I always knew my maternal grandmother was Ukrainian. She was born in Philadelphia in 1925, but her parents had come to the US as young adults amongst the huddled masses through Ellis Island, met here and married. I never knew my great-grandparents, but I have their pictures.
Obviously, the current events with Russia unjustly invading Ukraine again have made me think about my great-grandparents quite a bit, more so than I probably ever have. I wonder what their lives were like back in Ukraine, what drove them to leave and ultimately settle in Philadelphia.
My great-grandfather was known to talk about the Russians stealing their farmland. He fought in Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph’s army before coming here and had a medal to prove it. They always referred to themselves as Austrian Ukrainians.
Their surname, Lybas, is not a common one. It’s fairly easy to trace it directly back to Ukraine, to the city of Lviv, close to the Polish border.
Not surprisingly, Lviv was under Austrian control leading up to WWI. In September of 1914, Austria lost the city to the Russians. I can only assume my great-grandfather fought in this battle, and once the city was lost, he was part of the wave of soldiers and civilians who evacuated to safer environs.
I’m not sure if my great-grandmother just happened to be among the many who made an exodus from Lviv at this time, or if she had come over earlier from an entirely different area of Ukraine. There’s indication at least part of her family was already well established in the US prior to 1914.
At the time of writing this, close to 2 million Ukrainians have begun a new exodus while others stay behind to vanquish their all-too-familiar invaders. A little over a hundred years ago, I imagine the circumstances of flight or fight for people like my great-grandparents were eerily similar.
Why do we repeat collective horrors? Time seems to be a flat circle but with definitive boundaries, and history is a petri dish where the evil of war is never eradicated. It’s only dormant while it mutates before spreading again…a virulent madness.
If there’s any comfort, it’s that those who bear my great-grandparents surname, both those who came to the US and those who stayed behind in Lviv, survive to this day despite various forms of oppression and aggression stacked against them over the generations.
I don’t know what will happen tomorrow. I can only hope the same survivor’s luck befalls the brave people of Ukraine today.