The lyrics to “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” have been haunting me in recent days. Pete Seeger composed this classic folk song almost 70 years ago. Thanks to Wikipedia, I learned that the lines about going to war and leaving love behind were taken from a traditional Cossack folk song, “Koloda-Duda”; its Russian origin is certainly resonant at this heart-wrenching time of ongoing terror that Vladimir Putin unleashed more than a month ago.
Many folksingers have brought this antiwar message to audiences around the world. The simple refrains sadly have no timelines or geographic boundaries. I have sung these lyrics through decades where conflicts have raged, faraway and at home, holding hands with strangers in demonstrations protesting the Vietnam war, and swaying with friends during more recent outdoor summer concerts. “Long time ago” the chorus repeats; today we sing it tearfully again, as the devastation escalates once more, right now in Ukraine.
Seeger wrote this call for peace during a frightening period. He was being blacklisted because of his left-wing politics during the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s in this country. He had in mind czarist Russia and the young soldiers riding off to war on horseback, singing to keep their spirits high. Today the Russian soldiers traverse the snowy and muddy roads in tanks, and I imagine that there are no songs on their cracked lips or in their stony hearts. I listen to the lyrics on my iPhone, and I weep.
The cyclical lines about loss, love, war, and death end with “When will they ever learn?” That’s the question that pierces through every searing video image and every tragic news report. The answer eludes all the international leaders who are grappling with the daily dilemmas of this calamitous assault, and they confront another question that they cannot answer: “When will it ever end?” Night after night, we witness the destruction of Ukrainian cities, reduced to rubble, and the grievous suffering of so many millions of people, fleeing, seeking refuge, trapped, starving, and despite their sudden descent into hell, persevering and resolute.
It is springtime, the season of renewal, and daffodils and crocuses are bringing welcome color to our neighborhood lawns and city parks. Even in Ukraine, the trees that survive know that it is time for their buds to open.
There will be no one picking flowers there this season of destruction. The tulips have been crushed by twisted metal and plunging cement. In Kyiv and Kharkiv, the young girls are hiding underground, and all the young men have become soldiers, having learned overnight how to operate their weapons. Here at home, I purchased sunny daffodils for my Shabbat table last Friday, and I offered a woeful prayer for peace as I lit the candles.
Dr. Elaine Shizgal Cohen of Teaneck is a retired Jewish educator and an active community volunteer. She serves on the executive committee of Congregation Beth Sholom and leads Wise Aging groups.