Volyn is not Volhynia

Having read a couple of books recently set in Volhynia, I’m reminded again of its complicated past, influenced by different political, religious and ethnic groups.  I need to refresh my frame of reference and look at a map.  My great-grandparents, ethnic Germans who were originally Lutheran, moved into Volhynia in the 1860s from the Gdańsk area (then called Danzig) and later converted to Baptist. 

Zhytomyr Oblast in modern Ukraine

        My grandfather was born near Zhytomyr (about 150 kilometers west of Kyiv) in the 1870s.  At that time, the city was considered part of the Russian Empire. When my mother was born in 1919, Zhytomyr became the capital of the short-lived (1917-1920) Ukrainian People’s Republic. By the time my mom turned one, Zhytomyr was part of the USSR. Their family farm, centered around the hand-built windmill, labelled them state enemies, or kulaks, by 1930. 

On the maps, the 2 oblasts are separated by the Rivne Oblast. There are 24 oblasts (provinces in total).

Volyn Olbast in modern Ukraine
My extended family —most of whom were targeted through exile, arrest, and execution, had lived in a scattered community of German villages which were dominated by a zealous evangelical Baptist faith. (One that my mother continued to embrace here in Canada in the 1950s).  The Germans in Volhynia built a faith-based seminary to train their own pastors in Heimtal (remnants still standing), to compliment the existing one in Odesa.  They also built a central red brick church in Neudorf (1907) one of the biggest churches in the area. Times were booming for the Baptists and the farmers … until Stalin’s First Five Year Plan to collectivize farms.

Today, the area known as the Volyn Oblast is further west and my mother’s territory is part of the current Zhytomyr Oblast. Other main centres in the area included Pulyny (called Pulin by the Germans) and Koresten to the north (300 km from Chernobyl). 

It’s all confusing and I keep messing up.  With the current war, all that messed up history stirs up memories of past injustices. So hard to keep one’s self-identity when names of your home are in flux and your people have disappeared. 

No wonder my mother never knew if she was German, Russian, Ukrainian. No wonder she embraced her faith and later, being Canadian.  


Naming Characters

About Olga becoming Katya.  Back when I was writing The Kulak’s Daughter I chose the name Olga for my protagonist. While uncommon here in North America, it’s popular in eastern Europe. The name, in fact, has Scandinavian roots and is meant to be a positive blessing for a child. But every immigrant knows that names don’t always travel well. What’s considered a pretty name in one language, might connote only ‘otherness’ in another.

My mom had a Tante (Aunt) Olga and there were several older Olgas in my immigrant church congregation. It was a name I associated with ‘otherness’ but also with old and with the 'old' country. Olgas were the 'babushkas' during my childhood ... along with the Elfriedas and Hildegards. Just plain old-fashioned immigrants.  I also like Olga because it translated to Helga in German and that seemed convenient to my purposes as I developed my stories. (There is no H sound in Russian. Hence, Hitler becomes Gitler.)

My editor, however, decided that the name Olga was too foreign-sounding and off-putting for potential Canadian readers and wanted me to change it. I did so reluctantly and still regret it. It seemed to only underline the foreignness of my own name, Gabriele Ulrike, a name that marked me as an outsider when I was going to school. My parents called me Gabby (Gabi) and teachers butchered my name, giving it French flair, like Gabriella, or masculinity, like Gabriel. I still have to correct official documents. And my middle name, Ulrike? Well, that’s also been an embarrassment. 

How I pined for a simple name that would blend in with the masses … like Debbie or Karen … a name that would not be mispronounced or misspelled. I was named after twins that my mom helped birth in post-war Germany, and all I can say is, I’m grateful that Gabriele was born before Ulrike! 

The Ukrainian newcomers I’ve been meeting here in Canada, all have such lyrical names like Tatiana, Elena, Oksana, Anastasia. Musical names that sing like songbirds.  Makes Gabe sound like a lonely one-note crow. 


Othering Each Other

Maya’ Memories is a well-written memoir filled with vivid detail. Written by Maya’s son, Gene Kirichenko, from here in Winnipeg, it’s told in his mother’s voice. 

Maya was born in Slo’yansk in 1926, a city in the Donetsk Oblast of eastern Ukraine. The city of Slo’yansk has been brutalized over much of the last hundred years—from the Holodomor to the Nazi and Soviet conflict, to the 2014 Russian invasion.  When her son published the memoir, Maya was already 89 years old. 

Gene Kirichenko’s efforts to document his mother’s incredible life have been beautifully presented in this 300-page, coil-bound edition.  I’m grateful to my friend, Pat Trottier, who gifted me this book. It’s a wonderful accompaniment to two recent novels by Erin LittekenThe Lost Daughters of Ukraine and The Memory Keeper of Kyiv, that I’ve been reading this summer. 

Maya’s Memories is also a wonderful supplement to the weekly chats I have with recent Ukrainian newcomers because the assault on Ukrainians continues to this day. Whether it was Soviet destruction under Stalin, or Nazi destruction under Hitler, or modern Russian destruction under Putin, the Ukrainian people have been attacked again and again. And, sadly, they have had only limited access to their own memories. They’ve been locked up behind Russian and Soviet propaganda, behind silent fears, behind misplaced stoicism,  and sometimes behind the numbing of homemade vodka.

Earlier in the week, I had a visit with Anne, an 89 year old German woman, born into a Mennonite community in the southern area of Ukraine near Odesa. Her family retreated with the German Army in 1943 and she ended up in Canada in 1949 … the same year that Maya would have arrived here in Winnipeg. Two young women, enemies over there and starting over here in Canada … invisible to each other.

Their governments had turned on their own, forcing young men to become killers for love of country, dividing families and taking away their geographical homes. In Canada they adapted, even if it meant losing their language and what was left of their culture.  Survivors trickled over, to places like Winnipeg, where they became mere humans again … no longer identified by uniforms, badges or documents that labeled them as other. 

Can we hold onto this equality? Or are we again going to submit to fear and find strength in ‘othering’ each other?


About Homes

House in the former Federofka , Ukraine (mom's home village)
Perhaps it’s not surprising that the newcomers to Canada with whom I’ve been meeting are looking forwards not backwards. I know that my immigrant parents didn’t talk much about the war, about the Soviet prisons, about their homelessness. Instead they focused on working, on building homes, creating gardens and raising their children. They didn’t sit around and discuss why it took until 1945 for the war to end. They didn’t wonder if they could have found another evacuation route. They didn’t question what had happened to them. They just focused on the present... on creating a home.

Currently, I’ve been learning from recent Ukrainian arrivals. (Ha! They think they’re learning to improve their English, while truly, I’m re-learning what it means to escape from a war-torn country.) The women I’ve talked with don’t want to discuss politics. They don’t want to talk about the military strategies or about potential outcomes. They want stable jobs, a good education for their children and a decent apartment. Their native languages are Ukrainian or Russian. For them, languages are tools not political systems. 

Uncle's home in Slavskoye, now part
of Kaliningrad Oblast

I’m rather surprised that in some cases I know more about their history than they do. I’m more surprised that they don’t really care. Like I said, they have more immediate concerns. All of this helps me realize how it was when my parents arrived here in the fifties and shelved the past into books and photo albums that became yellowed, dusty and almost forgotten. 

What will Ukraine be when the war ends? Many Ukrainians will be wounded or dead. Many will be citizens of another country. Whole cities have been destroyed. The students I work with have no home to return to. Their families and friends have all scattered throughout Europe and Canada—wherever they could find asylum. 

When I cycled through my mother’s second home in East Prussia, I found just a divided land of ruins. The house her uncle built still stood, but the old man in it was from Kazakhstan. Friendly chap. Happy to have a house with a garden for his retirement. My mom’s first home in Volhynia, once a rich farmland dotted with wooden windmills and red brick churches, became a scattered collection of poverty-stricken hamlets with crushed people in crumbling shacks. 

Next to father's home in Schleswig-Holstein

I admire the energy, spirit and ambition of the Ukrainian people. They help me appreciate the good life I’ve been living here. Peace. 

Here’s a quote I’ve often considered. Because war isn’t only about soldiers. War is about ordinary people. I hope it doesn’t offend anyone. 

Why of course the people don't want war. …  But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship.

Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”

― Hermann Goering

Parents' first home in Winnipeg




My Teapot

I’ve been drinking green tea, brewed in this Made in Poland enamel teapot almost daily for nearly fifty years. I bought it, along with one for coffee, down in the Hudson’s Bay store, back in the 70s, when they had a grocery in the basement.  My Polish pot has sipped me through many a morning.  An interesting side note: Oskar Schindler owned an enamelware factory in Kraków during the war where he was able to protect Jews. A current enamelware factory is in Olkusz, Poland.

Over the years, I’d receive new teapots—for a while I was enchanted with clear glass ones—but they always ended up cracking. Nothing has withstood the decades of use (and at times, abuse … I’m thinking of campfires where the colour was completely charred over) like this aqua-coloured pot of comfort. 

Summer, in the sun-dappled shade garden, with a pot of green tea and a good book … a cup of peace, in tense times.

Meanwhile, Poland sends more troops to the Suwalki Gap, that 65 kilometre border with Lithuania separating Belarus from Kaliningrad. Reports of Wagner fighters heading to that same weak spot in the NATO alliance are being denied by Belarus.  There’s more trouble brewing. Too bad a pot of tea won’t solve our world’s problems.



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