I have been to three Panakhydas over the past few weeks, all of them for people I know from my parent’s generation, one whose era is rapidly coming to a close.
They are those who grew up in the cauldron of revolution, war, displacement and exile. They were forced to rebuild their lives on more than one occasion, far from their native land, friends and family. They persevered with unshakable resolution, and in the end succeeded in planting roots here in Canada, and giving their descendants a chance to build their lives in a land of peace, justice and opportunity.
To us who were born and have grown up here in Canada, it is hard to comprehend the scale of the horrors and challenges they lived through. To have experienced the Holodomor, the Nazi and Communist invasions, the death and destruction of war, the wholesale executions, the large scale deportations into forced labour in Germany, the bombings of Germany in its death throes, all this is beyond our comprehension.
Yet they did somehow live and survive, and without doubt they could not have done so without being to some degree affected by what we now call PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). No doubt they suffered, but they did so in private, the horrors stashed away somewhere in the far corners of their minds. The demons never went away, but they were kept under control, for they were determined not to be broken.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, they made their way to Canada, or the U.S., or Australia, or any of the European countries that would let them in, for return to their homeland which was under the ruthless occupation of a Communist system that was as bad if not worse than the Nazi one, was not an option. In their adopted lands, they settled, married and had children with renewed hopes for some sort of normal life.
Although their lives were immeasurably better than the chaos and pain they had left behind, they were not without a new set of challenges. They were in countries where they did not know the language or culture, were often viewed with condescension, disparagement or worse, and where they were forced to start their lives anew at the bottom of the economic ladder.
One must remember that back then, there was not the social safety net we have today. There were no support programs, no ESL courses, no resources, government or otherwise, to help them adjust to their new surroundings.
They were fortunate that there were already Ukrainians here in Canada that had come in previous waves of immigration, and through them at least, they were able to find some level of assistance and help in adapting to their new realities.
Nonetheless for their first few decades life was still a struggle. It would take many years of toil, scrimping and saving, often working at menial jobs that were far below their educational or professional capabilities. They literally had to start at the bottom of Canadian society and work their way into respectability.
The other huge challenge came once they had children and were forced to bring them up in a cultural environment that they did not understand or were comfortable with. The values, behaviours and social habits their children acquired were often at odds with their traditions and values, and intergenerational conflicts and stresses were the norm. Coupled with the latent effects of the hidden PTSD that many of them were afflicted with, this created family stresses and led to many dysfunctional families.
The real wonder is that so many were able to overcome all of these trials and pressures and succeed in raising a generation of what we can honestly characterize as overachievers and well-grounded Ukrainian Canadians. I look at my generation, the sons and daughters of those post war immigrants, and though many of us carry some of the psychological and emotional scars inadvertently derived from our parent’s upbringing under difficult circumstances, by and large, we owe them a great deal of thanks for who we are, where we are and what we have.
As their generation fades away, it behooves us to make an effort to better understand their history, their struggles and their accomplishments. There are lessons there for all of us.