As a volunteer at the Ukrainian Museum-Archives in Cleveland, I often come across some curious items. Consider, for example, a 1950s membership application to join the “Organization of Elderly Ukrainians” in Detroit, Mich.; “eligibility beginning at age 40…”
Wow! Things have certainly changed. Forty-plus-year-old athletes are winning championships. Indeed, in the last few months, I’ve noticed a spate of articles about prominent people turning not 40, but 80: columnist George Will, travel writer Paul Theroux, author Jane Brody, rock legend Bob Dylan and others. So, allow me to write about the most remarkable octogenarian I know: my brother Yurko who turned 80 this past February.
Yurko entered the world during a global war and came of age in its aftermath. In accord with the Hitler-Stalin Pact, the Soviets took over western Ukraine in September 1939. They soon conducted mass arrests, murders, deportations of Ukrainian and Polish cultural figures, political and religious leaders. For our parents and others, it was perilous to remain in their homeland, so they fled to Krakow in Nazi-occupied Poland where scholar Volodymyr Kubiovych and other émigrés formed the Ukrainian Central Committee, a quasi-political organization supporting social, educational and economic activities. That’s where Yurko was born, 15 months after “Liunyk” and “Lesia’s” marriage in November, two months into the war.
Yurko was babbling and not yet walking when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. Ukraine was a major military corridor. People welcomed the Germans as “liberators,” viewing the invasion as the gateway to the age-old dream of Ukrainian statehood. Anticipating defeat of the Soviet Union and the establishment of an independent Ukraine, Kubiovych’s Committee extended scholarships to bright, young students to prepare a cadre of future government officials. Our father, then 26 and already having been a political prisoner as a teenager, enrolled in the University of Vienna to study law.
“Mama” with infant son, Yurko, returned to her ancestral village, Strilkivtsi in Podillia, where there was food and family support, not knowing how stressful and eventually deadly it would soon become. Throughout all that, mama and tato remained devoted to each other, exchanging 2-3 letters a week. Every few months our father visited. Millions of families throughout the world, of course, experienced the same, whether the men were conscripted into the military or were otherwise absent – history recounts a mind-boggling number of violent deaths: men, women, children.
Paradoxically, I got to know my parents a lot better after they had passed away than I did when they were still with us. Sifting through their legacy at our home in Cleveland in the late 1980s, I found hundreds of letters our mother sent to Vienna, which tato miraculously kept. For several years running, I spent many hours of our family vacation at Soyuzivka reading and translating the letters with an almost daily account of the vicissitudes of wartime Ukraine.
When our mama arrived in Strilkivtsi in February 1942, she wrote tato that one-year-old Yurko now had nine teeth. Mama, of course, wasn’t interested in war, but as Leon Trotsky famously said in another context, war was interested in her. It wasn’t clear at the time, but the tide had already turned against the Nazis. The Wehrmacht breezed through the Soviet Union and by the fall of 1941 was at the gates of Moscow – until the brutal winter our mother describes in her letters. By the time she painstakingly reached the village, the Nazis had been driven back 100 kilometers from the Soviet capital. A year later, Germany lost an entire army at Stalingrad and then month by month was forced back past Strilkivtsi, cutting off mama and Yurko from correspondence with no hope of reunion with tato. That was the spring of 1944.
But back to mama’s arrival in the village early in 1942 with Yurko and his nine teeth. Because Germany conscripted millions of its young men for the war, the Reich not only had to replace that workforce, it had to equip and supply them. And so, two million young Ukrainians were forced to work for Germany as slaves, including several from mama’s village where German soldiers that summer also commandeered grain to feed their people back home. Mama, who spoke fluent German, was made to translate as “two snot-faced punks,” she wrote tato, oversaw the confiscation. “More than one person will be forced to sleep because of these quotas…This is our reward for all our flowers and garlands with which we welcomed them.” And so the most bountiful land in all of Europe was faced with food shortages, just a decade after the Holodomor and during my brother’s formative years – he was 18 months old when mama endured those Nazi grain confiscations, and the ordeal was just beginning. Decades later, I was struck how Yurko in Detroit would buy 50-pound sacks of flour and rice, gallons of cooking oil and stock big containers of salt, pepper, herbs. Hmmm…now I know.
Within a year, Nazi brutality spurred the formation of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), a guerrilla force dedicated to fighting German occupation. Before long, as the Red Army was driving the Wehrmacht back toward Berlin, UPA turned its weapons against the Soviets. In Strilkivtsi and surrounding areas there are miles and miles of caverns. Jews sheltered there during Nazi occupation. In their fight against the Soviets, so did UPA. And therefore, because of the village and regions’ tactical importance, NKVD military units were ensconced there to defeat the pro-independence guerrillas and consolidate Soviet rule.
Caught between two military/political forces, everyone was forced to participate, even my then five-year-old brother. I remember mama recounting – too young at the time for me to understand – how Yurko got a hold of wire cutters and severed an NKVD communication cable: a naughty antic, I thought, by a little boy pulling a juvenile prank. I now realize that UPA in the nearby caverns had given Yurko the cutter and told him what to do. We’ll never know the details. What I do know is that the struggle was vicious.
Mama told how she was forced to witness the hanging of young UPA warriors. Two years earlier, she had seen the Nazis seizing and deporting Jews. Decades later, I came to the realization that she suffered from what we today label Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This, I’m sure, also impacted Yurko growing up, absorbing our mother’s fear and anxiety while learning survival skills he applied to good use throughout his life.
And, indeed, again according to mama, Yurko was wise beyond his years, even as she regretted his loss of childhood innocence. Only five years old, he publicly announced “Glory be to Father Stalin!” His cousin, also 80 years old now and living in Ukraine, later rebuked him: “How could you say that? Don’t you know that Stalin killed my father?”
“Of course, I know that,” Yurko replied. “Do you want him to kill my father?” Mama both admired and lamented that Yurko, so young, knew what lies to tell.
I’ve written before how our tato in May 1946, 31 years old, brazenly and audaciously used forged documents purporting Austrian citizenship to go to the NKVD to “repatriate” his wife and son to Vienna. It succeeded, even as his brothers and friends in Austria saw it as a suicide mission. Tato soon moved the family to the United Nation’s Displaced Persons Zone in Innsbruck, Austria, where I was born in 1947. We then went through Germany to America in May 1948.
Yurko, seven years old, quickly learned to speak English without an accent; played in the school band in a Pennsylvania mining town; gathered coal tossed from railroad cars next to the tracks to bring home to help heat our modest dwelling in Frackville; harvested wild huckleberries to sell to neighbors. He went on to graduate from Ohio State University, was commissioned an officer in the U.S. Army, served two tours in Korea, followed by several years in Germany. He retired as a lieutenant colonel, followed by a distinguished civilian career as an attorney at the Army Corps of Engineers. Yurko married a wonderful woman, Chrystia Kaminsky. Together, they raised two boys, put them through college and are now grandparents of two adorable girls. Yurko headed the Shevchenko Scientific Society in Detroit, has been a generous benefactor of Ukrainian culture and is patriarch of the Fedynsky family.
As I reflect on my brother Yurko’s life, his wife Chrystia and their contemporaries, I’m amazed how they prevailed against enormously traumatic childhoods. I’ve spoken with many of them – nearly a decade older than me. They remember fleeing west while airplanes strafed the railroad tracks; infant siblings buried by the side of the road; the fire-bombing of Dresden; DP Camp tribulations; attacks at school from anti-immigrant louts in America. Looking at what my brother Yurko and others like him have achieved – careers as physicians, lawyers, engineers, judges, autoworkers, steelworkers, educators, religious leaders, moms raising children, serving the Ukrainian cause and helping America win the Cold War. I’m impressed and proud. I wish their stories could all be told and preserved. A few of them are; most, alas, are lost. Filmmaker Matej Silecky has recorded a number of their stories in his documentary “Baba Babi Skazala.” Make a point of viewing it: https://kitsunetaleproductions.com/.
Yurko? He’s kind, generous, loving, dedicated to his family and community. I’m grateful to be his brother and always look forward to seeing him, to enjoy his wit, wisdom and hospitality. Sixty years ago in Detroit, 40 years old was “elderly.” Eighty now, writers say, is the new 60. Me? I echo our Polish friends in shouting out “Sto Lat” (A Hundred Years!).