A Welcome Steeped in History: Ukrainian Refugees Arrive in Germany

BERLIN — After an anxious eight-day journey fleeing a war that has since swallowed his hometown in eastern Ukraine, the welcome as he stepped off a train at Berlin Central Station felt faintly surreal to 15-year-old Dima Chornii.

The yellow-vested volunteers with name and language tags handing out steaming cups of tea. The uniformed station employees issuing free tickets for onward travel. The piles of clothes and shoes, neatly stacked by gender and age. The beaming Berliners who had turned up with hand-drawn signs offering rooms and beds to exhausted refugees.

And then there was the elderly German lady who walked up to Dima, pressed a 100 euro bill (about $109) into his hand, tears streaming down her cheek, and said, “Welcome.”

“She made it real,” said Dima, who was standing by Platform 3, his hands on two large suitcases, his eyes on his 7-year-old sister as they waited for their parents to return with tickets. “We were finally safe.”

The images of Ukrainian refugee families being welcomed with an outpouring of help from ordinary Germans shares echoes of the early days of the 2015-2016 migrant crisis, when hundreds of thousands of refugees from wars in Syria and Afghanistan found safe haven in Germany. There was some backlash within Germany, but it subsided, the country gave asylum to far more people than its neighbors — more than one million — and the resettlement is now widely regarded as a success. It was a moment of redemption for the country that had committed the Holocaust.

But if the images are familiar, they are enhanced not just by the geographic proximity of the present war but by the memory of Germany’s Nazi past, when it brutalized both Russia and Ukraine.

A woman offers accommodation for a Ukrainian refugee at Berlin’s central train station on Thursday.Credit…Annegret Hilse/Reuters

That history was present in conversations at the train station on Friday. In 1945, Dima’s great-grandfather made the same trip west — as a soldier in the Soviet Red Army. He died fighting to take Berlin from the Nazis less than a week before the end of World War II.

“It’s an irony of history,” Dima said. History was one of his favorite subjects in school. “But,” he added, “the Germans are a changed people.”

Over one million Ukrainian refugees have fled Russian rockets and tanks in recent days and many have chosen to stay in neighboring Poland, close to the homes they hope to return to one day and to the fathers and sons they had to leave behind.

But for those continuing their journey west, Germany is next. Just over a week into the war, Berlin has become a major hub for refugees from Ukraine, some traveling on, others eager to settle here. The numbers have surged in recent days. On Monday, the city administration reported finding beds for some 350 refugees. On Friday, more than 10,000 arrived in the German capital by train and bus, and city authorities are bracing for more.

Several buses carrying 120 Jewish children from Odessa, many of them orphaned, were among those arriving on Friday in Berlin, where they were welcomed by the Jewish organization Chabad Berlin and put up in a hotel. The youngest was only born in January.

“We have to be prepared that this is the biggest movement of people Europe faces since the end of World War II,” said Katja Kipping, minister of social affairs in Berlin’s regional administration. “We’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg.”

The mobilization of volunteers and donations has been swift and remarkable. Across Germany, volunteers have set up websites and special channels on social media to streamline the help in areas from transport to translation. The number of Berliners offering to help has been so great that volunteers are being turned away.

In the earlier crisis, Germany stood apart from most of its neighbors in opening its doors to refugees, a stance that was used by the far right to create a powerful backlash and political headache for the chancellor at the time, Angela Merkel. But in welcoming the wave of Ukrainians — fellow Europeans and mostly Christian, unlike the Syrians — Germany now has plenty of company, with Poland and Hungary, usually vehemently anti-immigrant, among those taking the lead.

German support is taking many unexpected forms. Berlin, famous for its clubbing scene, is using the reopening of night clubs this weekends after weeks of Covid-related closures as a fund-raiser under the motto “Club culture united — Stand up for Ukraine.”

At the train station, dozens of tired-looking families stepped off a train from Warsaw and were escorted by volunteers to the lower level of Berlin’s main station, which has been repurposed as a makeshift welcome area with food, clothes and medical supplies. Stalls decorated in blue and yellow, the Ukrainian national colors, were overflowing with donations, everything from baby food to shaving foam.

A train from Warsaw arriving in Berlin on Wednesday.Credit…Hannibal Hanschke/Getty Images

At one of those stalls, Varvara Borodkina, a 25-year-old Russian urban planner who has lived in Berlin for three years, was helping newly arrived refugees navigate the different lanes of support: transport, accommodation, supplies. She has family in both Russia and Ukraine.

“The people of Russia and Ukraine are not at war,” she said.

A few feet behind her, Alexander Reddies, a retiree, was handing out water bottles and toys to children. He had watched the television news on Tuesday night and seen the images of refugee families arriving in Berlin. The next morning, he reported as a volunteer at the station.

“I saw the eyes of the children and it touched me to the core,” Mr. Reddies said. “I decided I needed to do something. These are refugees from war — in Europe.”

Only eight days had passed since the invasion, but it felt like a lifetime ago, Dima said.

A phone call woke them in the early hours of Feb. 24. His older brother called from the United States and told them: “You are at war.” His father turned on the television and watched Russian tanks roll into Ukraine less than 600 kilometers away.

That same night they packed up and left. His hometown, Kherson, has since fallen to the Russians.

Dima Chornii, 15, on the right, with his parents Andreij and Tanya and his 7-year-old sister, Vlada, at Berlin’s main station on Friday.Credit…Katrin Bennhold/The New York Times

They pulled into Berlin on the birthday of his mother, Tanya. She turned 35.

At lunchtime on Friday, Dima and his family left Berlin on a train to Erfurt, a city in central Germany, where they have Ukrainian friends who settled here three decades ago after the fall of Communism. They expect to be in Germany for at least a year. Eventually, they hope to emigrate to the United States, where his aunt lives.

Before the train pulled into the station, Dima’s father, Andreij, pulled out his cellphone to show pictures from Kherson: the family in a restaurant, at a concert in a bar. A snapshot from Valentine’s Day less than a month ago, when he and Tanya were having champagne on a Black Sea beach.

“This was normal life in Ukraine,” Andreij said. Then he shared one final image, of his wife on the day they left, black smoke billowing up behind her.

“Our home is gone,” he said. “Now the Europeans and Americans need to stop Putin so he stops at Ukraine.”

A banner in support of Ukraine hangs at the German Theatre in Berlin on Thursday.Credit…John Macdougall/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

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