation had helped her mother once before. Back in 2000, Safronova obtained documents from Russia confirming that she had been a “juvenile prisoner” in a Nazi concentration camp. At the time, Germany was offering financial compensation to former forced laborers and “other victims of National Socialism.” (Berlin formally concluded this initiative in 2007 but continues to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to support Holocaust survivors every year.) 

With the help of the Ukrainian courts, Safronova applied and received compensation payments in 2001–2002. And although 20 years had passed, she still had the paperwork. Hanna looked up the foundation online and sent a letter to the “many, many email addresses” listed on its website. A few days later, she received a response from Kontakte-Kontakty’s Ragna Vogel, who immediately offered them assistance. 

The pair arrived in Germany one month later. They moved to Augsburg, one of the country’s oldest cities, where they set about rebuilding their lives as refugees. Neither spoke German or English, and they were at a loss for understanding Germany’s strenuous bureaucracy, but the Aid Network was there to help. “Frau Vogel told us that if we had any problems, if we needed any help, we could turn to her,” Hanna said, adding that the organization even helped pay for her mother’s hearing aids. “I started to cry when I put in my hearing aids, and I could hear everything again,” Safronova recalled. 

Hanna said she and her mother never could have imagined that their lives would be so connected to Germany. And she’s been pleasantly surprised by the support the country has offered to Ukrainian refugees. Germany has taken in more than 1.15 million Ukrainians over the last two years and provided ample support, including migration counseling, language classes, automatic welfare payments, and long-term residency rights

“I used to think of Germany and fascism, Nazis, but today I am ready to say to the entire German people and the German state: Thank you,” Hanna said. 

Today, Hanna focuses mainly on learning German and caring for her elderly mother, who has struggled to adjust to their new life. “I was born into a war [and] war found me again,” Safronova lamented. “It is absolutely impossible to go back [to Ukraine] now. But time will put everything in its place,” she added. “Right now, it’s not a question of whether I want to go back or not. It’s dangerous.”

Hello, I’m Eilish Hart, the editor of The Beet. Thanks for taking the time to read our work! Our newsletter delivers underreported stories like this one to subscribers every Thursday. Like all of Meduza’s reporting, it’s free to read, but relies on support from readers like you. Please consider donating to our crowdfunding campaign.

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Story by Anna Conkling for The Beet

Edited by Eilish Hart

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