THE GREAT ESCAPE
FROM EAST TO WEST IN WAR-TORN EUROPE
By M. John Sklepkowycz
© Copyright 2002 M. John Sklepkowycz. All rights reserved.
What follows is an excerpt from my unpublished life's story which I wrote simply as a record for future generations of my family. It takes you from the Western Ukraine village where I was born through the trials of survival during and after WW II and my arrival in Canada. Included are comments and remembrances on life in Europe at the time, notes on my family etc.
I was born on April 12, 1936 in the village called Czechy. The Cz is pronounced like the "CH" in "church", the "ch" like in the name "Baruch", in western Ukraine, not far (about 60km?) from Lviv. Nearby (by North American standards and where we also lived) were the towns of Zolochiw and Sasiw. My sister says it was called Luhowe (with the accent on the ‘e’ like in ole!) sometime after we left. The county was Brody (name of town where the Kapy family comes from). My second cousin George Kapy was my pal in Dinkelsbühl in Germany and Toronto. It was Easter Sunday when I was born, by the Julian calendar and the family was at church, where my grandfather, Meletiy (Meletius) Fedenyshyn (1883-1965) was pastor. Their maid ran to the church, which was next door (so to speak), to tell everyone I had arrived. Meletiy was married to Maria Zhygalowych (1883-1958). She had Roman, Hala, Hanya and Constantyna as siblings. Zenia says the Russians changed the name of Czechy to ‘Luhowe’ after WW II. I have also been told that it has yet another name, yet I have found some information listed under the original name.
My sister Zenia (Zenowia) Kowalczuk is seven years older than I. She was apparently apprehensive about the appearance of a brother. As the village kids did not necessarily smell too good, she accepted me after I was shown to her all powdered up and clean to smell nice!
My grandparents Meletiy and Maria Fedenyshyn had a maid, Anna, who lived in, and probably had an allowance of money paid to her as well as room and board. My grandmother suggested to her that she should meet someone she could marry and have a family, but she insisted that she did not want to live like the villagers and would rather stay with them. She did so. Apparently, according to my sister, my grandparents passed Haňka in the street one day, while she, a little girl, was standing there barefoot in cold weather, and asked her if she would like to come to their house and play with my uncle Tony, their little boy. She eventually moved in.
My grandmother died first and Anna (Haňka, the "n" is pronounced softly, like in the Spanish caňyon) Prylip (her gravestone says Prylipiw) buried my grandfather who was stripped of his parish and forced to work on a collective farm by the Russians. He did get buried dressed in a priest’s robes. My mother’s brother Tony (Antin) Fedenyshyn, who is younger than my mother had monuments placed on my grandparents’ grave and their maid’s in the 1990s.
There was another brother, the eldest "Deyko" (Thadeus). He had been a newsreel photographer for Deutche Wochenshau. I remember stacks of 35mm movie film stored in my grandmother’s pantry, probably a couple of hundred rolls, some of them brown coloured film. The reels were like the ones we used to get at the Bay and Imperial movie theatres in Toronto when I worked there as an usher (in the early 1950s) when I was a young teenager. Deyko was married to Irene Oleksyn, and they had two children that did not survive birth.
Uncle Deyko disappeared in Munich during the turmoil after World War II. Aunt Irene went after the American military to try and find him, apparently right to the top, but nothing was turned up. Her mother, who had a hand in smuggling Jews to safety, was with her all this time. We visited them in Lviv during the German occupation. (The Germans occupied Lviv on 30 June, 1941, eight days after the invasion of the Soviet Union. Eichmann was here in 1941.) Here was the first time I saw electric lights. It was probably 1943 and I was seven. Deyko owned a photo shop in Lviv. The Russians demanded that all their citizens be returned to their territories after the war. Deyko was arrested by the US authorities and detained. Security was lax, and he could have been ‘sprung’ but it was decided, by people working on his case, to go through legal channels. He disappeared before this could be accomplished. The Russians claimed he had escaped.
The black market was flourishing in Europe. If you had gold or tangible goods, you were ok! You could trade stuff for stuff. I did some of that myself - but wait, that would be getting ahead of myself in this story.
Uncle Tony raced bicycles when he was a young man and apparently made some disparaging remarks about the political administration (Polish) which awarded him a trophy when he won a race. This was enough to make him a marked man, so he had to flee. He went to Germany, crossing the border by swimming across a river, and ended up joining the German army. When the Germans drove the Russians out of our part of Ukraine he came to my grandparents’ home on furlough. I remember him lying on a couch with me sitting on top of him and .25 caliber (7.35mm) ammunition falling out of the watch pocket on his uniform trousers. He was in a battalion of Ukrainians in the Wehrmacht. My grandmother apparently told him not to kill anyone, and he didn’t, but was shot when sent out into action against Russian partisans. The bullet entered below the knee and came out in his thigh. He was in a hospital in Frankfurt Am Oder, but still limps a little. At least they saved his leg. The knee must have been a mess. There was a book published in the US about Ukrainians in the German Army, or specifically about this battalion and his photo appears in it.
Tony Kowalchuk, my sister’s ex-husband knew Uncle Tony. When Kowalchuk was in high school in Brody, Uncle Tony was there as well, but ahead of him. Kowalchuk said last week that the uncle was a great bicycle racer..
Tony, Irene and her mother stayed together, and after her mother died (in Newark, N.J) she and Tony were married. This was in the early 1950s and my mother and I went to their wedding. Irene was an artist, painting in oil etc., and quite good. We have something she did. They adopted Maria, a Ukrainian orphan in Germany, and brought her to N.J. She eventually got married, was divorced, and is now married again, quite happily. After Irene died Tony re-married a woman younger than my wife Helen. She had kids and Tony was so good to them so she thought he was great. And he is.
LIFE IN CZECHY
Czechy ‘originally’ had about 500 ‘numbers’, or homes. During the eventual Soviet control this dwindled to 100, and the rumour in 1998 is that it no longer exists. I guess ploughed under for a collective farm. The Germans ‘inducted’ many inhabitants into the workforce in Germany. Anyone who fell into a certain age slot was kidnapped to work in Germany. My grandfather changed Zenia’s birth date in the official church records, making her one year younger, or she would have been gone. This resulted in her having to wait an extra year for her Old Age Pension in Canada. There were no ‘real’ documents. The Russians on the other hand, shipped many residents to Siberia.
I spent a lot of my pre-school time at my mother’s parents’ home in Czechy and it was great! I was a carefree kid, who was the priest’s grandson, which made no difference to a kid, but I certainly lived better than the village urchins! The tailor came to measure me for clothing - and came to fit it. The same with the shoemaker and the barber, both of whom came to tend to me and which today, I remember vividly. Not their faces, but the visits. There is a photo of Zenia (front row left) and myself (front row right) and a group of carolers on our front steps. I remember when Mr. Gargash came to measure and fit me with those boots! The carpenter made me a pair of skis. I’m wearing them in a 16mm movie film, which Uncle Tony has, filmed by Deyko. Deyko, by the way came to visit us in Czechy. I'm also wearing Uncle Tony's army hat and Walther™ pistol in still photos taken in 1943 or 44 in Czechy, while both Tony and Deyko were visiting.
The first time I saw a car, it was Deyko’s. He got stuck in the mud of the driveway. It was a pale beige colour? You started the engine by turning a crank, and turn signals were little lit-up arms that popped up out of the column between the front and rear doors. It, like others I saw in Germany, had running boards. As an aside, someone told me later that during this era covering the tires to shield them from the sun when parking was part of driver instruction!
There is a photo of Deyko and my grandfather making ice cream at a table, with me watching, under the cherry trees in the orchard (on the way to the outhouse!). I remember that vividly. They put a mixture of cream and whatever into a bucket, which was inside a wooden pail with ice packed in between. Salt was poured onto the ice and a hand crank turned the inside bucket or some such contraption. Maybe the mechanism simply stirred the cream mixture. My first frozen dessert! The next time I had one was in Germany in 1948! That was in Dinkelsbühl, and there was a puppet show, outdoors. Perhaps it was a carnival, but I only remember the puppets and the ice cream. It was more like sherbet. How could the present day kid survive!? The ice cream making was probably happening in 1941-1942.
I remember winter and summer here, and being sent to the village school across the road for the first time, when I must have been seven. This would have been 1943. This did not last long as my German papers show that I was in Zolochiw on September 1, 1943, but my sister (Zenovia Kowalczuk) says I learned to read and write Ukrainian here. She says the teacher was a fat lady. I had typed "I don’t know", but her face just appeared in my mind as I’m editing this here and there on March 26th at 12:50am! I do remember my grandfather chasing me to make me go to school, and I was hiding. It was a warm sunny day, and I remember running down the garden path with some tall stuff growing along the path.
Grandfather was really great to me, as was everyone. He would keep on giving me new pocket-knives (a "scyzoryk") and I would lose them. There was a Cop-op general store in the village where I was bought a treat once in a while. My favourite candies (and there weren’t many) were "cow candies" - now commonly available in Canada. Creamy milk fudge, in a brown and yellow wrapper with a picture of a cow. They are made in Poland. I was delighted when I first saw them in Canada.
I don’t remember who with, but my grandfather played a card game he called "proferanca". I think I remember someone in a white suit coming to the house. Zenia says this was the card partner. My maternal grandfather was a kind, extremely pleasant, quiet man who was very nice to me, and I would imagine to everyone as well. I don’t ever remember a raised voice in the house. His wife, my grandmother, was a quiet, always nicely dressed and well-groomed woman. She was always busy helping the maid with housework. I don’t remember her actually sewing, but the sewing machine looked like it had been used from time to time.
My grandfather’s church was on property next to ours. I guess the church owned "our" property, and there was a path through a patch of lilacs and jasmine, by a gazebo made from white painted wooden slats, to the sacristy, where there was a smell of old flowers and vases with flowers were always stored. I would walk out and look at the congregation through the Zarski Verata. The church had heavy "King Arthur’s Court" type chairs along the walls for the senior citizens to sit upon, everyone else stood. There were pictures above the chairs. The Zarski Verata were painted gold and were cut in a "vine" type pattern.
I remember the (hahilky) dancing, and a brass band playing "Chrystos Voskrese" during the procession around the church at Easter. The Easter(s) I remember were sunny and warm with green grass around the church.
My grandfather’s father was also a Ukrainian Catholic (Greek Catholic) priest. When he was sent to his first parish nobody came to church. This was in the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and he let it be known that anyone who came to church would be paid a "greyzar" (like a dollar) coin. Next Sunday some people came, the next more, and he was able to cut off the money. They came anyway.
I roamed around the property and our part of the village, playing down by our pond, climbing apple, cherry and plum trees for the fruit in season, playing with my buddy "Kisyk" (his surname) from across the road. I searched for keys to make explosive devices: You take an old style (current then) key with a hole in the part that goes in the lock and put some sulphur mixture off a match head in it. A nail, with the point made blunt is inserted on top of this mixture. Wire is bent to form a handle and ends are twisted in a "v" to the key and mail, generally the thing is made up into a "hammer" shape. You reach around a corner of a building for safety, and strike the nail against the wall. The nail, of course, crushes the sulphur, and an explosion ensues. And, if loaded heavily, quite an explosion! Keys would blow up and/or get torn off the wire and fly everywhere. Usually up on the roof so they were lost. Usually though I kept the load reasonable and could use the same key more than once. The IMR Explosives Division of Du Pont would have been proud. I’m sure I cleaned up all the scrap keys - and some good ones! I don’t remember asking permission to have a certain key! And nobody enquired about the noise! Those things sounded like a gun going off!
I roamed the fields - walking in stubble is a killer on naked ankles - and watched people harvest with sickle and scythe. I tried to climb the openings in the belfry - which were too high for me, and the cement was rough on skin, and watched women do laundry in the creek that flowed out of, or into our pond. I tried to knock horse chestnuts out of the trees along our driveway, picked raspberries from the patch behind the fence by our house on the roadside, and played in the barns and the woodshed.
THE HOME FARM
The woodshed was just like one I saw in Ontario, on a farm near Denbigh where I was deer hunting in the 1960s. It was built out of vertical planks with spaces between them for air circulation. The floor was deep in wood chips, and of course had that nice smell of lumber.
One barn housed the horses and cattle. It was built out of mortar or clay, was whitewashed, and had a thatched roof and had three large doors. There were stork nests (or just one) on the roof. There was hay piled in the open attic, with ladder access. It was full of swallows, with nests everywhere. The barnyard had them flying everywhere. The second barn had an upper level around its circumference, where hay or straw was piled. It was full of sparrows. I think this barn was used for grain thrashing/storage. I think it had a "kyrat", mechanism for extracting grain from the sheaf, powered by a horse, or horses walking around in a circle pulling a thing like a wagon tongue. I’m just not certain if this machine was here or in our barn in Zadwirya.. Behind it was a field of potatoes.
My grandfather had a hired hand, Wasyl Mazur, to look after the agricultural part of the operation. He once let me ride a horse when he went to get the cattle back from pasture. Riding bareback, I developed a bad bruise, sore/whatever where my body met the horse as I rode. It was miserable. One time, when a calf was slaughtered I was adamant that murder had been committed and was poking around to find the evidence. I guess it was illegal to kill cattle and there was fear of German repercussion. I was hot on the trail and poking around in the cattle barn, about to check the hay in the loft. Wasyl whipped me with a wagon/horse whip (batih) to make me lose interest in the search. It worked!
I don’t remember eating this calf, only seeing the meat, but I remember eating millet and buckwheat, which were baked in a pan, cut into squares and served with milk in a soup bowl. Also remember chicken soup with noodles or dumpling type things, the shape of fish sticks, potato pancakes with sour cream and crepes ("Nalysnyky"), but don’t remember what they were topped with. Strangely, I don’t remember eating eggs, and there must have been lots of them, except as "gogel-mogel" (the l is pronounced soft). This was a couple of egg yolks put in a cup with sugar and whipped to a whitish froth with a spoon. I loved it. We had perohy, made with potatoes and cottage cheese, and berries, in season. Dill pickles, which my grandmother made, but don’t remember sauerkraut, which she made as well. Bread was like the heavy, black, round stuff Rudolph’s, Viking and Future Bakeries sell here. It was sour, and I hated it. White bread was baked for special occasions. I remember vividly having soup made with sparrows (the birds!) here, and pigeons at one time or another, although THAT is common in Europe. You have to remember that as each army came through they looted everything they could. The Germans through organized confiscation, the Russians through plain looting and organized confiscation. The Russians were hungrier than we were. Guess they were expected to live off the land. Whether jokingly or not I don’t know, but a Russian soldier’s dinner was said to be a herring, slapped against a boot to get the salt off. They apparently loved to ‘liberate’ watches, and would wear two or three on their wrist.
And Peanut butter, cooking oil, hot dogs, hand held hamburgers, liquid detergent, powdered soap or detergent, cheddar or other hard cheese and French fries were unheard of. Butter and lard were the fats used. Bacon as we know it did not exist, but salt pork, the white fat part, was used. At least if you could get it! Later, in Germany, a treat was black bread with lard spread on it, sprinkled with sugar was a treat. Cholesterol heaven!
At Christmas we had a bundle of straw in one corner (a didukh), and for Yordanski Sviata Zenia and I made little crosses out of straw and made then stick to the ice on the windows, which were single pane. We cut newspapers into strips and made crosses to put on the barn doors. For the winter, the house walls were insulated with straw on the outside. Poles were installed out about 1.5ft out from the walls, and straw was stuffed behind them all the way up to the roof. Carolers came to the door, and I remember the making of kutia, the Christmas wheat, poppy seed and honey dish, as well as actually sitting at the Christmas dinner table. I think there was hay put on the floor under the table as per old tradition. Hey, maybe I’ll get a little hay sometime this summer! Maybe I’ll MAKE some.
Everything was transported in wagons, sleighs in the winter. We had a fancy buggy, (a brychka) which I don’t remember too well, but do remember the fancy sleigh, which was not unlike what you see Santa Claus using. The runners were painted red, the rest either black or a dark burgundy coloured lacquer. I remember going to Zolochiw in the winter using the "work" sleigh and being bundled up in a fur throw. It may have been made of black lamb hides, but I wonder if it may have been an American Bison hide. Very possible! The work wagon was like what you see in old Dracula movies. The sleigh harnesses had bells on them. I can remember their sound, as well as the cracking cold of winter, heat of summer, walking barefoot through warm rain puddles and the smell of the seasons, or that special smell of a galvanized pail of water. When you drink some there is a certain smell to it. I can remember how things felt. The smell of summer, winter, the barnyard, apples, lilacs and especially jasmine.
Everything was home made. Brooms were birch boughs tied to an appropriate stick for a broom handle. Rakes were pieces of dowel type sticks sunk into a piece of wood. Scythe and sickle handles were carved from wood. I don’t remember what it was called, but there was an implement made out of two pieces of round wood, one about six feet long, one about three or so. These were joined by two pieces of heavy leather formed into a "U" shape, so the short one would swivel on the long. This was sort of like a solid handled buggy whip, with the whipping part made out of wood as well. Grain was laid on the floor and struck with the short end to pound out the grain from the sheaves, which was then collected. A reshyto was used to separate grain from chaff. It had a round frame made from wood and had a screen in the bottom, like a giant colander.
There was a foot-powered grindstone for sharpening implements. My grandmother made soap with glycerin, churned butter (I helped), made plum jam, which would turn moldy at the top under storage. No rubber rings or Crown preserving jars! She had a brass mortar for crushing spices. I helped with that too, and remember doing cinnamon sticks. The butter churner was probably 2-3ft. tall, made out of wood (bacteria!), and was larger at the bottom - sort of a "reversed" bucket shape. It had a cover with a hole, through which went a stick with a piston-like piece of wood on the end. You worked this up and down inside the bucket of cream and chunks of butter were formed. Guess the offal was buttermilk. There was also "sour milk". It was allowed to stand in warmth, covered with a cloth to keep the flies out, and would congeal and separate. When it was ready you would shake it to break up the settled solid part, and drink it. We always boiled milk before drinking it. Guess they knew about cow tuberculosis! I could not believe people drank cold milk when I came to Canada!
Apples were sliced thinly and dried in the sun for the winter and probably plums, as apple/prune compote was common, but I don’t remember plums drying. Mushrooms were sliced and air-dried and cooking onions and garlic was pleated like braids into a hanging ‘rope’. We did not eat corn on the cob, but the type you would use for Thanksgiving decoration was grown and fed to the chickens etc. I did not see the entire process, but I remember leather soaking in a container with water (?) and oak bark (I think bark). "Oak tanned leather".
People made their own cloth and clothing. "Konopli" were grown for this purpose. The stalks were harvested and laid out to dry in the sun. Once they were dry the stalks were broken up with the same tool as the grain was pounded with. The outside fibers would stay intact, and were "combed" to remove the last bit of the pieces of stalk covering, then spun into thread, which was made into cloth on a loom. Grandmother had both a spinning wheel and a loom. I saw a spinning wheel used by someone, and saw a loom in action at Kisyk’s house across the road. Konopli look like they are from the cannabis family, and I understand that people were affected while harvesting the stuff. My sister says they were aware of its effect, and allowed babies to breathe the fumes/dust while harvesting the stuff, to keep the kids from crying.
Galvanized steel products were made by the tinsmith. We had a milk jug like that. The lead in the solder must have been great.
My grandmother had a Singer pedal powered sewing machine, I remember the name on the cast iron stand, and a wind-up record player with a horn. Probably a Victrola! A battery-powered radio was used to listen for war news. This could have been "on the sly" as anyone with any radio equipment was automatically a spy or otherwise an enemy of the State. But perhaps not, as a wire antenna was hung attached to the house all the time. I distinctly remember one radio session, which brought word of German success and they were considered the better side. Deyko was there at the time. Perhaps he brought a new battery! The record player was usually cranked up when there were visitors.
The house was built of brick, which was covered with clay, mortar, or some such material, and whitewashed. It sat on a brick foundation and the roof was galvanized steel. The main entrance was reached via five wooden steps, with a handrail on the left side, and a wooden platform. There was a post sunk into the ground just outside the handrail, with pegs in it for hanging pots out to dry! Dishwater was dumped just past the post. In the winter, there was a purplish frozen ‘pond’ as the layers of dishwater built up. No disrespect to my forefathers, but things were really great ‘back home’, eh?
Inside the door was a "hallway", that had a bare wooden floor and really looked like the interior of a shed. There was a narrow pantry type room on the left side, where my uncle Deyko’s 35mm movie films were stored. He and his wife Irene lived in Lviv, but I guess stored his "archive" films here. On the left, just inside the main entrance door stood a weaving loom. Opposite the main entrance was a door leading to one of the back rooms. To the right was the door leading into the kitchen, to the left of that, and along the kitchen wall on the hallway side were open wooden stairs leading to the attic. I was never up there.
The trap door was too heavy! Inside the kitchen, there were cupboards and shelves on the right side, then a window with a bench under it. Let’s say the main entrance was on the west wall (this is correct, according to Zenia, so I was right!), so we are talking about the west wall here. There was another window on the south wall, and a bench along it, with a table and a bench on the other side of it. A wood burning stove was just east of them. There was a clay-baking oven along the north wall of the kitchen, with the oven door beside the kitchen door. This was stoked up, then the coals removed and the retained heat did the baking. It was high at the front, the door was probably four feet off the ground, the top about seven feet, and low at the back, perhaps four feet. Some peasants slept on these during winter. It was probably about eight or nine feet long. Bread and things were placed on a six-foot long, spatula type wooden thing, and slid off inside the oven to bake. We often ate our mid-day meal in the kitchen, and supper in the dining room, but the mid-day meal was the big one, with supper being much lighter, and consumed during late evening, say 7:30 or 8pm. That makes sense! All the walls inside were white, but I don’t know if it was paint or whitewash, probably the latter.
The dining room, I call it that because there was a table in the middle, and we ate there, but it was an "all purpose room", had windows on the south and east sides. There was a wardrobe just to the right of the entrance door from the kitchen. I don’t remember what was on the left, or north side, except the door on the north wall, in the far corner, leading to my grandparents’ bedroom. There was a Victrola type record player sitting on top of a piece of furniture like a buffet to the right of the window on the east wall, and a pedal-power Singer sewing machine under the window. Till I got too big for it, my large crib stood in the middle of the room by the table.
In my grandparents’ bedroom, when reached from the dining room, had a bed on the left, a window of the right, and I don’t remember what else, except there were dark red drapes on the window wall. They may have been made of velvet. Sometimes the Singer stood under this window, and the bed had a beige and red patterned brocade bedspread on it. In winter we slept under a "peryna", a bed-sized bag filled with down and feathers to a thickness of at least a foot. The pillows were also made of down and feathers and about three feet square. Today I sleep on a pillow made from one of these. Both at home and when I’m in my sleeping bag hunting. I made three small pillows out of one large one that my mother brought with us from Europe. It had belonged to my grandmother. You could say that I have been using the same pillow for over fifty years! Unfortunately one perished when my tent burned down in September, 1996, while hunting.
From the grandparents’ room, a door led to what was called the "salon", which was empty, save for a white wicker bookstand or flower table, which we called an "etazherka", which is very close to a French word for "shelf"! There were two windows here, and a door leading to a wooden veranda on the north side of the house. It was fairly long, but probably only about five feet wide, and was enclosed with lattice, unpainted and covered with vines. There was a flower garden here, with a closely spaced wooden fence behind that, then an empty "lot" full of raspberry bushes. Among the raspberries were the ruins of the old school building. Past that was the road, and the ‘new’ school was on the far side of the road.
You can not rely on things seen through a kid’s eyes, but I’d hazard these dimensions for the house: 15x15’ kitchen (with much space taken up by the oven); 15x20’ dining room; 15x15’ grandparents’ room; 15x20’ salon.
I vaguely remember being in the ‘living room’ at my pal Kisyk’s house, and think there was little furniture. There was a shelf close to the ceiling with plates standing on it, a table (probably with benches), and on this occasion, someone was weaving cloth on a loom. The walls and ceiling were whitewashed and the roof was thatched. It was very clean.
When you came out of our house, there was a path going to the right, leading through a large patch of lilac and jasmine, by a white lattice gazebo, through a gate in a stranded wire fence, and a little rise, into the churchyard. The sacristy door was probably within about one hundred yards of our front steps. Inside here there were always vases of flowers, with that "flower vase" smell. They were standing on a brown or burgundy coloured credenza on the right side.
The church was built with its length north to south, the same as our house, and using our house reference, the entrance was on the north end. The main door was oval arched heavy wood. The floor was stone, and the walls were lined with heavy wooden chairs for the senior citizens. Everyone else stood. The walls were lined with pictures above the chairs. The Czarski Verata were painted a gold colour and were cut in a vine pattern. I used to sneak up to them and peeked out at the people during service. I don’t know what the church was built out of, perhaps stone and plaster, but it had ridges spaced along the walls on the outside to firm up the walls. Typical church construction, as you see this design in Toronto. There was a concrete belfry on the east, and almost past the church, with four bells. The Germans eventually confiscated three of them. The bronze probably used for ammunition. I was totally frustrated because I was too small to be able to climb onto the openings in the belfry. I also scraped my skin on the coarse cement or rocks while trying!
The village square was to the west of the church, and while I was there they had just built a pine board building on it to house village activities. This was in front of the Co-op general store on the north side of the square. There were homes along its west and north side’s side.
The road bordered the church on the east and there were fields on the far side of the road, but homes to the south and north of that. I used to watch people cutting grain with sickle and scythe in these fields and another year there was a root crop planted there.
There was a mud driveway from the road to our barns and house. My friend Kisyk lived across the road, and just past some scrub bushes to the south of our driveway was the village tavern where they sold beer. I believe a Jew owned it (just like Hollywood!). It always looked like a deserted building to me, overgrown with vines and bushes, but of course it would swing at night! Our driveway was lined with five or seven horse chestnuts, and I spent a lot of time knocking them out of the trees once they had matured, with very little success! My mother spoke of carts in the cities selling the eating type chestnuts when she was a little girl. The vendors would shout "Heise marone, swiecze pechone, dwa za greyzar!" This is a mixture of German and Polish and translates into "hot chestnuts, freshly roasted, two for a ‘greyzar’. The greyzar was Austrian money. Hey, they still do this on Yonge Street in Toronto, but they cost more!
Coming from the house, you would turn left off the steps and walking down the path about thirty yards, go through a wide opening in a split rail fence that ran under the chestnuts between the house and the driveway, and into the barnyard. A little to the left, and across the yard was the woodshed, and our ice storage pit in front of it. The ice was cut from our pond and stored here with the addition of insulating straw. It had wood reinforced dirt steps going down into the ground and had a mound of dirt on top for extra insulation.
The cattle and horse barn was to the right of the woodshed. It was a one-story building, with a thatched roof and, I think, three large doors. The second door was where the cows went, horses in the last. There was hay in the loft of the horse section. The one time I remember going with Wasyl to fetch the cows from pasture, I seem to recall quite a few, perhaps eight, or a dozen. All our horses were of the ‘regular’ type. None were of the ‘Belgian’ draught horses.
To the right of the stock barn was a grain barn. Its length ran north and south. There was straw in the loft here and grain was processed on the ground floor. This barn was full of sparrows, the stock barn full of swallows. Behind this barn was a field of potatoes. Of course there was a manure pile in front of the stock barn! The snow would be manure stained in winter.
Back to the house steps. Looking straight ahead you saw the orchard. There was a wire fence running left and right, and you went in through a gate. There was a Bartlett pear about twenty feet to the left of the gate, and just at the fence line. I could never wait till they ripened! On the left, just inside were cherry trees, a linden tree on the right, then a walnut tree or two past it. A little bench stood under the walnut, and a table and bench on the opposite side under the cherry trees. Here the path split, one going left to the outhouse. The outhouse was not over a pit but had a box under it, which was cleaned out as required. Someone came to do that, and buried the waste. Going straight took you to the apple trees at the far end of the orchard, a fence line, and the water well where the path came out at the end. The well was like your typical ‘wishing well’, with a round shaft, lined with bricks. It had a hand crank and a wooden bucket on a rope. There was green moss on the bricks and you got a nice echo out of it. The fence on the right, (looking
from the house steps) running east and west was lined with plum trees. The village square was on its far side. Past the orchard the path led through our vegetable garden, then through a field of poppies, to a meadow with our pond. A creek ran out or in to it in a north/south direction. To the left, probably off our property, was an extra shallow area where women washed laundry, beating it with a wooden tool against some rocks. I remember a number of young men wading through the pond in a row, with willow baskets catching fish one day. There was another unoccupied grass covered square past the creek crossing, with a row of tall poplars on one side. This bordered the meadow around our pond.
Coming out of our driveway, the road led to Zolochiw, Sasiw and Pidhorets to the right, and passed Meketowich the carpenter (he had a blonde daughter, Olga), where it made a slight turn (was there a mill here somewhere as well?), then it went by the cemetery. It was graveled here, but mostly churned into mud in the village. In the village, the road dust was yellowish. Do you feel like you’ve been there yet?
My mother told of the Austrian army setting up camp in our yard when she was a little girl, complete with kitchen, from which they would bring cooked food up to the house. She said the people loved the Kaiser. The area was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
When the Russians arrived they shipped the wealthier people to Siberia. My pal Kisyk was among them. An interesting thing is that, according to my sister, very few people in Czechy were known by their real name. Virka Mularewa, for example translates into "Virka mason's". The midwife that delivered me was known simply as 'kusherka', or midwife, not by her name. Sometimes, when people died, my grandfather had to consult records in Lviv for real names says Zenia.
The diak who sang at my mother and dad’s wedding had two sons, one of whom was in the army (I don’t know which), and his wife stayed behind while the husband and the younger son went west. She was shipped off to Siberia and was gone when the ex-soldier came home missing one arm. The husband ended up in Toronto, Canada and eventually, after receiving a photo of his wife’s funeral from Siberia, brought to Canada and married an old girlfriend from Czechy. She apparently was an ‘old love’ whom he originally wanted but could not marry.
Zenia says kids died of scarlet fever and measles, and my grandfather kept a robe for performing these burials in the barn, to help prevent us from catching it. When these outbreaks came we would be bathed with boiled water (after it had cooled of course!!).
I do vividly remember climbing plum and apple trees to get at the fruit. And there was plenty of it. Some of the apples had blotches on them which could have been the work of worms, but I don't recall any worms in apples I picked. Perhaps the whitewash applied to the fruit tree trunks kept the bugs off! Remembering the whitewash, last summer I asked about whitewash at the hardware store and had to come back, but found some eventually. The bag (too big for me!) contents have to be mixed with something else to make whitewash and it said to use it on trees to keep them from splitting from frost. This could/must be so, but I'm sure the whitewash in Ukraine was used as a pesticide. Foundations are seen painted with it as well. Maybe I will try some on my apple tree. Had at least a bushel of apples summer of 1999 and all wormy! Chemical spray is too much trouble and is poison for people as well!
I remember picture being taken indoors with a magnesium flash. A little pile of it was held aloft on a little platform, and went 'poof' when lit. The film was the glass plate type, the camera large, on a tripod.
The chickens, ducks and geese wandered around freely. The geese would hiss at you. I remember Hanka the maid feeding the menagerie. Corn was part of their feed. It was the multi-coloured variety. We did not eat corn-on-the-cob, but I remember walking through the corn patch. Guess we did not have the variety that you eat, only feed corn. One day Zenia stepped on, and killed a chick! I cried then buried the chick in a little box and put a cross on the grave.
Zenia says these were for a group of monks that came to conduct a religious gathering at my grandfather’s parish. Sheptytsky was briefly present as well. Among the monks was a Father Welychkowsy who was sent to Siberia, but eventually escaped the gulag. In Czechy, he called Zenia by a pet name. Many years later when Zenia, as an adult, saw him again, he called her by the same pet name before being told who she was. My grandfather went to 'gimnasia' with Bishop Sheptytsky and they were on a first name basis. Deyko took photos of the bishop in his studio as well. Zenia also says grandfather came to the Czechy parish in 1926 and lived in a house across the road from Meketowich, by the cemetery. There was a religious statue in front of this house.
We moved here in 1936, according to my sister, but I was an infant then, and remember nothing!
MY FATHER’S FAMILY
My father’s home was a place called Kaminka Strumilowa, which was changed to Kaminka Buhska (for the river Buh, which flows through the town) by the Soviets. I was brought here only once, in the early 1940s, but remember it quite well. The photos Christina and Roman brought back in the late 1980s shows nothing changed save for some ceramic tiles in the kitchen! This is the house Christina (our daughter) and her husband Roman visited on their trip to Ukraine with their choir tour in August, 1990. She met my father’s oldest brother Genko and my cousins, including my youngest Sklepkowycz cousin Ihor, who had visited Toronto while my parents were still alive, as had his father, my dad’s younger brother "Yulko".
My dad’s father Vasyl was a farmer and owned 180 morgiw pola, or tillable land plus a stand of woods that stretched for 17 kilometers (according to Zenia he won the woods, a fancy wagon and a team of horses from the local graf, or estate owner). He was married to Maria Sheshkewych (his fourth wife, of the Markiyan Sheshkewych family) and their children were my dad, Emil, Vlotko, Genko (Genyk), Yulko, Zonka and Zenia who brought us to Canada. There was another child that died an infant. Two of the first wives died from heart attacks, the third, possibly at childbirth (as well as the baby). When my dad was born his father stated that he was going to "educate this one". Maria sang, and appeared in Natalka Poltawka on stage in Kaminka Strumilowa. Zenia says Vasyl was intelligent and well mannered. He was in the Austrian army in WW I, was a prisoner in Italy, and told Zenia the Italians treated the prisoners well.
When we were leaving Kaminka Strumilowa one of my cousins gave me a little hatchet with a very broad head. It stayed with us till we got to Canada, then disappeared, which really ticked me off. I wish I had it. I should turn my sister’s house inside out. No-one remembered seeing it, but it could be there!
There was what I thought a long driveway (probably 35 yards) and it must have been spring as it was lined with trees in blossom. We had travelled in a wagon to get here. The house was on the right as you came up the drive. Past the house, on the right was an orchard with beehives among the trees. Further ahead was a barn or two on the left and fields past that. There was a brewery next door in a park-like setting. I believe you could see the river from the road, looking to the left and most of the town was on the other side. My grandfather showed me how they extracted homey from the combs by spinning them. The beehives had wooden frames (not unlike picture frames, but made out of wooden slats, about one inch wide and a quarter inch or so thick. These were at right angles to the frame. I believe there was wire strung within the frame, and the bees built the honeycomb on that, filling the frame. I watched them go in and out, but kept my distance!
On the way here we passed a shrine (cross with a roof over it) where a Cossack battle had taken place. My dad told me the whole story again, a few years before he died, but I don’t remember. He also told a story of meeting, or being in the presence of, one of the leaders in the Ukrainian Catholic Church when he was a boy, but I don’t remember whom. Sheptytski perhaps (who had been a classmate of my mother’s father, according to my sister)? There was an event taking place, I think in a town hall, rather than a church, and this person was present. He may have been an attendant (altar boy?), or was asked to do something for this person. My mother spoke of seeing Khrushchov here when he was a slimy nobody. She elaborated on this, but I don’t recall what she said. I do recall that she was not impressed. He might have been a Captain or something. Actually, I’m impressed with how much I CAN remember. Gosh, I’m great! I should have done this when my parents were alive so I could ask questions.
My dad’s father had a large tract of land and could afford to send my dad to university in Lviv. Rather short, he was stocky, with a sunburned face and a thick moustache. Yet everyone I know of in the family is tall, save my sister! I remember him in a black suit jacket and white shirt. His wife, my grandmother died early. My dad had two brothers and two sisters, another had died at birth. When Christina visited there, she immediately recognized all the Sklepkowyczs. The grounds and exterior of the house look just like they did long ago. The barns had been made of wood, and they look like it is still the same wood.
My dad had a ‘best friend’ named Zarytski in university who had a sister. Their parents had hopes that my dad and the sister would get together, but she rejected him when he tried to kiss her and that was enough to put him off! He liked telling the story of how Zarytski and he were walking down the hall one day, his pal smoking, which was not allowed. They ran into one of their professors, who saw smoke, and proceeded to involve them in a long conversation, not commenting on the cigarette, but letting it burn a hole in the pal’s pocket!
Zenia says my dad took my mother and her (before I was born) to the house where he boarded while attending university in Lviv. Owned by a lady named Zaksheska, it was at number five on a little street just to the right of St. Anne’s church. She does not remember the street name. I however, remember riding on the streetcars, visiting the park and seeing Hamlet at the opera. I, at one point started the applause, and got a bow from the stars. This was, I guess, during the second-last time I was in Lviv.
The pal had died before reaching his senior years, and the sister, who I think stayed single, had problems with her legs, and my dad sent her medicine from Canada which was not available in the Russian Empire, at least not to an old Ukrainian woman. I think she mentioned the turn of events dealing with the spurned kiss long ago, but my dad did not comment on that to her.
Very shortly thereafter he met my mother. Someone had brought her to visit people where he was and he spotted her getting out of the wagon. He immediately fell in love and almost as fast told her so. The feeling was mutual, and a somewhat long-distance romance followed, culminating in a wedding in Czechy, which lasted three days.
My dad had finished school, but could not get a job as this was Poland at the time, and the Polish authorities only hired their own. They lived with my mother’s parents, which was no problem. One day someone sent my dad a letter which stated there was a job available in White Russia, and my grandfather told my dad not to write but go there immediately. He gave my dad some money, and my grandmother collected a ‘living kit’ for him with bedding and such. He was hired, found a couple of rooms to rent in a lady’s home, and had my mother join him. He spoke of a nice house, with a ‘for rent’ sign in the window. He knocked on the door and an ‘elegant’ looking lady answered, dressed in a fancy housecoat. He introduced himself and enquired about the rooms. Yes, they were available. This was his first teaching job.
When my father’s brother Yulko visited Canada circa 1980 he had been trying for four years to get permission to leave Russia. Finally, the authorities called him in January and told him he was leaving in two weeks! He went through a briefing before he left, and a de-briefing when he returned. He had plenty of money, but could not produce justification for having it, so he got a loan to pay for this trip. He had to return with everything that he had taken with him, and he left a gold ring here, which was replaced by a $3.00 brass ring from Woolworth!
He was officially visiting his sister (my aunt, who brought us to Canada) Zenia in St. Catharines and had to sleep there every night. He had to call the Russian embassy in Ottawa every day to check in. When Helen and I went to my parents’ home to visit with Yulko I looked up and down the street and joked that someone may be sitting in a car watching the house. I was not far off! Later that evening, sitting in the dining room talking, my sister had suggested to Yulko that he should seek political asylum and not return. The next day footsteps were seen in the snow under the dining room window at my father’s house. There had been a spy listening. During the de-briefing back home he was asked who the lady was that had suggested he remain in Canada! When Yulko was at the airport leaving for home, an operative was seen taking photos of the entourage gathered to see him off! I asked him what happened back home after the war. He did not have too much to say, except that the resistance fighters in the woods had been hunted down and shot.
The goods available, cars, and foods in Canada awed Yulko! He was particularly interested in mechanical things, the wiring in our house (which he said would have never passed a Russian inspection!) and such. Helen and nephew Terry took him on a tour of Toronto City Hall. The Russian-speaking, uniformed City Hall tour guide frightened him, as did the drug bust they saw on Yonge Street! Talk about timing! At Eaton’s, they stumbled upon a Ukrainian salesperson in the appliance department, and Yulko was given a complete tour of that, with a complete technical narration regarding all the different pieces, including microwave ovens, which he had never heard of! His sister, my aunt Zenia had taken several trips back home and bought them a couple of cars and things. He spoke of the lack of car parts back home. Bulbs cost two rubles, and he was willing to pay twelve, but you could not get any. As a reference, he was earning 125 rubles a month, with 80 being an average salary at that time. Fiat parts apparently fit at least some Russian cars.
The conditions in Russia were best described when Yulko spoke of another relative. He said she was ok. because so-and-so would go there occasionally and take her some cheese, milk or whatever. Yulko was in charge of a plant that produced a beverage from wheat. He said U.S. wheat would produce the best product yield. They would produce their quota by watering down the product when necessary. Or water down, and sell the extra! They had apparently just started to build a house for someone, and upon his return they started all over, this time putting in a basement, which no-one does over there.
He said that upon his return he would tell only his wife and one of two sons about conditions in Canada. That son, my cousin Ihor, came to visit a couple of years later. He had U.S. dollars to spend on a Yamaha keyboard, the profit from which back home would build him a house! He said he had had a log back home which he had to take to a lumber mill to have cut into planks to make a door. You could not buy lumber. My dad told Ihor about hiding an army rifle in the barn roof when he was a boy. Ihor was going to look for it upon his return. He had heard stories of guns stashed as the boys there liked shooting, but if about to be discovered they would throw away the gun and act innocent. This in the 1980s.
SASIW, UKRAINE - 1939
I was sitting on the steps of the main entrance to City Hall in Sasiw when a Russian standing on the statue in front of me, with a crowd gathered announced that war (WWII) was starting today. He was what was called a politruk, probably best described as a ‘political activist’. They wore a uniform, and carried a pistol. Zenia says she was terribly upset then, and still thinks about it sometimes, when one of these shot a cat in front of her while he was in a drunken stupor. If one of them heard you say something against the administration it was off to polar bear country for you!
I guess this took place when Hitler invaded Russia. The Germans attacked Poland on September 1, 1939 and Sasiw had been Polish territory, now held by Russia. The switch, I guess, had been made when Hitler divided Poland between Germany and Russia after the Poles were defeated. I had been living with my parents at this time, I guess being too young to be with my grandparents "long term".
After my parents were married my dad had no work for seven years. This was then Poland and only Poles were employed. I guess this is why he said "good" when the Poles were having problems with the Soviets in the 1970s! My dad did get a job in White Russia. Someone had mentioned seeing an ad for teachers there and my grandfather gave my dad a grubstake to go there and apply immediately rather than inquiring about it first. As luck would have it he got the job. His next job was in Sasiw, teaching botany, biology and chemistry. This was a "Gimnazia", or middle school, the step before university.
The powers were Polish and a political game had to be played constantly, but he made good money, and we lived well. We had a nice apartment, even by western standards. There was a black Wagner grand piano, a maid, nice furniture samovar tea parties, and so on. The piano came from Bratislava, the final leg of its journey via horse and wagon. My mother was also teaching, at grade school level. My sister said that my mother had a class of "special needs" students, enabling her to make the same money as my dad. My mother however, never mentioned this.
It may have been in Sasiw that my dad was to act as a "second" in a duel to be settled with pistols, between a Polish Army officer and a professor. A wife’s honour was involved, but the duel was avoided when the comments were retracted and apologies expressed.
The Russians came. They set up the usual system of people who were watching people. You had to watch what you said to whom, what you did with whom, how you looked at whom. They did, however, make my dad the Director, and he was well paid. He had a close shave with the authorities when some Polish political leader pictures were not removed from walls in the school quickly enough, but survived that. There was apparently not enough time before an inspection of the school by the authorities to dispose of the portraits properly so my dad had them taken down and thrown out the window! The Russians stayed for 18 months, according to my sister.
I remember winter here, and summer. The summer was when the place was turned upside down. I don’t remember the exact chain of events. When the Germans drove the Russians out of Sasiw I must have been at grandma’s and the first part of this story was happening, or some of it. There were probably a couple of switches between living with my folks and grandparents. My mother said that when she came to Czechy once I said I did not know this lady, and did not want her, and threw clumps of dirt at her!
At any rate I was in Sasiw when the Russians were there, was there when the Germans drove them out, and was there when the Russians were driving out the Germans, but had to be at grandma’s between the changes. I remember winter in Sasiw. We had a row of young trees (morvy) along the walk to our apartment and I still see the snow with the brown leaf stained water drip marks in it from the trees. Why would that stick in my mind?
The Germans were very civilized, but were, of course looking for trouble as well. We apparently had officers visit, play our piano and so on. One translated a Ukrainian song into German and published a book of ukrainian music in Germany. He sent a copy to my mother. It was, unfortunately, lost when we had a suitcase stolen much later in Munich. My mother told a story of someone important visiting and drawing a one-dimensional picture of a wagon for me. I called that a "shitty" wagon, and my parents were frantic.
We had a maid, and I remember my mother firing one. I don’t remember much about the inside of our apartment except a tall white wicker table - the type you would use as a magazine rack or as a flower stand (we called it etazherka, which sounds like the French word for "shelf"); a black grand piano, and a flush toilet. The water tank was up high and you pulled a chain to flush. Hey! My first indoor plumbing! The ceilings were very high, and the hallway and bathroom walls were varnished wood. I don’t recall a shower or a bathtub. We were often using a samovar for brewing tea, or, more correctly boiling water. Tea was made from pre-brewed tea essence, that is, a really strong brew of tea. It was poured into a glass of hot water to make tea. Yes, hot tea was served in a glass! There was always singing in the house and company would drop in. It would seem that my parents had an active social life.
A German officer Dr. Henchen from Dresden was a visitor at our house. His wife wrote my parents that he was eventually killed in Russia, but he took a book of 200 Ukrainian songs back home with him. My parents had translated the lyrics into German and he had it published in Germany. We had a copy, which was lost when one of our suitcases was stolen in the Munich train terminal years later.
One day my father was arrested by the Gestapo. The local Polish priest reported him as being a Communist sympathizer or some such. The Germans took my father and two other people and threw them in prison. During interrogation one of the other prisoners with my dad told the interrogator that he knew German from having worked in Germany. It turned out that this prisoner had worked at a neighbour’s at this fellow’s family home. The three prisoners were fed, and not just released, but taken home. Shortly thereafter the Polish priest who accused them disappeared.
One day you would see German tanks, the next day Russian. There were piles of shells piled in the street and damaged military vehicles everywhere. Kids would play in abandoned tanks, and were blown up playing with ammo. During one offensive a small bomb fell under the concrete slab that was our veranda and blew it away. My dad had heard the airplanes, and went to the window to see what was happening. It was late at night, and we were sleeping, Zenia closest to this window. Dad heard the bomb whine on its way down and was expecting a direct hit. The window frame struck him as it came out of the wall, and Zenia was showered by broken glass. I woke up. The bomb was German, as the power was in Russian hands.
Our apartment was on the Southeast corner of the school/city hall complex, on the ground floor, or at least about 7-10 steps above the ground. There were steps leading up to a concrete slab. This bomb flew under this slab and blew it away. The building had a courtyard and classrooms along the south side, with the city hall section along the west side where I was sitting when war was announced. It was three or four stories high, and I see a stone building in my mind, with tall institution-like windows. I also see flowerbeds and bushes (a hedge?) along the south side, with a metal fence (‘chicken wire’ or chain-link, with cast iron posts? Zenia says wire mesh, I say all cast iron).
The town market was held on the north and east sides of the building. I don’t remember much about that except that farmers came to town to sell produce, and merchants sold other goods. Zenia says that there used to be a sugar refinery in Sasiw at one time, and the town was prosperous, but the Soviets burned that down and people tried to make a living producing pottery and other products.
At this time my mother was away taking a short course in Lviv, and did not know what was happening back home. I think she had heard about the bombing and had heard that a little girl was killed. She was wondering if it was Zenia. Zenia says now, that a young girl was in fact killed at that time, but by runaway horses not bombs. My parents knew a fellow named Meketowich who had a sawmill in the woods not too far away so we went there to avoid any further bombing or shooting. He was down the road that led to Koltovo. We walked there, and along the way I saw a row of shot up and/or burned tanks at the side of the road, so there had to have been some action there. Additionally, Zenia says that when we were leaving there she saw freshly shot-up soldiers, so perhaps the front was just over the hill. I THINK I remember hearing big guns and the sky being lit up.
I might add here that Zenia has been known to inadvertently add/subtract/twist some facts occasionally, and I feel that she is not a totally reliable source of information. She is, however, THE authority on Easter "hahilky" (seasonal songs), Christmas carols and Ukrainian music in general. She knows the lyrics to literally everything ever sung in the Ukrainian language. Her Russian, German and Polish is quite good even after decades of disuse. I on the other hand, have forgotten just about all German, save for a few words, and could not carry on a conversation; would speak better in Polish and understand well, but am forgetting a few Ukrainian words because of speaking English to Helen and her mother. My conversations with Zenia do not contain much vocabulary and the only other chance to practice is with Roman’s (Christina’s husband’s) parents, but this does not happen too often. It’s a sad state of affairs! I might add, though, that I have just read "DUN" (Druzhyny Ukrainskyh Nationalistiv) by Myroslaw Kakba, The story of the Ukrainian 'Nachtigal' division of the German army that my uncle Tony was part of. His German army documents appear in this book as well as his photos. The book has 132 pages - in Ukrainian. It took me two days. Not bad!
Meketowich’s mill was a beautiful place, with a small river, a dam and the deep woods made for a lovely setting. My mother walked most of the way back from Lviv and arrived late one evening. Someone in town told her where we were. We were all extremely happy to see her! She said that before she left Lviv a Russian told her that the giant water tanks she saw of boiling water were for laundry. She thought they had planned to use it to kill people. She was probably right, as when the Germans arrived they found thousands of executed prisoners.
My dad saw a German shoot a Jew while they were being marched somewhere in Sasiw and an old one could not keep up. In Zolochiw, my mother saw another German herd a Jewish woman into an alley and heard a shot, but did not see the actual shooting.
Zenia, my sister, says we arrived in Sasiw in 1937 and stayed only several months. The family may have arrived in 1937, but must have stayed some time, with me dropped off at my mother’s parents’ home in Czechy for extended periods. If we did come here in 1937 then we stayed here two years, until the German/Russian front came to town. Also, I would not remember the above if I had been only one year old when we left!
ZOLOCHIW, UKRAINE, 1943-1944
I don’t remember much of Zolochiw except that it was in German hands, and I was taken to piano lessons. Although there was a war, I had to further my intellectual advancement. To ease the pain, every time I was taken to piano lessons we stopped at a bakery and I was treated to some French pastry with a custard type filling. The Germans took right over. All signs were changed to German translations, but if there was French pastry could it have been THAT bad?
My German school attendance document says we were in Zolochiw (Zloczow in German) September 1, 1943 to January 2, 1944. I don’t really remember going to school there. The only other thing I remember that there was a hill across the road from where we lived. Zenia says there was a prison on top of the hill, which was west of the house.
Zenia says that we left Zolochiw and went to Czechy. In Zolochiw our quarters had been destroyed by a bomb. All our belongings were loaded on a couple of wagons and we went to Lviv. Zenia says we went to Lviv, Kulashne, Zadvirya (where we stayed for two months), with two wagons to Lviv, in that order. We left my mother’s parents in Koropush, near Zadwirya, while we went by train to Kulashne. We stayed there three days, only long enough to give away most of our possessions taking with us only what we could carry. Here we were taken to the train station at Komazi, and left for Austria (Germany). Along the way to the station armed partisans were seen along the road.
LVIV - 1944
We stayed in Lomaga’s house in Lviv. There were other people there, and we slept side by side on the floor. I guess aunt Irene and Deyko were gone, or we would have been there. Fr. Ciupka’s oldest daughter was staying here as well. She ended up in the resistance movement and perished with the other partisans. The house was made of stone, had large windows, and was very bright. There was a cast iron fence with stone posts along the sidewalk. Zenia says Lomaga had some connections and we had plenty of food thanks to him and the black market. Lomaga’s and Fr. Ciupka’s wives and my dad were cousins. I believe THEIR mother, Mrs. Davedowska and my father’s mother were sisters. Roman Marian Lomaga died in October 2002 at the age of 95.
I vaguely remember Deyko and Irene’s apartment. The building had been built before electricity was available and the wires were enclosed in pipes along the walls. There was a round on/off switch. Zenia says we were in Lviv twice. Likely the stop at Deyko’s was on the first trip.
KULASHNE,(CARPATHIAN MOUNTAINS), UKRAINE - 1944
This was in the foothills of the Carpathians. The mountains, or hills, were probably 3 to 4,000 feet high and were green, with no trees. I made several attempts to walk to the top of one, but gave up! The top was always in sight, but never got closer! There were flocks of sheep, and they had sleighs sitting here and there on the hills. I think they used them in all seasons, as wagons would have been impossible to control on the steep ground. They had one of those classic wooden churches here. As I type this I’m thinking about the air here, which seemed especially clean (not that I remember polluted air, which of course there was none of - there was no heavy industry nor cars), probably the effect of less humidity than home.
Then it was back on the trains. We travelled through Bratislava, Czechoslovakia on a clear bright sunny morning, and Budapest, Hungary midday. In between there were stops to buy (or barter) some apricots and some milk. When we crossed the Danube it was raining. The bridge was just like your typical Canadian "I" beam railway bridge built 30-50 years ago. There were hundreds of little fishing boats tied up to shore. One town we went through had terraces of grapes along the tracks. The train would stop and we’d start a cooking fire. Sometimes the train would start moving too soon and we would have to abandon it. I had the greatest fear of being left behind! Everywhere there were shot up and burned trains parked on a second track beside us. Records show that we were in St. Pölten, Austria on September 4, 1944. It is about 55km from Vienna.
ZADWIRYA, UKRAINE - 1944
The next spot I remember is a village called Zadvirya. My grandparents were with us, and we were living in the pastor’s residence. We were here in 1944. I Remember summer, but not winter. The church was built from wood, along the style of St. Elias’ in Brampton, Ont., though probably smaller. It was aged wood, black on the outside, and surrounded by very tall, thick, coniferous trees. I don’t remember the interior. My sister and I had a pile of rabbits to care for, probably over a hundred. There were meadows behind our property here and a willow fringed creek. Canaries inhabited the willows.
My playtime here was building bunkers to hide in. I dug a hole in the ground, like a small shallow grave and piled sticks, stuff and dirt over the top. War games! This was now German territory, and one day a column of vehicles stopped in our yard. They had a rest and something to eat. One soldier gave me what I think now were Lifesaver candies.
I would count hundreds of planes flying high overhead creating vapor trails. They must have been flying to the Russian front and flew daily. They were just silver specks in the sunlight.
Zadwirya was the last time we saw my mother’s parents. My grandfather suggested that we leave Ukraine and head west. He said that there was never a very long peace in Europe, and never would be, and we should try to get to Canada. They refused to go with us though. They said they were old and wanted to stay at home. I don’t remember winter here. When we arrived there were ripe berries on the bushes in front of the house. There was a sewing machine in the house with a lock of light brown hair in one drawer. It was said the lady of the house had died of tuberculosis. The hair had a little dandruff on it. Why would a kid remember this!?
My sister says she was told by another girl that 13 kids from the family that was in this house before us had died from tuberculosis. That girl remembered the youngest of these spitting blood. Before we moved in the house was disinfected, and apparently we stayed in another house while this was going on.
Somewhere about this time I saw a village burning. We were not close to it, but the whole sky on the horizon looked like a giant campfire, like a ‘red sky at night, sailors delight’ but closer to the ground and moving vertically. It was awesome.
We loaded some suitcases onto a railroad car, the type with a wall at each end that could be used for carrying lumber, kissed and hugged my grandparents goodbye, climbed on, and took off into the night. It must have been devastating to the adults. They knew they would never see each other again. What a shame they did not come with us. They would have made it no problem. They were probably the age I am now. By September 4, 1944 we were in Austria.
Zenia says we got on the train at Koropush, not far from Zadwirya, and went to Kulashne. My mother’s parents stayed at Koropush. She says we were in Zadwirya only two months.
ON THE ROAD
The chain of events is a little unclear, as we were in Zolochiw in January, 1944, and in Austria in September, 1944, yet I remember arriving at our next stop after Zadwirya in the winter, and was there through late summer. Perhaps my German document has incorrect information. My parents may have had to lie to cover up our travels.
Next stop was the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. We took a succession of trains to get around Russian occupied areas. On the way we passed many burned out trains. Sometimes we were in a passenger car, like this first stretch, but mostly in boxcars. The passenger car on this train had wooden bench seats in compartments with sliding doors, and a walkway down the side of the car. It of course was very crowded. The boxcar trains would stop now and again so one could go to the bathroom. They were likely taking on water, not stopping for our comfort. The trains always had a couple of flat cars in front of the engine so they would be blown up, not the locomotive, should the track be mined. The middle of the train had a flat car with anti-aircraft guns on it in case of air attack. This was the situation on all the trains we were on. The cars were always full of people, passenger or boxcar. And then we walked.
We had a little wooden wagon, about six or seven feet long and built like a full sized version, loaded with our possessions - not much. With us was a relative named Olijnyk. He had a bicycle, and as he was needed to pull the wagon, I walked his bike, but I was too small for the job so eventually my dad threw the bike in the ditch. German motorized columns passed us, and a couple of them gave us a lift sitting in the back of an empty truck and pulling our little wagon. I remember one day in particular. It was an overcast dreary day and drizzling. In the fields were piles of peat moss. The road surface was black asphalt, and a long column of German vehicles passed going the same way as us. There were other people walking with us as well. My sister says I had a yellow raincoat. That night we slept in a barn beside some Clydesdale type horses in the next stall. They banged the walls with their hooves.
STRASHOF, AUSTRIA - 1944
We were on a train, in a boxcar, when we arrived at the Shtrashof clearance camp. Our point of entry into Austria was a place called Bruck, which is about 25km inside Austria and 30km south-west of Bratislava, Czechoslovakia. There is a German Shtrashof document dated August 23, 1944.
Shtrashof (I would spell it in German with a ‘double-s’, like ‘Shtraßhof". Zenia says it was two words) was a concentration camp type compound, just like in the movies. The camp was right next to the tracks in a pine forest. There was a high barbed wire fence, inside of which was a single strand fence a few feet from the big one. A 'fire zone'. The lumber was all fresh pine. Obviously it had just been built, and could serve a dual purpose in a pinch, i.e. if switched to a prison camp; anyone going past the inside fence- the 'fire zone' - gets shot. There were watchtowers around and they had rooms full of showerheads for washing vast numbers of people. We were de-loused with powder in our hair (although I don’t remember any lice), and washed. There was some apprehension about the shower rooms. They had been killing Jews like that. At any rate, we made it out of there! I would imagine that it was levelled after the war. There was no town or village there. Just it, and the railroad tracks.
The train brought us to St. Pölten, about 55km west of Vienna. We ended up at the workers’ quarters of J.M. Voit. A foundry, they were producing tanks or parts for tanks. My parents’ employment documents are dated August 28, 1944.
My father got a job as a heavy crane operator, the kind that sits outside on giant rails and rides back and forth. A French co-worker began teaching him French. Upon arrival we were given a meal of horsemeat. Here we once got some frozen fish, cut like a small brick. The first time I saw frozen food.
Our quarters were in barracks just like you see in WWII movies of POW camps. They were built out of wooden planks and had bunk beds. A wood stove supplied heat, and there was no insulation. We ate in a mess hall, but I don’t remember the food, except that we did eat horsemeat.
The barracks were the equivalent of a city block or so away from the plant, lets assume north of it (but I don’t know how it was laid out). About one block to the east was the Czech prisoner of war compound, surrounded by a barbed wire fence, and patrolled by armed guards. To the west was perhaps a four square block area (which might have shrunk in adult eyes!) that was empty, and past that were railroad yards (some trains were electric). The whole area was J.M. Voit property, and was covered by slag/ashes from the coke blast furnaces. The stuff really resembles broken up volcano lava, and smelled like the smoke out of a steam locomotive (but then, you could be reading this at a time when it is impossible to smell one of those, not even on tourist railroads! The last regular steam train in Canada ran circa 1960) It was like a giant parking lot. Bombs hit this area on several occasions, so we did the right thing when we used a bomb shelter during air raids. A really nice home! There were, of course, blackouts everywhere during the war. Usually this entailed putting blankets over the windows.
Here there were air raids. The sirens would wail, sounding the alarm, usually about two a.m., and we would quickly get dressed and head for the bomb shelter. It was dug into the side of a mountain, with a park above (five blocks northwest of the plant using our imaginary co-ordinates). There was a large door, say like a tall garage door, which led to a long chamber-like tunnel, probably as wide as a four-car garage, and a twenty-five foot ceiling, so it was quite airy.
There were air raid wardens to control/instruct the people, and benches for us to sit on. The ceiling had square vent tubes, about 3x3 feet, going up to the surface, probably about 100 feet above. We could hear the bombs going off outside. The Allies were obviously trying to hit the J.M. Voit plant, and eventually did, but most of the bombs fell on empty land by the plant. I found some propaganda leaflets after one raid and found many little propellers with a shaft attached, which was always bent. These, I guess, were part of the bombs. After a couple of air raids I found some aluminium teardrop shaped things that looked like wing tanks of fighter planes, maybe that is what they were. On one occasion, on a clear sunny day, I saw a guy coming down on a parachute. I had seen at least one plane, but had not heard any shooting. Maybe it was a training run, but the plane I saw was small, and I did not see it crash, or burn. Maybe it glided out of sight and went down. This was on the far side of the park.
One day I was roaming through the park and watched a large convoy of German army vehicles pulling in. There were enough that they had military police controlling traffic. That night the park was bombed. The next morning the place was a shambles. Trees were cut like matchsticks. I don’t remember if the vehicles were there or not. I think I had an idea about that once, but now am not sure. The fields behind the park had bomb craters in them also, so the park was targeted. The bomb craters all had a pool of aquamarine coloured water at the bottom like you see in gravel pits with water. It’s as if the allies knew about what was in that park that night! Maybe they did!
I’m certain I saw somebody being chased and shot in the railroad yard below a bridge close to the park. There were two men running along the tracks, then the front fellow jumper up on a loading dock, then fell backwards. I don’t remember hearing a shot, but that may not mean much, as distance, wind direction, caliber of gun etc. could make a difference. There were signs everywhere, which had a picture of a shadow in a trench coat, collar up, and hat brim down. The text said "Psssst!", and a warning along the lines of "the walls have ears". Maybe the shooting was spy-related, maybe another Jewish person. I found plane dropped leaflets a couple of times, but don’t know what they said. I showed them to my parents, and they were immediately destroyed. We could have been shot!
A common greeting was "Ausweiss bitte!" Identity papers please. All of Europe was crawling with Gestapo agents. I was never challenged, but adults would have to show their card, actually a little booklet with your name, place of birth, citizenship, description, place of residency, photo etc. If you could not produce one, man, you were done! They were printed on paper much worse than Canadian newsprint and had a bluish-gray cover. There are some among my dad’s papers. I think I’m listed in my mother’s book.
Lots of kids were walking around here in Hitlerjugent uniforms, and of course this appealed to me! They were all sporting daggers, and I wanted to join! My mother would have none of that! A couple of times I saw lots of soldiers marching across the bridge. They were singing their marching song "Hailu Haila". I remember it. They looked great! Regardless what Austrians will tell you, this was Germany as far as I’m concerned or the Gestapo imported a hell of a lot of Germans into Austria? Perhaps I’m wrong, as the common language between the two could create a false impression. But I doubt it, and the Austrian people were not nice.
They sold a reddish cream soda type of pop in town. The bottles were clear glass (the shape of Wishing Well pop, if you are old enough to remember them), had a wire, lever type closure on them with a white ceramic cap and red rubber gasket. There was no label and the wire closure and top was permanently mounted on the bottle.
I owned a pair of stiff, leather ankle high boots ("Bergshteigeren", or mountain climbing boots, which they weren’t by today’s standards, but were called that!), with hobnails in the soles and horseshoe-type steel edging around the heel. These were put on boots to keep the heels from wearing out, and were made in a half-moon shape as well, for mounting on the toe. Soles were hobnailed. They must have been slippery on cobblestones. My boots fit poorly, and the leather folds behind and above my ankle rubbed the skin raw, and as I was dirty, created a boil type sore and made walking painful. Boy, do I remember. The leather was about as flexible as sheet metal! That took a long while to go away - no Shoppers Drug Mart for vitamins!
There were two prisoner compounds in St. Pölten. One held Russians (which I don’t remember, but Zenia says there was), the other Czechs. The German guards treated the Czechoslovakian prisoners pretty well. I could see them joking with the guards and their garbage dump was full of food cans (Klik and Kam) and Red Cross packaging. My sister says the Russians did not fare as well. She says they were not fed well and the Germans hated them. In fact she says she often gave them bread. The guards did not like it, but let her. The Czechs got Red Cross food, but no cigarettes so my sister (she says) gave them cigarettes in exchange for food. She also says she saw some of the Russians sneaking out. And I had heard around the Czech camp that prisoners were able to sneak out. The Germans must have felt that it was all over by now, and security must have been lax. I know that the mood around the Czech camp was ok.
I have talked on the radio to a couple of hams in St. Pölten. It was interesting. Unfortunately they were of "new generation", not someone who knew the old days.
I never did find out what it was about, but my dad was going to go after someone with an axe here. He had a hatchet (probably my square headed hatchet mentioned earlier) in his hand and my mother was holding him back. Boy, was he mad! My papers say we were still here on April 4, 1945. I would be 9 years old on the 12th. There was no birthday party (although ‘back home’ your name day was celebrated, not your birthday).
BOSAKER, GERMANY - 1945
Zenia says we went through Saltzburg on our way to St.Pölten, but that would have REALLY been out of the way, unless we were skirting a front. I think we went through it on the way to Bosaker, in Bavaria. We passed some really huge lakes, and there are several of these around Saltzburg.
Bosaker was a group of about five farmers living together in a little village, and it was lovely. Surrounded by woods, it was a quiet place after all we had been through. We stayed with a woman, her daughter and a Russian who had gone there before the war. The old lady was a bitch! She was always blaming me for something, and I was innocent. Our farmhouse had an inside outhouse (an inhouse?). The toilet was on the second floor with a shaft going all the way down. There was a large vegetable garden next to the house, then a field of grain, bordered by a pine forest. Most evenings one could see deer come out of the forest to feed on the grain. The forest was really nice to walk through. The road was mostly sand, like most of the area, and covered by pine needles, and it smelled great. However, I was always afraid of running into a wild boar!
One day a couple of German staff cars came through, accompanied by a few soldiers riding "mopeds" bicycle-like motorcycles which you start by pedalling. By the time most of them came out the other end of the village they were in civilian clothing, carrying a shovel or a rake. Likely some of them made the switch here; others further down the road after dumping the vehicles somewhere in the forest. I found some rifle ammo along the road, so they were dumping as they went. The ammo, by the way, was effective I guess, but of very poor quality. The bullets were not copper covered but a greenish-bronze colour, and the cases a greenish colour, not brass. Obviously they were mostly steel, and lacquered against corrosion. The Germans were running out of raw materials and did confiscate the church bells, except for one, in Czechy. Bronze for ammunition.
The Americans were not far behind, and we were liberated! Within a few days, a couple of large armored vehicles and a couple of Jeeps came through. They all had long whip antennas flying in the breeze and the Jeeps had Browning machineguns mounted behind the front seats, with ammunition belts sparkling in the sun. Boy, did they look like something! They did a bit of polluting, dropping wrappers from this and that, and I found a disk, about two inches across and half an inch thick of compressed sugar. There was writing on it, but I couldn’t understand it, so tasted it. My mother went frantic; thinking it might be poisoned!
The Americans left someone behind with a machinegun and went on. We had an 8:30pm curfew and of course I had to go outside. The guy with the machinegun opened up with tracers in the dark, shooting over my head. Boy, did I go back inside quick!
The US Army gathered all the privately owned firearms, put them in a pile and burned them with gasoline. My dad and I fished the remains of a "Flobert" .22 single shot rifle out of the ashes, wrapped it against rust, and buried it by a certain tree for future retrieval. I buried the 8mm-rifle ammunition I found in the same spot. It’s all still there.
NÖRDLINGEN, GERMANY - 1945
Next stop was Nördlingen. The "o" is in the German umlaut format, and we were here in September 1945. World War Two was over. While we were in the Munich railroad station a couple of our suitcases were stolen, one of which contained photos from home, at another station along the way someone was crushed between two trains.
Nördlingen was surrounded by a high wall about six feet wide in places, with battlements through which town defenders could shoot at any attacking force. My dad went to the mayor’s office and, without actually saying so, inferred that we were a bombed out German family looking for a home. We were given a shack to live in which was part of a little emergency housing project. There were about twenty of these built close to the highway outside town that led to Stuttgart about 60km away. There was a Lithuanian family here, a group of foreigners who were eating stray dogs and a mother and 16yr old daughter who were a hooker team. There were also many Gypsies here, with their colourful trailer-like wagons and lots of horses. They were always having campfires and there was much singing and dancing. One of their other pastimes was fighting with sabers, or curved swords. That was for fun, but they also had real fistfights. They were a rowdy bunch and were famous for trading horses and stealing. The women wore colourful full skirts. Their wagons were painted in bright colours with scroll cut roofs and windows, but they lived in shacks like ours. These were probably about 24x24 feet, built out of pine boards and had no insulation. They had 250v electricity and an outhouse. My dad suffered a brief shock once while fixing something electrical, and it was a real jolt! I think the shacks were partitioned into two rooms, and there was enough room behind for a small garden.
There was a polluted creek nearby where I played a lot. During winter I was always out on the ice flirting with a dunking, but it was only a couple of feet deep. In the summer some downstream sections were almost dry and I did find a stranded fish, probably a "sucker" type in a little pool once. Beyond our settlement across some fields, I found a rifle range with concrete and steel frames at the "butts" end where the targets were hung. It was in disarray and did not look like it had been used in a long time.
There was a curve in the highway just outside our "subdivision" and a bridge over another, larger creek. I found one of those pipes that were held over the shoulder to shoot rockets at tanks. A "bazooka"? It was a sandy yellow colour, which probably meant it was German, and likely originally made for the African campaign? A set of railway tracks paralleled the road to Stuttgart, which had two lanes, and I fooled around along there. I vaguely remember creating small explosions on the tracks. I think by placing Cordite, a type of gun powder, on the track and striking it with a hammer or other metal object to create a 'bang". Cordite came out of large caliber ammunition and the stuff I had, had a cylindrical shape 1/8" thick and 3/8" long. In really big shells it resembled spaghetti.
Down the road to town was a gas station. I can’t quite remember the sign, but I bet it was either Texaco or Esso. Is this possible? The road snaked into town across the bridge crossing the moat outside the town wall (which did not surround the town), and through the tower gate in the wall. Inside the walls the streets were all cobblestone. There was a cathedral in the center of town, but the roof was caved in like from a bomb hit. Businesses had graphic signs posted on outside walls showing an axe chopping off a hand. The penalty for stealing. The male senior citizens all wore medieval clothing regularly. This consisted of thigh high black boots, a toreador type of black hat and a dark sky blue, below the waist cape. Most smoked pipes. These had a curved down mouthpiece and a stem that was at least one foot long. The bowl looked like briar with a silver cover. There was other silver trim on the pipes and braided string with tassels. All this certainly added colour to the town, as they, and the surrounding wall, made it seem like a trip back in time.
The moat at this gate opened up into a fairly large piece of water, and when frozen served as the town’s skating rink. There was a skate rental concession and I often rented skates for 10 pfennig - like ten cents. They clamped onto your boots with a square key and were a "Hans Christian Anderson" type. The edge was at least 3/8" wide and at the front they curled up like Santa’s sleigh. The blades were very long, extending well past my boots, and their width made it easy to keep them upright. I liked them better than the narrow ones.
The occupying American army here was a Negro battalion and most of the US soldiers I saw were black. I had learned a couple of English swear words by now and tried out "son-of -a- bitch" on a white one, who looked like he had an officer’s uniform on, one sunny day. He was walking past our garden while I was there. My mother used a coat hanger on me to illustrate the error of my ways.
One day, I walked into the shack of the mother/daughter team to find them entertaining a couple of black soldiers in separate bedrooms. The same thing was witnessed by my sister, which she just told me recently. The daughter had contacted syphilis and had a bandage on one arm covering its effect Zenia says.
I remember being in a "real" school here. My German was still poor at this point as I had very little contact with the locals in Austria, so it was a real drag - which would be repeated in Canada. Paper, like all manufactured goods, was in short supply, so I was given a notebook, which had been used by another student before me. Her name was Hannelore Strictler. I wonder where she is now. There is a document with, I guess, is my progress report, but my German is now too poor to understand what it says.
DINKELSBÜHL 1946-48: Please click HERE for link to this file on "DP Camp 73" page.
The men were all berthed separate from the women, but I being a little kid was allowed to go with my mother. All the men were checked for venereal disease upon boarding. Everyone really treated us like cattle everywhere in Europe. There was always a large group of naked people here and there.
The ship was of 7,000 tons (a modern cruise ship is about 100,000 tons), American registry, and had been used as a troop ship. The holds had been rigged with folding bunk beds and there were people everywhere. The English channel was smooth, the water green.
We stopped off the White Cliffs of Dover and a launch or two came alongside. I don't know what they did, but we were soon under way and hit the open sea.
When we left Bremen Haven the weather was warm and sunny, and continued being nice out the English Channel. Once we were on the ocean it was mostly windy and overcast, and the ship rocked bow to stern. The sea was choppy, with whitecaps, and a deep dark blue.
The food here was good, but who could eat it! My sister says she had an occasional headache, but ate like a horse and enjoyed the whole trip because of that. I had a headache the entire way, but did not bring up. Everyone else did though. There was puke everywhere and they could not clean it up fast enough. Zenia says we stopped at one point to let a storm ahead of us pass. I did see some flying fish. She says she saw dolphin. We arrived in Halifax on September 13, 1948.
HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA
Halifax was gray the early morning we arrived. There was lots of flotsam in the harbour. I expected to see the Statue of Liberty! I was wearing a parcel tag on my clothing, I guess saying who I was and where I was going! I don't remember what happened in Halifax, but remember finally being on a train, sitting on a nice upholstered seat in an wood panelled compartment and my dad disappearing for a while then returning with some bottles of Coca-Cola. My first taste! It was terrible, and to me, tasted like iodine. I had seen some of the green 7oz. bottles from Coke in Nördlingen a couple of years earlier and had wondered what this was. Sort of like in the movie "The Gods Can Be Angry", where a small plane pilot throws a Coke bottle from the air, a native finds it and worships it! Except I did not worship it, but would eventually learn to love the taste!
Our train headed west through the Canadian wilderness. I was awed by the rocks, water, the little towns and floatplanes I saw. The autumn colours were brilliant and it was gorgeous. Till we got to Regina!
GLASLYN, SASKATCHEWAN - 1948
Saskatchewan was covered with snow. Lots of snow. A car was waiting to pick us up in Regina for the ride to Glaslyn, about eighty-five miles north of North Battleford. The road was gravelled and had been plowed. Most of the way there was brush growing right to the travelled portion of the road and you could not see anything in the night. When we pulled into my aunt's yard the two foot deep snow was sparkling in the moonlight, and it was extremely cold.
It was probably a big thing for my father. He had not seen his sister since 1927, the year she left Ukraine for Canada. Her husband Alex was a blacksmith (he had not been one back home) and he did well by the Saskatchewan farmers. He had a blacksmith shop on the property, an electric welder and a pickup truck, which he made out of an old "Chicago Gangster" type car. He cut the center part of the body out and welded the back portion to the front to make a cab, then added a box in the back.
Anyway, there was no public hydro in Glaslyn. There was a generator at Loft's Garage (I later fell in love with Helen Loft), but it must have been expensive to hook up to him. A coal oil lamp lighted the house, and it looked dismal! Electric lights make a big difference! It was cozy and warm from the wood burning stove, but it seemed primitive.
It was classic 1940s in the country. There was linoleum on the floors, oilcloth on the table, a metal match dispenser hanging by the stove. Everyone collected coupons packed inside packages of Blue Ribbon coffee, and lots of other products. Postum was a popular drink that came in metal cans (later in glass, till it disappeared entirely).
A few days later my aunt sent me to the town restaurant to buy some Seven-Up (glass bottles with the logo and bubbles running up, white ink, green bottle), and I was delighted that it was free. The new owners of the establishment had just taken over and were giving away everything on their first day of business! Maybe this place would be OK!
Shortly thereafter my sister and I were in school. Ever try to learn Turkish? This was like that. There were two rooms. Either grade 1 to five, or one to seven in one room, the others in another. I had a teacher that was French. She assigned one of the other students to assist me. This was probably one of her star students, and turned out to be Helen Loft. She helped me in class as best she could, and would come to our house after school. I liked Helen.
That winter I wrote a letter to George Kapy, who was still in Dinkelsbühl, and enclosed a dollar bill. The letter, including the dollar was returned by the censor. Sending Canadian money to Germany was a no-no! This reminds me of mail in and out of the Soviet Union. My grandfather would send us letters to 215 Margueretta St. using names of distant relatives, never addressed to Sklepkowycz, and they would have lines cut out of them with scissors. Unfortunately, the writing on the other side would be destroyed as well. Sentences would be written in a fashion that you would have to 'read between the lines'. References would be inserted about events in the past to help my parents figure out what my grandfather was trying to say.
Winter had really set in. Sometimes the temperature dipped to -55 Fahrenheit, and stayed there for two weeks. You could not make a snowball. The snow was like sugar. School was the equivalent of three or four blocks away, and by the time I got there every exposed hair on me was covered with frost. It was not much fun to use the outhouse behind the house, nor were the Eaton's catalogues used for toilet paper, but at least there was something to read during daylight. My English progressed, but took longer to master (if indeed I have!) than German did. A tremendous help were comic books. Relating between the action pictures and the text was an asset. Red Ryder (with his sidekick Little Beaver) was an early favourite and I still remember one sequence of pictures.
The next summer my uncle borrowed a bicycle for me to use and that was super, but all the roads and streets were gravelled so riding was not great. Saturday night everyone drank beer, so Sunday morning I would walk around and gather the bottles around town. Eventually my uncle cashed the bottles in at North Battleford.
He and my aunt were caretakers at the school so during the class year I would go and help them sweep the floors and clean windows. Do you remember "Dustbane" sweeping compound? Looked like finely chopped, oiled sponge and it picked up dust! The floors in the school were oiled and we would re-oil them occasionally.
I don't remember what I did in the summer there, besides trying to snare rabbits in my aunt's garden. The cabbages were huge, so it must have been legal game harvesting season, but just barely! I never did get one. I roamed in the bush past the field behind our garden and built a lean-to there, I guess pretending I was camping. The trees were all spindly poplar. The previous spring the class had gone out on a crow's nest destroying foray, but I did not join them. Guess they were a problem. I did like messing in the bush, and liked the smell of rotting leaves. I still do!
One day we went in my uncle's homemade truck to visit a farmer. When we arrived there I saw a sawed off single shot .22 rim fire rifle hanging on the porch. "I have some ammunition for that, I think" I said. "Could we try it?" Where did I get the ammo, my uncle asked. Well, from the floor of White's General Store. A box had fallen and spilled, and I had thought it was ok to collect a few of these! That did not go over very well, but my uncle was a kind, diplomatic man. We saw grouse, or prairie chickens as we bounced down the farmer's driveway.
On another occasion, in winter, we went to another farm in an early version of a "Bombardier". This was a sleigh with an enclosed compartment sitting on the runners, with windows all around and a slot for the reins, as it was pulled by horses. There was even a little wood burning stove in it.
On one occasion, some farm kids said if I were to visit them they would show me the gun at their house! This was ok, and I was soon riding out. When I arrived there were no adults around and the kids, younger than I was, perhaps 7 and 8, first showed me some ammunition that was in a kitchen drawer. I know now this was 9mm-pistol ammo, and we were soon examining a Walther P-38 German army souvenir. The pistol was hidden inside a wall, but the kids knew where it was and brought it out. Not knowing if the thing was loaded, and not knowing how to check, I would not let the kids do any demonstrating, which they or at least the older one was anxious to do. I had a good look at it, and without touching any "controls", had them put it back. That was neat. In 1962 wife Helen and I were in Glaslyn and I should have checked if it was still around!
I guess it's easy to see how I was heading to my lifelong interest in guns, hunting, fishing and fooling around in the outdoors. And, I did it all on my own, though my mother often blamed cousin George for things I did!
One day I saw someone eating ice cream on a stick, and found out where to get some. This was the introduction of something called "Revello", chocolate-covered vanilla ice cream on a stick, and Popsicle Pete encouraged you to save the bags and turn them in for "Swell Gifts"! Later, in Saskatoon, a rumour circulated that you could also get swell gifts for collecting the sticks as well, and I did, but that was a lie. I did however, send some bags in for a model airline kit from Popsicle Pete, and got in on another deal for a bread knife from Old Dutch cleanser. The plane kit came with red tissue paper for covering the fuselage. My mother used the knife till she died, and is now used by my sister! When the plastic handle broke, I made an aluminum one that will last forever.
That October I found out about Halloween. I was getting a bit too sophisticated for that kind of thing, but did "go out" with the boys and thought it was great. But that was the only time I did it. Some pranksters had turned over the outhouse of a couple of old ladies in town, and the next day the Mountie showed up in school. He gave us all a lecture, and ordered the boys to put it back up. The same thing had apparently happened to our next door neighbour and he retaliated the following year by booby trapping his outhouse and made some prankster fall in the hole!
Long after we came to Toronto, my aunt, Zenovia Wosowych and her husband Alex moved to St. Catharines, Ontario. They had come to Canada in 1927, and he, being a blacksmith, did well in the farm community. He was the only one providing the service, and did welding when the technology arrived. In St. Catharines he worked in a field where his blacksmithing experience was helpful. I visited them one summer, going to St. C. by bus.
Uncle Alex had sparse graying fair hair, of average build and probably about 5'9" tall. I remember him usually dressed in a plaid shirt, dark trousers and suspenders, ready for his blacksmith shop. My sister Zenia says he was a mail carrier back home and not trained as a blacksmith. She also says his parents both died from cholera.
Aunt Zenia was always dressed in a cotton 'house dress'. She was a 'stout' woman, heavy on cellulite, with gray hair, probably about 5'6" tall.
Unfortunately, my aunt Zenia had thoughts that my father would be interested in becoming a priest in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. He wasn't, and my mother, being the daughter and granddaughter of Ukrainian Catholic priests did not take too kindly to such plans for her husband. This caused a rift between her and my aunt, which lasted till my mother's death, and I'm sure in my aunt's mind till HER death! The aunt and her husband were both born Catholics, but converted to the Orthodox church sometime after arriving in Canada. Her attitude toward my mother of course diminished my esteem for her, which brought her criticism upon me, and I stayed away from her except for a visit at their home in St. Catharines before all the animosity really became evident. She was invited, and came to our daughter's wedding, but had a sour look on her face the whole time and was generally a burden.
In 1962 wife Helen and I did a car tour of the west and visited Saskatoon and Glaslyn. We visited the people then living in my aunt's house, had a look at the schoolhouse and so on. Should have knocked on some other doors as well. I found it an extremely moving experience. It was the first time I had 'returned' to anywhere, and it took me back to my childhood.
Interestingly, in 1996, at work, a new employee casually stated that his mother was from Saskatchewan. "From where?' said I. "Oh", he said, "you wouldn't know it. A place called Glaslyn"! It turned out that my aunt Zenia was Steve's mother's godmother, and yes, she remembered the European people that came in 1948. This scenario happened just before I retired, and unfortunately did not get to meet her. Small world!
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