In his address to the United States Congress in March, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky described the destruction unfolding from Russia’s current invasion. Attempting to mobilize greater international support, he urged Americans to remember their own horror surrounding events like Pearl Harbor and 9/11.
I thought back to my own experience of September 11, 2001, and its aftermath. I have no idea what it felt like in America those first few months—I was in eastern Europe, a few hundred miles from where Zelensky now pleads for the world’s help, studying abroad in Budapest, Hungary, for the fall semester of my senior year at Calvin College. When the World Trade Center towers fell, it was only two weeks into my time there. The gruff security guard in our dorm lobby looked very somber and concerned for us as he stared at the tiny TV screen on his desk. The broadcast was in Hungarian, and by that point pretty much all we knew how to say was Nem beszélek magyarul (I don’t speak Hungarian). That evening, most of us crowded into our American professor’s apartment to watch the news in numbed silence on the BBC. By the time our group returned to American soil in late December, it felt like we had come home to a different country. My mind still sums it up by bookending the airport moments, starting with that late August day when our loved ones were able to go all the way to the departure gate to see us off (remember when?), and ending with our return just before Christmas, with heavily armed National Guard troops keeping watch over nervous travelers in the Detroit international arrivals terminal.
Zelensky’s speech pulled me back to those days after 9/11, and I realized anew how formative that season was for me. My classmates and I were aware from afar of the pain our country was experiencing. The distance from our loved ones left us feeling vulnerable in the face of many uncertainties. At the same time, with limited access to the internet and to American media, we were immersed in Hungarian culture and history and in the many trips to neighboring nations that exposed us to the long arc of struggles in that region.
What has stayed with me the most since that surreal time is not the fear and uncertainty and sadness that marked our initial response to the events of 9/11. Rather, it was the way that the Hungarians we encountered—both acquaintances and strangers—joined us in our heavy-heartedness.
I remember a man on a crowded streetcar who, when he realized we were Americans, lowered his newspaper and folded it in his lap so that the stark front-page images wouldn’t be thrust in our faces. There was something deeply respectful about his gesture.
I remember how the staff at the dormitory where we lived flew a black flag in the front of the building. There were 18 Americans in our group, a small number compared to the Hungarian students who lived there too, but apparently that gesture of solidarity with a minority group was important to them. That flag stayed up for a long time, fluttering as we came and went from our explorations around the city, a symbol of connection and recognition. It mattered. What we were going through mattered to them.
The most poignant expression of solidarity was one we encountered by happenstance. It was September 14th, the Friday just after that fateful Tuesday, and it had been designated as an international day of mourning. We had already been scheduled to have a group tour of the Hungarian parliament building in Budapest that morning. As we emerged from that massive gothic revival building on the banks of the Danube, we spilled out onto the surrounding plaza. Just then, a large number of military personnel were standing at attention in formation. We joined the swelling crowd, pressing up against the barricades. We watched as the Hungarian flag was solemnly lowered to half-staff, and then we listened as a small military band proceeded to play “The Star-Spangled Banner.” We heard our song in a strange land.
I was stunned that the people of a nation that had borne so many centuries of war and occupation would make such a point of honoring the heartache of a faraway country. It was not their burden to carry, and they had more than enough fresh post-communist burdens of their own, yet they understood the importance of taking notice of their neighbors’ burdens. It was such an unexpected expression of solidarity. At the time, it seemed like an exceedingly gracious gesture—maybe because I immediately wondered with some doubt whether I had seen similar gestures in the US when other nations experienced tragedies.
Perhaps it wasn’t excessive on the part of the Hungarians after all, but routine, the kind of thing that is second nature for people who have lived through one atrocity, invasion, occupation, and political ideology after another, and who know the human toll all too well, who know how much it means to have some touchstone to call you back to a part of your identity rooted in whatever you call home. That’s how it felt. It was a freely offered act of solidarity, enacted without regard for whether any Americans would be present or not. As I think about it now, I realize how formative that kind of gesture may have been for the Hungarians too—perhaps deliberate gestures like that are precisely how you steadily shape the kind of people who pause, take notice, reflect, and show care when others elsewhere are suffering.
That whole semester certainly shaped those capacities in me, as I was immersed time after time in the histories of the people of that land and surrounding nations. One of the historical moments that continues to loom large in the Hungarian consciousness is the Treaty of Trianon, the 1920 divvying up of the Hungarian kingdom at the end of the First World War. A few powerful people decided which lands would go to Ukraine, Romania, and others, leaving Hungary a third of its former size and rendering over 3 million ethnic Hungarians suddenly no longer citizens of Hungary. When we spent time that semester in places like Transylvania, a heavily Hungarian part of what is now Romania, we saw how the Hungarians there struggled mightily to maintain their language and identity in the face of political discrimination. The Hungarian Reformed churches there are literally sanctuaries for their culture, often decorated inside with the colors of the Hungarian flag. Hungarians there paint their homes the colors of the flag, too, expressing a cherished identity in a land where even the smallest towns were marked by both a Hungarian name and a Romanian name. I remember a well-worn sticker some university student had put on the walls of an elevator in one of the buildings where we had classes in Budapest, denouncing Trianon’s impact on Hungarian borders and calling for action. A 20th century event that I didn’t recall from any high school or college history classes was foundational to the daily realities of entire populations. Trianon was a grievance etched into the psyches of Hungarians. I was humbled, and still am, knowing how little I am aware of, let alone comprehend, the struggles of others across the globe.
That fall, some of us also spent time in an area of Croatia where villagers were slowly returning, ten years after fleeing from war with the Serbs. Few young people were coming back, as it was impossible to resume any pre–war agricultural occupations due to the land being filled with undetonated landmines. “Stay on the sidewalk, don’t walk on the grass!” we were frequently and ominously reminded during our visit. The Hungarian Reformed church in that village was holding an extended worship service that weekend to mark their ten years of life as refugees, and to lament and hope in the midst of a landscape equally dotted with both freshly rebuilt homes and jagged ruins pockmarked from bullets and shelling. I remember what it felt like to share in communion, humbly attempting to take in even a tiny taste of the cup of sorrows from which they had long been drinking. The pastor preached on Isaiah 49:15-17: “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are ever before me. Your sons hasten back, and those who laid you waste depart from you.” We witnessed people tearfully muster faith in a God whom they longed to believe had not forgotten them.
Then, a month to the day after 9/11, during a trip to Poland, we visited the Nazi death camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau. Poland lost nearly a fifth of its population in the Second World War, including 90% of its Jews. Standing on the site where one gas chamber alone was designed to kill 700 people at a time, I could hardly lock my knees against the heavy horror manifest in that place. Having seen so much beauty in the history, art, and architecture of the cities we’d visited, testaments to the discoveries and achievements of Western civilization, it felt incomprehensible that human ingenuity had been used so recently to engineer a sophisticated decimation of millions of lives.
Russia’s present invasion of Ukraine is about to enter its fifth month, and once again the world is grappling with a multivalent crisis that is producing massive human suffering and displacement. Millions of Ukrainians have been driven from their land and untold numbers have lost their lives because Vladimir Putin is hell-bent on forcing them to conform to the madness of his imagined narrative and the lust for power that fuels it. Once again the complicated stories of borders and ethnicities and governments have collided, producing harrowing violence and swift destruction that will take eons to remedy, if ever.
While writing this essay, my imagination has been animated by the artwork of a 13-year-old Slovenian girl named Anja Rozen, whose piece “We are all connected” won this year’s Lions Club International annual Peace Poster contest. Take a moment to see for yourself. Someone shared it on social media and I can’t shake it. I love how, in contrast to previous years’ winning images showing diverse people doing the work of enacting peace and unity, Rozen’s art starkly depicts that it’s the earth itself, the very land under our feet, that physically does the work of holding us together. It summons a tragic kind of hope in me. I see figures of people bound together and it’s unclear whether they are gratefully hanging on to one another for dear life, or horrified that they have been inextricably connected to one another in such close proximity. There’s only so much room for privacy and social distancing on this planet, and we are quickly having to reckon not only with ongoing entrenched human greed and conflicts but with the growing evidence that the climate of the groaning earth cannot withstand our impact on it. Hubris continues to provoke human attempts at permanent domination over the land and its inhabitants, and all the while the planet is melting and scorching toward an uninhabitable end. Look at the earth’s arms as they try to create something cohesive out of the beautiful, diverse fullness of all its people. How weary are those hands? How much more can they take? And will the mortals somehow manage to endure their collective weight, all knit together like that?