Local Ukrainian compares Russian invasion to his memories of WWII

Published: Mar. 1, 2022 at 9:02 PM CST|Updated: Mar. 1, 2022 at 10:18 PM CST
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PRATTVILLE, Ala. (WSFA) - Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has hit especially close to home for one Prattville man.

85-year-old Simon Pawlenko was born in Ukraine in 1936 and was a young boy when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. Pawlenko says what’s unfolding in Ukraine now is reminiscent of his memories of World War II.

“I know what they’re going through. Having lived through it, it’s very easy for me to understand and empathize with them,” Pawlenko said.

Pawlenko remembers his family’s farm in Ukraine being seized by Germany during World War II. He said they were forced to flee west because farm laborers were needed in Germany.

“We had to put everything we could on a wagon, and we had a wagon train going to Germany. Very similar to what you have in cars and automobiles going out of Ukraine now,” Pawlenko said.

Once in Germany, he recalls sheltering from the large-scale bombing of that country amid the war.

“I was in an air raid. Went down into the basement. When we came out the buildings were bombed out, some were burning. Mother and I had to track around that and walk five miles to where we lived,” Prawlenko said.

He said his family moved 19 times in 13 months during the war to try and escape communism before eventually making their way to America.

“Right after the war, Russians wanted their people back, and my parents knew what it was to live under communism, so we chose not to. We were moving around until eventually we wound up in a displaced persons camp and eventually we wound up here in the states, and what a blessing that was,” Pawlenko said.

He compares the devastation he witnessed in Germany and Ukraine decades ago to Russia’s war on Ukraine now.

“It was then under (Joseph) Stalin and (Adolf) Hitler, now it’s under (Vladmir) Putin. Same thing, but atrocities of war are unbelievable to overcome,” he said.

Pawlekno said they currently have family living in the capitol city of Kyiv. He describes one of his 94-year-old cousins having to take shelter.

“Every time there is an air raid, my (cousin) has to walk several miles to get into the shelter,” Pawlenko said.

“We are corresponding with many members of family in Ukraine and and we’re fearful that Putin might succeed, but my whole idea is try to do everything we can right now to avoid him doing it because communism is not good,” he went on to say.

He added that he is appreciative of the support for the Ukrainian people, but said what they really need is immediate help in the form of weapons, food and shelter, etc.

“They need that now. I don’t want us to wait a month and see if these sanctions work. A month is too late. Many people will die in that time period. We need something now,” he said.

Pawlenko said he is praying for peace for his home country that is still fighting for freedom so many decades later.

“The key point is to get Ukraine free again of what they were. If they’re taken over communists, goodbye, Ukraine. They will be slaves to the communistic regime and it’s not a pleasant situation to be in.”

Pawlenko said he and his family ended up in central Illinois after World War II. When he arrived in the United States he was 13 years old. Despite the language and learning barrier, he said in seven years time he was able to graduate from high school as valedictorian of his class.

“Every member in our family did well because all of us work hard. Everything we got was through a lot of hard work,” he said.

He is now retired and living in Prattville with his wife. He has two children and two grandchildren.

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