“It’s always in my mind”: For World War II survivors, war in Ukraine evokes painful childhood memories

CBS News reporter Michael Roppolo explores the effects of armed conflict on children in a personal essay after interviewing his grandparents about their childhood during World War II.

UN human rights representatives say dozens of children have been killed in Ukraine since the start of the war. Over a million more have fled as part of fastest growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II, according to UNICEF.

“The number of children on the move is staggering, a sign of how desperate the situation for children and families in Ukraine has become,” said Afshan Khan, UNICEF’s Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia. “Children leave everything they know in their search for safety. It’s heartbreaking.”

As the war continues to rage, it raises the question: How will children cope with the trauma of war and displacement – not only in the difficult days ahead, but throughout their lives? I started thinking about my grandparents, the childhood survivors of World War II.

Angela Federici and Giorgio Bauco pose for their engagement photo in America.

Lent by the Bauco family

The third eldest of six children, my grandfather, Giorgio Bauco, lived in the small Italian town of Ripi. Planes soon bombed his hometown, and by the end of World War II, there was nothing left in Italy, he often said.

He often told that he came to America – a voyage that involved two ships, a seven-year stay in Brazil, a plane and several engine problems – but never about his childhood during the war.

My grandmother’s wartime childhood was rarely mentioned. The eldest of five girls, Angela Federici, was born in the small Italian town of Sant’Anatolia and immigrated to the United States as a teenager.

Then came the Russian invasion of Ukraine – almost 80 years after the end of World War II. In what would be an emotionally charged interview, I started asking them questions about their childhood.

When I asked them what stood out, they talked about the bombings. Their small towns had been near Avezzano and Montecassino – bombed as part of the Allied efforts to drive the Germans out of Italy and conquer Rome.

“What stood out to me was the races, hearing the plane coming, the bombing, the races,” my grandmother remembered. “Ran myself. I was 6 years old.”

Forced to flee during the bombings, she, her mother and her sister ran to the mountains. There had been a small hut covered with leaves with other residents seeking shelter. She remembers her mother – my great-grandmother – praying for the safety of her daughters. But they could only take one for the night – my grandmother.

“It was rainy. It was cold,” she said as she began to cry. “I went inside, and when I came out in the morning, I was full of lice – from my head to my toes.”

“I remember when the war was over – after several years my father came home,” she said of my great-grandfather, who had been held captive by the Germans. “He came home with two fingers less because the bombs did the same to him.”

When I heard her say this, I got a flashback to see my great-grandfather when I was a little kid – with fingers missing on his right hand. It was the first time I knew what was happening.

My grandfather’s town was only 52 miles from the Monastery of Montecassino, which is believed by Allied forces to be a stronghold of the German army. It had not been in 1944 – and more than 200 men, women and children seeking refuge inside the monastery died when it was attacked.

The city of Giorgio Bauco was only 52 miles from the monastery of Montecassino in Italy, which by Allied forces is believed to be a stronghold of the German army.

US National Archives

As a 6-year-old, he only knew how to run.

“Every night the soldiers used to … tell us, ‘Get out of the house’ and ‘Go! Run faster,'” he said.

That experience sat in him all his life.

“And the mind – it’s always in my mind,” he said. “I remember everything – what was going on at that time.”

Contrary to popular belief, it is wrong to assume that children are resistant, says clinical psychologist Ramani Durvasula. Like adults, children can have a range of reactions to a traumatic event.

“We have to be very careful,” she said in a Zoom call. “To somehow paint it with this wide brush that all children are resilient … that’s not the case at all.”

Such a general assumption, warns Durvasula, risks not only potentially undertreating possible mental problems, but also underreacting to the child’s trauma. And any trauma a child experiences will affect their neural development.

“It will be quite significant for children because their systems are still evolving,” she said.

For any child – or adult, for that matter – how they respond to any traumatic event will vary based on several factors, including the severity of the trauma, the duration of the trauma, and their proximity to the trauma.

“There may be fear,” Durvasula said. “There can be some gaps in memory. There can be a real sense of alertness and vigilance.”

For the children who escape the war in Ukraine, experts emphasize the importance of therapy sooner rather than later to help them cope with what they have experienced. As children have less control over their worlds, the explanations they create will affect how they cope – not just around the time it happens, but even when they grow up.

Children may feel that they are to blame for what has happened to them or that they did a bad thing. This can lead the child to think that they “can somehow try to get ‘better’, and that will make things better.”

“The key with children is to let them know that they are not responsible for the trauma that befalls them,” Durvasula added in an email.

“Children’s brains are very neuroplastic,” she said. “So there are several opportunities, one of a kind, for growth and change through intervention like therapy.”

The war in Ukraine, and the disturbing stories and pictures dominating the news can also bring worrying memories to those who have experienced similar situations – a phenomenon called re-experiencing. Families with survivors may want to check on their loved ones.

“For people who may have survived it so many years ago as children, it can be very activating to see these images as adults,” Durvasula said. “The constant, ubiquitous presence of these wartime images can really, potentially take a toll.”

While interviewing my grandparents, I did not know what to expect. One thing was clear: the trauma was still there. It was heartbreaking to see my grandmother cry while she remembered her experience.

“It’s very emotional to see these people today – to run,” she said of the war in Ukraine. “A lot of people help them. We were in this small town – no one knew we were there.”

“I feel so sorry for those people now,” she said. “It looks like I’m going through it again.”

As for my grandfather, the stoic facade slowly melted away.

“Everything that happens today in Ukraine brings back my memory of what I myself went through,” he said softly – almost a whisper. “And it’s not good. War is not good for nothing – no, it’s not good.”

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