Today marks the beginning of my second year in Kyiv. A year ago today, while moving to Kyiv, I had an 11.5 hour layover in Munich–which I chose over a 4.5 hour layover where I would have only seen the airport. I hopped on the train from the airport to the city center with one primary goal : find the Hans and Sophie Scholl monument.
Munich was full of men in lederhosen, and women in traditional dresses, all there for Oktoberfest. I grabbed a quick breakfast at a cafe, and set off to find the street which would intersect Geschwister-Scholl-Platz, the square named after the Scholl twins. When I found the street its entire length was a huge party for the Day of German Reunification; every German state had a booth with tourist info, food, drink, and lots of people. I walked maybe a kilometer up the street, found Geschwister-Scholl-Platz covered in festivities for the German reunification party, and eventually found the monument in the pavement.
I was en route to Kyiv, but finding that monument mattered to me. Ukraine is a country that suffered greatly during World War II and under the Soviet Union. I knew a little of the Scholl’s story, enough to know that their connecting their Christian faith with actively standing for truth, was something I wanted to learn about, and is something I believe is still relevant today. Perhaps more than anything, what Ukraine, Europe, or the United States need today is a solid basis for hope.
Hans and Sophie Scholl have been heroes of mine ever since I first read of them as a college freshman. During World War II, the Scholl twins were part of a small group of university students in Munich who published a series of pamphlets from June 1942 through February 1943 informing people about the evil the Nazi government was pursuing, and calling people to stand against it. Hans and Sophie were eventually arrested by Nazi secret police, tried in what was by all accounts a show trial and travesty of justice, and beheaded, along with five of their friends and fellow-students, who had helped write and distribute their pamphlets.
I felt that their story mattered deeply, and that in coming to Ukraine it was worth the stop to find their monument, to gain a little more understanding to their commitment to truth. They believed that loyalty to truth ought to drive us to action, to standing against evil in the world, with a willingness to die if necessary. During his interrogation at the hands of the Gestapo, Hans Scholl stated, “I knew what I took upon myself and I was prepared to lose my life by so doing.” Wow. You don’t make that kind of decision without a commitment to truth and solid hope for the future.
But some have this idea that truth is for hard-nosed people, that you either care about truth or you care about people, that truth is only facts, and hope is just an irrational feeling. Was that the case with Hans and Sophie? Or did their loyalty to speaking the truth actually illustrate the deep love they had for their neighbors and hope they had for their future, for the men and women who lived in German cities, who were all around them but largely silent in the face of fascist atrocities? Jesus himself said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.“ Their loyalty to truth, to living their lives out of their deepest commitments and hopes, still speaks today.
Here in Ukraine, one can still see the legacy of World War Two destruction, some seventy or so years later. There are lots of monuments, eternal flames, and statues commemorating those who died, those who fought bravely, and those who died tragically and horrendously. There are also countless villages which no longer exist, wiped off the map. Much trust has been broken, and generations of people didn’t know if they could trust their neighbors or their government. Soviet writer and dissident Alexandr Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago (p. 15) regarding the silence with with people responded to the disappearances of their neighbors and friends,
“You really can and you really ought to cry out—to cry out that you are being arrested! That villains in disguise are trapping people! That arrests are being made on the strength of false denunciations! That millions are being subjected to silent reprisals! If many such outcries had been heard all over the city in the course of a day, would not our fellow citizens perhaps have begun to bristle? And would arrests perhaps no longer have been so easy?”
Though not Ukrainian, Hans and Sophie Scholl provide a much needed example of people who weren’t content to remain silent. They cried out, giving their lives as a witness to the truth.
There are still many things broken and wrong here, systemic corruption, and deep cynicism about the government. However, this isn’t unique to Ukraine. I have plenty of friends back in the United States who are deeply cynical about the state of things there. Some think gargantuan corporations run the entire show with their Republican friends by simply pursuing the almighty dollar and a pound of flesh, others think leftist and statist liberals are out to destroy or remove constitutional freedoms. All over people are concerned about the potential of terrorist attacks. Whether confronting hard historical realities that still reverberate here in Ukraine, facing deep challenges to constitutional liberties and social order in America, or facing unpredictable terror, I think a primary question is how to give hope for the future. And I’m not naive: neither people nor cultures change overnight, but they can change.
When a man lays down his life for his enemies, and then rises from the dead three days later, that can change the world. That gives real, substantial hope as it reverberates through history. That hope is something solid, not just a wish—its a foundation lives can be built on, truth to which we’re called to live in response, and hope for cynical cultures.
I’m beginning my second year here. How much can I really do, as a foreigner? I’ve just made a start learning the language, with only 11 months under my belt. I worship with Ukrainians Christians, serve our community through an English club, am investing in relationships with friends I’ve met here, and am helping a small group start a new church. Why? I long to give hope, to bear witness to the truth, to stand against cynicism and help Ukrainians, Europeans, and Americans display this hope for their own cities, and point to the empty tomb that gave birth to a new humanity of women and men with hope.