“I Am,” I Said: Thoughts on Borders and Refugees
When I read about the history of Eastern Europe, I realize how changeable national boundaries and concepts of nation are.
I live in a very young country, America, which nevertheless has been highly successful in forming a self-concept that seems essential and timeless. Its sense of surety likely is rooted in the concept of “Manifest Destiny,” which declared it God’s will for America to expand westward to the shore of the Pacific Ocean, while rationalizing the genocide of the indigenous people of this continent.
The history of Eastern Europe shows that it’s often, in fact, nation-building efforts that undermine these same movements to concretize and promulgate national identities. In the region, literal empires and kingdoms have risen, reigned, and fallen over the centuries. Nations have conceived themselves, endeavored to spread and impose their self-concept into neighboring regions through various methods, often brutal. Borders have shifted. Countries have been eclipsed, and torn asunder, renamed, and redefined.
A Brief History of Svalava
The sheer number of worldwide boundary changes since WWI, only 100 years ago, shows the mutability of national borders, as do the particular shifts in nation that have taken place across my grandmother’s hometown of Svalava.
My grandmother was born within the Kingdom of Hungary in 1910. In 1919, the year my great uncle Stefan, my grandmother’s youngest sibling, was born, the Treaty of Trianon ended WWI and redefined their homeland as Czechoslovakia.
In 1938, Hungary, allied with the Nazis, invaded the area, “reclaiming” it, and ushered into the region the era of Jewish ghettoization, transports to Auschwitz, and mass murder.
After the Allies conquered the Nazis, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic claimed Svalava in 1945. My great uncles, Ladislaus and Stefan, emerged from hiding from the Nazis in the Carpathian Mountains to flee the advance of the Red Army, whose brutality was infamous. Had they stayed, they would have been claimed as Soviet citizens, subject to Stalin. Their brother, Eugene, had been executed in 1939 in Riga, Latvia, when the Soviet Army occupied the area in accord with the German-Soviet Pact. (Their alliance before the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 seems to be a relatively forgotten bit of history.) Eugene had been a refugee.
Now known as Svalyava, since 1991, the town has belonged to the district of Zakarpats’ka oblast (county) in the Republic of Ukraine.
E Pluribus Unum
In 2017, the reality of mutable, changeable national boundaries and concepts feels highly relevant. While the current White House administration seeks to shore up its concept of nation with literal walls, as if a physical structure could solidify the inherently abstract concept of identity, Russia, apparently, has permeated and strong-armed one of the most basic institutions of our American identity: the institution of voting.
We realize the truth of change and our human vulnerability when pillars of identity begin to break down, when boundaries become permeable. Human efforts to resist this basic law of the universe, change, always have negative effects. Walls, made of any material, are structures subject to time, which is the vehicle of change. And walls can be climbed or flown over, dug under (undermined, literally), or gone around (circumvented, if you like). And imperialism is only another effort to shore up an abstraction by fortifying borders and conquering lands and people that are “other” in an effort to impose a singular concept of self.
This is why plurality, diversity, difference, can be an excellent antidote to violence: in the company of “others,” we, too, finally, become another “other,” and in so doing, all people become self. There is no longer any singular identity to protect when the reality of diversity, a concept carried in the very DNA of all living organisms, a concept that indeed enables the continuation and evolution of life, is so evident.
This is why I love the sound of many languages in the streets and in our homes, many accents, and many styles of dress; many types of music and art; many modes of belief, a variety of metaphors, symbols, and imagery. This is an environment inherent to our human DNA and our survival.
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