My grandfather was born in Romanivka during a brief period of independence in Ukraine, before the country was included into the newly founded Soviet Union, almost a hundred years ago. He moved to the United States after WW II, where he met my grandmother. My mother was born several years thereafter in Syracuse, NY. He died in 2009, several days before his 91st birthday. The following is a shorthand personal history, recently compiled by my mother from memory; from conversations she had with him in his final years, in moments of clarity; and from letters he had written to preserve his story, including some details he was afraid to reveal in life. His name is Wolodymir Czerniha, although our visit to Romanivka has revealed that his birth name was actually Ivan. He most likely changed his name after leaving the army, as he emigrated to the United States. Growing up, we called him Didyc, which is Ukrainian for grandfather– this is how I knew him.
Much of the story is still missing, forever, while some details remain unclear. Contradictions or confusion most likely come from his own written recollections, especially in recounting wartime details. My notes are included in parentheses.
Born February 18th, 1918, 3rd in birth order, in the village of Romanivka, Bershadskij rajion (region), Vinnitska oblast to father Boris Olekceevich (1891-1981). Mother Elizaveta Stephanovna died 1924, when he was 6 years old, brother Simeon was 2 yrs old, and the oldest sister was 12. There were 4 children: 3 boys (Deonsiy, Simeon) and one sister (Anna). The following year his father remarried to Kylyna who had 3 girls of her own (Evfrociniya, Franiya, and Sonia), so now there were 8 in the family.
His father was arrested in 1930 and sentenced to 8 years and sent to the North/East (I assume Siberia). In 1931 the oldest daughter, Anna, married and went to another village. In 1932 they took Kalyna (stepmother) to a collectivization farm (kolkhozp), about the time that bread became scarce and the famine began. By 1933 it became even worse and people were dying from hunger en masse. In February 1933, the militia came and took the mother away from the 5 remaining children. They took her to Vinnitsya, and without a trial, she was imprisoned, leaving the children alone. They were half naked and starving.
After 5 months Kalyna returned home, but her oldest daughter had died in the famine. The five children survived because of Deonysiy, who had found a way to feed his sibings. In 1934, Deonysiy was called to serve in the Army, but they do not take him because his father is imprisoned. He then took a job in the sugar beet industry, where he took a course to become a chauffeur. In 1938 his father returns home and goes to work on the kolkhozp. When the war began in 1941, Deonysiy chauffered the director of the sugar beet factory, but never returned home. It was thought he died on the front. Simeon fought in WWII and was decorated with many medals.
At 20, he entered the Army and found himself in Central Asia: Turkmenistan, and after a few months went to a school in Tashkent, Turkey, returned to Turkmenistan, and then Uzbekistan until 1942. He was near Moscow in Ulyanovskij rajyon when Germans entered, attacked Russian army, and occupied. There was a war prison with about 10,000 soldiers. He was there from Aug 11, 1942 for 3 days with no food or water. On the third day someone he knew from Ulyanovska Orlovska oblast brought him some milk. Then they took them to Belarus or Poland where they shoveled snow and fixed roads as prisoners of war. Then taken from Warsaw through Austria to get to Italy. He was in Piza Livorno near Napoli as a Geman war prisoner and worked on a building at an airport for the Americans. He drove a truck from Napoli to Foggio as a chauffeur carrying materials for the building of the airport. I believe it was somewhere here that he met Efimy (my mother’s godfather, who also emigrated to Syracuse, NY). The Americans ordered to have the people freed and sent to Germany where Americans were giving them work (post-war). There were Ukrainians at the camp in Germany – Krawchenko, Stcherbak, Cherewko and then in another camp Zalizniak. Americans were bringing them to America and giving them jobs. He found out that Church World Service was bringing him to America. He arrived in NYC on January 30, 1951 after most recently working for a farmer in Germany. Zalizniak was already there and in a few days took him from NYC to Syracuse. Zalizniak was working for Stanton Foundry and tried to get him a job there. He did work there for 3 months, then in May 1951 he started at Crucible Steel and retired from there in 1981. The work was strenuous and hot, but he continued to work there for 30 years. Met Senenko family in Syracuse and found the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. He met Sonia in 1951 and were soon married. Had a daughter, Irene, in 1957. He and Sonia lived in Syracuse for over fifty years.
Brothers and sisters: Anna died in 1933 during famine, Deonysiy died in 1941 in war, Simeon in spring 2005, Sonia and Frania died within 40 days of one another in fall 2005. Didyc died February 15, 2009. Brother Simeon visited us in NY state after Ukrainian independence in early 1990’s and was overwhelmed with America. They had not seen each other in over fifty years.
(Compiled by: I. Carman)
From Bershad, the largest town nearby, we pile eight family members into a seven passenger van. Turning off the main road and off the ridge, a sign points to Romanivka, in the valley. Romanivka claims a little over 200 residents. A cross and an icon guard the village from the road. As we enter the village, we take on several more passengers. It is not always clear to me how we are all related exactly, but we hug and kiss just the same. Around here, everyone is family.
In Ukraine, Lael is named Lesia. It is easier this way.
First, we look around the house. My grandfather and his siblings grew up on this property, in a house that no longer stands. This house was built by his brother Simeon, now in the possession of his son Lonya, and Lonya’s wife Lida. They now live in Bershad. Lida takes a bus once a week to tend to the garden and maintain the house. Lonya does not speak, and has not been able to work for many years due to some physical and mental limitations. They kindly hosted us in their home in Bershad for several days.
Next, we discuss and discover the few photographs that have composed our ideas of each other for so long. My mom visited Ukraine in 1977 on an official tour, in a time when the Soviet government would not allow foreigners to travel to villages. Some family members made the long trip to Odessa or Moscow to meet her.
My grandparents stand tall on the right.
And my grandfather’s brother Simeon and his wife, on their wedding day. The brothers look a lot alike.
Simeon, in a photo taken in 1964.
Me, on the far left, my two sisters and my younger brother. Twenty years later, we find the opportunity to visit.
Twenty+1– my brother Alex is just short of 21 years old.
My mom, with Simeon on her right, in Odessa, 1977.
With Halya on her right, whom we met on our trip. Her sone Mykola died some time ago. There are lots of sad stories to be told, although all are given the matter-of-fact treatment that comes with time.
Lonya, as a young man.
Everyone has stories. Artom recites poems about beets and garlic.
Lida leads us outside.
This is the site of the old house. Lida is a great host and guide. No details are spared.
Grapes are in season.
Lonya walks slowly and quietly, stopping to sit and rest at every opportunity, even if for just a few seconds.
The cellar stores food for the season.
This secret storage was used specifically for beets.
An outbuilding also houses another kitchen, for prepping and canning, as well as cooking in the summer. Attached, space to store wood and coal, and a small chicken coop.
We walk into the fields, into the valley. Plum trees nearly outnumber people in Ukraine.
Beans climb corn stalks. Corn, not yet ready.
Beyond the fields, a small creek winds through brush and willows. The family used to walk down to the creek to bathe in summer.
Lonya grew up here. He doesn’t talk, yet he speaks with his eyes.
Naturally, we visit the cemetery. There are a lot of familiar names here. Stories and stories…
This weathered cross marks Kalyna’s grave, my grandfather’s stepmother.
Feast. Back inside, everyone gathers for a meal. In addition to our visit, this day is also my birthday. There is no better way to celebrate. Halya, whom my mom met in 1977, sits in the brown dress.
Lida fills a bottle with homemade samohon (horilka, vodka) for the table. No festivity is without a bottle of liquor in Ukraine.
Compote is also common, made from fresh fruits. In this case, cherries are on hand.
This is nearly as many people as we could find in Romanivka that would claim to be family. There are other relatives living in Bershad as well.
Simeon and Nastia used this stool by the road when coming and going. From here, they would wait for a ride, or sit and wave as guests depart.
To church. Each town has a church with brightly metallic cupolas, or domes.
And a highly decorative iconostas.
My grandmother was famed for making these little baskets by the hundreds, and gifting them with pysanky, or painted eggs.
Bikes in Ukraine are typically quite old, originating from old Russian or Ukrainian factories. Kharkiv had an especially productive factory. Newer mountain bikes are common on the city. A road bike would be pointless almost anywhere, as the roads are famously bad.
Lugged steel, cracked headset– let me know if you have any idea why the spokes look the way they do. Note, many spokes are also missing.
Another bike. This one has been repaired several time by welding.
It was incredible to see places I’d only heard about. More amazing to me is that I had little idea who we would find here, yet everyone seemed to know about us. My mom and my grandparents would send letters, pictures, and clothes at Christmas. Some of us had grown up in the same clothes and played with the same toys, or slept on pillows embroidered by my grandmother in Syracuse, NY. For now, this is mostly an experience that cannot be described.
After visiting my grandmother’s family in eastern Ukraine, near Russia, we’ll soon be back on the bikes in the Karpaty Mountains in the far western part of the county.