The Quest for Freedom, From Ukraine to Ellis Island

With friends and intimates, we continue to talk of many things as we go about our daily lives. But those lives don’t feel quite the same as they did just two weeks ago, because our world no longer feels the same.

Barely under the surface of most every interaction, every move hither and yon tending to errands, exercise, shopping excursions and, poetically a couple of mornings ago, our first view of a newborn gifted by posterity to young friends, there looms the specter, the worry, the hope, for some sliver of good news from the battle unto death the Ukrainian people are currently waging against the Putin invaders.

It is a battle, make no mistake, that they are waging on behalf of us all.

Perhaps it is our own vulnerability, among other factors, that seems to be weighing most on us as we tiptoe toward a spring that may be delayed severely for our Ukrainian brothers and sisters, or perhaps never experienced at all if the madman in Moscow continues to pursue his program of obliteration and conquest as nearly the entire world looks on in revulsion.

To one such as him, people are mere poker chips stacked in a large pile, over which he peers while calculating the potential effects of his next bluff.

Denied a quick crushing of an outgunned opposition and stung by near immediate and universal condemnation, Vladimir Putin has only escalated his criminal incursion, his carefully honed machismo and army’s ostensible power revealed as facades. Lamentably, this makes him all the more a menace as he seeks to save face not only with himself, but more importantly for his own dark concerns, with those who may seize the opportunity to oust him at the first hint of his true shrunken stature in the viper’s den of The Kremlin. 

And if he senses nowhere to turn, his calculations could lead him to the furthest catastrophic reaches of total war, him against the world and its people in a final show of the disdain he has always felt for them.

Anyone who is not concerned with that possibility is simply not paying close enough attention to the situation we have been thrust into since February 24, when Russian tanks rolled over the country’s shared border with Ukraine.



I took the above photograph a week ago Wednesday and have drifted back to it many times since. It seems to have served as a personal bulwark of sorts, bringing home to me in rich symbolic form just what is at stake as the suffering of the Ukrainian people at the hands and under the bombs of Putin’s military entered its third week.

The setting for the photo was the ferry going from Battery Park at the southern end of Manhattan Island out to the Statue of Liberty and then Ellis Island.

As we neared the statue, I looked behind me from my seat near the front of the boat to behold the startling and heart-gladdening sight of virtually all my fellow passengers, most of them substantially younger and of various ethnicities, colors and hues, crowding the deck cheek by jowl, their necks straining, eyes cast attentively upward, one or both hands lifting their phones high in the air to capture an image that is freely available on a thousand different Internet sites and in countless postcard racks one can still find in tourist shops all over Manhattan.

But this was their shot, with their camera, reflecting their active viewing and framing of an iconic, universally recognized symbol of human freedom, compassion and grace, and no one was going to get them to settle for a postcard.

The sense of beholding something hallowed and suffused with meaning was palpable on that deck, made all the more so for all of us, I suspect, by the ferocious battle for freedom that we knew the Ukrainians were waging that very moment and in all the moments since.

It was a sight and a feeling I will never forget.


After disembarking to walk around and inside Lady Liberty, we boarded another ferry for the short hop to Ellis Island, the federal immigration service center through which 12 million people from all over the world were admitted to the United States from 1892-1954.

It was my second visit to the island. The first had been exactly 70 years to the day earlier, March 2, 1952.

That’s when the Hidas family churned into New York Harbor, adding five members to the ledger of those 12 million souls seeking a glimpse of the statue (“Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”) before disembarking for a series of nerve-wracking medical screenings and questionnaires to determine whether we were fit to become Americans.

Seventy years later, I found myself in the large processing hall where every new arrival had been shuffled along from station to station for their paperwork review. We were there at day’s end, the late winter sun pouring in through the western windows, the hall nearly empty and hushed. I stood at one end for a long time, imagining my parents in the same spot, waiting, following the directives of immigration officials, three young children in tow, not a penny in their pockets or purse, my father not knowing any English, my mother possessing only what she had learned in high school.

They had come to a new land at 33 and 26 years old, headed for New Jersey, where a distant cousin of my father’s, whom he had never met, awaited us with his wife in a one-bedroom apartment for a stay of unknown duration, until my father could find a job. (He eventually did—two of them, actually, making for 16-hour days at minimum wage—enough to later snag us an exceedingly modest walk-up flat in the city of Woodbridge.)

I was an 8-month-old baby swaddled in my mother’s arms, my brother having just turned 4 and my sister barely shy of 7.

I have thought much over the years and even written in this space about that journey, my parents having fled their native Hungary as a previous Russian autocrat, Joseph Stalin, assumed control of Hungary in the waning days of World War II and soon consolidated his power to claim the country within his “sphere of influence.”

My parents spent those intervening seven years between war’s end and our arrival in America bouncing around as displaced persons in a ravaged but quickly rebuilding Germany (courtesy of the Marshall Plan), waiting for an immigration lottery number to the fabled USA to come up in their favor.

In 1956, four years after our arrival in the U.S., a subsequent Soviet dictator, Nikita Khrushchev, responded to a Hungarian uprising for freedom by sending tanks into Budapest, crushing the incipient revolution in a mere four days. (The Hungarians were not nearly as well-armed or supported by foreign powers as the Ukrainians are today.)

Some 2,700 Hungarians and 700 Russian troops died before it was over, with 200,000 Hungarians managing to flee before the Iron Curtain slammed shut again. My aunt—my dad’s older sister—and her family were not among them, so they were forced to live under Russian domination until the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1989.

And now one man is trying to reconstruct those dark days, raining bombs and rockets indiscriminately on often defenseless civilian targets in order to defenestrate a sovereign country, declare its identity null and void, and make it his own.

There seems to be a recurring motif here.



Almost as bad is what he is doing to his own country, trying to roll back the world historical timeline decades if not centuries, inviting the wreckage of its economy and its utter isolation from the civilized world.

And as a particularly cynical coup de grace, injecting it with ceaseless propaganda amidst tightly controlled media access. This living dystopian nightmare is sure to beget a nation of either would-be defectors or zombies unfit for the challenges of modern society—with one towering, menacing exception: possession of the world’s largest nuclear stockpile.

Given that in his incursions to date Putin has already gone far beyond civilized norms and painted himself into a dark and desperate corner, it would be folly to think he wouldn’t consider risking a much larger conflagration in order complete his subjugation of Ukraine.

Certainly the death of millions of his own people would not trouble him in the least—this is but one advantage of an autocrat without conscience, compassion, or capacity for remorse. To one such as him, people are mere poker chips stacked in a large pile, over which he peers while calculating the potential effects of his next bluff.

Meanwhile, he has a large and no doubt unexpected problem on his hands: the utter ferocity and endurance of the Ukrainian people in defense of their homeland and the freedom they cherish more than their lives.

Their stout defense is real to its core, paid for with lives and livelihoods on the line, not manufactured like the junk grievances that so often punctuate political debate when there’s nothing of true substance to lose.

In these agonizing days, Ukrainians are showing the world what true patriotism and integrity are.

Still: as constrained and fraught as the political stakes are for the world order, the western alliance may not be able to offer enough assistance to help Ukraine stave off the invaders—at least for now. This is the tragedy of the large chessboard that is nuclear age geopolitics, and the tightropes rational actors must walk when confronted with opponents who may be willing to toss rationality to the winds.

What we do know, or at least have been powerfully reminded of in recent weeks, is that the world remains a dangerous place, as it always has been. Freedom is, indeed, never free, nor able to be claimed with mere slogans and sneering rhetoric.

Sadly, but hardly surprisingly judging from history, the world will always will be populated by enough bad actors to require eternal vigilance by the forces of good, and strong enough leaders to recognize evil when it appears, tirelessly call it out, and rally an honestly informed population that can band together to forcefully repel it in the service of the freedoms it holds dear.

Without that resolve, the risk is very real that humanity’s best days are behind it, with a future too dark and oppressive for words.



Check out this blog’s public page on Facebook for 1-minute snippets of wisdom and other musings from the world’s great thinkers and artists, accompanied by lovely photography.

Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact:

Statue of Liberty by Alexander Barreto

Ferry and Ellis Island hall by Andrew Hidas

Ukraine flag hand by Elena Mozhvilo, Ukraine

Poker chips by Steve Mohundro, Seattle, Washington

11 comments to The Quest for Freedom, From Ukraine to Ellis Island

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    When Claire and I visited the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island in 2019, we both had a similar feeling of awe and respect for the hardships that so many families endured in their journeys to come to a country where they hoped to find a new and more promising life. While walking around the Statue of Liberty was a moving experience, I found my steps through the halls of Ellis Island with its thousands of often faded, black and white photos more emotive than my lap around its more iconic companion piece. A photo called “Hungarian Gypsies” made me think of your family again. I recalled the times talking track with your dad, tasting some your mom’s Hungarian dishes or spending more than a few hours watching Pete clear 6”5” in the high jump. Now, the images of the Ukrainians fleeing the onslaught of Russian tanks and indiscriminate bombings rekindle memories of why those Ellis Island photos resound so emotionally with me to this very day. They’re all about hope and promise. All of Putin’s military might won’t be able to can’t crush these feelings from the Ukrainian people. He can’t beat that down.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      It’s interesting thinking about the two sites, pretty much joined at the hip as they are but eliciting different moods or tones, yes? Hadn’t really thought about them in tandem before, but I can see where the Lady, in the shape of a person, with a face & eyes, et al, may have more direct and dramatic impact, whereas Ellis, mere buildings, wouldn’t so much—until one lets the imagination roam a bit and considers all that happened there, all the lives & hopes shaped and renewed in such profound ways. Thanks for the prompt to think about this, and very glad you enjoyed Mom’s goulash!

  • Kevin Feldman  says:

    Beautifully rendered post my friend, loved the picture from the ferry! As we all agonize over watching the slow but steady genocidal war being waged on Ukraine I can’t help but think there must be something more substantial the West can do to protect the Ukrainian people. While most military and political experts are unequivocal in their stance against a no fly zone, I see where a pretty impressive group of 27 former state department and military experts have sent Biden a letter making the case for limited no fly zone. What is your take on this? My initial response was of course not, but the more I think about it seems like a gamble possibly worth taking which might allow the Ukrainians a chance at holding on…

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Thanks for this, Kevin. Thought about writing of that very matter, but then figured I’d leave it to the talking head analysts! But since you asked…

      The short answer to your question: I don’t know.

      And now for the long answer:

      I think we have to start with the key question looming behind yours: Are we willing to risk a nuclear war in order to stop this slaughter that will likely reach ugly new heights (or more accurately, depths) of brutality with each passing day? Certainly Putin has tried to warn us off by making a quite direct reference to that early in the war (“…Russia’s response will be immediate. And it will lead you to such consequences that you have never encountered in your history…”)

      Now: was he bluffing? The Soviet chess champion Garry Kasparov recently said of Putin: “He plays poker, not chess. Poker is about bluffing when you have a weak hand.” But do we feel in position to test that in order to save Ukraine from near certain at least short-term destruction? (They may make life miserable for Putin with a long-term insurgency, but in the shorter term, many of the potential insurgents will have been killed, and their cities destroyed.)

      Difficult and perhaps as impossible as it may become to stand by helplessly as a free and friendly country is overrun, the risk of intervening more directly is that many millions of people the world over—actually, pretty much the entire world population in one form or other—will suffer from hardship if not annihilation were the nukes to start flying. Could even one “tactical” nuclear strike be contained in a tit for tat exchange? Do we want to find out?

      Back to Putin as poker player here. He’s a gambler—are we willing to gamble in return against a man who cares not a whit about the destruction of millions of people, with him figuring—accurately, I think—that that just makes his hand all the stronger?

      And yet, what are the costs of not directly challenging this atrocity—of not finally drawing a line in the sand and saying, “No farther.” One seeming immediate cost: the ultimate destruction of Ukraine as we know it. Can we stand by and watch that happen? And will it be enough for Putin, or merely encourage him to swallow Latvia or Estonia next? Both of those being NATO nations, we are obligated by treaty to come to their direct defense, but applying the same logic of not risking nuclear war, would we, really and immediately? Would Putin think we would? (Although given the quagmire he’s made of his Ukraine venture, I doubt he could stretch himself anytime soon for more conquests.)

      I think the concept of a “limited” no-fly zone has a lot of potential merit, but the conditions & constraints would have to be laid out in crystal clear fashion—a combination of restraint and resoluteness based on humanitarian grounds: That the world simply cannot and will not abide wholesale slaughter of non-combatants and their cities in an unprovoked war. If the civilized world can’t stop it now, in this egregious of an incursion, then when? BUT: if Putin responds, “I’ll shoot you down and BTW, I have these nukes and I’m crazy…”

      Then what? This is why I think we’re at such a dangerous moment, and none of us should fool ourselves that the world at large doesn’t share that danger. It is easily akin to the Cuban Missile Crisis, but with many more nukes and nuclear powers in play, and a much more lethal and power-mad guy in charge at The Kremlin than Khrushchev was.

      So I guess at the end of all this I would say: I still don’t know! And I’m pretty certain that view is shared rather widely in the foreign policy establishment, and that this subject is being discussed and burdening the consciences of Biden Administration officials nonstop. Glad I get to go hiking today instead of jabbering on hotlines…

  • Kevin Feldman  says:

    Thanks Andrew, a thoughtfully detailed analysis! Yet, we are left in the horrible position of watching this dance of death continue unabated… who would have ever thought we would be longing for a mellow level headed Russian leader like “Mr bang his shoe/we will bury you” Nikita Khrushchev!!?? Your suggestion of going hiking sounds like a good one.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Maybe, but I’m not certain about that, either! Depends on our capacity to endure the carnage brought into our living rooms every nite. Witnessing it in Vietnam and Afghanistan, it caused us to recoil and demand an end to our own involvement. But here, it could work the other way, because this is no indigenous force with any kind of claim on the territory. It’s just an invader, so it’s not the least bit complicated morally—only strategically. At a deeper level, I suppose one could say it’s morally ambiguous because our intervention risks many more people dying, but then where does one draw that line—it’s OK to kill a few million Ukrainians and subjugate its entire population, but you’d better keep your hands off Moldova? Conundrums galore…

  • Ruth Stierna  says:

    Andrew: You have written what I believe is true. I also cannot express in words my fear for the future of humanity.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Yes, Ruth, we seem to be at a kind of inflection point, don’t we? (Although many such points have preceded ours, so perhaps I should amend that to “another” inflection point…)

      You also put me in mind of the “great (hu)man theory” of history—that particularly towering individuals are what move the world. I think it’s usually applied to those who have a positive, transforming influence, but it strikes me that the Ukraine invasion brings into sharp relief the reality that especially in the nuclear age, one bad and evil person can have an outsized, destructive influence without even mobilizing huge armies in years-long campaigns. Just a few instructions and pushes of various buttons to unleash a reign of terror the likes of which, in Putin’s own words, “has never been seen.”

      Dismal, real, challenging. I’m glad Zelensky is stepping up into great manhood, and I found it deeply affecting that in this morning’s speech to Congress, he suggested this is a moment for our own president to do the same. What such a gesture might look like is, I’m sure, the subject of furious discussions in the White House and beyond as I type these words…

      • Jay Helman  says:

        I too am very uncertain about the “no fly zone” issue. When President Biden says,that this would mean WWIII I fear that he is correct and, as you have so cleary pointed out, do we really want to bet that Putin is bluffing when the stakes for the entire planet are so high? My hope has been that the sanctions would place Putin in such a corner with his own people that he would necessarily need to change course and desist in Ukraine. That hope has now faded and I join everyone else in being perplexed as to the most effective course of action. Perhaps we need to deploy Tucker Carlson to Moscow to negotiate with his buddy Vladimir. ( I just could not resist!)

        • Jay Helman  says:

          I’m returning to this post 24 hours later, having given it more thought and experiencing a personal epiphany listening to NPR. Further reflection on the question of more aggressive U.S. action v Putin led me to think about the nature of our commitment to NATO. I’ve heard other NATO leaders express WWIII concerns if a no-fly -zone strategy were adopted. This led me to further understand Biden’s, and US government dilemma. If our allies fear the worst from Putin if more aggressive actions were taken, it seems important that the US honor those concerns no matter the cost to those being invaded. If we want to be more aggressive with Putin it is incumbent upon Biden to convince our allies to take the plunge and accept the risks with us. This is, of course, a complicated matter. My personal epiphany regarding yesterday’s post was this. Listening to Senators shamelessly posturing and airing personal grievances while during SCOTUS confirmation hearings made me humbly (and embarrassingy) realize that my snarky and unhelpful comment about Tucker Carlson not only added nothing to the conversation, it brought a thoughtful, well articulated series of posts downstream in a tasteless expression of my own frustrations that added nothing. For that I apologize.

          • Andrew Hidas  says:

            Jay, I’ve been beholding Ketanji Brown Jackson’s preternatural restraint in remaining calm and courteous under the truly vile and cynical assault of questioning from senators insinuating she plays cozy with murderers and child molesters and wants to empty the prisons. You know—the kind of restraint that Brett Kavanaugh exhibited…(Whoops, there I go!)

            Sometimes it seems to require superhuman restraint to avoid snarkiness in the face of such violently dishonest times, with a large cadre of senators shamelessly prattling on about values, decency and the rule of law while grotesquely twisting Brown Jackson’s exemplary life and career and aggressively backing another White House run for the value-free, criminal insurrectionist who still leads their party. Calling all that hypocrisy out isn’t snarky—it’s necessary if we are ever to have a decent, functional Republican Party, which currently does not exist outside the confines of a few brave souls shouting in the Red State wilderness.

            I guess the question is how we do so, and how we critique effectively without resorting to unhelpful snark and vitriol. Maybe by further studying the likes of Brown Jackson, with sides of the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela?

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