Among the possessions left after the death of my Great-grandmother in 1975 were two photographs. Baba as we called her immigrated to America as a twenty-year-old widow. She arrived at Ellis Island after a long journey that started in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, modern-day Ukraine, just weeks before the outbreak of World War I in 1914.
To her grandson, my father, she told the story of how she witnessed her brothers being hung from the tree in their yard. As far as we know, she never explained the reason for leaving her then three-year-old daughter behind with her parents in their small Galician village.
This first photo was my favorite, a strong, resolute yet kind-faced young woman wearing her thick leather jacket and headscarf. I liked it so much I printed a copy and found a place for it on the wall of every home in which Amanda and I have ever lived. We knew nothing about the young woman other than what we were told. She was the long lost sister of my grandmother, my great-grandmother’s daughter. There was something about the idea of this lost ancestor enduring both World Wars, two revolutions and the Soviet era that made her a romantic almost mythical persona in our family story.
The second photo which hung alongside the first was said to be Baba’s parents and her daughter dressed in their traditional Ukrainian clothing. My brothers and I did not know why she was left behind with her grandparents, how long she lived or if she had children herself. We knew nothing other than the stories told to us, stories we eventually repeated to one another.
From our Ukrainian relatives we had the opportunity to hear first-hand the true stories about this mythical relative, stories that were more heart-wrenching than anything we could have ever imagined.
In the past few days we learned that the first photo was not Baba’s daughter at all, it was Baba’s sister Tatiana. The second photo was not Baba’s parents, it was her brother Alexius along with his wife and daughter.
Alexius is the true villain of the story. But I am getting ahead of myself.
A few years after my parents passed away we found a slip of paper in their cluttered address book. On it my mother had written in her neat hand, “Baba’s name, Parania Melnyk”. When I saw it I did what anyone would do. I googled the name. One of the first results was a post on a Ukrainian message board asking for details about the Melnyk family in Philadelphia.
It was then that we reconnected with our family in Ukraine. I exchanged a few brief emails with Baba’s great-great-grandson and had a Skype conversation with Baba’s granddaughter Oksana who was in her seventies. We had so much to say and so many questions to ask, but we struggled to communicate because of the language barrier. Through the computer screen we finally found one another.
Seven years had passed when Amanda and I arrived in Ukraine. Once on the ground we decided to see if we could reconnect with the family in person and learn more about Baba’s daughter’s life after she had been left behind.
The city of Lviv is only an hour’s drive north of the village where Baba was born. In Lviv we visited the Historical Archives where all of the record from the churches of Western Ukraine were moved during the era when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union.
We learned that Baba daughter’s name was Anna. She was born on February 5, 1911 to my great-grandmother Parania Melnyk and her husband Georgius Hoszowki. Fifteen year old Parania’s marriage to twenty-six year old Georgius was arranged by their parents to join two of the larger landholding families of the village. For the rest of her life my great-grandmother Parania would refer to her first husband as the old man.
There was another young girl in the village who was deeply in love with Georgius. As the story goes, this heartbroken, vengeful young woman cast a spell on him when she learned of his marriage to Baba. Shortly after getting married Georgius withered away and died leaving a pregnant Baba. As a single mother who was widowed as the result of what everyone believed was a spell, Baba was ostracized in the village. Learning that her cousin Stefan Borys was headed to America, she decided to join him. Her daughter Anna was only three years old.
At the brink of World War I Baba made the arduous journey across Europe to board the SS Vaderland in Antwerp as a steerage passenger. She sailed to Ellis Island, landing on May 24, 1914. She was twenty years old. Shortly after arriving she met and married a Ukrainian man who coincidentally had her same last name, Melnyk. Michael and Baba had four children in quick succession, creating a whole new family in America while her first daughter Anna was trapped by circumstances in the village of Niniow Dolny which after the war experienced a series of revolutions and counter-revolutions.
When Baba left in 1914, her three-year-old daughter was in the care of her parents. Within a few years, both grandparents died, leaving Anna an orphan by age nine. Alexius, Baba’s younger brother, took Anna in and made her the servant of his household.
During our visit, Oksana, Anna’s eldest daughter tearfully recounted stories her mother had told of the hardships she endured as a child in the household of Alexius.
We learned that Baba had made several attempts to bring Anna to America by sending money to her brother for the passage. He had agreed to use the money to deliver Anna to Belgium where she would be placed on a ship to America. When her daughter did not arrive, Baba persisted and sent letters to both her brother and the local parish asking why she had not been sent. The church responded that her brother had spent the money to buy property in the village.
Anna was at the mercy of her uncle Alexius until she married Hunkevich Yllio Ivanovich (Хункевич Ылко Иванович) who went by the name Ilko. With Ilko she had two daughters, Oksana and Stefania, who we met when visiting this past week.
After World War II Ilko fought against the Soviet occupation and became know as a member of the resistance. He was forced to leave the village, never to return. Oksana was devastated by the loss of her father. She always believed that he somehow made it to America and met up with Baba. She was sure that my family would know what had happened to him.
Anna remarried and had another daughter. She lived long enough to see an independent Ukraine and died in 2010 at the age of 99.
Special thanks to Alyona for making this all happen and for her tireless interpreting. If not for her we would never have connected. To Oksana and her family who hosted us with a feast in their lovely home in Stryy. Also to Oksana Melnyk (not related) at the Historical Archives in Lviv for finding the documents. To my father’s cousins, Nancy Nemeth Hartman and Stephen Nemeth for providing another perspective on our family history. To FamilySearch for creating the web portal we used for some of the American based research as well as hosting our family trees. To the women of Niniow Dolny village who spent an afternoon showing two unusual visitors around their beautiful village.
1. Amanda spent hours translating the birth records, marriage records and death records from the Lviv archives from Latin to English. In doing so she discovered that Baba’s siblings did not die by hanging. Perhaps she was embarrassed to.admit the truth?