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The Villages
Sunday, July 3, 2022

Live Free or Die

To the Editor:

“We Fight To Survive” – Esther Stermer
In a town in Ukraine, knowing that the approaching army would kill all who were left and wipe their village off the face of the Earth, families made the unimaginable decision to gather their children and move underground.
They had witnessed the destruction of the invading army that had destroyed their homes. They had seen unarmed civilians – men, women and children – shot as they attempted to flee. With no where on earth to go, they moved underground.
Afraid, cold, thirsty, hungry – they huddled together in the dark. This wasn’t the first time their town had been destroyed. Russians had come before and destroyed their homes from 1939 to 1941. Then the Germans came. The year was 1943.
In 1943, Esther Stermer knew that the only hope for survival for her family was to hide in the Priest’s Cave outside Korolowka. Esther and her husband, Zaida, and six other families moved into the cave that would be their home for 511 days. Their village had been wiped off the Earth. Choosing to live free or die, Esther chose to “Fight to Survive.”
Today, in 2022, thousands of Ukrainian families have again sought shelter underground in Mariupol. This time Putin’s armies have forced desperate families to choose between living free or death. The Ukrainians echo the cry of those who have faced the same choices in defense of freedom: “Freedom or Death.”
Today the World watches as history again repeats itself. Russia’s bombs wipe countless villages and cities off the face of the Earth. As families try to escape, they are murdered. Evidence of torture is clear on numerous corpses left to rot in the streets. Once again, families have moved underground.
Afraid, cold, thirsty, hungry – thousands in Mariupol hiding underground plead with the World for safe extraction. They have no reason to trust the Russian army. Those who have been taken away have been forced to go to Russia or have “disappeared.” Others have simply been murdered.
The Ukrainian soldiers refuse to surrender. They understand that they fight to survive. Freedom or death. The words of John Stark, “live free or die,” echo today in Ukraine’s people fighting for democracy. Those who “Fight to Survive” underground in Mariupol understand Starks words: “Death is not the worst of evils.” Given the choice between Putin and Death, Ukrainians are choosing Death.
Putin has declared the total destruction of Mariupol as a success in the “liberation” of Ukraine. Mariupol has been wiped off the face of the earth along with numerous smaller villages in Eastern Ukraine. Thousands of Ukrainians still hide among the ruins waiting for death and pleading with the World to intervene. For tens of thousands, it is too late.
The end of this story hasn’t been written. However, time is running out. Are we doomed to repeat history or will we write a different ending?
Confronted at gunpoint by SS Officers who discovered Esther hiding in the cave, Esther asked: “What are you afraid of here?”
I have to ask the same of those who threaten our own freedoms in America. The freedom of all to “Live Free or Die.” How is your freedom threatened by those who do not worship as you choose, who do not look like you, who fall in love, who come for seasonal work to do jobs no one else will do, who speak a language other than English. “What are you afraid of here?”
America is a democracy founded in the belief that “all men are created equal.” We believe that all are created with inalienable rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” All. The only “crime” committed by the Ukrainians is that they are not Russian. They don’t speak Russian. They don’t worship in Putin’s church. They are “different.”
Today our Democracy is threatened by the same fear of people who are “different.” Are we, too, doomed to repeat history?
For those interested in the story of the survival of Esther Stermer’s family, please watch “No Place on Earth” or read her book: “We Fight to Survive.”

LaVonne Joyce
Village of Bonnybrook


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