Few truths about my life before the war…
My darling daughter,
These are the few truths about my life before the war, truths I wish I had told you long ago before it was too late…
I was born in 1910 on land once claimed by the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires. My birth certificate did not survive the years I spent in captivity. My Alien Registration papers were given to me by the British after the war list my birthplace as Brody, Poland. Still, you must realize that the people of Brody and the surrounding countryside always considered the area, Galicia – western Ukraine. This land, my land, was one of many masters – the Ottoman Empire, the Cossacks, the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, the Polish after the fall of the Tsar, and eventually the Germans and the Soviets War II. Despite shifting boundaries, my family and millions of other Ukrainians like us held fast to our heritage and the land we called Ukraina – borderland.
My birth came during the silence of winter when the cold moon poured light upon my body. In the year of Leo Tolstoy’s death, I entered the world under the benediction of this writer’s last prayer, a lament. “Struggle on relentless, true heart. Only the iniquitous will perish. He who suffered to the end will be saved,” as if the poets told of my birth, conspired to bless me with these stubborn words of faith to carry with me all the years of my life.
I was born during a time when priests wore golden brocade robes and jeweled miters, and the poor kissed wooden icons carved from abandoned scrap. Homes smelled of bread and leather. Nearly everything was made from iron and wood. I grew into a culture where farmers, poets, and priests lived the closest to heaven. Why? Because food from the land kept us alive. Poetry nourished our hearts. And faith assuaged our fears. Land, literature, and faith; this is the Holy Trinity of needful things for Ukrainians, my dear child. The land was most important to my family because it had been lost so many times before, and without land, there would not be any grain to bake bread.
Verse is a solace for those like you, Anna, a solace for whom bread or belief is never enough.
I came of age speaking several languages, including German, knowledge that would be painfully helpful to me later in my life when I was a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. Our family spoke German when our servants served the meals and moved silently through the house. Your grandfather, my father, practiced law while my grandfather ministered to others’ spiritual needs as a Greek Orthodox priest. Yes, we were a family of means, well educated; some would say we were part of the Ukrainian intelligentsia. How we lived our lives made us targets of all political persuasions on the left and the right.
For many years, I lived on the farm that my family cultivated for generations learning reverence for the fertility and the vastness of the land. Against the backdrop of history, I learned to read, wept bitterly after falling from my horse, painted Ukrainian Easter eggs in the spring with my sister, and prayed for my family’s good health at Christmas.
I remember when the Bolshevik revolutionaries spread their violence across the Eastern European landscape. I was seven years old. Stripping churches of art and helping themselves to the Old Masters in the Hermitage Museum, the Communists destroyed all they did not understand. With utmost precision, these bloodthirsty, frenzied soldiers later declared war on the scholars, the writers, the artists, and political activists imprisoning and murdering hundreds of thousands of people between 1932 and 1939.
Who did my family list among the disappeared? The violinmaker? The poet? The priest? The professor? I can’t answer this question for you, but I recognized the scents of war by my tenth birthday. I listened to my parents talk about news from “the front.” I saw the names of Ukrainian soldiers posted on shopkeepers’ windows when I went to the market, my mother gripping my hand so tightly, I thought my tiny fingers would splinter into bony pieces.
As a young man, I read Proust, Aristotle, and Dante, yet, my studies of the human body, the articulation of its internal rhythms, its complexity, the inevitability of disease captured my curiosity much more. Indeed, my father chose me rather than my brother to be educated, to become a doctor. I left my home and traveled to L’viv to go to school at the University of L’viv School of Medicine. I fell in love with all facets of my studies. Still, it was the heart, the body’s most muscular organ, this vulnerable physical and emotional nexus of a human being, that I loved most both for its fragility and strength.
I charted my entire career around the heart’s illnesses until my own heart failed, my darling child, leaving you a graveyard of unanswered questions.
For a while, I was lost in my studies, hungry for the novelty of medical knowledge, and entranced by L’viv, the city of lions and 12th-century walls and towers, Baroque palaces, and onion-domed churches. Once considered the capital of Ukraine before the city came under Polish rule, L’viv always seemed to lie in the heart of disputed territory; it would become a war zone before my eyes.
Alarmed by the advancing danger and concerned for my family, I left my studies in L’viv and returned home to Brody. I was thankful for the nights my family had bread, huge, braided kolach my mother baked over the fire in the afternoons. Each night, my mother placed the loaf in the center of the table and surrounded it with a wreath of candles. I still remember the poppy seeds crackling from the heat, exploding like kernels of corn, and the sound of my mother tapping the bottom of the bread with a knife to listen for the hollow sound. I have watched you too, Anna, your fierce concentration as you plait the freshly risen dough and tap baked bottoms of the kolach bread you have taught yourself to make.
Though your uncle, my brother, fretted about surviving the winter with enough food to feed the family, when I arrived at home, he told me to return to L’viv and finish my education. I was worried about leaving my family to manage without me and what would happen to them when the war arrived. Against my instincts, I returned to medical school. When the Red Army crossed the eastern Polish border, L’viv, the city I had grown to love dearly, a city at the heart of political and geographical purgatory, collapsed under Soviet control. Though met with some resistance from the Polish Frontier Defense Corps initially, the area fell to occupation when the Soviets closed off the eastern front.
The Soviet Union established a civilian government in L’viv and registered each member of the Polish army’s formations. The Soviet government intimated to Polish officers like me that we would eventually return home, receiving the same treatment as Red Army officers. Instead, scores were arrested and shipped to P.O.W. camps. Soviet suspicion of sympathy for the Ukrainian nationalistic resistance contributed to such detentions. The Soviets considered Poles and Ukrainians to be traitors. Once the invasion of L’viv was complete, the Soviets dismantled schools, ransacked museums, and smashed the churches’ stained glass with relish. Even the priests carried special passports and faced arrest and deportation along with landowners, like my family, politicians of all persuasions, lawyers, and judges. Trainloads of intellectuals disappeared overnight; their frozen corpses were later found along railroad tracks; the Soviets pushed those they murdered off moving trains.
At the beginning of the Soviet occupation, I was lucky, unlike many others. Upon Stalin’s directive, thousands of Polish soldiers like myself were wedged together in the back of windowless “Black Raven” trucks and transported from L’viv and Soviet internment camps to execution sites. Most of the victims were Polish Army reservists like me – lawyers, doctors, scientists, writers, and journalists. These Polish officers disappeared from Soviet camps at Starobielsk, Kozelsk, and Ostashkov, their bodies hidden in Katyn Forest’s unmarked graves.
Soon after my return to L’viv, Stalin and Hitler signed their bloody agreement, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and with a stroke of their pens, set in motion years of war, displacement, and suffering. Violence was days away from beginning in Polish-ruled western Ukraine. The German military marched into Poland from the west while the Red Army entered from the east dividing Galicia and Poland.
Over 7.5 million Ukrainians died during the war, including four million civilians. With only a stroke of two pens, the war set years of displacement and suffering in motion. The Polish army drafted me into service.
When Hitler cast aside his and Stalin’s spurious pact and invaded western Ukraine in the summer of 1941, the Germans uncovered the Soviets’ murderous, dirty secrets that the army had hidden so well. Mass grave after a mass grave with grisly remains of missing Polish soldiers on Soviet officer lists saw the light. After the Soviet’s retreat and German invasion, families searching for their loved ones found torture chambers with body parts stacked like firewood. Anticipating German invasion, the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, slaughtered nearly 19,000 Ukrainian prisoners, many of whom were members of the Polish army, in western Ukraine before retreating. Stalin’s mass liquidation killed much of the Polish intelligentsia; nearly 15,000 Polish officers were prisoners of the Red Army and later executed.
One sickening discovery found deep within the Katyn Forest – seven mass graves became the sacred ground for the bodies of 4,300 Polish soldiers. Each person lay bound at hand and foot, shot execution-style in the back of the head, found with photographs, diaries, letters, and talismans in their pockets. The number of bodies found in the forest equaled the number of prisoners held at Kozielsk, one of the early Soviet internment camps. Though I was arrested and imprisoned for two years in a Soviet camp, God blessed me once more: I escaped execution by managing to flee the prisoner-of-war camp by bribing a young officer with a hint of vodka. If I had not fled the Soviet camp, I would have died in Katyn Forest.
Only one man survived the massacre.
Remember, Ukrainians always turn to faith, my child. When wheat did not grow and hope drained away from the soul, we prayed. From farmhouse to farmhouse, men and women once painted wooden icons by hand, ones they believed were endowed with a mysterious power to link the soul of a mortal with God. Faith’s characters sat on kitchen tables and in the shadows of stone hearths gathering dust until waves of doubt swept over the household. Mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers held their wooden Gods close under the covers, praying for a new morning when this doubt rolled in like a storm.
Do you know the myth of the wicked serpent, Anna? I will tell you. Each year, the serpent casts out his servants to count the number of pysanky, the Ukrainian Easter egg. If the number is low, the serpent’s chains loosen, and he is free to wander the earth, a wave of terror and havoc trailing behind him. If the number is higher than the year before, the chains around his neck tighten, and good triumphs over evil. When I was a small child at Easter, I sat between my younger sister, Olga, and my older brother, earnestly insisting the stories our grandfather told were true. My brother scolded me for believing such superstitions. Olga stared at both of us wide-eyed, unsure who she should believe.
Even as a young man, I believed the myth of the wicked serpent. That spring, when I returned to the farm before the Soviets came, I insisted that the viper would remain forever chained to a cliff as long as Easter eggs, the pysanka, were painted bright colors on white ovals. As long as the custom continued, I believed the world would exist. I rose at dawn and painted egg after egg until there were no more in the house; I have always been afraid of the serpent. I remembered the scent of war’s beginnings from days of revolution from childhood.
Land and literature. For me, these parts of my life I knew before the war did not survive. I rarely read a poem, and as you remember, I did not have the patience for a novel. Poetry can be tricky, unleashing torrents of unfettered emotions, like love and the hunger to trust. Only my faith managed to move silently between the decades while my country’s borders bent under the weight of forgotten wars.
Many do not realize the terrors the Soviets perpetrated on hundreds of thousands during World War II. In the main, the history books attribute the viciousness and horror of war to Hitler. Controversies like the one cloaking the executions in Katyn Forest persist in your time because the memory of a nation, historical memory, is the only anchor for many. Memory is not merely nostalgia for those that came through this unforgivable war. Memory and its preservation is a political act demonstrative of one’s survival and central to the heart of one’s cultural and historical identity.
You are named, in part, for your grandmother, and even though you are yet to understand your Ukrainian history, I can see that the humanity and faith of your Ukrainian disposition blend effortlessly with the warmth and compassion of your mother’s English blood. Your path of Fate will be steep, my darling child, and I am to blame for much of what you will shoulder long into the future. Because of your open and honest heart, you will be betrayed many times. Remember that you must always have faith, Anna. Do not forget that history is an equally important story, one that is the very definition of your own life. I promise you, one day, you will understand.
Your loving father