I was a high school senior in 1964 when my guidance counselor gave me a pile of college catalogues: Cleveland State, Ohio State, Ohio U., Kenyon, Notre Dame…
Notre Dame? I knew they had a great football team, but reading the catalogue I also discovered they had a sophomore studies program in Innsbruck, Austria. Innsbruck! That’s where I was born! That settled it. I was going to Notre Dame and, to my mind, home to Austria. I successfully applied for admission, and in August 1966 was sailing to Europe on the S.S. United States, reversing the journey I had taken 18 years earlier when I was 8 months old.
Along with 39 other guys (Notre Dame was all-male then), I lived at the Pension Steinbock, just a mile from the Lanser See Hotel, which had been converted into a displaced persons (DP) camp after the second world war. That’s where my parents were housed while the world figured out what to do with them and millions of other refugees – mostly young people who had been forced to work in the Nazi economy or fled just steps ahead of the advancing Red Army. Stalin insisted they be repatriated; tragically, many were – and then shipped further east to slavery in the Gulag. Understandably, most of the refugees wanted to emigrate somewhere far from Soviet tyranny. The number-one target was America. My parents (and hundreds of thousands of other survivors) came with a couple of suitcases and little or no English knowledge, and ended up buying a home and sending three boys to college.
I grew up in Cleveland’s Ukrainian community attending church services, youth clubs, heritage school, commemorative concerts and summer camps – all aimed at instilling the mission to work toward Ukraine’s liberation. I took that to heart and saw my sophomore year abroad as an opportunity to connect with my European roots. My buddies and I traveled a lot, soaking up the culture in a dozen different countries and, for me, learning more that year than in any other since I was 2. By the way, I did go to see the Lanser See Hotel. It was boarded up and abandoned.
Having “come home” to Europe, the most important thing I learned that year was how utterly American I was. I was looked at as an American, basically because I acted like one. One of my vivid memories from that year in Innsbruck was listening with the guys to a static-laden live broadcast on Armed Forces Radio of the Notre Dame-Michigan State football game for the national championship. Decades later, in an era of global communications undreamt of in 1966, I check my i-Phone in Kyiv, Paris or Lviv to see how the Cleveland Indians baseball team has fared. How utterly American. And yet, I never lost the sense of mission and joined others in the struggle against the Soviet Empire. It led me to a career on Capitol Hill. How utterly American.
I’m moved to reflect on this because of what’s out there related to the Camps. There was the magnificent exhibit at the Ukrainian National Museum in Chicago in 2011, “From DP to DC.” Then in 2015, my colleague at the Ukrainian Museum-Archives (UMA), Aniza Kraus, and I attended a conference at the Library of Congress (LOC) organized by European Cataloguing Specialist Jurij Dobczansky. One of the speakers was Jaime Monllor, international outreach officer at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. The museum, he said, is interested not only in the Jewish story, but the entire spectrum of experiences, including Ukrainians’, during the war, in the DP camps and under Soviet oppression. We invited Jaime and his colleagues to see the UMA collections related to all this and they did indeed visit. Now we’re working with the USHMM to digitize our collection of newspapers and periodicals from the camps. As I write this, working with Archival Data Systems from Kyiv, we’ve completed close to 70,000 pages.
But that’s not the only DP project. Cinematographers Matej Silecky and Evan Yee, recipients of a grant from the Ella Lyman Cabot Trust, came to Cleveland last summer to conduct interviews and assemble materials for a documentary about the Ukrainian DP camp experience. They requested that the UMA serve as a repository for the raw footage and final product. We readily agreed. (For more, please visit: https://kitsunetaleproductions.com/projects/.)
Then there’s Maria Kwit Flynn. Her father, Zenowy, was active in the Ukrainian community in Cleveland and later Philadelphia. Mr. Kwit passed away last year and Maria is donating photos from his experience as a DP. And guess where that was: Innsbruck, where he was active in the Ukrainian student association at the university!
There’s Bohdan Kantor, information technology specialist at the LOC. He too was born to refugee parents in the DP camps and came to America as an infant. He’s now writing two books – one about his family’s DP experience; the other about the broader context.
And I know there’s a lot more. If you’re interested, please visit http://www.dpcamps.org/, an astonishing website put together by Olga Kaczmar.
Reflecting on my personal identification with the history of the DP camps and the over-all Ukrainian refugee experience, I see it as part of a larger story involving many different people on both sides of the Atlantic. In the 1940s, there were already established Ukrainian communities, and those of other ethnic groups, who lobbied their members of Congress and President Harry Truman to help the refugees. They then generously helped them find jobs and homes once they got here. It took an army, cost billions and many years, but the job was done.
The DP camp experience seems more relevant now than ever. It can offer perspective on the multiple refugee crises today (including an estimated 1.5 million internally displaced in Ukraine) and show how the world was able to come together to cope with a humanitarian catastrophe. Hopefully, it will help us to better understand America’s immigrant history and provide insight into the current political debate over that issue. Certainly, it can help Ukraine’s academic and political communities come to terms with the loss of millions of productive citizens and appreciate their emergence as a culturally/politically active diaspora. And, finally, it helps me see where I came from and who I’ve become. Maybe for you too?
Andrew Fedynsky’s e-mail address is email@example.com.