When a bomb falls, its impact is felt for generations. I know that from my own familys trauma – The Guardian

Posted By on March 20, 2022

Every time I look at the pictures of Mariupol or Kharkiv, I see a corner of Whitechapel in east London. I reacted the same way to images of Aleppo and, before that, Falluja and, before that, Grozny, because buildings crushed to rubble have a sad habit of looking the same. It brings back a memory or rather something fainter: an inherited memory, one that was passed to me.

Its origin is 27 March 1945; the 77th anniversary is a little over a week away. Early that morning, at 7.21am, a V2 rocket landed on Hughes Mansions, a block of flats on Vallance Road in the East End. It killed 134 people, more or less instantly. Among them were two sisters, Rivvi and Feige (pronounced fay-ghee). Feige Hocherman was 33 and she left behind two children, a son not yet 11 and a daughter aged eight and a quarter. The little girl was my mother, Sara.

The war was in its final weeks and the bomb that fell that morning would be the very last V2 to land on London. It wasnt a targeted missile, though if it had been it could hardly have delighted its masters more. For of the 134 people killed by that Nazi rocket, 120 were Jews.

It meant that, as a very young child, I somehow thought Vallance Road belonged alongside Belsen or Auschwitz in the small lexicon of words to be spoken only in whispers, each of them bywords for terror and grief. I was well into my 30s before I ever went close to that place. And yet, though I did not witness it and though I only ever saw the physical destruction that bomb wreaked through grainy archive photographs, I can honestly say that event shaped my life. Because it shaped my mothers life. It made her who she was.

There were the direct legacies, of course. For many decades, my mother was implacable in her anger towards the Germans, because it was a German rocket that had killed her mother. There would be no German products in our house; no German car. She was no less unbending on the necessity of Israel. For the Nazis, the identity of the victims of Hughes Mansions was no more than a lucky accident; but the fact remained that my mother had lost her mother to a Nazi operation that killed Jews en masse: she had felt the breath of the Shoah on her neck. Like many others, she would never lose the conviction that Jews would always need a place they could call their own and a means to defend themselves.

The experience of such intense hurt so young had another, perhaps less predictable consequence: it opened up deep reservoirs of empathy for the suffering of others. I feel your pain, has become a joke phrase. But my mother really did feel your pain, even if you were someone she had only just met and whose life she had only glimpsed.

Why do I say all this now, nearly 80 years later? Because, as I look at the terrible destruction of Mariupol and the burning ruins of Kharkiv, I remember that the damage done by a rocket or artillery shell cannot be measured in the stark numbers of a death toll or, still less, the impact on infrastructure though I saw this week that the cost of rebuilding Ukraine after Vladimir Putin has rained fire on that country is estimated at $100bn (76bn) and it is rising every day. Instead the cost is measured in the aftershocks felt by those who survive the blast: the injured and the maimed, those whose homes are smashed, those children who once had a mother or father but who, in the briefest of moments, had them taken away by a bolt from the sky. That kind of bomb damage cannot be repaired with concrete. It lives on in the children of the dead, and in their children. I know, because it lives on in me.

And yet the conclusion I draw from this is not the pacifists resolve that no bullet must ever be fired, no missile must ever be launched. For this, too, I learned from my mother: that while war is evil, the greater evil is murderous aggression that goes unchecked. No one would dare say stop the war to Volodymyr Zelenskiy and the people he leads, because that would be to demand that Ukrainians allow their children to keep being killed, their bodies tossed into mass graves at speed because its too dangerous to linger in the open, even when one of those bodies belongs to a six-year-old girl, buried in the pyjamas she wore when she was hit, patterned with cartoon unicorns. When a killer has his hands around your neck, choking the life out of you, what you need is the strength in your arms to get him off. This is what the Ukrainians are demanding the west give them.

It is the right not to make war, but to repel aggression. It is the right to defend oneself against missiles that flatten an apartment building or destroy a theatre, whose basement shields up to 1,500 people, most of them old or very young. It is the right to protect a city where the last inhabitants melt snow to drink, and burn furniture to ward off the icy cold or cook what scraps of food they can find. Given that the west wont do it, for fear of tangling with a nuclear state, Ukrainians want the equipment above all the aircraft to do it for themselves.

Its such an elemental need, and yet many struggle to comprehend it. There are plenty in western Europe and the US who took, or perhaps still take, a dim view of Nato, regarding it as a cold war throwback or an arm of western imperialism and militarism. But Ukrainians saw it differently: for them Nato was the body that might protect them from the neighbourhood bully who had already proved, just eight years ago, his determination to hurt them and take what was theirs. Most Ukrainians saw the European Union the same way.

Those in Britain who so casually disdained our membership of the EU or Nato betray an unwitting but unappealing strain of privilege, akin to the trust fund millionaire who insists they never think about money. Its easy to dismiss something precious when you have lots of it. That goes for individuals with wealth, but also for those countries or peoples who have only ever known the security of having a state of their own, whose borders are stable and where the notion of an enemy attack is all but unimaginable (or forgotten).

My mother took none of those things for granted, and because she didnt neither do I. In eight decades time, there will be Ukrainians in middle age who feel the same way, because of events happening right now. The reverberations will keep sounding, through the generations. That is why even short wars last so long. I am the son of that terrified little girl and I always will be.

Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist. To listen to Jonathans podcast Politics Weekly America, search Politics Weekly America on Apple, Spotify, Acast or wherever you get your podcasts

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When a bomb falls, its impact is felt for generations. I know that from my own familys trauma - The Guardian

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