Gina Christian

The other day, while dashing into the supermarket, I saw an older man pacing pensively outside the entrance, his eyes fixed on his cell phone. As I approached, I overheard a phrase or two from the video he was watching, which seemed to be in Ukrainian, a language I’m slowly trying to learn.

In response to my inquiry, the man (who was actually the store’s security guard) proudly affirmed he was indeed Ukrainian, and then asked a question of me.

“The Russian troops invading Ukraine are marked with the letter Z,” he said. “Do you know what it means?”

I’d actually read a few articles speculating on the origins and significance of the mysterious symbol, which has of late appeared on everything from Russian tanks to T-shirts in Moscow. Although the letter doesn’t occur in either the Russian or the Ukrainian alphabet, the Russian Defense Ministry has posted social media graphics featuring the cryptic “Z”, which many analysts believe is a deliberately vague, state-sponsored creation to rally Russian support for that country’s latest invasion of Ukraine, a sovereign nation it has assaulted since 2014.

But after I’d offered this information, the Ukrainian man shook his head sadly, his eyes misting.

“I know what ‘Z’ means,” he said. “I’ve seen it before – in Sachsenhausen.”

He then explained that he’d once traveled to the infamous concentration camp, now a memorial site and museum near Berlin. Between 1936 and 1945, more than 200,000 were interned there – Jews, Sinti, Roma, Nazi opponents and prisoners of war among them. An estimated 30,000 to 50,000 were killed in Sachsenhausen, many in the infamous “Station Z,” an extermination unit built in 1942. With its gas chamber, execution area and four crematorium ovens, the sector was named for the final letter of the Roman alphabet to signify the end of prisoners’ lives.

“The Russians want to kill us Ukrainians, just like the Nazis,” whispered the supermarket security guard in disbelief. “And the world isn’t doing enough to stop them.”

I had no words – and hours later, no breath, as I scanned images from BBC News and Associated Press (AP) journalists documenting atrocities in Bucha, a northern suburb of Kyiv. 

Civilians lay lifeless in the streets, shot at close range with their hands tied behind their backs. A woman’s pallid hand protruded from the dirt of a shallow mass grave. Other bodies, including that of a child, had been piled up and burned; one figure’s arms were “raised in supplication, the face contorted in a horrible scream,” the AP reported.

And all under a symbol that, in the words of Ukraine foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba, has come to mean “Russian war crimes, bombed out cities, (and) thousands of murdered Ukrainians,” even as Russian officials dismiss the Bucha massacre as a “staged provocation” by Ukraine.

“We are being destroyed and exterminated,” said Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, speaking to a U.S. news program. “And this is happening in Europe of the 21st century.”

Ironically, anywhere from 11,000 to 18,000 Soviet prisoners of war were shot at Sachsenhausen, a large number of them just months prior to the construction of Station Z. Now, their post-Soviet countrymen have embraced a symbol that once signaled the doom of their forbears.

The blood spilled daily in Ukraine shows we’re in dire need of a history lesson, as well as a refresher on the alphabet itself.

Biblical Greek serves as the best starting point. May the Lord Jesus Christ, “the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Rev 22:13), have mercy on us – and deliver Ukraine and humanity from an evil spelled out all too clearly.

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Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com, host of the Inside CatholicPhilly.com podcast and author of the forthcoming book “Stations of the Cross for Sexual Abuse Survivors.” Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina