Russia-Ukraine Crisis

My Grandma Survived WWII. The War in Ukraine Is Making Her Relive Her Trauma

Prior to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, I didn't realize how much trauma my grandma still struggled with from her childhood in Nazi-occupied France.

I don’t know what I expected to hear when I called my grandma a year ago to convince her to use her CPAP machine at night, but it wasn’t this. Wearing the plastic mask over her nose and mouth is supposed to treat her sleep apnea, but instead, it brings back memories of her childhood in Maxéville, France, during World War II. When she wakes up with the device on her face, she feels like her father's forcing her to wear a gas mask in case the Nazis return all over again.

That trauma she experienced over eight decades ago is the reason she must now limit her news intake, as the war in Ukraine continues to dominate coverage.

“It’s better I don’t look because I get very upset. But ... I still like to know what’s going on,” she told me.

Reliving World War II

“When I hear the sirens, I remember we had to run to the shelter because the Germans were coming,” my grandma, 88, recalled. “I didn’t want to get up because I was a kid, and my father didn’t want me to get hurt, so he took my mattress on his back, and we went to the shelter, the coal mines.”

Sometimes multiple times a week, the sirens would go off in the middle of the night. Her father would grab her mattress for her to sleep on at the shelter, the rest of her family would gather what little food they had, and they’d run. When they arrived at the cold, wet mines, they didn't know if they'd ever leave.

More than 2.8 million people have evacuated Ukraine since Russia's invasion began, and 1.7 million have taken refuge in Poland, Ukraine's western neighbor. Poland is trying to disperse the large crowds by adding more train routes heading west into Europe, like to Germany and the Czech Republic. But as Jay Gray shows you from the Polish-Ukrainian border region, many people want to stay near Ukraine in case they need to go back, or catch up with relatives who haven't crossed yet.

“We were there in those mines sometimes two, three days,” she told me. “It’s scary, too, because the Germans could come close the door, and we could die in there.”

That memory was triggered when she heard about Ukrainians seeking shelter in subway stations.

“Those things mark you when you are a kid, when you have to run, and you don’t know if you’re going to make it or if they’re going to bombard you,” she said. “It helps to talk about it though, I think. Everybody is different though.”

Understanding Her Trauma 

Over eight decades later, the traumatic memories of her war-torn childhood are still present in my grandma's mind — something the 1.5 million children fleeing the violence in Ukraine will have to cope with, too. My grandma remembers Nazi soldiers entering her house and tearing her room apart, looking for ammunition or guns under her bed, and the pain in her feet because the Nazis only allowed civilians to buy one pair of shoes a year. 

I asked Dr. Aditi Nerurkar, an expert on stress and resilience and a physician at Harvard University, and Dr. Manuel Carballo, executive director of the International Center of Migration, Health and Development, how the brain processes triggers like those my grandmother experienced while watching Russia invade Ukraine.

“Trauma isn’t uncommon. It’s just not really well recognized, and particularly in the elderly because it’s a vulnerable population,” said Nerurkar, who has worked in refugee health with the World Health Organization. “They watch this news, and they see this happening, and they're almost reliving it again, the same sense of heightened emotions and fear.”

“Every video, image, tweet or post ... they all have a direct impact on our brain and our body and the stress response and the neurotransmitters,” she added.

The news isn’t the only thing that can trigger trauma. For many, it’s just the start.

“There will be smells and sights that will bring back terrible memories of what they’ve gone through,” said Carballo, who was born in a refugee camp. “There will be names that they hear that will bring back memories that they don’t want to have.”

Because mental health wasn't taken seriously much before the Vietnam War, according to Carballo, doctors and scientists still have many questions about how the brain processes trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“Many people may simply withdraw, many people lose appetite, many people will cry unexpectedly, many people will not be able to sleep, and all of these things will hinder their physical health, as well as their mental health,” Carballo said.

More than 1 million people have evacuated Ukraine, and some refugees have been killed by Russian military strikes that hit common evacuation routes. That has renewed calls for humanitarian corridors out of Ukrainian cities. Meanwhile Ukraine's western neighbor, Poland, is seeing huge crowds at community centers and train stations near the border. As these crowds grow bigger, officials' plans to help can only extend so far, NBC News' Jay Gray reports.

Starting to Heal

Both Nerurkar and Carballo agree that older survivors of war experiencing trauma due to the invasion of Ukraine must talk about their experiences to begin healing.

“Remind them that their horror has long since passed. Remind them that they live in a situation now of relative safety and well-being,” said Carballo. “Show them that they’re loved, that there is genuine empathy, not sympathy but empathy, and understanding of what they went through.”

Nerukar added: “You can’t understand the depth of someone's suffering or pain unless you talk about it. Let them know first they are not alone, to know they have help and support in their family and to potentially seek psychological support and professional counseling.”

Although my grandma tries to forget what she's been through, she said our conversations have helped her process her emotions and memories.

“Nobody gets it, only the ones who went through it,” she told me. “That’s why I feel for those people [in Ukraine]. I really do. I pray for them every day.”