I made it to the hometown of my forefathers. My biological mother’s family. It’s here in Ukraine. It’s been a long, labyrinthine road to travel from Salem, Oregon to Vancouver, British Columbia to Villa Pigna, Italy to Alba Adriatica, Italy to Krakow, Poland to Warsaw, Poland and now to these dots on the world map.
Today we finally arrived in the tiny communities of Olesko, Kuty and Rozwaz here in Ukraine. This entire area for tens of thousands of square miles is also known as Galicia.
My brother is here with his girlfriend, Marina. We rented a town car and driver from their hotel, Leopolis in Lviv, and began the ninety-minute drive due east to these villages. I had been told that Olesko is a decent-sized city of 50,000 people and that Kuty and Rozwaz were quite small. As it turns out, Olesko is only marginally larger than the other two–Kuty with 300 and Rozwaz with 2,000.
No matter. The drive was pleasant in our luxury accommodations and we watched the rich farmland whiz by our window as we sped along the highway. The main road was in excellent condition and we all talked about what potentially awaited us.
The trip went by much more quickly than I anticipated. Before long we were taking the turn-off. Even I, with my wretched Ukrainian language skills, was able to decipher the Cyrillic lettering on the sign indicating “Olesko”.
In the distance we saw Olesko Castle, the primary landmark in an otherwise nondescript agricultural area. Quite an imposing structure, this medieval castle was built during the 14th century and is located on a hilltop. When we entered Olesko, we decided to hit this tourist site first and get it out of the way. It was 10:30 and the doors opened at 11:00 so we kept going to Kuty, about two miles away.
The road from Olesko to Kuty lived up to the reputation of many Ukrainian roads, but we made it without bottoming out the Town Car. Kuty defied description. “Village” seemed to be too generous of a term for this small collection of homes. Many of the homes were very old and resembled the photos I’d seen of poor rural areas living under the Soviet system.
The fences and the houses seemed to be poorly maintained. Two cemeteries for one tiny burg representing a dying population, beckoned with possibilities for my research. In our elegant Town Car we passed a horse-drawn wagon driven by two men with something I couldn’t quite make out in the back.
Our driver, Andrey, had asked me what I specifically wanted. Since I considered this trip a fact-finding tour, I really couldn’t tell him so I said whatever popped into my head, “194 Kuty”. This had been the address of my maternal grandfather according to the documents I had found in Warsaw. Peering at these houses, we really didn’t see anything that resembled street numbers. Andrey stopped the car in front of a tiny bungalow and walked up to an old man in the driveway.
Engaging the elderly homeowner in conversation, Andrey found out for us that there was no 194 Kuty from what this man knew. Indeed, there were no addresses, period. Over the decades many of the homes had been bombed or destroyed from purges and wars. Too, the town contained only aging pensioners now. No one was interested in claiming old houses in a dying town. However, he pointed us to the church and suggested we speak to the priest.
Driving up to the wood-built church, a priest in a cassock emerged and looked at us quizzically. We got out and Andrey began speaking to him in Ukrainian. The priest was a little smaller than either my brother or I with short-cropped hair and a fit build. His eyes brightened when he found that we were from the West, seeking our ancestors. Smiling, he beckoned us to enter the church.
We walked into the church and stepped back in time to the mid 1600’s. The church was built in 1635 and had been ransacked by the Communists. The parishioners had beseeched the Ukrainian government for funds to refurbish the building but to no avail. An offering box with a slot for money sat near an altar. My brother and I both slid a handful of bills into the box to help preserve our heritage.
This church, the Greek Catholic Church, was the church my grandfather, Teodor (Theodore) Bakun would have attended as a resident of Kuty. Since most of the area was either Roman Catholic or Russian Orthodox, there would be no other Greek Catholic church around.
The church looked to us to be in quite good shape. It was very ornate with statuary and many of the requisite hand-stitched doilies, tablecloths and window coverings so prevalent in this particular culture. Altars, candlesticks and icons were everywhere. The “sanctuary” probably accommodated thirty people. The priest told us he had around one hundred attendees during the masses every Sunday. Everyone attended except for those too infirm to get out of their homes.
Marina engaged the priest in conversation. She told him Tony and I were brothers and that we were looking for our ancestral homeland and distant relatives. She gave him an abbreviated version of my labyrinthine history and informed him that I was writing a book. Upon hearing this information, he became more animated and interested.
He asked for the name of our grandfather and I replied, “Bakun” which he re-pronounced, “bah KOON“. Yes, he said, there were many “bah KOON”s in the area. We hardly needed to engage him in conversation any further as he spoke enthusiastically about the history. He told us that the name, “Bakun” was actually Turkish.
Apparently, over the centuries, Turks invaded the area consistently. As Turkey is just across the Black Sea, Ukraine was easily accessible to the marauders. They would swoop in looking for the beautiful women they had heard inhabited the area, to kidnap as their wives. Upon capturing the women they wanted, they would return to Turkey where blonde women with pale complexions were highly desirable as opposed to the more common dark-haired, olive-skinned women of their country.
Some of these marauders would be captured by locals and remain in the area where they ultimately were resigned to settle. Among these invaders was a Bakun. And, the priest told us, “Bakun” in Turkish, in an ancient tranlastion, means a form of tobacco. My brother and I stared at each other in disbelief.
“We’re Turkish, too”?
The padre continued on about the history of the town. Many hundreds of years ago, the entire area had been a huge lake. As the lake dried up, people began populating the area. In order to shore up the marshy land, they felled thousands of trees and piled them on the ground with soil on top. In this way, they stabilized the land and started building the village.
Legend had it that one sunny day a resident saw the Virgin Mary’s face in a ray of light shining down onto the site of the church. The residents took this as a sign that God was behind their efforts and this site should be the location of the church. It was built in 1650. As recently as the 1940’s the town had three thousand people. World War II, Communist purges and the fall of Communism led to its decline. In addition, below-replacement-level population growth throughout much of Europe coupled with Ukraine’s economic and political struggles are hastening the demise.
Underground bunkers in the area had been built during WWI and WWII. Rather than one large bunker during the war years, dozens were built to hold a handful of people. In this way, if the Communists or the Nazis found one bunker, they didn’t capture the entire population of the town. The priest shook his head when we asked about town records. They had all been stolen or destroyed by the KGB in the Soviet Union’s efforts to find information. It was their way of destroying the residents’ sense of community and identity.
The priest, whose name I completely forgot to request, asked for my Ukrainian cell phone number. I gave it to him along with the number of my host, Ed, since I speak no Ukrainian. The priest promised to make an announcement at church the next day about the two westerners who had visited the parish seeking family members.
But he warned us, because the town was only populated by very elderly residents now, there might be little information for us. Ten years ago, he said, we probably would have received reams of information because the old-timers remember every detail and nuance from the past. It was their way of preserving history and culture from the outside forces that sought so earnestly to erase any identity other than the one they wanted people to have. He cautioned that their memories have faded with their age and that he couldn’t promise anything.
We thanked him for his kindness and help and asked for a photo. I had to laugh as he stood between me and my brother, back straight, with a serious, purposeful, almost regal, gaze. We then went outside.
By now it was biting cold. The wind was blowing across the flat prairie. I wanted to look through the cemetery for a bit. The wind whipped up more and more and we felt drops of rain. Everyone was exhausted. But I just had to find one name. With so many Bakuns, it shouldn’t be difficult, right?
It took maybe five minutes before I found a marker inscribed “Basilius Bakun”, wife “Maria”, daughter, “Katerina”. I was elated. From my research in Poland, I had found the birth record of a “Basilius Bakun”, the uncle of my father, Teodor Bakun. Since we did not have much time, I snapped a quick photo of the grave marker and made a beeline for the car as the rain started coming down.
I don’t know if this Basilius Bakun is my great-uncle. I have to research the marker some more with my language software. It was quite common back then to name sons, grandsons, etc. after their elders. But I feel confident he is in the lineage.
Driving out of Kuty, I felt like I had found a vein of gold. Genealogical gold. Andrey asked what the plan was and we were unanimous: “Rozwaz”. Birthplace of our maternal grandmother, Carolina.
The road to Rozwaz was worse than the road to Kuty. Ruts were literally a foot deep and six feet across. Andrey deftly and gingerly attempted to miss the ruts, occasionally failing and bouncing us around the car, apologizing as he did so. I didn’t care if I went through the roof or bottomed out the car. I wanted to get to Rozwaz. I was convinced we would find gold there, too.
We found Rozwaz. An old abandoned church stood across the street in stark contrast to the newer Roman Catholic Church. The church was locked. Once again Andrey cornered one of the locals asking where the padre might be. We drove to the house, only to find that he was not there. But we got his number so we could call later.
What was it I asked the other day–“What awaits me in Ukraine”? Well, once again my cup runneth over. Something tells me God is doling out information in piecemeal fashion so I’m not overwhelmed with more than I can process or retain. I’m dying to get back here again. I’m so glad I chose to spend four weeks in this country.
My host, Ed, has said he can help me find a driver for a reasonable price to take me back to Kuty and Rozwaz. It will be someone who speaks English and Ukrainian. I will obviously have to return. And I will do anything necessary to get back there. I feel as though I’m at the fountainhead and boy, does the water taste good.