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Freedom Heart Ukraine
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All in the family

Jan 24, 2024 | Featured, The View From Here - Walter Kish

For the first forty years or so of my life, I lived in blissful ignorance of the fact that I had a large extended family back in Ukraine. I knew that both my mother and father came from large families in Ukraine who had not had the good fortune to escape Soviet rule when they were young. Because of the restrictions of the Cold War era, travel to Ukraine was neither feasible nor desirable. The Internet did not exist back then, and telephone links were problematic and expensive. The only form of practical communication was by letter, and this was both slow and undoubtedly subject to KGB oversight and censorship.

As a result, I knew little of the vast extent of my family tree on the other side of the ocean. What knowledge I had came from a small, treasured collection of photographs that my parents had accumulated from letters they received from time to time from their brothers and sisters “in the old country”. Invariably, the figures in the photographs were posed stiffly with grim, unsmiling faces and dressed in non-descript clothes. The nature and demands of their lives, spent in brutal toil on the collective farms, was dramatically reflected in their faces and overall appearance. I had a hard time relating to those pictures, as they were so foreign to my own experiences living in Canada.

It was only when the Iron Curtain disintegrated, and the wretched Communist system crumbled that I was able to discover the vast extent of the Ukrainian side of our family and establish more normal relations with them. My father, accompanied by my sister, returned to the ancestral village that he had left more than six decades earlier in 1989 when Perestroika and Glasnost opened up the borders to Ukraine once more. I followed two years later with my mother, when she returned to the village from which she had been abducted by the Germans during World War II and transported as forced labour into Germany. These visits were eye openers for me and my brother and sister, as we discovered dozens and dozens of cousins that we never knew we had.

What surprised us the most was how warm and embracing was the welcome we received when we finally met face to face with the many aunts, uncles and cousins that we had known only as stern, dour faces in old photographs. The acceptance and love we received was truly an emotionally overwhelming experience. It resulted in instant friendships and strong bonds that were remarkable considering that prior to our meeting, these people had essentially been total strangers to us.

Over the next several decades, those family bonds expanded and strengthened immeasurably, as I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to work and live in a newly independent Ukraine for many years. My interest in my genealogy led to my compiling a detailed family tree that soon extended to dozens of pages of family tree charts, documenting the extent of my Ukrainian family that soon numbered in the hundreds.

In the process of doing all this, I was greatly saddened to realize and appreciate the vast gap in material well-being between what I had in Canada and the conditions in which they had been forced to live in during Soviet times. As a result, together with my brother and sister, we tried to do as much as we could to help them by regularly sending them clothes, consumer goods and gifts of cash, especially over the Christmas holidays.

This was accelerated more recently by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, when once again, with the commendable generosity of my brother and sister, as well as our grown adult children, we created what we called our family “Ukraine Fund” that we used to help family members in need because of the war. As well as being used to provide needed consumer goods, food and medicines, we used some of the funds to help equip some of the younger male members of the family with basic military equipment they would need as they were mobilized and sent to the front to fight the Russians.

In times of war, it becomes crucial that we do what we can for those that face the brunt of the consequences of being caught in the crossfire. It is especially then that family ties necessitate the exercise of as much generosity and assistance as we can manage to help our kinfolk. There can be but one answer to the biblical question from the Book of Genesis – “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

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