Florida, November 2004
As I drove through central Florida on Hwy 60, the devastation left by Charlie, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne—four recent hurricanes that hit the state this year—was everywhere. Metal poles corkscrewed the ground; county repair trucks crowded the road’s shoulders; men rushed with ladders; and gigantic trees lay tilted toward their broken branches, as if lamenting over them.
The traffic slowed to a stop. On my left, a house, caved-in and demolished by a gigantic centenarian live oak, stood crooked with sunken holes in place of windows. Dense, dirty-gray Spanish moss spread its webs over the building, entangling debris and seemingly floating in the very air.
The desolation caused by the deadly winds carried my thoughts five thousand miles away, as I recalled my recent trip to Ukraine. I’ve had a fascination for that country and its interlaced ancestral roots with Poland, due to our changing borders.
According to my father, “Ukraine’s ground is an enormous cemetery of buried Ukrainians who bravely tried to fight off constant foreign invasions.” For six hundred years, Ukraine and its immensely fertile soil had been the battlefield of surrounding empires and even distant Mongols. In 1917, Ukraine became a sovereign nation, the “Ukrainian Peoples’ Republic,” but only for a few years. The Soviet Union invaded it in 1922 and called it the “Soviet Republic of Ukraine,” forcefully imposing its Communism and its exploitations until 1991.
During my visit, the repercussions of the past Communist yoke were still noticeable.
I began my trip on a flight from Orlando to Krakow, then by bus eastward. Through friends, I joined a Polish organization engaged in helping indigent Ukrainian peasants of Polish ancestry. We stopped at a village where, at the end of WWII, Soviet tanks had ransacked the local cemetery. The peasants wished to buy engraved headstones for their forefathers but had no means to do it. Many of their ancestors had been killed in wars or had died of starvation during Ukraine’s Famine of 1932-33, the Holodomor. It was caused by Stalin’s “collectivization” and punitive food deprivation in the kolhozes (imposed by Soviet vigilantes)—while the Soviet Union was exporting grain to the world.
Our Polish group left funds with the village elder, and we parted among kisses and tears.
We proceeded to Lviv, a city beloved by Ukrainians and Poles: A historical, medieval, architectural, and cultural gem with a feverish, young population. We attended a choral performance by schoolchildren of Polish ancestry, who sang and recited poems by known Polish and Ukrainian poets. They too needed funds.
Walking from the concert, on a street nearby, a deeply engraved inscription in an ancient stone wall, read in old Polish: “PAN BOG MILOSCI W DUSZY IEGO R 1704 D” (The God of love resides in his soul, 1704 AD). Wow!
At the steps of a church, a wedding procession was assembling, headed by the bride and groom. They were dressed in exquisitely embroidered traditional Ukrainian clothes, and graciously agreed to my request for a photo. What called my attention was a cylindrical bread placed on an
embroidered white table runner. It was richly decorated with colorful dough birds in pairs, moons, suns, flowers, and wheat spikes. A woman was carrying it in front of her, with reverence. A wedding guest explained that it was korovai, a home-baked essential element of blessing in the traditional Ukrainian weddings. It dated to the eleventh century, to the old Slavic tribes—the taller the bread, the better the future of the marriage. But . . . it could only be baked once in a lifetime.
Riding by tram up and down the picturesque hills of Lviv, we visited the Lychakiv Cemetery. One part of it was a huge necropolis buried in profuse greenery, housing centuries of deceased local intelligentsia, among them known Ukrainian and Polish poets, civic leaders, generals, academicians, composers, and other artists.
Massive fields of soldiers, perished in various wars, occupied other sectors of the enormous Lychakiv cemetery. One of these fields, with three thousand vaults, had been bulldozed by the Soviets—a familiar method of “honoring” the fallen of opposing armies—and was now being reconstructed. Identical white headstones stood like soldiers in military formations on tomb-less ground. On each stone a name and an inscription: “Died in defense of Lviv.” The ages were all the same: eighteen.
The boys’ past agonies and their sacrilegious bulldozing stiffened the air around us, making it hard to breathe. We stopped and prayed—in our hearts—in complete silence and reverence.
Near the imposing fourteenth-century Armenian Cathedral, a stooped old woman followed me, begging in Polish. She had wrapped her head in a thick scarf, her garments oversized. She seemed to incarnate the soul of a gone past—her bottomless eyes shining black above her toothless smile. Babunia, I called her, as she thanked me for my offering.
From Lviv, I rented a car and headed south. The luxurious car belonged to my gentlemanly driver, Boris, a soft-spoken first generation Ukrainian businessman. He was the son of the many transplanted Russians during the Stalinist era—during the russification of Eastern Ukraine. Because of his parents, I avoided political conversations so he wouldn’t be caught in the middle.
Boris didn’t simply drive, but raced madly, advancing in self-fabricated extra lanes like all the other cars. Four cars drove on a two-lane highway (New York cab drivers could take lessons from Boris, I thought). Once in a while, he slowed down and then Ukraine’s pastoral beauty appeared, framed by singular rows of lean, shimmering white birches bordering the roads on both sides.
“Bierozki,” said Boris, looking at the trees with such tenderness, as one looks at an heirloom. “Look. Some are dying from a disease.”
“I understand your Ukrainian very well. That’s amazing. So similar to Polish,” I said.
He laughed wholeheartedly, flashing a row of metallic teeth. “That’s because I’ve been speaking to you in Polish,” he said with his melodic eastern accent.
We crossed villages lined with straw-roofed huts surrounded by fenced gardens with masses of purple asters and by courtyards alive with pigs, chickens, ducks, and boisterous geese. Women walked on the sides of the road, hunched under the weight of bags they carried.
We approached the town of Zbarazh. I had heard my father, a Polish veteran of WWII, mention the town as the place where on September 18, 1939, his troops had been defeated by the Soviet Army—and decimated. (Click here for that story. –Editor)
He, and those who had been spared, with hundreds of thousands of other Polish, Ukrainian, Lithuanian, and Belarus soldiers, were deported in barbaric ways, in cattle trains, to toil in the mines of Zaporizhzhya, near the Dnieper River (then Ukraine, occupied by the Soviet Union). Later, the Soviets deported them and millions of other mostly civilian victims to penal labor camps (Gulags) in the taiga of Siberia—with a customary eight-year sentence. The deportations had been routine chastising from the time of Tsars until the death of Stalin.
We visited the Zbarazh Castle situated on a hill. Standing on its grounds, I recognized (from my father’s recalling) the Bernardine Monastery and the twin towers of St. Anthony Padewski Church, dominating above an amassment of trees.
I approached a local Ukrainian who spoke Polish. Surveying the surrounding hills, I asked, “Where is east?”
“There,” he said, pointing to a distant green hill. The specter of my father’s lost battle flashed before my eyes. I shivered. In 1939, the Soviets had bulldozed in from the east; that’s where my dad had first confronted their armored tanks. That marked the end of his freedom.
Zbarazh, in the valley below, greeted us with dusty streets and piles of rubble. A few men commuted on bicycles, shopping bags in hand. On the bolted door of St. Anthony’s church hung a note in Polish, signed by a Bernardine monk who excused himself for the mess caused by the church’s second restoration (Soviet Communists had used it as storage and a factory of semi-conductors).
We left town and headed south to Zalishchyky. I remembered my mother reminiscing about our family’s pre-war vacations there:
“It was the warmest and the most enchanting mountain town in southern Poland. An Eden. By 1939, after twenty years of Poland’s independence, it had grown to six thousand mixed Polish and Ukrainian inhabitants. Its high school students were required to study four languages. Thousands of tourists enjoyed theatre plays and concerts, played tennis, and explored the town on horse-drawn buggies.
Peaches and apricots filled the surrounding orchards, and the vineyards produced the best grapes in Poland, distributed in the country and abroad. The Dniestr River (Pol.) wound its waters like a ribbon of turquoise sky through a canyon, dividing Poland from Romania. It surrounded the town on three sides, creating a ‘peninsula’ with its own warm, secluded climate.
“Every summer, we travelled from Lodz to Zaleszczyki (Pol.) by train with a group of co-workers and stayed at one of the many hotels or guest houses along the river.
Laughter of children playing on the beach and music from nearby restaurants floated through our open hotel windows, as did the animated voices of tour groups boarding boats for excursions on the Dniestr River to Romania. Basking sunbathers lined the beaches for hours of bliss.
“But in August 1939, during our last vacation there, the newspapers and the radio reported that the Germans were arming themselves to attack Poland. With apprehension and fear, we hurried home to Lodz.”
When Boris approached Zalishchyky, my heart accelerated. I longed to discover the crystal of the river and the green and purple lush of autumn grapevines. Any minute I would hear the joyful screams of splashing children; the weather was still warm. I peeked at a 1939 photograph of myself that I had in my purse—a little girl balancing on a smooth river stone while holding a toy watering can.
We drove into town. Silence. Deserted streets. Farther down the main artery, three dogs ferociously bit each other, fighting in a pile of garbage. We came to a desolate town square where two gray-haired women in babushkas sat on a bench. Through Boris, I asked, “Where is the Dniester River, ladies? Where are the hotels and beaches?”
“Walk down the street,” one of the women answered, after hesitating. A suspicious squint narrowed her eyes.
I hurried toward the river, stopping briefly at a park with a roadside wooden chapel. Inside, an icon of a Virgin with the Baby stood on a shelf, draped in a beautifully embroidered, impeccably white cloth. Next to the icon, fresh yellow daisies crowned a glass vase. At the end of the street emerged the white patches of a ridged rocky ravine. I knew it from old photographs. Yes!
I reached the Dniester River. Under a cloudy sky, water coursed filling its bed with a grayish-brown mass. On my side, muddy stones lay on a muddy beach that barely rose above the riverbed tall weeds, garbage, empty plastic bottles, and one grazing cow populated the water’s proximity. In stark contrast, on the opposite bank rose the familiar vertical rocky wall covered in parts by vegetation. No sign of hotels, restaurants, or boats.
“What happened here? Where are the hotels? Was there an earthquake?” I asked a man who came out of nowhere.
“The Soviets demolished most of the hotels and bulldozed the beaches. People ransacked the rest of the buildings to the ground,” answered the local Ukrainian in Polish. “They needed the bricks, doors, windows, etc. This was Rosyja (Russia) for almost fifty years. Don’t you know?” He appeared puzzled by our presence and by my ignorance of history and of the “facts of life.” A moment later, he mentioned his father, who had told him about the prosperity of the town in pre-war times. With an air of importance and pride, he added, “My son lives in America.”
Throughout our visits to Zbarazh and Zalishchyky, Boris stayed silent and aloof, seemingly disinterested and not at all surprised. Once more, I didn’t want to hurt his feelings by discussing the fruits of Soviet Communism.
Guided by the local man, we strolled along the riverbank and beneath the steel-structured bridge across the Dniester River. The odor of urine and garbage was suffocating. But a little way beyond the bridge, as if in an oasis, a two-story house stood firm, surrounded by trees and flowers.
“This was the only hotel saved from the pre-war times. Its name was Irena, and now it’s a private home. We can own property, you know,” said the man with a smile, “but most of our rich are ex-Communist Party people.” He continued to linger at our side, chatting with Boris.
The sun came out from behind the clouds and gave life to piles of yellowing leaves—autumn’s gold sprinkled on the ground surrounding the house. In an opening between the trees, silver sparkled like tiny diamonds on the water’s surface. On an empty lot next to the house, three fruit trees, probably peaches or apricots, agonized over their decaying trunks. A few crinkled leaves hung here and there, ready to detach.
“Where are the famous Zalishchyky’s vineyards?” I asked.
“All gone. Wiped out by the Soviets.”
“How many people live here now?”
“There are many people, but no one has the means or the energy to plant new vineyards or orchards.”
We left the river and drove to the railroad station. Not a soul. I walked on the tracks. Lifeless, a twisted grapevine clenched an arched rusty iron gate leading to what seemed to have been an old ticket office. I wondered if the vine—when just a tender, green sapling— had witnessed the happy crowds of vacationers getting off the train and, in their excitement, overpowering the steam engine’s puffing and hissing.
I strolled around town. In front of the modest façade of a small church, a painting of Pope John Paul II in reds and whites stood on an easel. On the same block in a photography store, I discovered a stack of old postcards of the city. I bought them all. On black-and-white glossy paper, vacationers in old-style bathing suits swarmed the beaches and the tree-shaded beach walks;
others chatted while sunning themselves on chaise lounges.
A manicured park led to Zalishchyky’s City Hall; and an imposing two-story hotel stood surrounded by grapevines.
I placed the postcards in my purse and despite the summer-like warmth of the day, I felt a chill. My heart hurt for Ukraine.
The desolate resort town of Zalishchyky, was an example of Soviet legacy: Deport the inhabitants of a town, pillage their goods, and destroy what’s left. Those deported had to contribute to the grandeur of the Soviet/Russian Empire—to the system’s gangrene—and eventually die of starvation, scurvy, or consumption.
Around the time of my visit, a pro-Russian proxy poisoned Victor Yushchenko, a pro-western candidate for president of Ukraine, with Agent Orange (dioxin)—the old Soviet grip still strangling; not letting go. Yushchenko did survive the attempt on his life.
During the subsequent eighteen years, Ukraine had recovered, economically and culturally, from the consequences of half a century of Communist tactics: imprisonment, deportations, or executions of Ukrainian religious leaders, intellectuals, politicians, and writers. A known strategy used by the Soviets was, “Decapitate the top of a society and you can dominate the lower classes and the illiterate.”
Democratically elected in 2019, the current President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, has shown the good moral values and executive skills needed in heading his country to a bright future.
Alas, since February 24, 2022, the whole world has been horrified by the unprovoked, harrowing, and systematic destruction of Ukrainian cities and villages by Russian bombs and missiles. Also, by the extermination of innocent Ukrainian civilians (men, women, and children) due to the continuous shelling of apartment buildings, hospitals, schools, bomb shelters, ambulances, and private vehicles—and lately by machinegun executions preceded by torture.
In Bucha, an outskirt of Kiev, the retrieving Russian soldiers have raped girls and women then killed and disfigured their bodies or burned them on tires and left them on the streets. Mariupol is another city of death by the thousands due to starvation. A train station in Kramatorsk, eastern Ukraine, packed with thousands of Russian-speaking civilians trying to flee to Lviv, was hit with missiles. One of them was marked, “FOR CHILDREN,” in Cyrillic. The onslaught left many dead and wounded without any medical facilities nearby, since sixty hospitals in Ukraine had been leveled. A true horror scene—baby carriages on the field of dead!
The Ukrainians say they will never forget or forgive these atrocities. Neither will most of our world.
It’s genocide, ordered by a Russian thug, a deranged, lying megalomaniac (whose name I dismiss) residing comfortably in the Kremlin—a billionaire, identical in his viciousness and murderous mind to Stalin. Nothing is new from the time my father had been starved and terrorized in the Gulag . . .
In the last five weeks, over four million Ukrainian women, children, and elderly have fled to the West, escaping from death. Escaping from Russians who are assassinating them to “liberate” them from non-existent Nazis. Poland, a country of thirty-eight million souls, has received two-and-a-half million of these survivors and has integrated them into its homes and society.
Led by the charismatic and heroic President V. Zelensky, the equally heroic and highly organized Ukrainian Army—with our American and NATO’s help—are fighting and dying day and night to preserve their freedom; the very existence of their country. A country now in danger of being swallowed totally or in part by an enormous Russia.
Ukraine, the barricade of the free world. Let’s pray for its victory and support its cause!
Eduvigia (Junia) Ancaya is a nonfiction writer who has taken creative writing courses at USF and numerous courses at OLLI. She has published two nonfiction books honoring her parents’ saga during WW II : Struggle for Freedom: Marta’s Courage—A Memoir and Stefan’s Journey on the Road of Sorrows.
A native of Poland, who escaped Communist tyranny in 1946, she immigrated to the U.S. in 1963. She is a retired physician.