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.  


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