Today marks the 76th anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s annexation of Austria without firing a shot, an event that was soon followed by the military and political bullying of Czechoslovakia. This year also marks the 25th year of the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Empire in Eastern Europe.
As a third-generation Polish-American, I’ve found that the crisis in Ukraine has created in me feelings of both horror and hope. To me, the fundamental question raised by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression is this: Will America again allow evil to go on the march? Or will we have the courage, self-discipline and creativity to do the right thing — peacefully, yet with strength, force of will and courage of conviction that earns us respect and admiration from the Baltic to the Black Sea?
In May, I plan to travel to Poland to retrace my family history. I’ll be the first to return to our ancestral village east of Krakow in the region of Galicia since my grandfather Maciej Dylag left in June 1905 at age 24. At the time, all of Poland was split up among Russian, Austro-Hungarian or German control. Russia was engaged in a disastrous war against Japan that badly damaged its economy, and led to widespread civil unrest and a failed revolution.
Maciej’s four-funnel steamship, the SS Kaiser Wilhelm II, arrived in New York Harbor on July 4. A blacksmith, he came through Ellis Island with $12 to a confident, growing America. The president at the time — Theodore Roosevelt — would win a Nobel Peace Prize for forging a treaty between Russia and Japan. Roosevelt would bring both parties to Portsmouth, Maine, to sign a deal in September 1905.
As world leaders seek to resolve the current Russian-created crisis, it is my hope that America, together with Europe, can follow Roosevelt’s example of leadership or perhaps the stewardship of Harry Truman in relieving a Soviet-besieged Berlin by air in 1948. Let us find ways to guarantee energy supplies and credit to Ukraine, a place as cold in winter as Minnesota, rather than just emitting rhetorical gas in Washington.
When I travel to Poland in a few weeks, I would like to visit a country where people are confident about the next quarter-century, not a place where people are worried that their country might be the next pressure point for Putin. If we continue to value the freedoms that hundreds of millions of immigrants have strived for, including more than 1 million Americans of Ukrainian heritage, our country must act — putting aside the cynical and shameful calculus that Ukraine is not vital to our interest or “a fight we can’t win.”
It is sad that Russia’s current 5-foot-5-inch leader has chosen the same macho path as Ivan the Terrible and Josef Stalin and that Russia’s Parliament has rubber-stamped Putin’s will. The blood of millions in Ukraine who suffered in the 20th century cries out over Putin’s egotism and KGB-like strategy of force and deception to recapture the glory of Catherine the Great.
In addition to the great loss of life in Ukraine during World War II, most Americans don’t realize that more than 7 million Ukrainians died between 1932 and 1933 under a systematic campaign of mass starvation and genocide engineered by the agents of Putin’s former employer, as directed by Stalin. It was called the Famine-Terror, and it was as bad as anything in Syria or Africa today.
Hopefully, there are more Russians of courage like Moscow TV news anchors Abby Martin and Liz Wahl, or the Ukrainian grandmas who are challenging bullying guards in Crimea. Perhaps such women can convince their comrades in arms that Russia’s leadership should not embark on a course of intimidation, threats or implied violence.
Martin’s and Wahl’s actions remind me of the words of the late Pope John Paul II. His inspiring words “be not afraid!” brought hope to all of Eastern Europe and helped make freedom a reality. His strength of character stood up for what was right when Soviet-dominated Poland was put under martial law. John Paul II will be canonized a saint on April 27, and I ask Catholic readers of this column to pray to him to intercede on behalf of the people of Ukraine.
Mark G. Dillon is a communications consultant and insurance agent in Minnetonka, and a former daily newspaper journalist in New Jersey.