September 30, 2022


How a Child Sees War

By: Emily Schroen

Peter Burkard only knew about war for the first five years of his life. He remembers hiding in a German bomb shelter when the Nazis surrendered in 1945, and fearing Russian invasion for years afterward. He now lives out his retirement in the United States, but seeing the current Russian assault on Ukraine brings back many memories of his childhood as a refugee. While there are important differences, the early Soviet presence in Germany bears similarity and critical lessons for the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Nazi Germany was an instigator in World War II whereas Ukraine was attacked unprovoked, but for a child, war is war. When he watches news coverage of the fighting in Ukraine, Peter says, “I feel I know what those people are thinking as they have the Russians right there at their front door ready to move in. I was there and I know what that’s like.”

Crowds of early German refugees crossed the countryside to flee conflict. Several children went missing in the process, and Peter recounts the radio programs announcing the disappearances. “They would have hours and hours where they were seeking kids who somehow got lost in that big move of refugees from the East to the West” Peter says. “A lot of them got kidnapped. A lot of them maybe died, I don’t know. But it always haunted me to listen to those programs.” Peter claims Russian forces kidnapped several children and put them into camps for future slave labor. 

Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recently reported over 200,000 Ukrainian children have been kidnapped and taken into Russian-controlled territory. Some of the kids are from orphanages, while others were taken with their parents or separated from their families like the early German children. Some are now in Russian orphanages or have been adopted by Russian families—an act Ukraine labels as criminal and Russia calls charitable. Some have been rescued and returned to Ukraine, but many will likely grow up in the country that invaded their homeland.

Even without fear of kidnapping, war is traumatic for children. “These people are now being hit the way I was afraid of being hit as a kid” Peter laments. He recalls in December of 1945 when Stalin had divisions of tanks poised on the German border, ready to move. Peter heard the tanks could reach the Rhein in under twenty four hours, thus striking fear of an invasion. He claims he had nightmares about Stalin and wet his bed every night until the fourth grade.

In Peter’s mind, American strength is what stopped the Russians from invading Germany after the Nazis surrendered. “You have to be strong,” Peter says. “After FDR died they had Harry Truman… he was much too easy on Stalin, and Stalin then thought they could… take advantage of him.” Truman became bolder throughout his presidency, and Peter believes threats of nuclear war effectively prevented Russian aggression.

Today, Russia is taking advantage of American softness. “They figure that they’ve got a weak president right now.” Peter says. “They might as well do all their activity right now before the election brings another one who is a little bit tougher.” While Biden has alluded to consequences if Russia uses nuclear or chemical weapons in Ukraine, he needs to make them clear, forceful, and signal their legitimacy.

For modern Ukraine, threat of nuclear war looms amidst the constant bombing. Ukrainian children are growing up homeless, just as Peter did decades ago. What happens there, and how America responds, will have consequences for the entire world.