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A child of the Holodomor, a warrior for truth

May 2, 2024 | Featured, In Memoriam

Lidia Wasylyn.

The last known Holodomor survivor living in Edmonton, Alberta passed away on March 1, 2024. Leonid Mykyta Korownyk or “Leo” as many knew him, was born in 1930 in Pochyno-Sofijivka, Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine.

As a young child born into the horrors of the Holodomor, he was granted the gift of life and survived. He dedicated his entire life to being a warrior for faith and for truth. He not only survived, but thrived and triumphed over the many challenges thrown before him by world events that were greater than him.

His earliest memories are of the struggles and pain his family endured in the “communist paradise” inflicted upon the Ukrainian Nation after World War 1. In an autobiographical essay published in 2022 in Edmonton, Leo reveals how the profound desire to survive compelled his family to work in unimaginably difficult circumstances, always under the threat of extreme punishment or death by the communist regime. Their daily lives were a constant struggle to get by with the very little they were permitted to have. He described the Holodomor as ‘a serpent that slithered into his family’ and devoured many.

The start of war between Nazi Germany and the USSR in June 1941, brought new struggles. Leo’s father was conscripted into the Red Army. Two years later when the Nazi’s began their retreat Leo’s father saw an opportunity for the family to escape. Leo recalled Tato’s words, ‘if we retreat with the front, live or not, but I will not live one day under the communists.’ And so, the Korownyk family began the unknown and arduous trek that would eventually lead them to freedom.

Like thousands of other families, they joined the masses seeking salvation from the evils of communist oppression and nazi terror. Their circuitous journey was plagued with many difficulties and took them through the Ukrainian Carpathians, through Romania, Hungary and finally to Germany where they hoped to find some slight feeling of calm. This hope was shattered when the family realized they would be facing forced repatriation to the USSR, a certain ticket to death or the gulag. With little to lose, the family jumped off the train taking them to a repatriation camp. Thanks to some sympathetic locals who must have sensed the difficulties facing the family, they were given shelter.

Ultimately the Korownyk family found its way to Warner Kaserne near Munich, a displaced persons camp. This was the beginning of the end of their terrifying nomadic existence during war. Ukrainian cultural life flourished in the camp, as it did in other such camps and youth were given the opportunity to attend school and obtain an education in a Ukrainian high school. Everyone dreamt of immigrating somewhere further so learning a new language was imperative. In the Ukrainian high school, Leo learned about religion for the first time, a subject he had not been exposed to in the “soviet paradise.” He began attending a Baptist Church as his mother was of the Baptist faith. It was there that he learned of the opportunity to emigrate to Canada and study at the Ukrainian Baptist Institute in Saskatoon.

In late 1948, Leo set out on another voyage but this time willingly, with plans to achieve an education and a future in Canada. He arrived in Canada in the dead of winter without winter clothes. A kindly local gentleman heard of his predicament and gave him money to purchase a winter coat. Leo could not have guessed that a few years later this kind man would become his father-in-law.

Leo and the cohort of students with whom he came to Canada decided to move to Toronto where better opportunities were promised. He worked as a labourer, completed his high school education in the evenings and studied daily at the Toronto Bible College. By 1955 he completed his studies at the College, earned his high school diploma and most importantly became a Canadian citizen. An added blessing came his way when Hania (Anna) Woytuch accepted his marriage proposal.

The same year, Leo began his first assignment as Pastor at the Ukrainian Baptist Church in Swan River, Manitoba. Two years later, Leo and Anna married and welcomed their first daughter, Joyce, in 1958. In 1959 Leo and Anna moved to Saskatoon where Leo continued his pastoral work, all the while working as a labourer. They welcomed a second daughter, Ruth, in 1963.

In 1965 the family moved to Edmonton, where Leo served as assistant pastor of the Ukrainian Baptist Church. This is when he began his translating work. With God’s help he translated eight volumes of religious books ensuring that materials would be available in the Ukrainian language. He was extremely proud of this accomplishment.

By 1970, the Korownyk family was blessed with a son, Nathan, to carry on the family name. A few years later, Leo secured employment at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) and worked there until his retirement in 1994.

In his biographical essay, Leo admits to being fascinated by poetry and started to write. With encouragement from University of Alberta professor, the late Yar Slavutych, Leo wrote and published two volumes of poetry in 2003 and 2012. These works were primarily Christian poetry, reflective of his calling.

Leo Korownyk was a poet and writer at heart. He was a wordsmith extraordinaire and his passion for words, language and expression are the hallmarks of his many poetic works. He could have written on any theme and been very successful. But he chose to write about this faith and his heritage.

His expressive poetry also deals with Ukraine and its historic struggle for independence, while other poems commemorate Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine’s immortal bard, another favorite topic. In his own writings, Leo celebrates the genius and impact of Shevchenko on the Ukrainian identity.

However, the subject of the Holodomor in Leo’s poetry is both ubiquitous and dominant. He wrote about the Holodomor to honour the memory of those who suffered unspeakable agony and did not survive. He was committed to recording his testimony and preserving the truth about this genocide that the kremlin worked so hard to erase from memory and history.

А bilingual translation of Leo’s poetry was published in 2022 by the Edmonton Branch of the League of Ukrainian Canadians. “I Lived there, hungered, but Survived,” “Я Там Жив, Голодав а не Згас” is a bilingual collection that honours the memory of Holodomor victims.

For many years, Leonid would read one of his powerful, moving poems at the annual Edmonton commemoration of the Holodomor. His words would remind everyone that the Holodomor is not just a historic fact or a statistic. The Holodomor was a human calamity of unimaginable proportions, that it was a demonic crime against humanity, the consequences of which cannot be erased. It is sad and significant that, even though many of Leo’s poems were written years ago, they mirror the tragic events happening in Ukraine in 2024.

Anne Korownyk, Leonid’s wife of 66 years, once said there are four important words that describe her husband. The first is faith, and this is beautifully expressed in his poem “Contemplation” (“Роздуми”). The second is dedication to his family, his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The third is appreciation for his adopted country, Canada. And the fourth is lasting respect for his homeland, Ukraine. Leonid thrived on Ukraine’s history and language and was inspired by the dedication and tenacity of the Ukrainian Nation.

With the passing of Leonid Korownyk, a Holodomor survivor, and others like him, the catastrophe of this genocide is one step closer to being entirely a matter for history books. The life story that Leonid Korownyk shared so unreservedly and generously with his family, friends, colleagues, school children and many others was his evidence about the genocide of the Ukrainian Nation. Despite being a witness to these horrors, his faith in God was unquestionable and his commitment to preserving the truth about the Holodomor was unwavering. He accomplished a great deal with the life he was granted by God.

May he rest in peace!

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