Anne Hailes: History repeats itself in Ukraine

RECENTLY a young woman left Dublin for Poland and Ukraine.

I remember taking the same flight to Poland a few years ago to reflect on the terrible past, to trace Polish Jews and their Holocaust.

The Warsaw Jewish Cemetery, the ring of white stones marking the perimeter of a huge mass grave that contains hundreds if not thousands of men, women and children thrown naked, disrespected, covered and left but not forgotten.

We filmed in the ghetto, horrified by the eerie tall buildings, the cramped space, the tiny rooms. It was almost possible to hear the boots on the cobblestones.

Standing in a deserted train station where thousands of people were being loaded onto trains en route to the extermination camps, sometimes 10,000 a day every day, then meeting the daughter of the woman who lived with Oskar Schindler.

In 1939 German forces defeated the Polish army in two weeks and it was all very real even all these years later.

URGENT MISSION OF MERCY

The young woman leaving Dublin was heading for the modern hell that is Ukraine. Despite talk of withdrawing Russian troops, she was terribly scared as she greeted her friends, but she was on a mission – she was determined to find her parents. I’ll call her Molly – that’s not her real name, because she’s terrified of being followed on her journey by pro-Russian agents.

She knew that her parents had taken refuge in the south of the country and refused to leave, afraid to travel and determined not to abandon their pets.

Their city is in ruins and she knew they were sleeping on the cold stone floor of a basement with little food or water. Molly’s brave undertaking was to track them down and persuade them to return with her to Ireland.

Along the way, she was able to stop at a refugee center and pick up sleeping bags and blankets, food, medicine and other basic necessities.

If you’ve ever wondered where your donations go, here’s a great example.

When she finally found them, Molly was horrified by the conditions. Both in their 70s, they had no heat, light or television to keep in touch with the outside world and it had snowed heavily the previous two days. They were terribly cold and hungry.

I don’t know if she’s still at home; the last message said that she was filling sandbags and cooking for the Ukrainian army.

“Ukrainians will fight to the end,” she reported via text message. “They know that if they are captured they will be shot in the head.”

Her parents had lived a comfortable life in the city, but four weeks ago they moved to the countryside for safety reasons, but there was no security and the boom of bombs constantly filled the air.

Molly has her own apartment in the city, but she suspects it’s one of those high-rise buildings that was flattened in a mortar attack. She agreed never to see her books, letters, diplomas, photographs, or family jewels again.

She will now settle in Ireland when hopefully she returns with her parents.

They live on the razor’s edge, towns and cities are in ruins, bodies lie in the streets, mass graves, rumors speak of 10,000 kidnappings against their will from their homeland to Russia.

I remember what I learned during my visit to Poland. The story repeats itself.

BROWSE HISTORY

Mary Ann McCracken was a similar figure, courageous and resourceful – she proved it during her life as a social reformer in Belfast 250 years ago.

Like Molly, she was probably terrified as she took over authority over slavery, health care, or housing, but she didn’t let it show as she stood up for the less fortunate.

She has covered all areas of Belfast over her long and fascinating career and now the Belfast Charitable Society at Clifton House is running a walking tour of the city retracing her steps and discussing her work, including her role in the work of United Irishmen, the 1798 rebellion and his devotion to his older brother Henry Joy, who was hanged for his leading role in the uprising.

The march celebrates his enormous contribution to life in Belfast, including bringing up children, poverty, promoting human rights and equality, as well as working in the poorhouse and infirmary known today as Clifton House.

She worked to abolish the use of climbing boys controlled by chimney sweeps. She was involved in women’s suffrage and prison reform.

Mary Ann was a remarkable feminist, whose motto was: “It is better to wear out than to rust”.

A WOMAN WITHOUT FEAR

One of his most important roles was to campaign against slavery. She was a lifelong abolitionist and founded the Belfast Women’s Anti-Slavery League, ignoring opposition and ridicule to dedicate her life to this campaign.

In Belfast, slavery brought enormous wealth from the sugar estates of the West Indies, rum from the Caribbean, there was even an attempt to establish a slave trade society in the city.

Such was her disgust Mary Ann refused to eat anything containing sugar and even later in her life this woman of nearly 90 could be found on the docks handing out anti-slavery leaflets to emigrants boarding for the slave-owning United States.

The Charitable Society predated the abolition of the Slavery Bill and some of the board members benefited enormously from the slave trade, showing that, despite caring for the less fortunate at home, they cared little suffering that was happening elsewhere.

The Mary Ann McCracken walking tour of Belfast runs every Friday at 2pm until autumn, it lasts two and a half hours but includes a short break and free tea or coffee.

Tickets cost £12.50 per person and reservation is required. More at cliftonbelfast.com.

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