KYIV – Greg Stricharchuk, 67, grew up in the multi-ethnic Tremont neighborhood of Cleveland believing he was Russian. He worshipped at the St. Theodosius Russian Orthodox Cathedral and attended wedding receptions at Lemko Hall, both of which were featured in the Oscar-winning 1978 movie “The Deer Hunter.”
His father, Josip, was a crane operator at a local steel plant in the Flats of Cleveland for 40 years. His mother, Eva (née Ziatyk), was a homemaker before working at Perfection Stove for 13 years and prior to that ran a food stand for 10 years at the old Cleveland Stadium until 1967, the year that Mr. Stricharchuk graduated from high school.
The retired journalist with nearly 50 years of experience even took Russian language lessons upon his parents’ urging at the church.
“I grew up hearing Russian and Ukrainian,” Mr. Stricharchuk told The Ukrainian Weekly at a café in Kyiv on June 19. “My father identified himself as “White Russian – I couldn’t grasp what this meant… Was there a Black Russia… My dad never talked about the past,” he said in a separate e-mailed note.
His mother had also taught him how to make Ukrainian Easter eggs, or pysanky, although they were “simple” as compared to the more elaborate examples he saw this spring at a museum devoted to the art in the Ivano-Frankivsk regional city of Kolomyia.
The Russian classes proved futile to connect with the native language of his immigrant parents, whose education levels didn’t go beyond grammar school level.
“I remember after three or four lessons coming home saying these words, and both my parents were saying, ‘is that high Russian? I don’t know what you’re saying,’ ” Mr. Stricharchuk recalled.
What he didn’t know at the time was that his mother was a Lemko – a sub-ethnos that the government in Kyiv identifies as a branch of Ukrainians. When he was a child, the Clevelander’s mother told him she was from “Austria-Hungary” and later just said to say she was from “Kyiv… people know where that is.”
His father, who died when Mr. Stricharchuk was 17, was from the Brest region of Belarus – then part of the Russian Empire – and had emigrated to the U.S. in 1910.
Like many first- and second-generation Americans, Mr. Stricharchuk had always wanted to know more about his ancestry. He didn’t have much opportunity while his parents were alive because they died when Mr. Stricharchuk’s journalistic career was taking off.
His parents were both widowed when they re-married in 1945. Mr. Stricharchuk’s father was 56 and his mother was 44 when their only child was born. When Eva died in 1973, he found his mother’s birth certificate, some pictures and a few letters written in Cyrillic inside envelopes that had most of their return addresses ripped off.
“That’s because my mom must’ve used those to send letters back, which I ended up doing too because my ability to write Cyrillic and being comfortable that it will get there was pretty slim,” he said.
Mr. Stricharchuk would become a widower and re-marry – like his parents – and have a prolific career at nine publications that included The Wall Street Journal, Des Moines Register, Chicago Tribune (where he was an editor for 14 years) and Cleveland Magazine.
Before the USSR disintegrated, the maps of the countries he was researching remained elusive with “names changing every 10 minutes – I didn’t really start to get decent maps of Ukraine until it became independent,” he said.
Drawing first on what was available to him before the dawn of the Internet age, he researched census data, marriage records and registers of Ellis Island, the main entry point for millions of immigrants to the New World.
He treated the endeavor, based on “lingering questions I have always had,” like any news story: with a “sense of curiosity, a sense of awe.”
That’s how he found out, for example, that his father had re-visited Belarus once more before re-entering the U.S. in 1913.
He added: “The biggest thing is, as a reporter, I never gave up. As an editor, I never gave up. It’s like that’s the main ingredient behind that. I’ve found that in some of these interviews and documents, it’s like I take notes and then I go back. Then I look at them again. It’s like you’re piecing together stuff. Some of it initially doesn’t square up right.”
Indeed, it became an insurmountable task compared to his reporting on police activity, long-form personal histories, organized crime and the Teamsters. Or his series of investigations into bribery and shoddy regulations at the Food and Drug Administration that got nominated for a Pulitzer Prize when he was with The Wall Street Journal.
That tenacious spirit hit a cul-de-sac when it came to translating the family letters and making further headway. Oftentimes, he got hollow reassurances from people knowing Ukrainian or Russian.
“It sounds silly… I could not find anyone who could translate the letters. There was one letter that I sort of had a version of a translation. I had nothing to go on. This went on for years,” Mr. Stricharchuk said.
This turned into decades during the Cold War.
“I know it sounds ridiculous. You have to understand that for years… Belarus to me was always a mystery land. I would check… there’s really not that much about it. Same with Ukraine. It was all behind the Iron Curtain,” he said.
That partially explains why Mr. Stricharchuk’s parents didn’t impart more of the heritage during the upbringing of their son and stressed assimilation more, he surmised.
“People laugh about it now, the Red Scare, but back then it was absolutely true. I’ve checked that with other friends of mine, they have the same stories,” he said, referring to his high school mates in a neighborhood of 50 ethnicities that has since undergone gentrification.
Yet the veteran newspaperman still had vivid memories of accompanying his mother as a kid to the local import-export company in Cleveland to send care packages to relatives overseas. Once there, she would ship three identical items to the same addressee.
“I would ask, ‘Why are you doing that?’ She would say, ‘By the time it goes through customs, it’s lucky if you get one through,’ ” Mr. Stricharchuk fondly recalled.
First big discovery
His first breakthrough came when Mr. Stricharchuk was at the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2002 working as the assistant managing editor. He had sponsored Alexander Zabatin, a Russian publisher, as part of a journalism exchange program.
“So, I brought the letters out. He was quickly reading through these things… And he goes, ‘Greg, no problem, I find both families, no problem. As soon as I go back, I’ll find them and send you an e-mail,’ ” Mr. Stricharchuk recounted.
The intrepid Russian journalist called a local Belarusian newspaper in Brest to discover that there were many “Strikarchuks” in the area – the first time the native Clevelander had discovered that his surname might have been misspelled.
On his maternal side, the Russian journalist found the lineage through a local police station in Ternopil region of Ukraine. Mr. Stricharchuk also learned he had maternal relatives near Chernivtsi, also in Ukraine.
“Finally, I had some addresses. In both cases I sent letters in English to both like 15-16 years ago,” he said. “In both cases, I got responses. I think I got an e-mail from the Stricharchuks. I got a letter back from my mom’s family in Ukraine.”
“However, I ran into communication issues. Both families didn’t speak English, and I couldn’t speak Ukrainian or Russian. Our letters soon fell off,” he said.
Unbeknownst to him, his relatives knew who he was through the same care parcels.
“It was almost like too good to be true. I didn’t expect that they knew about me. They were aware of my existence and had pictures of me when I was a kid. It threw me for a loop, but it was all true,” he said gleamingly.
So when his spouse, Cheryl Reed, became a Fulbright scholar in Ukraine last year as part of a U.S.-government funded program, the former editor decided to finally visit his distant family.
“For many years, I wasn’t interested in going to Europe because I would tell people that I grew up in Europe,” Mr. Stricharchuk said, referring to his old Cleveland neighborhood of multiple ethnic enclaves.
Yet in September, he wasted no time and got local translators to spell out all that his mother had left behind. He then went about arranging trips to each familial branch and hired local interpreters for communication.
When asked to describe what he felt when he met his relatives for the first time, Mr. Stricharchuk responded: “It is overwhelming. It’s like you’ve never met this person, but you have this immediate bond. You know that they’re family. You just know they’re your blood. It’s like you’ve known them all your life.”
Care packages carried significant weight during both meetings. In one incident his cousin in a Ternopil region village told him how the KGB had urged her to “sign a document that ‘you don’t want these packages’ – to reject them – because, the reason was they didn’t want people in the U.S. to know how bad it was in Ukraine.”
Likewise, in Belarus, the “first meeting with relatives was emotional,” he said. “I first talked with my cousin Alexander via video in America. He told me he was the little boy who would go to pick up packages.”
In western Ukraine, Mr. Stricharchuk learned that he was “a Lemko… I never knew that part.”
He has visited both sides twice over the course of 10 months as his wife’s Fulbright tenure closes at the end of June.
Mr. Stricharchuk would also discover in the process that he is the namesake of his mother’s brother, Gregory Ziatyk.
Behind the Iron Curtain
Sadly, his family’s history mirrors the turmoil that this region endured, which included torture, death, famine and forcible displacement.
Mr. Stricharchuk’s mother’s family, living in the predominantly Ukrainian part of southeastern Poland, was forcibly resettled during Operation Vistula, or Akcja Wisla (the operation’s Polish name), that started on April 28, 1947.
“One family member was dragged by a horse and ended up paralyzed for trying to stay [posing as an ethnic Pole],” he stated.
In Belarus during World War II, Mr. Stricharchuk’s uncle was “dragged by a horse because he wouldn’t snitch out partisans”; he later died of his injuries. Other relatives were sent to the labor camps of the Soviet Gulag. Those who survived the war in Belarus, where every fourth person died, had to endure starvation in what is known as the Soviet Famine of 1946-1947.
Speaking of pictures that he examined of some of his Belarusian relatives, Mr. Stricharchuk said, “everybody… they looked like they were out of a concentration camp.”
Social media sheds light
The reporter’s journey has also found others in his bloodline that are interested in their roots. A distant relative in the Russian city of Samara sent him a picture of his father’s first wedding, dating to 1926.
In America, Mr. Stricharchuk’s journey triggered interest from the families of his two maternal aunts and paternal uncle.
“As a result, when I came here, I googled my mom’s village [of Solinka], and I see this memoir, and it is written by a cousin [since deceased in America],” he said. “He was trying to find his family. He came to Ukraine two times specifically to go to the area where my mom is from. There’s nothing there because of Operation Vistula. This guy and I – our paths crossed many times like in Chicago and I never knew he was doing this.”
After the four combined trips to visit relatives, Mr. Stricharchuk said he feels “calmer.”
“It’s very satisfying,” he continued. “Even as a kid, as a teenager and when I was in college, you hear all these stories of people looking up their ancestry. From the Mayflower. Their ancestors were royalty or some crap. And I’m thinking the best that I’ll ever do is to find my grandparents. That’s pretty much proven true. It is still the whole journey of finding out that information, [and it] has also interwoven itself with history.”
Back to the U.S.
When Mr. Stricharchuk eventually moves in August with his wife to Syracuse, where she will start as an assistant professor at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, he plans to write a book about his experience.
First, he wants to dignify the odyssey with a “timeline and some pictures, something like a family tree” that he plans to share with relatives.
Next, Mr. Stricharchuk wants to do something “deeper.”
He wants to weave his family’s history into the larger context of what they went through in this region that includes displacement, famine and hardship.
“I also plan on doing that with my neighborhood of Tremont. We had this amalgamation of all these cultures,” he said.
Asked who he is today, Mr. Stricharchuk said, “I consider myself a hybrid” of “Lemko and Belarusian.”
He continued: “I just know that I connected to this part of the world. I don’t know what I am. When you scrape away the nationalities, we are all related, aren’t we? And it looks to me like just about everybody walked through Ukraine.”