NEWS AND VIEWS: Three generations of hard work
by Ihor Lysyj
AUSTIN, Texas - It was only two short years ago that former students of the Ukrainian Gymnasium in Berchtesgaden celebrated the 50th anniversary of its first graduating class at a reunion at Soyuzivka. Now, two years later, they are coming back to Soyuzivka on November 6-7, to celebrate its last graduating class of 1949 and to close a chapter of our school history.
Just three short years - 1946-1949 - in Berchtesgaden, plus one year prior in Karlsfeld Gymnasium have left a profound mark on the rest of our lives. Lifelong friendships were established and relationships not unlike that of extended family became common.
The year of the graduating class of 1949, was grim and foreboding for displaced persons (DPs) scattered across refugee camps in West Germany. The Iron Curtain was well in place and the darkness of communism was spreading like a pestilence over the landscape of Eastern Europe.
It was also a year of profound changes in the life of DP camps in Germany. The lingering hope of early and imminent collapse of the Communist despotism, and the hope for return to a free and liberated homeland become just a distant and impossible dream. It took almost half a century for this dream to come true. By then, it was too late for our parents. Too many have found their final resting place in South Bound Brook, N.J., and other cemeteries scattered across North America and Europe.
The grim reality of life for DPs in 1949 was that there would be no return home but instead a resettlement and an uncertain future in distant and unknown lands of Australia and North and South America. With DP camps being closed one after the other, relocation across the Atlantic and the Pacific was at its peak. It was not migration to the promised land in search of the "American Dream" of material possessions, but an unhappy migration of exiles struggling to survive. With a shrinking teaching staff and a dwindling student body, our school was on its last legs of existence in 1949.
Now, 50 years later one reads with great pride and satisfaction about the professional, social, cultural and political accomplishments of the present-day Ukrainian diaspora in North America and around the world. Recent issues of The Ukrainian Weekly describe in glowing terms the accomplishments of Ukrainian American educators, physicians, lawyers, scientists and engineers, librarians, journalists, architects and others - all united in influential professional Ukrainian American organizations.
The societal and political power of the Ukrainian diaspora was clearly demonstrated during the recent super-charged five-day meeting billed as the Joint Conferences of Ukrainian American Organizations and related gala events in Washington. Considering the fact that Ukrainian Americans constitute a relatively small percentage of this country's population, its social, professional and political influence is indeed remarkable.
Then and now - 1949 and 1999. From the grimness of DP barracks and long lines in soup kitchens for a daily ration of pea soup, to the splendor of the Benjamin Franklin Room on the top floor of the State Department building, to the halls of Congress and a lavish reception at the Embassy of independent Ukraine. Yes, we have come a long way over the past 50 years.
Yet, there is a little secret and an explanation behind this remarkable success story that might not be apparent from a superficial reading of newspaper accounts. The recent gala event in Washington is not just a success story of a suddenly emerging group of 30-somethings, but is a product of the long and sustained effort of at least three generations. It is a legacy of hard work, sacrifices and hardships overcome by the generation of our parents, our own generation, and the generation of our children.
To put the success story of the Ukrainian diaspora in North America into historical perspective one must go back to the time of the graduating class of 1949 and their parents. Most arrived at the port of New York essentially penniless. Some were given $1 at the port of entry and a free railroad ticket to a designated location, where they were met by their sponsors - for the most part they also were penniless refuges from the same DP camps who arrived here a few months earlier and took the trouble to care for their compatriots arriving after them. There were no 18-acre estates with five swimming pools waiting for our parents in San Francisco (as is the case with a recent prominent immigrant arriving from a financially struggling Ukraine).
Some of our parents and their children started their lives in a new land by picking cotton in the snake-infested swamps of Louisiana or cleaning office buildings in New York City at night, while others were cutting forests in Manitoba or building railroads in Australia's Outback. This was considered appropriate work for immigrants. Considering the fact that many of these immigrants were highly educated and prominent in their native lands, it was a hard beginning.
Yet they coped stoically, without complaints or welfare benefits, working hard and doing menial jobs while building the foundations of prosperity that we all enjoy today and concentrating their meager resources on educating their children.
They did not feel poor, isolated or disadvantaged. Having lost all their material possessions more than once in their lives, they put all their faith in education, or, as my father used to say, "the wealth that nobody can take away from you." They were almost obsessive in insisting on education and development of intellectual skills in their children.
This prevailing attitude of our parents was carried over to a significant degree into successive generations. The result is a continuum of a highly educated population, a subgroup of Ukrainian Americans that today is a highly visible in many centers of intellectual excellence across the country as well as in the halls of power in Washington.
It is no surprise that the majority of Ukrainian American success stories, as reported in The Ukrainian Weekly, are in the fields of intellectual and professional endeavors, such as education, medicine, law, science, engineering and the arts, rather than in the field of commerce or business. The statistics provided in an earlier (1997) article about our school in The Ukrainian Weekly indicate that of the 84 percent of students who entered schools of higher education, 75 percent chose intellectual and professional fields, while only 19 percent elected to study business and commerce.
The Ukrainian American organizations and individuals meeting recently in and around Washington represent an intellectual powerhouse. This intellectual powerhouse has a profound and positive effect on many aspects of the social and political fabric of life in America today - a strength disproportionate to the numerical strength of the Ukrainian American population.
But it should always be remembered that it took three generations of hard work, sacrifices and dedication to achieve this success. That success story dates back to the days of the graduating class of 1949.
Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, August 22, 1999, No. 34, Vol. LXVII
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