It’s been two years since I visited my friends Yaniv and Nastya in Odessa. Because of Covid, we hadn’t had any chance to meet since, but this spring we wanted to make it happen. In April or May, whenever it would be warm enough to hitchhike to Ukraine again.
But then, things turned out differently.
Yesterday [I wrote this story on 12 March], they arrived in Nuremberg. Nastya has relatives here, so they have a place to stay. For the time being.
“It’s only for a few weeks,” they say.
I am thinking of World War I, the wars in Yugoslavia, the war in Syria, the Thirty Years’ War, and I don’t say anything.
We had arranged to meet in front of Frauenkirche, a church in the center of Nuremberg, at 10:30 in the morning. They arrive a little bit later, because they got confused with the subway. Odessa doesn’t have a subway, because there is a whole network of catacombs below that city, where people were hiding from the attacking German and Romanian forces during World War II. 80 years later, my friends fled in exactly the same direction from which the enemy came the last time: to Romania and then, via a ten-day odyssey of trials and tribulations, to Germany.
“We had wanted to do more traveling this year anyway,” they try to joke as we hug. But it’s obvious that they are exhausted and tired.
11 o’clock in front of Frauenkirche is apparently when and where a daily guided tour through Nuremberg starts. As we are in its way and Yaniv and Nastya need to get to know the city anyway, we spontaneously decide to join the tour.
On a bridge across the river Pegnitz, the guide shows a photo of the old town in 1945, completely destroyed.
When they see such images, Yaniv and Nastya are not thinking of Nuremberg. They are not thinking of World War II. I can see the fear in their eyes. Not only the fear for their city and for their cat, which they had to leave behind, but above all for friends and relatives who stayed in Ukraine. Nastya’s parents, for example. The mother is sewing camouflage nets for the Ukrainian army. The father goes to the beach every day and fills sandbags to protect the buildings and monuments of the city.
And her grandfather is experiencing the second siege of Odessa in his lifetime. Back then, as a 14-year-old, he joined the partisans and stole batteries from the vehicles of the Romanian and German occupiers. How he will make himself useful this time, he doesn’t know yet. But he is already holding on to empty bottles, in case he needs to turn them into Molotov cocktails. Nastya is stifling tears as she talks about him.
In the meantime, the tour has arrived at the art bunker, below the Imperial Castle: “This is where the most important art treasures were stored during World War II to protect them from the bombs. But people also found refuge in the cellars, which had once been dug to keep the beer cool.”
Yaniv and Nastya are thinking of their friends all over Ukraine, holding out every night in bunkers or in subway shafts. They never complain about their own situation, by the way, but always talk about the people in Kharkiv or Mariupol, who got it much worse. At one point, Yaniv says: “It could be worse. We could be living in Afghanistan or Syria.”
Later, we go to the planetarium at Plärrer Square, right next to the Municipal Utilities building, which could star in any GDR movie. Nastya heard at the train station that they will give out free SIM cards for Ukrainians here. About 50 people are already standing in line, most of them exhausted, with blank looks, no tears left to cry.
People ask each other where they are from and then nod silently. Ukraine is a large country, almost twice the size of Germany, and Yaniv and Nastya hear about many towns for the first time. Besides those short questions, there is not much talk. Nobody wants to burden the others with their personal suffering.
It’s a warm day, so I suggest a walk through the Volkspark with its lakes. Nastya asks if she is allowed to feed the ducks, because then she would buy some bread. But she has heard that in Germany, there are many rules about what is allowed and what is forbidden. For the same reason, my friends don’t follow me when I leave the path and take a shortcut through the meadow. They prefer to take the long detour, not wanting to do anything wrong.
As we are eating currywurst at Fritten-Kalle, still in the park, Yaniv, pointing to the monumental building across the lake, asks: “What is that Colosseum there?”
I explain that we are standing on the grounds where the Nazis held their party rallies. This is where the marches took place. This is where the propaganda films were produced. This is where a nation was being sworn in for war.
Yaniv says: “The fact that I, as a Jew, can stand here and say loudly and freely that Hitler was an asshole, that’s actually enough satisfaction for me.”
His grandparents and great-grandparents, who once had to flee Odessa to escape the Nazis, would never have thought it possible that their (great-)grandson would one day flee to Germany, and to Nuremberg of all places, and that he would chat with a German in sight of Nazi architecture and steal the fries off a German’s paper plate because I was so immersed in historical explanations.
Oh damn, this curry sauce is so hot, it really makes your eyes water.
In the evening, we stop by the Welcome Center for Ukrainian refugees at Hans Sachs Square. About thirty people are waiting in line to register; they have just arrived from the train station. One or two bags is all they have for their new life. Less than most of us pack for a holiday.
There is information for people who need medication or a doctor. There are food vouchers. People can get vaccinations. The Ukrainian diaspora seems unfathomable, because there are bi-, tri-, quadrilingual people helping everywhere.
Back outside the Welcome Center, I am explaining the legal intricacies of their residency status to my friends. As a lawyer, I am constantly fighting against misinformation from non-lawyers spreading on the internet like a plague. There is no difference between peacetime and wartime, this is a perennial scourge of humanity. No, you will not be deported after three months. No, your relatives will not have to pay higher taxes if they house you. No, you do not have to stay in the town where you first register.
A woman with a child approaches, listening shyly. She doesn’t want to interrupt us. But I can tell she has something on her mind, so I turn towards her.
“Sorry to interrupt,” she says with a soft voice, “but I would have an apartment for a woman from Ukraine with a child. Free of charge, of course. For a year. Do you know anyone, perhaps?”
She has no connection to Ukraine, knows no one from there, but is eager to help. We also don’t personally know anyone who currently needs an apartment in Nuremberg, but we discuss the various possibilities of networking with those in need of help. When the woman, still holding her child by the hand, casually mentions that she has already been standing in front of the Welcome Center all day to present her offer, Nastya can no longer hold back.
Now she bursts into tears, not because of the horror, not because of the war, not because of the bombs, not because of having become a refugee from one day to the next, but because of the unexpected generosity of complete strangers. “I can’t believe that there are such good people,” she murmurs over and over, apologizing for crying in public. After all, she doesn’t know if that’s even permitted in Germany.
- More stories from Ukraine.
- More about refugees.
- Germany’s official welcome website with information for refugees from Ukraine.
- To make matters a bit more complicated, though, Germany is a rather decentralized country, so that every state, region, town and regional transport authority have their own additional rules. Honestly, it’s more confusing than in those dodgy Donbas “People’s Republics”. – But still, please don’t get legal advice from your grandmother in Kamyanets-Podilsky who read something on an internet forum from somebody in Krasnokutsk, whose niece once watched a movie with lawyers.