Our grandparents’ footsteps in Ukraine

By Elisa and Anna Jakymin

Several years ago, when we reached out to a Ukraine-based genealogist to track down our long-lost family, we could never have imagined where the journey would take us, and we wrote about it in an earlier blog post. To think that we would have the fortune of meeting relatives in Kyiv for the first time in July 2017, only for them to invite us to their village near Lviv almost immediately upon our introduction… Too many twists of fate have transpired to deny that our late grandparents have played a part in the subsequent meetings and reunions.

On 7 July 2018, one year to the day since our first trip to Ukraine, we eagerly boarded the overnight train from Kyiv to Lviv. As fate would have it, the passengers in the adjacent cabin were not locals, but Ukrainians from Australia’s capital city, Canberra. They, too, were embarking on a trip to the homeland to unearth their family roots.

On just a few hours of sleep, but high on adrenaline, we were excited to meet Solomia (Mia) for the first time in Lviv. She is the great-granddaughter of our paternal great-grandfather and his second wife. After months of Skyping, it was surreal to have her join us on a walking tour of Lviv. We were amazed by the city’s beauty and rich history, having once been part of Poland and the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Our next reunion was with our maternal second cousin, Oksana, and her husband, Oleh – who had driven across the country last year to meet us for a day in Kyiv. This time, they would be taking us to their (and our grandmother’s) village of Stary Mizyn, a small town approximately two hours from Lviv.

Upon arrival at their house, we were excited to start meeting the family members, who we had learned about and mapped on various family trees over the past two years. We were overjoyed to meet our dad’s first cousin, Natalka, and her daughter, who both cried tears of joy upon meeting their Australian family members. They were no doubt relieved that we recognised the Ukrainian food that had been lovingly prepared and, most importantly, that we were able to communicate with them in their mother tongue of Ukrainian.

We became acquainted with Oksana and Oleh’s two teenage children and their cousins at Kosino Thermal Pools near the Hungarian border. Despite meeting for the first time, we felt an instant connection with everyone, as if we had known each other all our lives. It was a pinch-me moment to explore the Carpathian Mountains together, foraging for wild mushrooms and berries against a majestic backdrop that we had grown up learning about. The scenery was even more beautiful than we had imagined, but the company was unparalleled.  

The surprises kept on coming when we visited our late grandmother’s sister Maria’s house, just a short walk from Natalka’s house. Despite being unoccupied since Maria’s death in 1999, the house could have been lifted straight out of a time capsule – seemingly untouched since Maria occupied it with her husband almost two decades ago, with photographs, clothing and furniture still in their place. It was surreal viewing an underground bunker that was used as a place of hiding from the Nazis. It was impossible not to contemplate what could have been, for it was our grandmother’s older sister (and Oksana’s grandmother), Maria, who should have been captured by the German soldiers on that fateful night in the lead-up to World War II.

Instead, after Maria escaped, the soldiers took our underage grandmother, Olena, changing the course of her life and my family’s history forever. It was a mind-boggling moment to stand on the spot where our grandmother had been taken by the soldiers. Despite being overrun with shrubbery, the significance of the moment and of the location was not lost on us. What made it even more special was sharing this experience with the descendants of our grandmother’s brother.

We still had plenty of family members to meet on our grandfather’s side; the majority of whom reside in a town called Vistova, just 30 minutes from our grandmother’s hometown.

Driving through the villages, it was difficult to comprehend that we were passing through the hometowns of our ancestors, and furthermore, literally walking in their footsteps – to their local church, upon the land where our grandfather’s house once stood, and to the local cemetery. We enjoyed lunch at a relative’s home from our grandfather’s side of the family, where we were overwhelmed and excited to meet about fifteen family members at once.

We were happy to have Mia at our side as we repeatedly clarified who was who. We met Mia’s uncle and were taken aback by just how much he reminded us of our grandfather; sharing the same dark eyes and serious temperament, interspersed with a cheeky grin. We were also introduced to perhaps the oldest living descendant of the family, the wife of our grandfather’s half-brother, Roman.

In writing a book aptly entitled In Their Footsteps as a way of archiving his family history, our dad had discovered that Roman had passed just a few years ago. One of the mysteries of his research was the inability to identify two young, fair-haired girls in an old photograph. In the photo, the two girls were posing next to a relative’s grave. As we pored through old photographs on the day, we came across the same photograph and asked Marianna – our grandfather’s half-brother’s granddaughter – if she was able to identify the two girls. To our disbelief, Marianna replied that it was herself in the photo, and her cousin, the host of the day’s feast!

Two young, fair-haired girls in an old photograph were finally identified

We then visited the very same cemetery in which the mystery photo was taken. We captured photos alongside Marianna’s adorable daughter. It was fitting that Marianna’s daughter had become one of the girls in the (new) photograph, standing alongside us, this time at the site of our great-grandfather’s gravestone. We learnt that the graves of various family members were all a stone’s throw away from each other, adjacent to the beautiful church where our grandfather once worshipped.      

A new day called for another reunion, this time with the descendants of our grandmother’s eldest sister, Evdokia. We explored the farm of Evdokia’s granddaughter, Svitlana, and imagined the very different life that our grandmother could have had. We met Svitlana’s sons, one of whom had just returned home after years of driving a tank in the Donbass War – an ongoing armed conflict in the Russian-occupied Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Eastern Ukraine.

Sadly, our time in Ukraine had almost come to an end. We bid a final farewell to Oksana, Oleh and Mia at the airport, delighted to have members from our grandmother and grandfather’s families come together to see us off.

Next on the agenda was a flight to Moscow to visit our paternal second cousin, Oksana, whom we had met for the first time in Lithuania the previous year. Oksana has been living in Moscow for over a decade with her Russian partner. We visited iconic sites such as the Kremlin Museum and St Basil’s, in addition to braving the complex Moscow metro, famously adorned with chandeliers. We even dressed up as babushkas during our visit to the Trinity Monastery of St. Sergius.

Following a broader tour of the Balkans, we arrived home with a suitcase of memories in addition to disbelief about what we had just experienced.

Despite having lost our grandparents over 10 years ago, I think it is fair to say that we have never felt closer to them. Rather than embarking on this journey alone, it is one we have shared hand-in-hand with our grandparents.  

‘When our hearts turn to our ancestors, something changes inside us.

We feel part of something greater than ourselves.’ – Russel M. Nelson

Read Anna and Elisa’s story from 2017 here.

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