Now that I am officially caught up on the happenings here in Italy, it is time to turn back to my original reason for moving to Europe–genealogy.
I had written that my eighty-year-old cousin in Kuty, Ukraine, Zenovyi, produced for me letters from my grandfather, my aunt and my great-aunt that had been sent to his mother. The letters from my aunt were written in Polish, those from my grandfather and great-aunt were written in Ukrainian.
I enlisted the help of the gentleman who hosted me in Krakow, Poland to translate the letters from Polish to English. My new cousins in Lviv, Ukraine translated the letters written in Ukrainian to English for me. All letters are done. I now have insight into my ancestor’s lives.
While the letters are of a personal nature, I am not uncomfortable sharing their contents. Much of the writings are rather hum-drum. My grandfather, especially, tends to drone on and on about his new-found religious conversion from Greek Catholicism to Jehovah’s Witnesses.
These letters were all written to my grandfather Theodore’s first child, Maria, who he left behind in Ukraine (then Austria-Hungary) in 1912 after his first wife died in 1909. She remained with an uncle, for some unknown reason. It is my observation that he had every intent on bringing her to Canada along with his new wife and new daughter who had also remained behind. World War I dashed those hopes and his family remained in Austria-Hungary until 1920 when they finally immigrated (minus Maria).
Yet despite the trivialities, nuggets of information jump out. My grandfather many times attempts to soothe his daughter’s sadness at the distance between them. He responds to the loneliness she feels from the loss of her mother at a young age and her father’s relocation to Canada, while she opted to remain in Ukraine. He encourages her to cheer up.
He even exhorts her to join him in Canada, something she is apparently unwilling to do, especially since she was now married. No real reason is given. There seem to be political disagreements in letters sent during WWII as my grandfather appears to counter possible comments from her on war in Poland. He sounds disgusted with political leadership in the Soviet Union, under which Maria ends up living after the war.
But through it all, his love shines through for his daughter. Grandfather always expresses his love for her. This is dichotomous to me considering the knowledge I have of him as an abusive tyrant–knowledge that has been validated in some of the letters I have from my aunt and great-aunt. Perhaps he took out his frustration and loneliness on his second family?
Grandpa sends her money when he can, which would undoubtedly go very far in her economy. He ships leather and cloth so she can make proper shoes and coats for her family. He sends canned foods. He harrumphs at the stupidity of the Soviet system and its shills who cannot seem to think through the transposed number on a letter–thereby sending the shipment back to Canada. The simple comments he makes provide for me not only insight into him as a man and a father but also paint a vivid picture about the struggles under communism.
My Aunt Julia talks about Kuty to Maria, her half sister. Knowing Julia as I did, I was able to recognize the love in her heart for the sister she barely knew. Julia and her mother, Carolina (my grandmother), were sent money by my grandfather to immigrate to Canada in 1920, long after the WWI was over.
I have to believe that Julia most likely knew of her sister and probably had a relationship with her back in the homeland. Maria would have been about seven years Julia’s senior. I’m sure Julia had a certain amount of guilt and pain in her heart leaving her older half-sister behind.
Julia, too, sent money and provisions to her sister who was living under the austerity of failed communism. I had known about an aunt in Poland that Julia had supported for years. She never mentioned the half-sister, though. I’ve wondered why she never said anything since finding this information.
Initially, I was somewhat distraught over the secrecy in this family. I immediately took it to mean that these family secrets were an embarrassment–and that I was one of the embarrassments since my adoption was treated as a secret. But when I consider the fact that my brother (who wasn’t adopted) was also left in the dark, I see the whole situation as the endemic dysfunction of a family torn by war, poverty, famine and separation.
Letters from my Great-Aunt Anna also provide some insight. Mostly they underscore the comments and issues made by Julia and Theodore. Anna’s letters provide a glimpse into their lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba–living on a farm, the harsh winters, economic struggles, eventual retirement.
Despite the paucity of information in these letters, I still feel blessed and enlightened in a way that a textbook could never accomplish. Physical evidence supplanting bland scholastic regurgitation is a tremendous tool. It provides a level of certitude. These people existed not just as vital statistics but as vital human beings.
I can almost see in my grandfather’s mind the memory he has of the landscape of his Kuty, Ukraine as he wistfully reminisces about his hometown. He so very eloquently expresses his love for his homeland. And having visited Kuty I can grasp the level of attachment. I felt it when I first arrived. I cannot imagine what it was like for him to never have an opportunity to once again re-visit his beloved hometown.
To this very day, in this very century, I feel a kinship with his words. He had lived in poverty with few creature comforts. Visiting Kuty revealed to me that little, if anything had changed. Very little is different since his youth. In this time of unprecedented technological wizardry, jaw-dropping wealth and unparalleled opportunity, scarcity remains. And it still impacts my blood.
This journey is taking me places I never expected. What is next?
I am enjoying reading your entries about Kuty very much. It occurs to me that the ‘secrecy’ you refer to might well have stemmed from fear and self-preservation. The Ukrainians in this particular area suffered much under Stalin. There was at least one Stalinist sweep of the village in which many of the young men were either killed or rounded up and sent to Siberia as “punishment” for their alleged participation in the Ukrainian Nationalist movement under Stepan Bandera. My great aunt and her husband were among the villagers sent to Vorkuta gulag. They were there for ten years. My grandmother’s letters to her sister in Kuty were opened, read, and censored. So they were guarded with information, especially information going to/from the US – I think probably understandably.
My 80 year old cousin, Zenovyi, was hidden between the floors of their home while Soviet soldiers jammed the ceiling with brooms looking for him and his brother. They kept exclaiming that they had found something to jar Zenovyi’s mother (my step-aunt). She sat their stoically. They found nothing and Zenovyi and his brother were saved. What a sick regime.
I think, too, that the people of this area have been so downtrodden for so long, that they are in a corner emotionally, perhaps afraid to be “out there” like Americans are. Here we are accustomed to being whatever we want, freedoms galore. While in Ukraine and the former Soviet Union, people were repressed for centuries. It will take a long time before they feel as free as we do.