August 7, 2020

Appreciating memoirists


The literary genre of memoirs is described as a collection of memories written by an individual about events in the author’s life. Memoirs are a way of sharing notable events, or even an entire life story. The audiences for such works vary greatly, of course, depending on who the writer is, the relevance of the writer’s experience to a reader, and the significance of the writer’s life to the public.

Recently we’ve had the chance to read three such books by notable members of the Ukrainian American community. (The release of each was noted on the pages of this newspaper.) What is common to all three is that they are truly a labor of love.

In “My Memoirs. Life’s Journey through WWII and Various Historical Events of the 21st Century,” historian Dr. Taras Hunczak writes in the prologue: “There comes a time when the life of an individual becomes valuable to others – through his or her experiences, history and knowledge. Grandchildren and descendants wish to know about the lives of their ancestors; they are interested in learning  how they lived, how they thought,  how they acted and what motivated their actions…”  The professor emeritus of Rutgers University adds that “the time came when I felt the personal need to…. convey what I know and narrate my experiences – the path of my life’s journey in the event that it may benefit others.” A most fitting way to describe the value of such memoirs! Dr. Hunczak’s book describes life under both Communism and Nazism – twin evils of the 20th century – and takes readers from Ukraine to the United States, with the displaced persons’ experience in between, and then back to Ukraine as truly historic events unfold in the 1990s.

The memoirs of Dr. Myron B. Kuropas, titled “Lesia and I. A Progress Report and a Ukrainian-American Love Story,” recount the lives of two people who “were born on different continents and grew up in different cultural environments.” The book tells the stories of the Kuropas and Waskiw families, conveys the major influences in the lives of Myron Kuropas and Lesia (née Waskiw) Kuropas – both teachers – and speaks of the organizations in which they were involved. Also remembered in this book is Dr. Kuropas’s service in federal agencies and at the White House as President Gerald R. Ford’s special assistant for ethnic affairs. Above all, it is clear the book is intended for the author’s family, as it ends with a loving note to the Kuropases’ children and grandchildren.

“Borders, Bombs, and… Two Right Shoes” is the intriguing title of memoirs by Prof. Larissa Zaleska Onyshkevych, a literary scholar, former professor at Rutgers University and former president of the Shevchenko Scientific Society. Its subtitle is “World War II Through the Eyes of a Ukrainian Child Refugee Survivor.” With useful maps, chapter notes, historical timelines and a glossary, the book details the difficult and oftentimes dangerous life of a child whose formative years were during the second world war. Dr. Onyshkevych provides great detail about her family’s escape from Ukraine to Slovakia, Germany and Austria, as well as life in the DP camps and emigration to Canada. The author notes that, in addition to telling her family’s story, “the bigger inducement is the realization that so many individuals, groups and nations today continue to be suddenly ravaged and/or annihilated by historical events similar to those that I experienced.” She adds: “At times, one feels almost pressed to shout to the world: …‘but didn’t you learn from history…?’”

Reading these three memoirs, one gains a special appreciation for the authors’ lives and their efforts, along with the realization that their stories are our stories, our nation’s stories, our community’s stories, even our families’ stories. Not all of us are lucky enough to have a family member put pen to paper (as they used to say) to write memoirs for their progeny. But we are indeed lucky that there are those in our midst who do. Thank you, esteemed memoirists, for sharing your stories, your insights and what is dear to your heart with all of us.