“Mih vernym. Mih vernym,” my parents would say. "We will return. We will return." When the communist soldiers leave, when Ukraine is free, they would say,"We will return." Growing up in an expatriate community in New York City, after my parents had been uprooted by the 2nd World War, I will always remember that refrain, spoken in the musical voices of the Ukrainians who surrounded me in my youth. Yet this was something that was to never happen during their lifetimes.
And now I am here, in Ukraine, in their native land, which has been independent for almost seven years.
What I see is strangely familiar, somehow linked with memories of my childhood. As I walk down the airport steps and enter the city of Lviv, the capital of Western Ukraine, I see the familiar blue and yellow flags wave. The country’s national emblem, the tryzyb -- which looks somewhat like two R’s facing each other and intertwined with a fleur de lis -- is displayed just about everywhere. The Red flags are gone. Russian signs have been changed to Ukrainian ones. The airport van and old Ladas rattle over old cobblestone roads. The city’s fading splendor is reminiscent of its more prosperous days. Much of the architecture here dates back to the days of the Austria-Hungary Empire, when this part of the country was under its rule. An old opera theatre with worn plush red velvet seats and gilt booths reminds me of the intrigues of 18th century novels.
Though I have never been here, I feel like I live here. Indeed, many of the persons I meet could have been any of the people living in the expatriate community I lived in as a child.
When I go visit some relatives, my mother’s youngest sister’s entire family gathers to greet me. Though I have never met them, I feel as though I’ve always known them. Their ways, their speech, their gestures, their manners, are so familiar. As their old ’72 Lada rumbles though the countryside, I think of my mother, of her going to boarding school in this very town, of being driven home for the winter break in a sleigh pulled by horses rushing though the silent snow-covered roads, with sleigh bells jingling.
Clearly, the times and my family’s circumstances have changed. Warm, hospitable, my newly found relatives offer us a meal. The food is the labor-intensive, familiar food of my childhood, a savory broth, handmade pirohy, and as a special treat, a torte, filled with layers of jam and almond paste. The cucumbers and fresh tomatoes, grown in the country’s rich black soil, are delicious, unlike any I’ve even tasted. Oddly, though, unlike the traditional veal dishes and goulashes I remember being served during my childhood, they have no meat. Like the majority of the country’s population, they find themselves in the crunch of the country’s current economic crisis. A family of teachers, they each earn about 140 hrivny a month, the equivalent of 70 US Dollars, say they are just getting by from day to day, say they worry about the futures of their children. I want to take their teenage daughter, Maya, home with me, imagine sending her to an American college.
The next day, I go with them to visit my mother’s childhood home. But the house my mother lived in has been razed.. The flowers she talked about, the orchard, gone. Still standing is the church where her father was a Byzantine catholic priest. Recently rebuilt and reopened, it now has a pastor. A very elderly peasant woman who lives in a hut nearby and who used to work at the house hears our car drive up and walks up to the dusty road. She does not recognize my aunt but stares at me in amazement. “Irina is here," she exclaims in confusion and disbelief, mistaking me for my mother. "I remember Ira ( a village version of Irina)," she says and retreats into the past, talking about my mother as a lively, derring-do child who used to offer to take her on wild rides on her bike. She calls the the new village priest.
I realize I am on a quest. What happened to my family? I need to know. In Ukraine, what was merely whispered about or not spoken about at all during the days of communism is now being said aloud. Nothing is certain, I find. My grandfather, was murdered, his remains never found. The priest talks of what he has heard, stories of torture that are indeed unspeakable, and my newly found family and I are silent. About the fate of an uncle, a judge, nothing is known. He just disappeared. And then there is the story of the aunt who was captured while crossing the border. To this day, she has said nothing about what she experienced.
The next day, I go to a cemetery on the edge of Lviv, a famous and historic place that is also a museum, established under the Austria-Hungary regime as a burial ground for the intelligentsia and aristocracy. It is a beautiful place, where sculptures abound, and people linger, bringing flowers. Some monuments are centuries-old. and elaborate. Others are newly built, remembering victims of the Soviets. Particularly striking is a figure of a young man, a composer, with a draped piano in the background. I am told he was hanged. My family history here dates back to the 18th Century. The family, I find, has two crests. I see my great-grandfather’s gravesite. I also see the gravesite of my grandmother who was exiled to Siberia and died soon after. Among the more recently buried is another uncle who taught at the university. “The truth will always live on,” it says on his grave. Rumors abound about the circumstances of his death. Some say he was poisoned. And I see a mohyla, a hilllike mound that contains the remains of those who died during the communist occupation of Western Ukraine in 1944. My aunt guesses that my grandfather’s bones may be buried there, together with those of others found by a river.
America is a lucky country, it occurs to me, its people fortunate and have reason for their unbounded optimism. For the last 200 years they have been spared the horrors of a war fought on their land.
The next day, I go to the bazaar, but like in Joyce’s "Araby," I find many trinkets, but little to buy. At a refreshment stand with outside tables and chairs, I see an advertisement for cigarettes: ”Pall Mall” in American letters is inter-spaced with the nation’s symbol, the tryzyb. Chess players, all men, gather at tables at Lviv’s central square, competing in playoffs. A young boy seems to be winning. I think of my father, a celebrated chess champion, who used to play at the tables of Tompkins Square Park.
As I move on to the more Russified Kiev, the nation’s capital, a hotel clerk tells me my accent is from Lviv, not recognizing me as an American. As I walk around the city, I see an old man sitting on a bench under the trees, strumming a bandura, the national instrument, and singing with a beautiful, haunting voice. It’s a song I remember my mother singing, about the pain of a mother sending her son off to war.
In an ancient church that was turned into a museum and is now being rebuilt, another aunt gives me a tall thin candle to light. “In memory of your parents,” she says. Amid the smell of incense, the familiar icons, I am suddenly a child again, standing at a sung Byzantine high church service in my rabbit coat and a warm fur muff. As we go outside, we see a shining gold-leaf dome being placed on top of the church. In that very plaza, I have my photo taken under a familiar statue of the Viking Queen Olha, whom I learned about in my childhood history classes. My namesake, she brought Christianity into Ukraine.
As I near the end of my tour, on the eve of the country’s Independence Day celebration, I hear the National Anthem sung, Che Ne Vmerla Ukraina, (Ukraine has not died yet, neither has its fame and glory), something my parents would never have imagined hearing in this land. The Head of Parliament gives a speech in Ukrainian. Then comes an amazing display of choral singing, music, and the balletic folkdances I performed as a child. I fall in love with the voice of a baritone soloist who sings with a band, a voice the reminds me of the formal dance parties my parents attended, of a tenor singing, of my father bowing and asking me for a dance as a child. I would hold onto his arms tight and we would spin in swirling circles.
And so, at the end of my visit, I find myself torn apart, standing with one foot in this land, and the other in the nation that welcomed my parents. If not for the war, it occurs to me, I would have lived in Ukraine, the family line not disrupted. Cut off from my past, like many Americans, I find my roots in one land and myself in another.
(c) Olya Thompson
(First published in Newsday and The Philadelphia Inquirer)