ZBARAZH, Ukraine 一 It wasn’t until my grandfather moved in with us after the lockdown began earlier this year that I started to fully appreciate my family history.
My grandfather’s stories inspired me to begin researching our family tree. And so far my journey into the past has produced more than 300 relatives I had never heard of before.
My pandemic passion began when my grandfather, Ostap Oleshchuk, who was born in the nearby village of Zaluzhzhia, about 350 kilometres west of Kyiv, moved into our house just after the snow had melted.
Late one evening, when he and I were drinking tea, he started telling me about his family, about adventures he and his sibling had, about his mother’s life, and about lost contact with relatives who went abroad.
I wanted to know more. What were his parents’ names? Was his father in the army? When and how did his parents die?
After my Grandad answered those questions, I asked him about his own grandparents. He didn’t know as much about that generation. But he did know about his paternal grandmother, Tekla.
Tekla had four sons and a daughter. Her sons were rogues who held the village in fear. When there were celebrations, Tekla was always invited, because only she could control the boys. Even so, weddings turned into brawls, and Tekla was often obliged to haul her offspring home.
When my Grandad grew frustrated over the things he didn’t know, I decided to take on the challenge of travelling through history to find out.
I spent days searching Soviet archives of war losses and found two brothers who had long been missing. One wasn’t even buried in his own grave, but rather with other officers who didn’t make it through a battle. Another of the brothers was buried in the village and I was able to get the coordinates of his grave.
My granddad was so happy he called his friends right away to share what I found.
I then tried to find out more about his mother, Maria, who died shortly after I was born. In my Grandad’s stories, his mother was always a hero. Maria was widowed after five years of marriage, left with two little children and expecting another when the Soviet Union was terrorizing Ukraine.
Her land and livestock were confiscated, she worked day and night to give her children the chance for an education.
To track her story, I used online archives, even old maps. I discovered she had been born to an affluent family. Her father, Mychaylo, travelled to America, made some money and returned home.
My Grandad remembered how his mother complained about the plant her father opened, how she worked in a flax field, carefully collecting each delicate stem to make linen.
When I found out about Anna, my grandfather’s great-great-grandmother, who was born in 1815, he was shocked. He had never heard of her. For days he went around with a big smile. He took me around the village to visit relatives and friends. He was proud of me and wanted everyone to know.
But here’s the story that warmed my heart.
At the end of the 1920s, Mychaylo was raising four of his children and another by a sibling, who had died along with their spouse and left six children orphaned.
Mychaylo and his other siblings had taken responsibility for them, each adopting one of the six into their families. This tale of tragedy and love had been lost until I unearthed it. When I think of it, I know no matter how bad the times were my family took care of each other.
And now, because my grandfather told me stories, and I was able to tell him some in return, we are closer, richer and even prouder of our heritage.