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Escaping postwar Eastern Europe: an Australian family history

Olena learned that Jan had left home at the age of 19 to go to Germany looking for work, and had spent the last few years working in an underground coal mine.

While circumstances would have them meeting and eventually marrying at a displaced person’s camp in Germany, they learned that their family homes were located within 20 kilometres of each other in Ukraine.

Following the fall of the Third Reich and the end of the war, Jan and Olena became nomads moving from one displaced person’s camp to another.

Eventually they were given the option to return to communist-run Ukraine — a life which would have limited their freedom given Ukraine’s lack of independence (under Soviet rule) — or to commence a new life in one of the following countries: the USA, Canada or Australia.

Their wedding day, February 1946.
Jan and Olena’s wedding day, February 1946.

As immigration to Australia required no sponsorship, and attractively represented the greatest distance from wartorn Europe, they made the decision to commence a new life in Australia.

What ensued was a month-long voyage from Naples aboard the Fairsea alongside 1,850 other passengers. The ship arrived in Darling Harbour, Sydney, on New Year’s Eve 1959, with the New Year truly signalling a new beginning.

Jan and Olena eventually settled in the western Sydney suburb of Guildford, where they went on to raise their two children.

A family portrait of the Jakymin family, featuring a young Peter, 1960.
A family portrait of the Jakymiws in 1960, shortly after their arrival in Australia.

Despite having been torn from the comforts of their families at such a young age, Jan and Olena forged life-long bonds as members of St Andrew’s Ukrainian Church in Lidcombe. It was here that they connected with like-minded souls who had encountered similar, life-changing and tragic experiences. Throughout their lives, Jan and Olena sought to instil the importance of community and in celebrating one’s cultural heritage into their children and grandchildren.

Despite our misgivings, the limited information passed on to Serhij served as the foundational elements required to track down Olena’s relatives. Jan’s relatives were proving to be more difficult to locate, although we learned that Serhij’s representatives went knocking door to door in the Ukrainian village of Vistova, in order to uncover additional leads and pass on my family’s contact details! Fortuitously, Jan’s family remain in the same house and village as prior to the war.

With some intervention from fate, an unknown cousin passionate about genealogy made the trip from her home country of Lithuania to her sister’s home in Ukraine. Unbeknownst to her, the previous day, her sister had been paid a visit by one of Serhij’s representatives. Upon hearing the news that a relative in Australia was conducting family history research, she and her English-speaking daughter promptly reached out to my family via email to share what their own research had uncovered. While they knew of a long-lost family in Australia, they had been at a loss as to how to get in contact.

Olena-and-Jan-Jakymiw-in-Sydney
Olena and Jan in Sydney, 1993.

With the groundwork having been firmly established by Serhij, numerous local sources of information have supplemented our understanding of the circumstances which brought Jan and Olena to Australia. The National Archives in Canberra forwarded copies of the documentation that my grandparents completed in order to be accepted into Australia as refugees.

The documentation, issued by the International Refugee Organisation, chronologically listed all the displaced person’s camps visited by my grandparents. It also included transcripts of interviews which Olena and Jan were subjected to prior to being accepted into Australia as refugees.

The Australian National Maritime Museum supplied information regarding the plight of new immigrants who came to Australia post-World War II.

This story and others like it have shed light on the universally held traits of resilience and courage — the bravery required to begin a new life in a foreign country at such a young age, with no knowledge of the local language, customs or culture.

For example, the book Silent Memories, Traumatic Lives by Lesa Melnyczuk describes, through interviews, the refugee experiences of post-war migrant Ukrainians. Furthermore, Peter Plowman’s The Sitmar Liners Past and Present includes an actual account of a journey from Naples to Australia, written by Janina Stefaniak — the same voyage on which my grandparents embarked! These resources added further context and resonance to the details which we had learnt, bringing to life the circumstances which my grandparents had experienced.

This journey to uncover information about my family’s history has added meaning and value to my family’s life beyond belief. Despite growing up with no relatives outside his immediate family, my dad has now discovered an entire family tree of relatives whom he is in regular contact with via Skype!

My sister and I have been introduced to relatives on the other side of the world, whom we hope to meet for the first time this year. Throughout this experience, my dad has also bonded with his sister, as they attempted to recall information that could help get them in touch with long-lost relatives, assisting with the grieving process. These stories have provided me with a newfound appreciation for my cultural heritage, in addition to the circumstances which led to my being raised in Australia.

The author, Elisa, learnt traditional Ukrainian dance.
The author, Elisa, pictured in traditional Ukrainian costume.

Standing in honour of all those who have migrated to Australia, the Australian National Maritime Museum maintains a Welcome Wall at Darling Harbour — marking the site of the arrival of millions of new settlers into Australia. With close to 30,000 names, representing 206 countries, the wall is a powerful monument which celebrates the stories of Australia’s immigrants.

As part of this ode to Australia’s multicultural history, my grandparents’ names are now etched alongside the thousands of others who have contributed to making Australia the great country which it is today. It is only fitting that their names should sit proudly on the wall that marks the site of their first footsteps into their new life in Australia.

To conclude, I will reference a quote that was cited at the Welcome Wall unveiling ceremony:

The hands reaching out across the waters are much closer today than they were when this journey first began.

Perhaps one day we will meet and our Australian story will be complete.

Preserve the stories of your heritage before they are lost. As well as serving as a touchstone to your past, these stories point to the potential of your future.

Read the second instalment of Elisa’s family history journey — in which she travels to Eastern Europe and meets her long-lost relatives in the flesh! 

Olena and Jan Jakymiw. All images courtesy of Elisa Jakymin.
Olena and Jan Jakymiw. All images courtesy of Elisa Jakymin.

By Elisa Jakymin, with contributions from Anna Jakymin.

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