Recently, the Danube Institute co-hosted an event with Helena History Press, where award-winning author Jaap Scholten was interviewed in front of a live audience. During the very first days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine over one and a half years ago, answering a call from one of his relatives who was married to a Ukrainian and whose family needed to be rescued, the Dutch author set off to go to Kyiv. Tangled up in the unfolding events of the war, he ended up making four trips to Ukraine—one shorter and three longer ones.
The recently released book that prompted the event, Three Bags of Ladies Clothes & a Sniper, is an account of his experiences from the first six months of the war.
At the beginning of the talk, which was attended by the Dutch ambassador to Hungary too, Jaap Scholten recalled stories of the times when he kept a boat always ready to escape to the UK in case the Soviet Union was ever to invade his country. The fear of Russia was instilled in him during his childhood and was also reaffirmed by his wife, who is the daughter of a Hungarian refugee of the 1956 Revolution. He opened his speech by outlining how this fear installed in him from both sides of his family was confirmed by what he saw during the first six months of the war.
Together with the interviewer, President of the Danube Institute John O’Sullivan, the author expressed his worries about the destruction caused by the Russian army, as well as the crimes committed on Ukrainian land since February 2022. Jaap Scholten found it important to highlight, however, that despite the horrible tragedies, there are still moments of happiness and joy in the lives of Ukrainians.
Scholten demonstrated Ukrainians’ effort of trying to stay sane and preserve their dignity even amidst dire circumstances by their commitment to maintaining beauty in their lives—women kept dressing nicely, and barber shops and beauty salons were open throughout his stay in Ukraine.
Scholten also witnessed an eagerness to marry in Ukraine ever since the beginning of the war.
He argued that the closeness of death encourages soldiers to find refuge in family. Nothing is more common, however, than funerals in the lives of Ukrainian families in these trying times. Scholten was shocked to observe, during his trips to Hungary’s eastern neighbour, the pride felt by some of the mothers and relatives of fallen soldiers for the effort and selflessness young soldiers demonstrated before making the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
One of the most fascinating stories about Scholten’s experiences was connected to a retired American marine, Neal.
Neal, who was travelling with him for over a week and kept in touch with him for an extended period of time, is an old US Marine, a former sniper. Neal is a religious man who was shocked by the sight of bombed hospitals in Ukraine, so went to the country to help people. Answering his humanitarian instincts, Neal joined Ukraine’s foreign legion to fight against the invasion.
As a sniper, he was on a mission to hunt down officials and high-ranking Russian military men. His most outstanding deed, argued Jaap Scholten, however, was to rescue a small, about six-days-old baby from a hospital in Mariupol. The audacious mission that happened on the frontlines was accomplished by three brave men—they carried the baby 300 kilometres (186 miles) away from the battle zone to find a safe place for the infant. The baby was later adopted by an American family, as the biological parents were killed in a bombing.
Jaap Scholten is a distinguished author well-known in Hungary, whose travel stories and novels have gained international recognition and were translated into multiple languages, including German, English, Croatian, and Hungarian. Scholten has been living in Hungary since 2003, and, as we wrote above, he is married to the daughter of a Hungarian refugee of the 1956 Revolution.
In one of his earlier books, Comrade Baron: A Journey through the Vanishing World of the Transylvanian Aristocracy, Jaap Scholten interviewed a series of former aristocrats from Transylvania to learn about their destiny under the hostile state socialist rule and beyond. For this book, he interviewed people who were followed by the Securitate, as well as people who were tortured by the secret police in Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Romania.