Romanivka, Ukraine

NicholasCarman0001 77

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.

NicholasCarman0001 87

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)

NicholasCarman0001 75

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.

NicholasCarman1 213

In Ukraine, Lael is named Lesia.  It is easier this way.

NicholasCarman1 214

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.      

NicholasCarman1 222

NicholasCarman0001 52

NicholasCarman1 215

NicholasCarman1 217

NicholasCarman0001 46

NicholasCarman1 216

NicholasCarman1 219

NicholasCarman1 220

NicholasCarman1 221

NicholasCarman1 230

NicholasCarman1 218

NicholasCarman1 232

NicholasCarman0001 41

NicholasCarman0001 40

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.  

NicholasCarman1 229

My grandparents stand tall on the right.

NicholasCarman1 223

And my grandfather’s brother Simeon and his wife, on their wedding day.  The brothers look a lot alike.

NicholasCarman1 227

Simeon, in a photo taken in 1964.

NicholasCarman0001 8

Me, on the far left, my two sisters and my younger brother.  Twenty years later, we find the opportunity to visit.

NicholasCarman1 225

Twenty+1– my brother Alex is just short of 21 years old.

NicholasCarman1 233

My mom, with Simeon on her right, in Odessa, 1977.

NicholasCarman1 226

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.

NicholasCarman0001 78

Lonya, as a young man.

NicholasCarman1 235

Everyone has stories.  Artom recites poems about beets and garlic.

NicholasCarman0001 51

NicholasCarman0001 32

Lida leads us outside.

NicholasCarman0001 28

This is the site of the old house.  Lida is a great host and guide.  No details are spared.

NicholasCarman1 237

NicholasCarman1 238

NicholasCarman0001 29

Grapes are in season.

NicholasCarman1 236

Lonya walks slowly and quietly, stopping to sit and rest at every opportunity, even if for just a few seconds.

NicholasCarman0001 12

The cellar stores food for the season.

NicholasCarman0001 88

NicholasCarman0001 3

LaelWilcox0001 18

LaelWilcox0001 21

LaelWilcox0001 20

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.

NicholasCarman0001 10

NicholasCarman1 239

NicholasCarman1 242

NicholasCarman0001 11

NicholasCarman0001 13

NicholasCarman0001 14

We walk into the fields, into the valley.  Plum trees nearly outnumber people in Ukraine.

NicholasCarman0001 15

NicholasCarman0001 20

NicholasCarman0001 17

NicholasCarman0001 18

NicholasCarman0001 19

NicholasCarman0001 22

NicholasCarman0001 16

Beans climb corn stalks.  Corn, not yet ready.

NicholasCarman0001 24

NicholasCarman0001 25

NicholasCarman0001 26

NicholasCarman0001 27

Beyond the fields, a small creek winds through brush and willows.  The family used to walk down to the creek to bathe in summer.

NicholasCarman0001 23

Lonya grew up here.  He doesn’t talk, yet he speaks with his eyes.  

NicholasCarman0001 31

NicholasCarman0001 37

Naturally, we visit the cemetery.  There are a lot of familiar names here.  Stories and stories…

NicholasCarman0001 33

NicholasCarman0001 39

NicholasCarman0001 36

This weathered cross marks Kalyna’s grave, my grandfather’s stepmother.

NicholasCarman0001 38

NicholasCarman0001 43

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.  

NicholasCarman1 231

NicholasCarman1 234

NicholasCarman0001 44

Lida fills a bottle with homemade samohon (horilka, vodka) for the table.  No festivity is without a bottle of liquor in Ukraine.

NicholasCarman0001 45

Compote is also common, made from fresh fruits.  In this case, cherries are on hand.

NicholasCarman0001 42

NicholasCarman0001 48

NicholasCarman0001 50

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.

NicholasCarman0001 47


NicholasCarman0001 53

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.

NicholasCarman0001 54

To church.  Each town has a church with brightly metallic cupolas, or domes.

NicholasCarman0001 65

NicholasCarman0001 66

And a highly decorative iconostas.

NicholasCarman0001 67

NicholasCarman0001 68

Around town.

NicholasCarman0001 56

NicholasCarman0001 55

NicholasCarman0001 70

NicholasCarman0001 58

NicholasCarman0001 59

NicholasCarman0001 60

My grandmother was famed for making these little baskets by the hundreds, and gifting them with pysanky, or painted eggs.

NicholasCarman0001 80

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.

NicholasCarman0001 62

NicholasCarman0001 63

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.

NicholasCarman0001 64

Another bike.  This one has been repaired several time by welding.

NicholasCarman0001 71

NicholasCarman0001 72

NicholasCarman0001 73

NicholasCarman0001 74

NicholasCarman0001 57

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.

NicholasCarman0001 82

NicholasCarman0001 30

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.

12 thoughts on “Romanivka, Ukraine

  1. Good stuff. The older you get the more you will appreciate taking the time to do this. No amount of money can ever replace the memories you are making.

  2. Really great post, Nick.

    With the passing of my grandmother in July, it has fallen on me to archive all her historical documents and its been a bittersweet pleasure to learn more about my family’s past (incidentally, her grandfather immigrated to Rochester from Ireland in the 1850s and became a stone mason’s apprentice.)

    Re: the spokes – The bends could be a clever way to shorten miscellaneous spokes to the same length without having to rethread them?

  3. Great post; you took me back to blissful childhood summers I spent in Ukraine in the 1990’s. Your family’s story is very representative of what these people have lived through during much of the 20th century.. About the spokes: when the nipples rust and seize, the spokes are tightened by grabbing and bending them with a pair of pliers.

  4. i am guessing the spokes have those bends so you can use a longer spoke without cutting it (making it shorter instead by bending it?)

    just an idea.

    anyhow; fantastic blog and travels! keep up the great work. i am a big fan!

  5. Thank You for sharing a more intimate part of your history. Family is such a an amazing part of our lives and it was great to learn a little bit more about yours. It is fantastic that you are able to intertwine your never ending love for travel and bicycles with the love for your family and those close to you. Enjoy your posts as always. Safe travels!

  6. Ciao

    Spokes – it’s an obvious, well know beyond old people (populary called duffers, You meet a lot of that kind in rural areas of eastern eu i guess;) method of truing the wheel; The knowledge of wheelbuilding is a rare one, same as spoke-key, contraty to the omnipresence of the typical pliers;)

    Nice lecture, when reading I had an associate with the Elijah Wood movie “Everything Is Illuminated”;

    Cheers from Krakow!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s