Last year I took fourteen letters from my Mom’s house, along with my Dad’s Polish passport. While my dad was alive he never talked much about his past and to be honest, I didn’t really ask. I was busy raising my children, teaching school and just living my life. I now realize how important it is to have these conversations about our ancestors’ lives when the people who knew them are still alive.
My Polish is non-existent and my Ukrainian, which my parents spoke, is limited, so I hired an accredited translator to translate the letters for me. My husband and I had decided that we would go to Poland in search of my Dad’s roots. After hiring a guide, we met in Lviv, a city in western Ukraine (which was once a part of Poland).
I forwarded the letters to the guide and asked him if he could find any of the people who had written them. My dad’s father had more or less abandoned my grandmother and my dad, and moved to Canada. For some reason in 1937 he sent my dad a ticket and so this intrepid 16 year old travelled to Gydnia, where he caught a ship that carried him to Halifax and then a train to take him across Canada to Edmonton, Alberta.
After my father left, my Grandmother had another baby in 1941 with someone else. During the Second World War in 1943, while living in a tiny village of Uhly, Ukraine, a Ukrainian army detachment came looking for Poles and shot anyone who was running, my grandmother being one of them. She was carrying the two-year old baby and fell on her, saving the baby’s life.
When we arrived in Lviv and met Tomasz, our guide, and Wasyl, our driver, they told us that they had found some family. Travelling 300 km north of Lviv, we stopped at the house of a woman whose father was my Grandma’s brother. This was more than I had hoped for. They knew we were coming and had a table set with much food and, of course, vodka. Froscia and her daughter and son-in-law were so gracious and welcoming and showed us a picture of my grandmother that was the same one I had.
After eating lunch, Tomasz herded us into the car and said we were going to meet some more relatives. Twenty minutes down the road we drove up to a new house where more than fifteen people had been waiting for us to arrive. There in the house was Marusia, the baby (who my grandmother had been carrying when attacked) and half sister of my Dad, along with three of her five children and a daughter-in-law and their extended families. Who would have thought that this trip would produce this result?
It was a very emotional time. These people were so welcoming and warm and accepting of us total strangers that they had never met. We felt very special. Their table too, was filled with food and of course vodka!
They took us to three other houses to show us where and how they lived. We were to stay in a town called Sarny for the night but they insisted we stay with them, along with the driver and the translator.
Before we went to bed there was more food and, of course, vodka too!
The next morning Marusia and her two sons and their wives took us to Uhly where we visited the grave of my grandmother Nadia. That day there was a huge lump in my throat and buckets of tears as I stood on that barren windy plain and wept for a woman whom I had never met but was such an important part of my genetics
Seeing this very poor village where my Dad grew up gave me a new understanding of the obstacles my Dad had overcome when he came to Canada. He became a watchmaker, a jeweller and a coin dealer, providing us, his family, with a living that enabled both my sister and I to attend university.
And so, what I am urging those of you who are busy, like I was, is to take the time to ask the questions, and to talk to your older relatives, because once they’re gone it’s hard to ever find out your own history. I am so lucky that I was able to do this, not only for myself, but for my own children and grandchildren. What better time than Christmas when all the family is gathered. So pour a glass of egg nog or vodka, and get into it.