Ukraine through Shadows of History. Page Two
Visiting Free Ukraine - Page Two
By Roman Skaskiw
There are statues of poets, Roman Gods, and one statue of Austrian writer and Lviv native Leopold von Masoch, after whom masochism is named.
Four universities fill the city with young people. Street musicians seem to sing or play on every other corner. I found an outdoor book-market beneath a monument to city’s first printer.
I want to write something for non-Ukrainian-speaking travelers. Unfortunately, I did not test other people’s English, as I chose to practice my own Ukrainian. I sensed that compared to other European cities, Lviv is largely unexplored, which is good for authenticity and price, but bad for ease of travel.
The older people do not seem to speak much English, but many younger ones do, though they don’t get as much practice as, say, those in Prague or farther west.
The tourism industry is only beginning to develop. There is at least one guided, multi-lingual tour of the city. There are internet cafes, ATMs, art galleries and museums. I could not find anyone who knew of a hostel or a place to rent cars outside of the capital, Kiev.
I made the trip with my mother. Her cousin, unsure of the date of our arrival, made three trips to Lviv’s airport on the unlikely chance of spotting us.
We felt like rock stars. Generations of distant relatives came to see us, their neighbors too.
My relatives included two blacksmiths, an art teacher, a laborer who travels as far as Spain and St. Petersburg for construction work, a computer programmer, a mechanic, and a security guard who gave me free tours of the museums he guards.
My mother and I took taxis or got chauffeured by family to the towns where they lived. We visited the place of my mother’s birth. She had no memory of it, but related it to her parent’s stories -- they had run a grocery until they fled for fear of the Soviets.
Like most homes there, it sat on a half-acre plot with a crowded garden, fruit trees, and chickens, and here again I felt an echo from my memories of childhood.
In the United States, and after years of hard work, my mother’s parents managed to buy a small retired farm in the Catskill Mountains where I spent my childhood summers.
I grew up around tangles of raspberries, sunflowers, rows of planted onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, garlic, and rhubarb. I climbed apple trees, ate pods of sweet peas from their vines and listened inattentively to my grandfather’s explanations about grafting sour cherry tree branches. I never realized how accurately my grandparents recreated their home in Ukraine.
Generations of family crowded around small tables bursting with food for day-long meals with us. When our hostess noticed the small napkin in my mother’s lap, she apparently thought it insufficient for our American habit and sent one of the girls running to the next room to retrieve two bath towels for our laps, but that awkwardness soon passed.
We remembered the past and discussed our present lives. We toasted our gathering with vodka, toasted the vodka with cognac, and the cognac with beer and homemade wine. They were curious about our plane ride, the airports, why my sister, mother and I live so far apart, my military experience, and where I learned to speak Ukrainian.
Most of my relatives grew their own vegetables, slaughtered their own chickens, caught their own fish, pickled their own preserves, cured their own cheese, fermented their own wine, and traded with neighbors for ham, sausage, milk and bread.
I met descendents from three of my four pairs of great-grandparents. Sadly, my father’s father’s parents remain unknown to me. I met no fellow Skaskiws, though, in a village cemetery, I saw dozens of tombstones that bore the name.
I went fishing with one third cousin and his brother-in-laws. They chopped wood with an axe and roasted chicken and pork and sausages, sprinkling the meats with beer that sizzled into the fire. There were jars of pickles, and bread, and chocolate. We drank vodka from plastic cups, and cognac, and beer, and vodka, and cognac. I’ve never attended a fishing trip so exquisitely prepared for the contingency of not catching anything.
Stories and History
Another reason I regret not visiting a decade earlier are the vanishing stories.
The ghosts are still very much in the air -- one does not forget history in Ukraine as easily as you can in the United States -- but it’s generally the emotions best remembered and not the mundane details which give them flesh and blood. The stories are decaying peacefully in the minds of the elderly, and occasionally have their sentiments carved into stone, or etched onto metal placards.
We were told how one town’s Jewish population was wiped out during the Nazi occupation. There is a monument standing in a field where many Jews were executed en masse.
My mother’s cousin told us her family was scared to hide their Jewish neighbors in their home, but instead offered their field. Her parents grew furious at them because every time a car drove by, they would conspicuously crane their heads above the potato plants to see it. She keeps a photo of her neighbor’s daughter, Golda, in case anybody comes looking for her.
This part of the family had been fairly affluent, but the Soviets declared them Kulaks and pulled down their flax seed oil mill and confiscated their land. Eventually, NKVD agents came to take her parents away, but the head agent took pity on them for their age and ill health, or perhaps he’d already met his quota of arrests.
The man noticed the icon of Saint Anna on their wall, and told them to pray to it because it was the luckiest day of their life. Her eyes welled with angry tears when she remembers all that was taken from them.
I am a little hesitant to acknowledge a sort of genocidal rivalry in Ukraine between the Holocaust and Soviet oppression, particularly Holodomor, the famine-genocide of 1932-1933.
Over dinner, one third cousin cited John Demyanyuk, the eighty-nine-year-old Ukrainian-American who’d just been deported to Germany for being a Nazi prison guard at Sobibor concentration camp, years after having been acquitted by Israel’s Supreme Court for of being a guard at Treblinka concentration camp.
“Him they’ll pursue to the end of the Earth whether he was a guard or not, but not one of the Soviets was arrested. Not one! Not for starving to death a fifth of Ukrainians, not for executing all our intelligensia, not for stealing my family’s land. Where are my reparations?”
Her husband and mother, who were with us at dinner, remained silent and seemed embarrassed by her sudden rage. Ukrainian history remains an open wound. Everybody knows it, but no one knows how to begin discussing it. That includes me.
I went back to playing with her children - testing the English they studied at school. I pointed to my notebook. “And what letter is this?” I asked. The boy read it correctly and rolled his eyes distractedly. He stood on his chair, squatted obscenely and gestured to his behind. “And what letter is this?” he asked. He and his sister laughed.
We visited the 17th century Zbarazh Castle and browsed the art exhibits. A sculpture called “Wheel of History” depicted clay figures struggling to push a dark disk from either side with many perishing beneath its massive weight.
In the cemetery where one of my great grandfathers is buried, there is a monument to the Ukrainian Sich Riflemen, who fought against the Bolsheviks in the civil war which followed the Russian Revolution. Immediately beside it is a monument to Soviet dead from WWII. All young Ukrainian men from the area.
I already knew my grandfather had been in a Polish prison for the crime of working for a Ukrainian-language printer. I learned that in the chaos of Poland’s invasion by the Soviet Union, he’d been freed and began teaching Ukrainian in his town’s elementary school.
It was a Jewish neighbor who entered his classroom, and warned him that they, meaning the communists, were coming for him. He excused himself as if stepping out to the bathroom, exited the school through a window, took a back road to his home for a handful of rubles, and fled to Krakow, putting all his documents under his hat when he swam across the San River. He never saw his home again except once, when he returned to retrieve his family, including my then-four-year-old mother.
My mother’s cousin told us how for decades the family had no contact with them and assumed they’d all been killed. Some time in the sixties, a KGB agent arrived and showed her parents two photo’s of my grandfather taken from a distance and apparently without his knowledge. They’d been taken in America.
Details like this terrify me. They suggest a very dark, sinister world existing in parallel with the one I know. It’s difficult to know what to do with this knowledge. It’s like seeing a ghost no one else believes is real, you yourself doubting it. Why would Soviet agents know the price of pierogies in a hotel in America? Why would they photograph my grandfather?
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