First they came for the activists, and I did not speak out: My voice for Ukraine

sunAs I was reading I am Malala: The girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb today, this quote got stuck in my head:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.The quote is attributed to Martin Niemöller and was targetted at the German intelligentsia who did not speak out against the Nazis as they were gaining power. Malala used this powerful quote to shed light on the situation in Pakistan from a few years back when the Taliban slowly and steadily gained momentum and everyone, or almost everyone, was afraid to speak out.

In my mind’s eye, I saw the protesters in Ukraine, fighting for their freedom on their own as the Western powers act cautiously so as not to anger Vladimir Putin. I thought of an extreme physical strain that they’re under (it’s way below freezing temperature in Ukraine now). I thought of their psychological wounds, since they’ve been standing at the Maidan Square and standing up for themselves and the future generations for over two months now. I thought of their aloneness on the world stage and how it seems similar to the aloneness of the Solidarity Movement in my native Poland in the 1980s– patted on the back but never physically backed by the Western powers.

Fighting alone for the national cause, as “history teaches. History teaches” is not an idea without merits. Poland’s history was derailed for almost fifty years because of the Russian “help.” It was initially meant to rid the country of the Nazis but then transmutated into a quasi occupation of Poland, sanctioned by the Ribentropp-Molotof Pact.

As Gertrude Stein’s refrain, “what history teaches. History teaches” echoes in the 21st century, we become the involuntary witnesses to the American help/intervention which is now tearing up Iraq into the state of ethnic violence.

So while the Ukrainian people are fighting for their own Freedom, all alone, they need all the support they can get from all over the world. Here is my version of Niemöller’s poem which, I hope, will count as one more voice in their support and struggle, and will speak for them, up and out:

First they came for the activists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not an activist.

Then they came for the wounded, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not wounded.

Then they came for the young boys and girls, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not one of them.

Then they came for any human who stood in their way–and there was the desert.

Ok, these last verses are just following the structure of the original poem and are doing the protesters no good. Here are the ones that set an optimistic tone, and future, for Ukraine:

Then they came for any human who stood in their way–and there was the world’s soothing cry for peace that disarmed them.

This I truly wish to any nation that has to struggle for its personal freedom.

Peace and Love!



Karo Caran, the Rainbow Poetess, is a poet and a non/fiction writer. Her novel, "Breaking the silence: A story in paintings" focuses on the censorship of art and gay relationships in the postwar, communist Poland. Her poetry-based memoir, "Life in a Footnotes" will be published this summer.
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16 thoughts on “First they came for the activists, and I did not speak out: My voice for Ukraine

  1. Hello Karo, Thank you for this post. I so agree that too often in the collective culture, we don’t speak out unless it affects us directly. But, my hope is that with the world becoming smaller, with immediate 24/7 news and information ready at the finger tips – more individuals will finally understand the power behind “I Am My Brother’s (and sister’s) Keeper”. -Peace & Blessings! -Phyllis

    • Hi Phyllis, you make a very good point– people have so much more access to information. But we as a global society/family need to ensure that people have access to different viewpoints. Sometimes the governments, such as Ukraine these days, are not showing the truth or even half-truth to it’s citizens.thankfully, there are independent media popping up!

  2. Really wonderful article! There is so much that we take for granted and neglect to speak out simply because it does not affect us. The discriminated against people with disability…. may a part to continue. Sorry for taking ownership of your poem. Just love it.

    • Absolutely, the poem could go on and on, and expose so many of our stereotypes, fears, and taboos… Who’s next in line to be “taken away”, “sacrificed,” “made invisible” …

  3. Karo, I have read this poem before. It resonates because there are so many struggles all over the world that seem to overwhelm. Because we are on the outside, we feel we can do nothing that would really make a difference. Your version and that last line especially, shows that a difference can be made. The release of positive energy/words into conflicts, might not bear fruit immediately … but like seeds they take root. You have spoken “up and out”.

    • Very beautifully said– things to take root when spoken forcefully/ with passion/ with empathy. Perhaps I am an optimist, but I believe that love and peace do win in the end, and especially now, in the age of Aquarius.

    • Thank you for your super kind words! And yes, the web is a great platform, perhaps a more dynamic one than the printed books or even pamphlets. From Iran to Ukraine, people use twitter and facebook to organize their peaceful protests

  4. Karo,
    Thank you for such an inspiring post and for reminding us all that we are all part of one family and that it’s important for us to support each other. I’d heard the poem before but it was really profound to have it relate to something that is happening now in the world. Very powerful! much love x

    • You are very welcome, Heather– I have to constantly keep reminding this to myself as well 🙂 it’s a work in progress and part of evolving

  5. Wow, Karo. I can tell this one won’t leave my consciousness quickly. It’s so true that it’s easier to remain silent when we see the problem as being owned by a certain group rather than a problem of how we humans treat each other.

    • Yeah, Susan– it was on my mind for a long time as well, the whole question of speaking out. Thankfully, and so unexpectedly, I was inspired by Malala’s wonderful book. We can never predict where our trigger/inspiration will come from, which is so wonderful– for it can come at any time… It can come now… 🙂

  6. You have made me so much more aware of the Ukrainian people than I ever would have been. This was very beautiful and somber. The world is so full of suffering and courage, and there are so many places where we need to respond with compassion and caring. Thank you for bringing a very deep topic and, as always, singing with your poetic voice.

  7. First they came for the ukrainians,
    But i was not an ukrainian so i did not say anything,

    Then they came for the Tatars,
    But i wasn’t a tatar either so i did not say anything,

    Then they came for me,
    But by then there was no one else to say anything.

    • Hey Zap,

      Thank you so much for your contribution– the poem is so universal and timeless, and really does apply to us all. Please feel free to share my blog post wherever it might help. Have a great day!- – Karo

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