March 25, 2021

Restoring Ukraine’s heritage – yet another story

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I had never before heard of Yulian Dorosh (1909-1982). Who, you might ask? Well, Dorosh was a distinguished Ukrainian cultural figure, I recently learned, a pioneering filmmaker and photographer starting in 1920s, 1930s and active his entire life. And now there’s an exhibit of his life’s work at the Historical-Regional Museum in Vynnyky just outside of Lviv, the city where he spent his professional career (see https://www.facebook.com/events/ 159528662565999/).

Yulian Dorosh spent his youth in Stanyslaviv (now Ivano-Frankivsk) in Western Ukraine. Four years older than my father, Alexander Fedynsky, he attended the same academic gymnasium and was a member of Plast Ukrainian Scouting Organization. So, it’s pretty much a certainty that Dorosh knew my father and uncles who attended the same school and were also members of Plast. It was there in Stanyslaviv that Dorosh picked up a camera and began documenting Ukrainian life, including summer activities at the Plast “Sokil” camp in the Carpathians. My father, along with hundreds of other Ukrainian youths, was no doubt on the other end of the camera lens.

I had the honor, as director of the Ukrainian Museum-Archives (UMA) in Cleveland, of speaking via Zoom at the opening of the exhibit in March with a dozen or so of Dorosh’s photographs from the Hutsul Region in Carpathia – digitized copies of originals in the UMA collection.

How did this material in the U.S. make its way back to Ukraine? Serendipity. Most all of us have experienced it – how a seemingly casual meeting leads to a significant, happy outcome sometime later.

This one? It began in the spring of 2016 when a young, independent filmmaker from Ukraine, Oleksandr Debych, showed up at the UMA. He was producing a documentary about his great uncle who emigrated from Ukraine a hundred years ago and settled in Cleveland. Researching historical passenger manifests, etc., Oleksandr had tracked his ancestor’s travel from a village in the Carpathians to a port in Germany and then to New York and from there to Pennsylvania and later Cleveland. He cited a photograph his great uncle’s family in Cleveland had sent in 1954. Now, he wanted to pursue the trail. Where can he turn? Oleksandr asked.

We had no information in our own archives, but I introduced him to our partners at the Cleveland Public Library who opened up decades-old Cleveland newspaper archives, real estate records, phone books, etc. Oleksandr went to work. In the two weeks he spent in Cleveland, he found descendants here and also in Pennsylvania, Florida, Nevada and Texas. Before leaving home to Ukraine, Oleksandr indicated, “I’m not done. There are so many historic photographs at the UMA that need to be saved, organized and digitized. How can I get to work on that?”

I advised him to apply for a Fulbright Fellowship. And so, he applied and was subsequently accepted as a visiting scholar at the Slavic Studies program at Ohio State University (OSU), another partner institution with the UMA. Although he was officially at OSU in Columbus, his project was to organize and catalog the extensive UMA photo collection and work on his documentary film project. From an apartment in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood, Oleksandr made a daily five-minute walk to work in the UMA collections. The founder and first director was Leonid Bachynsky, headmaster of a women’s academic gymnasium in pre-WW I Peremyshl and later organizer of Plast in Transcarpathia. In Cleveland, he worked as a machinist at a tool and die factory. When old age forced Leonid to retire, my father took over. He had been a political prisoner in Polish-administrated Halychyna (Galicia) and then again in WW II Austria under the Nazis. As an immigrant to the U.S., he worked at a Cleveland metals factory. Wage-earners during the day, they and others were scholars in the evenings and weekends.

Together they compiled mountains of materials over the decades, stacked in boxes and shelves floor to ceiling in a wood-frame building, awaiting some future activists to make sense of them and put them to work on behalf of Ukrainian culture. That’s where Oleksandr Debych came in. A cinematographer himself, he came across some 30 vintage diaspora film posters at the UMA that he had never heard of: “I was tormented,” he said, “by the thought of those movies until I found them.” He couldn’t find any of the films online or even information about most of them on the internet, but he was aware that the diaspora in the United States and Canada had kept many of these films and tapes. And so, tapping into century-old newspapers and a quiet network of American and Canadian Ukrainian collectors, Olesandr began tracking down long-forgotten films. Introducing himself as a resident scholar at the UMA and Fulbright Fellow at OSU, he established acquaintanceships and friendships with e-mails and phone calls.

Among the posters Oleksandr discovered at the UMA are those advertising films produced by Vasyl Avramenko in the 1930s, including Natalka Poltavka, Zaporozhyts za Dunayem (Cossacks in Exile), The Tragedy of Carpatho-Ukraine, The Triumph of the Ukrainian Dance. Researching these movies and the life of the legendary dance organizer, Oleksandr learned that Volodymyr Papuha (who changed his name to Blondynenko and later to Walter Blondyn) had been secretary to Avramenko. And that he was a Clevelander. And that Blon­dynenko was also a filmmaker. And that his daughter Patricia Blondyn-Sanborn lives not far from Cleveland. And so, Oleksandr called her – she came to the UMA with materials from her father’s legacy.

Patricia’s father, it turned out, was a freelance journalist who went to Carpatho-Ukraine in the late 1930s to document the historical events that were taking place there. He left his archive to his two daughters without explaining what was there. Patricia, not wanting to throw them away, kept the materials in the attic of her home in the hope they might someday become useful. Oleksandr recognized their importance. Included were photographs Walter Blondyn took of Rev. Avhustyn Voloshyn, president of the short-lived Carpatho-Ukraine Republic, and his colleagues who spearheaded the 1939 independence effort. There were also photos of Hutsuls Yulian Dorosh took nearly a hundred years ago.

Somehow, Blondyn acquired the Dorosh photos and brought them back to Cleveland. Eighty years later, Debych flew to Florida to meet with Lubomyr Kulynych, whose family archive had a historical film that turned out to be “The Final Salute to the Commander,” documenting the 1938 funeral of Ukrainian Galician Army General Myron Tarnawsky. Oleksandr didn’t know that until 2019 when he showed his film collection to Yulian Dorosh, and researcher in Lviv, Iryna Patron, who recognized that film, among many others. The film includes astounding images of Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky, a young Josyf Slipyj, Roman Shukhevych, Andriy Melnyk and others. It had made its way from Ukraine to the U.S. and was considered lost, indeed it was pretty much forgotten. With the miracle of digital technology and the approval of Mr. Kulynych, Mr. Debych made a copy. The film was part of the Dorosh Exhibit-opening in Vynnyky. Imagine that!

In his searches, Oleksandr also spoke with George Soluk in Los Angeles and discovered that his family archives preserve another version of “The Final Salute to the Commander,” edited by his father Bohdan Soluk and called “Lviv Speaks.” With George Soluk’s support in California, Oleksandr uncovered another forgotten film: Ivan Yatsentiy’s “Halychyna,” in the family collection maintained by Yevhen Novak, son of Mykola Novak who collected the film while working in the Hollywood film industry. Shot in 1927 during an American cultural mission in Poland, it has striking images of nearly 100-year-old Lviv streetscapes. Mr. Debych copied all of these, acquiring quite an archive of vintage Ukrainian photos and films. In January 2020 – just before the pandemic – the American Independence Film Festival (see http://aiffua.com/ukr-kinematograf-za-okeanom-en), sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, featured what they characterized as Oleksandr’s “remarkable discoveries. …About 100 documentary tapes from private and archival collections were found, excerpts from which will be presented as part of a lecture on the activities of Ukrainian directors in the United States.”

In the past year and a half, Debych has been sharing his discoveries throughout Ukraine, collected at the UMA and with trips to Rochester, New York, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and flights to Florida, Puerto Rico, etc. The Dorosh exhibit is but one. Oleksandr is also sharing 100-year-old photos from the UMA of artist Olena Kulchytska with the Bohdan Lepkyi Museum in Berezhany and the Ukrainian National Sheptytsky Museum in Lviv, 1939 photos from the UMA of Rev. Avhustyn Voloshyn from Carpatho-Ukraine and Kalenyk Lysiuk’s documentary work there at the same time with a museum in Khust (see https://www.kau.com.ua/) and at a 2019 conference at the National University at Uzhhorod where Oleksandr displayed on a big screen Walter Blondyn’s ID card signed by Cleveland Safety Director Eliot Ness, requesting safe passage across borders as the photo-journalist traveled into Carpatho-Ukraine (see https://karpatnews.in.ua/news/172619-v-uzhhorodi-vidbulasia-prezentatsiia-video-vystavky-kalenyk-lysiuk-i-karpatska-ukraina.htm).

More is yet to come. The city of Khmelnytsky is planning to collaborate with the UMA and Mr. Debych on an exhibit of their native son, Kalynyk Lysiuk. Exhibits were planned and then postponed because of the pandemic in Kolomyia, Rakovets, Khust, Uzhhorod and Ivano-Frankivsk (see https://www.facebook.com/events/1043899292766120/?ti=ls). Those will no doubt be rescheduled.

The Fulbright program in Ukraine supported Oleksandr. So did the Ohio State University’s Slavic Department. So did the Ukrainian Museum-Archives. So did many individuals and institutions who trusted him with their precious photos and films, treasures which perforce deteriorate every day and need preservation – a whole separate challenge.

Ukraine, having lost so much of its cultural-historical legacy from war, censorship and deliberate destruction during the Soviet era, is recovering its past. I focus on Oleksandr as one of those pathfinders because he’s the one I know – and admire for the work he’s doing. The investment so many made in Mr. Debych’s nine months in Cleveland and his travels around North America are paying major dividends in Ukraine today.

And yes, Oleksandr also invested: a year of his life in America and now three years more in Ukraine. But he cannot and has not done it alone. The exhibits and conferences where he shares the collections preserved by a now-departed generation of diaspora cultural activists, like Leonid Bachynsky, my father Alexander and an army of similar idealists, are now being organized and promoted by a young cadre of Ukrainians discovering their nation’s heritage and determined to share it with the world. I wish my father, his colleagues and those who preserved precious photographic/film artifacts in the expectation that they would become relevant and important could see how their collections are now getting back to Ukraine and making a difference. As for Yulian Dorosh? If he only knew the incredible path his work took from Lviv to the U.S. and back!

Andrew Fedynsky’s e-mail address is afedynsky@gmail.com.