Once our home was in Ukraine. I was 2 when the Nazis drove us off our land and had no memory of the place. Fifty years later, in 1993, I stood where our house once stood and walked along rows of sugar beets where my father's apple orchard had grown.
I had come full circle. All my life I lacked a sense of place. I was born on the eve of World War II. My first memories were not of my home, but of a German slave labor camp. After the war, my family languished in displaced persons camps for seven years before finally being repatriated to the United States in 1951. In America my mother died when I was about 12. With her death, my ties to my language, culture and people loosened considerably. The most important thing to me then was to become American as quickly as possible.
Life took its natural course in America. I was educated, married and had children. But the sense of a loss of place and a strong desire to understand where I came from never left me. My interest in the Soviet Union led me to a career as a political analyst of Soviet affairs. I was certainly well informed about the totalitarian system my family left behind in 1943. And after Ukraine became independent, I could finally go there myself.
My chance to live there came in early March 1993, when I became a regional director of the Counterpart Foundation, a non-profit foreign aid organization that provided technical assistance and skills training to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus. It was my job to set up headquarters in Kyiv and implement programs designed to help the civil sector. I was one of the first American professionals to arrive in Ukraine with a goal of bringing U.S. assistance to this newly independent state. It was a unique opportunity for me to revisit my heritage and to fulfill my longing for a home.
In those early years of independence, the nation was euphoric after its unexpected liberation from communist rule. In a free and open election, the people elected a new parliament and a president. The new government was busy building institutions-the executive office, a parliament, a justice system, and a national army-necessary for democracy. The resurgent Ukrainian Orthodox Church rejected the leadership of the patriarch of Moscow.
Work with the civil sector
In the civil sector things moved slower. Under the communists, people had lost the habit of self-initiative. There was general skepticism that individuals outside the government could effect change in society. Professional organizations of artists, writers, architects, and filmmakers, which had been saddled with party ideology and communist propaganda, were slowly becoming part of the incipient basis of a civil society. An artist I knew, painter Oleksander Dubovyk, had paid for his uncompromising artistic vision with decades of repression. Now he was finally able to emerge from the underground, and is acclaimed by many as the father of Ukrainian avant-garde in the postmodernist period.
Women's groups were the first to grasp the power of a citizens' front united for a common cause. Even under the communists, official women's organizations never lost the habit of doing charitable works. Unofficial groups dared much more. The Union of Ukrainian Women, for example, functioned underground for decades, providing vital assistance to families of dissidents and promoting Ukrainian language, culture, religion and traditions during long periods of Russification in Ukraine.
Our organization contacted as many Ukrainian NGOs as we could find, facilitating partnerships with American NGOs, providing training, offering information. I also had the privilege of working closely with semi-official organizations, such as the Ukrainian International Red Cross, the Chernobyl Relief Fund and Greenpeace. When the marshy, rural Rivne district, one of the poorest areas of Ukraine, was flooded, the U.S. State Department chose Counterpart to provide relief to the 300,000 victims. We needed the help of the three Ukrainian NGOs to deliver, monitor and distribute medicines, medical equipment, food and clothing to these northern villages, which had been under 1.5 meters of water for three weeks.
The participation of the Chernobyl Relief Fund was particularly critical, because we found ourselves dealing not only with flood victims but also with victims of the Chernobyl nuclear accident. The village of Stare Selo, one of our points of distribution, received such heavy radiation in 1986 that the entire population of 5,000 people warranted mandatory evacuation. But because the state could not afford their relocation and housing, eight years later the people were still living on contaminated terrain, eating contaminated food. About 30,000 victims from other villages were in the same critical situation. With the flood, Stare Selo's problems were compounded by biological as well as radiological contamination of food and water.
During our delivery of medical supplies to the regional hospital in Rokit-ne, Dr. Oksana Pilat, the hospital's director, told us that milk, potatoes and beets, the main staples of the people, were contaminated with Cesium. Milk, for example, had more than 50 times acceptable international norms for children. She showed us the cumulative data on the population of Rokitne, indicating that 60 percent of its people carried excessive body doses of radiation. This was particularly true of children, who comprised 30 percent of the population. But as long as they continued to live there, there was little she could do other than compile statistics.
Twice or four times a year the sickest of the children with radiation exposure went for evaluation and treatment to the Children's Hospital for Radiation Disease near Kyiv. Dr. Evgenia Stepanovna was in charge of the children's hospital since the Chernobyl accident in 1986. I believe that she single-handedly kept the hospital going by the sheer force of her will.
Dr. Stepanovna confided to me that because of the chronic shortages of vitamins and antibiotics, often the only treatment she could offer these children was two or three weeks of clean, uncontaminated food. Then her small victims of radiation, many born long after the Chernobyl nuclear plant exploded, went back to their unhealthy homes.
Coming to terms with the past
For the first time in 1993 the Ukrainian government publicly commemorated the 60th anniversary of the 1932-33 Stalin-imposed famine that killed many millions of Ukrainians. This anniversary held deep, personal significance for me. My forebears, all farmers, were among the victims of Stalin's murderous policy of land collectivization in Ukraine, culminating with the imposition of a forced famine. My paternal grandparents both died in the famine. Between 1929-33 every member on both sides of my father's extended family was forcibly deported to labor camps scattered across northern Russia, the Urals and Siberia, never to return to the steppes of Ukraine.
I had an opportunity to visit my birthplace shortly after the memorial anniversary. In the autumn of 1993 I attended a conference in Kharkiv, the second largest city in Ukraine. The city leaders invited me and other heads of foreign organizations to their new business center. While there I made arrangements to visit the village where I was born, 60 miles south of Kharkiv.
For more than an hour after leaving the city, the driver of the car I hired drove south in the direction of Crimea. We passed ripe fields of wheat, sunflowers and beets stretching evenly along both sides of the road.
The soil was black like coal where crops had been harvested. Shortly after crossing railroad tracks at the town of Krasnopavlivka, the driver veered off to the right onto a dirt road that quickly led us into a village. As we slowly inched along the road, I saw on both sides low wooden cottages painted blue and green. A slightly larger wooden building housed the village administration and a small wooden school stood directly across from it. More farm cottages followed in a row. Behind them to the right on a hill stood low, long barns and warehouses belonging to the local collective farm, Kolos. It was so small and unremarkable that we could have easily missed it.
This was Plysova. The unexpected barrenness and general smallness was disappointing. I had heard about the village from my father so many times that it seemed to be my own memory. He told me that it got its name from a river that flowed through it. Its quiet waters were said to be like velvet, plys, thus the name Plysova. "The river was simply a life giving stream," he would say, "flowing through a thicket of water willows, poplars, wild pears and apples, prickly bushes, burdocks, bramble bushes and nettles. These grew so thick at the edge of the river that if you walked under its canopy you could not see the sun. The air was sweet with the aroma of virgin soil mingled with the fragrance of the lush growth. It was hard to know whether it was morning or night because the nightingales never ceased singing." The present Plysova clearly was not the place of my father's recollections.
I soon found out the reason why. We stopped at the small building marked "Administrative Center" where we found the director of the collective farm, Mykola Bezvershni. Bezvershni then walked me along the main road to a white cottage trimmed in blue and said that the land down to the river once belonged to my family, encompassing in the sweep of his arm the cottage and the gently sloping land behind it. But the house that now stood on it, and all the other village structures, were built after World War II, years after we had left. I learned that the Germans burned our village to the ground in the summer of 1943.
Later that day, I read an eyewitness account of the destruction of Plysova by a survivor of the doomed village. It was recorded in a hand-written chronicle of the history of the village, which had been kept for more than a century by one of its founding families. "On 14 September 1943, the Germans were pushed out of our village for the last time. The Fascists burnt the village to the ground. But by some miracle the people and some cows survived in the brush where they hid. Gradually Plysova began to rebuild its collective farming. Women harnessed themselves and with the cows plowed and sowed the fields. Much of the land lay fallow, however. What could one really do when neither a tractor nor a house was left standing." I was told that fewer than 120 men returned from the war.
Geography placed Plysova on the front lines of the Soviet-German war from 1941 to 1943. It was strategically located between the city of Kharkiv, the object of five major battles in World War II, and the Dinets River, the military fortification line variously for the Germans and the Russians. The Germans occupied the village three separate times. The last time they put it to the torch.
By the looks of it, the village never completely recovered its prominence. Fifty years after the war, the population was still less than half of the pre-war population. I was happy that my father did not witness the devastation and did not know the fate of his village to the day he died.
Many decades after the war and thousands of miles away from his native land, in America, he still saw his beloved home in the blue-gray steppes of Ukraine, exactly as it was that fateful autumn afternoon in 1943 when he and his family were driven out of their home forever. The young fruit trees in the orchard behind the house were heavy with fruit. That year there was a bumper crop of several varieties of apples, including the early Stakhanovka and the later Antonovka variety. He had started the fruit garden in 1926, less than two decades before, with 44 sapling trees that he obtained from an agricultural bank in Poltava. There were also cherry trees of both the red and black variety, and several plum trees that supplied his family with sweet prunes for the winter. The honeycombs in the hives sheltered under the cherry trees were seasonably full of honey. A lone pear tree, an irresistible magnet for neighborhood kids, stood guard in front of the house by the hedge, where his father had planted it.
I had another surprise that eventful day. I learned the fate of my oldest brother, Mykhailo, from his childhood friend, Mykola Kozyumenski, who was still a resident of Plysova. I do not remember my brother Myshko, as we called him, because I was not yet 2 when he disappeared into the chaos of the war. I knew from my father that Myshko was 16 when the Germans overran the Kharkiv region for the first time and occupied our village. That was late 1941. Next spring, Red Army troops briefly broke through the German line and replaced them in our village. But not for long. The superior German forces again pushed the Reds into a retreat to their line of fortification along the Dinets River. As they fled, they took my brother and three other village boys with them, ordering them to drive a heard of cattle to the rear. Some 50 kilometers east of Plysova they were encircled by the Germans and taken as prisoners. My father did not know Myshko's fate after that.
Mykola Kozyumenski was one of the four boys who went with my brother and the retreating Reds and was the last person to see him alive. Solidly built, blonde and blue-eyed, Myshko had a quick mind and a likable open nature, according to my father. Kozyumenski said they were encircled and captured by the Germans in May, 1942. Initially the four boys and the other captives were herded into a makeshift outdoor prison camp south of Kharkiv. Shortly after that, the Germans marched the prisoners to a permanent camp in Taranivka, closer to the city. There their captors separated civilians from the soldiers. Myshko was placed with the civilians. Then one evening in early July, 1942, the Germans selected 10 men from the civilian group, including Myshko, for interrogation. "They were suspected of being partisans," Mykola said. "They were told to dig their own common grave, and then the Nazis shot them." Half a month later the prisoners were moved to Kholdna Hora or Cold Mountain, a notorious prison in Kharkiv. And in August the Germans released the remaining three boys.
A circle closed
It was hard to sort out my feelings just then. I was delighted to finally see Plysova, after hearing about it for decades. But I also recoiled at the devastating effect years of a rotting totalitarian system had on the lives of these people. I experienced a surge of relief that I had escaped that fate. In America I was given an opportunity to develop my human and professional potential to the fullest. In Ukraine the people had few choices.They languished under a repressive regime that oppressed the human spirit and stifled creativity.
My sorrow for them mingled with immense pride. Throughout the 20th century they were at the mercy of mo-mentous events beyond their ability to overcome or comprehend fully. Survival was hard, yet they persevered, despite the great upheavals, dislocation and terror. As I look today at the changes taking place in independent Ukraine, I hope a better future awaits them.
As I was leaving the village that day in 1993, a man thrust a notebook into my hand. It was the chronicle of the history of Plysova. He asked me to write about the place and the people. I promised him that I would.
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