In early 2011 if you told me if I would be standing on the soil of the birthplace of my grandfather, 8,000 kilometeres from my home I would probably rolled my eyes and brushed you off like you were yesterdays news. The point of my journey was never to end up in Ukraine, actually going there never crossed my mind. I was on a quest to build the story of my family and fill in the gaps my grandfather left behind.
It started with a pile of old papers given to me when my grandfather passed away in 2005. I always just assumed that he immigrated to Canada after the war like most grandparents of his era. It has taken me years to understand the papers my grandfather left for me. Literally years of translations, government phone calls, talking to archivists in many cities, quite a bit of money and a lot of very exciting and emotional conversations.
Early last year I opened up a binder I had put together of old photographs, passports, ancient documents and hand written letters all in plastic sleeves. I had acquired random translations of Latin and German documents, but I really needed to take it a step further. If I wanted to find out where I came from I needed to hire a professional. After watching 2 seasons of the tv show – Who do you think you are? I realized I needed to find an archivist in Ukraine to help me with the final steps. I had no idea where to start, I didn’t speak the language, I knew nothing about Ukraine other than the capital city.
I searched for weeks online before I finally came across a private investigator who worked with Archives Kiev in Ukraine. His name was Sergiy and with the limited information I had, which was just the supposed town my grandfather was from, written as Hostiw on a German issued passport I found with his papers, he began his search. I paid Sergiy an installment via wire transfer that was routed through 4 banks from Canada – to the US – to Switzerland and then to Ukraine. It took weeks for the money to finally reach him.
He began by telling me that he would search for 3-4 months and if he found nothing I wouldn’t have to make the final payment. Sergiy said that his research would be thorough, and he would start by looking in a phone book for people with my last name and living near Hostiw. He then would search the years of archives in Kiev and Lviv (the two largest cities in the country). He would meet with any people who might have a connection or recollection of my possible family members. To me it seemed like a real long shot, I almost asked for my money back because it seemed a little weird. But I stuck it out and decided to wait and see what Sergiy could possibly come back with.
48 hours later I had an email. Sergiy had a lead, already! Within 1 week I was verifying documents, stories, photographs and over all information from a group of people in a small village called Hostiv, Ukraine. Who were these people? and why were they so willing to hand over personal information? It really seemed to good to be true. I spoke with my entire family here in Canada before I contacted my supposed family in Ukraine. Part of the deal with Sergiy is that we (the customer) never have to give up any information about ourselves, all he is allowed to say to the supposed family members is that someone from Canada is looking for family that lives in this place. Their connection to you is through so and so. In this case it was my grandfather. Ever since I was a child my grandfather had told me he had a brother named Mykhylo or Michael, I never would have guessed that his family would still be living in the same village after all this time.
This family living in Hostiv, Ukraine for all these years had been wondering what had happened to their son, brother and uncle. They had no idea where he had been between the years between 1941-1961 when they received their first letter from him when he was settled in Canada. There was so much information to fill in for them.
Somewhere along a bumpy dirt road, in a land so lush with vegetation and full of character lives a family, sort of like mine, in a house kinda like the one I grew up in, with the same questions I have had for so many years. Who is this family? and why after so many years are they finally looking for us?
I will never be able to fill in the reasons as to why it took my grandfather 20 years to connect with his family. But through my new family in Ukraine, Ukrainian archivist Sergiy, the International Tracing Service in Germany, Canadian Immigration records in Halifax, and hours of watching world war 2 documentaries, we have been able to piece together my grandfathers journey. There are still holes but it looks like this.
In September of 1941 my grandfather was forced against his will from his village into a German work camp when Germany occupied Ukraine. He was a big burly guy and they needed men of his type to do hard labour, most likely promising them a better life or threatening the life they had if he did not go, I am thinking the latter. He worked in Austria and Germany doing many jobs, agricultural jobs, ambulance driver, delivery truck driver. He lived in a Displaced persons camp for 3-5 years in a place called St.Veit an der Glan, Austria. One day the Canadian government came to the camp and offered citizenship and security in Canada to my grandfather.
I have been in close contact with a number of Canadian government archivists and they have informed me that the job offer or the favor the Canadian government asked my grandfather to do in trade for freedom, is classified and will not be made public information for 25-50 years!
In late 1949 my grandfather immigrated to Canada, with a handfull of cash from the government and a piece of paper that basically said, if you decide that you like Canada and want to stay here, we would love for you to become a Canadian citizen. You will always have a job here. He came aboard the S.S Marine Falcon into Halifax harbour. He lived with a bunch of men in a government housing set up in Montreal for a few months before taking a job in Northern Ontario. Just a year later he moved to Toronto to work for Canadian Pacific Railway, a job given to him by the government. He met my grandmother and the rest is my life.
This trip meant so much to me, at times I remember saying to Ryan that it was all too much, it was so surreal. I have given my self a 1 year crash course in the Ukrainian language, history, Canadian world war 2 history, the Ukrainian/Russian great patriotic war history, Ukrainian politics, cooking. And with all that knowledge I would find it very hard to stay away from a such an amazing place. Ukraine was inspiring, emotional, stunningly beautiful, overwhelmingly kind, and surprising in the most amazing ways. We hope you enjoy these photos, and we hope that one day you visit.
Для моєї родини Гончара в Україну. Багато велике спасибі за раді вітати Вас в нашому домі. Для підготовки смачна їжа для нас. Для вітаючи нас у своєму житті. Ми настільки велика честь зустрітися з вами. Ця подорож ми ніколи не забудемо. Ми ніколи не забудемо вашу доброту. Ми сподіваємося, що вам сподобаються ці фотографії і пам’ятати Гончара возз’єднання сім’ї. Ми всі тебе любимо і скучаю за тобою дуже багато чого.
Еріка та Райан
Our Ukrainian wedding portraits on the balcony of the famous George Hotel in Lviv, Ukraine. This hotel has hosted some very historic figures like French poet and philosopher Jean-Paul Sarte, German composer Franz Liszt, and an Austrian emperor. We were lucky to get the best room in the house which is the balcony room #1. It overlooks the center of the city.
Upon our arrival in Ukraine we stayed in a unique apartment. I was a little weary at first from the look of the place. It reminded us of a scene from a Jason Bourne movie. Strange looking neighborhood with questionable characters looking at you because they know you are not from around here. The front entrance looked like a barn door and when you opened it, it nearly took your arm off it was so heavy. The inside looked like a rundown hotel with a front desk clerk watching Ukrainian soap operas and a winding stair case. Our apartment inside was lovely, very modern and hanging in the kitchen was a small pair of straw shoes.
When my grandfather was a child he told me he was so poor he couldn’t afford shoes and he would make shoes of straw for him and his brother. When I saw them it was like an instant sign. It was like my grandfather sent me these shoes. We stayed in many places in Ukraine but this was the only place I saw them.
The staircase leading to our room at George Hotel was unbelievable. It was so lavish, so big! It is around 300 years old. With filigree along the bannisters and beige marble flooring. The arches are huge, its not just the way we photographed it, it really is this spectacular. It rained the night we were there, so we put on our wedding outfits again for some wedding photos at the Georgie Hotel , Lviv.
Arriving in the village of Hostiv was to say the least, exhausting. Our flight was delayed 8 hours and we did not arrive there until midnight. We saw nothing along the way. My family, who might I add are excellent drivers on Ukraine’s notoriously bumpy and pot hole filled roads, navigated us on a 3 hour ride of zig zags and swerves. On a full stomach it might have made you puke, but it made for fun conversations and kept us awake until we arrived in the village.
Like most European villages cattle roam the streets and chickens and dogs wander about. Everyone in Hostiv has some form of a farm in their back yard.
This is a photos of us with some of our family. My dad’s cousins and their daughter and her husband.
Most of Western Ukraine looks like this. Alive, green and lush with vegetation. Its stunning! These are local family farms. They farm for themselves and their families and the local community.
This is the Hostiv cemetery. The graves seem to go back as far as the 1950’s from what I could tell. Each headstone is adorned with a some sort of floral wreath, fresh or fake flowers below and often are painted bright colors and have photographs depicting the deceased. It is inspiring how the Ukrainian culture honors their dead. This is the cemetery where my great grandmother is buried and my grandfathers brother. It was amazing to experience this with my family.
In Hostiv every building and house has an elaborate gate and fence around it. This one was my favorite, it is the gateway to the pre-school. It is very well maintained and was built after ww2. There is a giant bust that you can see in this photo of the famous Ukrainian poet and writer Taras Shevchenko. I love how they feel the need to integrate a piece of Ukrainian literary culture into even the youngest of child.
This is the inside of the Hostiv church. They rebuilt it 10 years ago but the church in Hostiv has always stood in this very spot on the hill.
This is a local women working in her field, this was a very popular sight in Hostiv. I love this image with the church in the background.
This group shot was taken on the property my grandfather grew up on, this is most of the family with a few of the kids missing from it. I think we look alike, I see a resemblance in the eyes and the nose area.
This is my father’s cousins house, it stands on the land my grandfather grew up on. In 1945 their house was burned to the ground during the war and they were left to rebuild. This is a more modern version of the house that once stood.
My family wanted to show us around Western Ukraine, we visited a lovely city called Ivano-Frankivsk. It is about 30 mins from Hostiv and about the same size as Barrie. They have a stunningly clean and pristine promenade. Ukraine is very clean actually, I would even go as far to say that it is cleaner than Canada.
I love this photo, its of a bank and a convenience store but it is so ornate with beautiful trimmings and colors, and even paintings of Ukrainian heros framed along the top.
This is the Carpathian Mountains. We took this photo high atop a mountain at the popular destination Bukovel. It reminds me of our Blue Mountains only these really are mountains.
There were tons of little shops set up to buy all kinds of Ukrainian kitsch, I really wanted one of these little dresses, but instead I settled for a traditional shirt that was more my size.
This is me at Yaremche, this area is just stunning!
On our last day in Hostiv, Ukraine, after what was supposed to be 1 day with the family and turned into 3 amazing days of experiences I will never forget, stories and some of the warmest, most generous and welcoming people I have ever met, we pulled out of the drive way and down the long bumpy road. At the very last minute I had everyone pull over so I could take this photo. This is the Hostiv village sign.
In Kyiv, we spent hours walking through the gardens and churches at Kievo Pecherska Lavra. Which is a series of churches and monasteries in the capital city of Kyiv. We didn’t have the chance to go inside the main monastery. But it leaves something for next time. I love the color of the onion domes and the shiny gold crosses perched high atop the churches.
At Pecherska Lavra all women must wear a scarf and skirt, they will even provide one for you if you don’t have one to wear. Ryan bought me this silk scarf as a honeymoon present before we left. Its from Hudson’s Bay Company and when you unfold it, it depicts the international trade agreement from the 1700’s.
This is the Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square in the centre of Kyiv. We took this photo early in the morning, one week before eurocup started. As you can see there is a bit of construction going on for the closing ceremonies which were held here.
Everything in Ukraine is done with what looks like 100% love and care. This pic on the left is the entrance to the funicular to go up to St Michaels church. It looks like a museum with stained glass windows and framed historic portraits. It cost about 50 cents to ride this tram.
The very stunning, St Michael’s church.
Welcome to Mother Motherland, or Batkiv Shena Mat. This is very unique and overwhleming place. Its an outdoor artillery museum depicting imagery and statues of the Great Patriotic war, or what north americans call it, ww2. When you arrive here you walk out into a giant cobblestone platform and under a bridge where you start to see massive statues of scenes of soviet propaganda and life. The scenes are so huge, just look at how small Ryan is compared. There are Soviet songs playing over a loud speaker and children in school groups visiting. It is a strange place, and was the biggest culture shock .
Our Kiev, Ukraine couples portraits.