Fighting under a foreign flag :: My cousin, Vasyl Taras

Vasyl Taras on 20 April 1957The Soviet Union invaded Poland on 17 September 1939. My uncle and aunts and cousins on my mother’s side were living in Lwów voivodeship in what was then eastern Poland. The Red Army seized the territory, and Stalin annexed it to the USSR. My grandfather, Michael Taras, had emigrated to Canada in 1928, and he lost contact with his one brother and four sisters the moment Stalin’s army invaded. I found out what happened to them 75 years later.

The story of my great-uncle Vasyl Taras in World War II is remarkable. He had a wife and four young children when the war began in 1939. His two oldest boys, Volodymyr and Olexandr, were both killed in World War II. I have not learned any more information about them than that. It is unbearably sad to think about how very young these boys had to have been when they died. Vasyl Taras was conscripted into the Red Army in 1940, and he was 34 years old when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941.

In 1941, Vasyl Taras was caught in one of the great encirclements where the Germans captured many soldiers of the Red Army. He was sent to a German concentration camp. Vasyl escaped from the camp, but when he made it back to the Soviet lines he was arrested by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, and sent to prison by them. His crime, in the eyes of the Russians, was that he had been captured and that he was Ukrainian. Then, with the German advance, the NKVD prison where Vasyl was held was overrun, and he was free again. But when the Germans found out he was an escaped prisoner from one of their concentration camps, they sent him back again, but this time to a camp with a stricter regime.

Nevertheless, Vasyl broke out of this camp, and escaped from the Germans a second time. He joined a group of Soviet partisans in the woods. When the Red Army started to push the Germans out of Galicia, the guerrilla group that Vasyl was with joined up with the regular troops. The NKVD was still distrustful of Vasyl, because he had been in a German concentration camp and was Ukrainian. He was sent to a special military unit that was given no weapons, and was made to assault the German positions unarmed, but with armed NKVD officers ready to shoot him if he did not move forward. During this attack, Vasyl Taras was lucky to have been wounded, not killed, and then sent to hospital. At the end of the war he was in Königsburg, East Prussia, which is today Kaliningrad, Russia.

After the war, Vasyl Taras returned to Staryi Yarychiv, his home village. Between 1939 and 1945, the foreign flags of Poland, the USSR, Nazi Germany, and once more the USSR had flown at Staryi Yarychiv. As a veteran, Vasyl Taras was made the chairman of the agricultural committee, out of which the collective farms in Yarychiv were formed. These collective farms were made up of land that was stolen from my family by the Soviets. Vasyl died in 1969 at the age of 62.

My great-uncle, Vasyl Taras, was made to fight under a foreign flag: the hammer and sickle flag of the Russian invaders and occupiers of Ukraine. He was awarded many medals, as Stalin developed the “Great Patriotic War” selective memory cult about the war, which Russia re-wrote as happening from 1941 to 1945. Free, independent, and democratic Ukraine is today coming to terms with the real war, which is a war that lasted from 1939, when Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland, to the mid-1950s, when the last units of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army were defeated by the foreign invaders and occupiers from Muscovy.

Digging out

ShovellingThe Ottawa Valley was hit with a couple of big snowstorms last week, and an above freezing Sunday provided the opportunity to begin digging out. The whole family was at Mont Cascades to celebrate my brother Robin’s birthday — belatedly, because a blizzard put off our plans last week. I was on call to prepare the traditional feast of pirohi, as usual, but first there was some snow shovelling to do. Handyman Chris and his sister Megan came by, and the three of us tackled the mountain of snow at the front of the house so people could at least get in and out of the door. As you can see, the weight of snow and ice sliding off the roof took off the eavestroughing in places. When it snows again I’ll cry, but until then I’ll take pride in the good work we did. Such is life in Canada.

Ukraine wrap-up, May 2016

Cousins at Bander Shtab café, Lviv ("Хутін - Пуйло")I have 15 second cousins who live in Lviv region of Ukraine — even more cousins that are by one generation removed. A small delegation met me in Lviv in the old city for a get-together in a café. One of my second cousins is serving in the Ukrainian armed forces. His mother is grateful that he is not at the front lines of the Russian invasion of Europe, which now stretch across parts of Luhansk and Donetsk regions in eastern Ukraine. His older brother fought the Russians in Donbas in the winter of 2014-15, and was medically discharged from the army after suffering severe pneumonia — gained from months of living in trenches. It’s trench warfare and 1914-18 all over again in the Russo-Ukrainian War.

The café we ate in is called Bander Shtab, with the tag line Hutin Puilyo. This is a play on the very rude, very crude Putin Huilyo — and the kindest translation of that would be “Putin is a dickhead.” The owner is a hard-core militant and supporter of Maidan and of the volunteer battalions fighting the Russian invasion. He had very angry words for the military and political leaders of Ukraine, who he says betrayed the soldiers and the people. Ukraine could have defeated Russia in 2014, he says, but failed to do so because of leaders who were not merely incompetent but traitorous. Given the Ukrainian navy admirals who allowed Ukraine’s fleet to be captured by Russia, and the Ukrainian army generals who allowed the “cauldrons” of Ilovaisk and Debaltseve to turn into major defeats to Russia, it is difficult not to agree with this militant café owner.

Music and clothing shop on Brativ Rohatyntsiv Street, LvivThis is a small music and clothing shop in old Lviv. The flag is of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, the armed wing of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, which fought Nazi Germans and Soviet Russians for an independent Ukraine in the 1940s and 1950s. The legacy of the UPA, the OUN, and of the Ukrainian republics which preceded them at the end of the First World War, is being reclaimed by the Ukrainian people. In many ways, the people are in advance of the political elites. Certainly, they are ahead of the corrupt, post-Soviet oligarchy. The 25 lost years from Ukraine’s independence to Maidan are being made up for, and made up for quickly. There is unremitting animosity towards Putin and the Russian people for invading Ukraine. There is great scepticism about when Crimea and Donbas will be recovered, but no doubt at all that they are Ukraine. The illegal Russian occupation will not stand. But most of the energy is directed towards backsliding political elites. Piecemeal lustration, such as the abolition of the militsya and the introduction of civilian patrol police, is not enough. The judges and the prosecutors are still wholly corrupt, and until they are all fired and replaced there can be no rule of law in Ukraine. Until the Soviet-trained and pro-Russian generals and admirals are court-martialled, there can be no liberation of the occupied territories. Until the oligarchs and their pocket-MPs are swept out of parliament, there can be no government of the people, by the people, for the people in Ukraine.

Free Savchenko at Kyiv Boryspil AirportThis is a photo I took at Boryspil, Kyiv’s airport. The banner is an appeal for the release of Nadiya Savchenko. Today, May 25, she was released. Nadiya Savchenko was serving in the Anti-Terrorist Operation in Luhansk region when she was captured by Russian terrorists. She was handed over to Russian military intelligence officers acting illegally in Ukraine, and kidnapped and spirited away across the border into Russia. There, she was held hostage by the Putin regime for almost two years. She was also put before a show trial, accused of the murder of two journalists who were killed by mortar fire sometime after she was captured. Savchenko was also charged, ludicrously, of illegally entering Russia. Nadiya Savchenko’s courageous words, her defiance of the little man Putin, and her dangerous hunger strikes, made her an inspiration to Ukrainians. Free, she is now a potent symbol of resistance to the Russian invasion of Europe in Ukraine. As a member of parliament (elected, in absentia, while she was a hostage) she is also, instantly, the most trusted and respected politician in Ukraine.

Taras family in Staryi Yarychiv

Two Taras cousinsI visited my Taras second cousins in the village of Staryi Yarychiv in Lviv oblast in Ukraine. That means I did a lot of visiting. Canada honoured Ukraine and Ukraine honoured Canada, as you can see with me in my vyshyvanka and second cousin Stepan in his Maple Leaf shirt.

Four Taras cousinsAll four living grandchildren of Ivan Taras and Maria Kulyk who live in Ukraine got together to visit with me. Lesia lives in Vinnitsya and joined us online, and here are Anna, Hanna, and Maria with me in the village.

My great-aunt Pavlina was seven years old when her eldest brother Michael, my grandfather, emigrated to Canada. She missed him very dearly, and the complete and final separation of the family caused when the Soviet Union invaded in 1939 was tragic and hard-felt. Pavlina always wondered and worried what became of her brother Michael in Canada. Her three daughters now know that the Taras family thrived, and knowing this and talking about it was powerfully emotional.

From breakfast to sunset I met dozens of Taras relatives, from the eldest niece of my grandfather, Maria, who is 72, down to a young great-great-grandniece, Zlata, who is 8 months old. My great-aunt Pavlina and my grandfather Michael would have been happy beyond words about this reunion, especially on this special, beautiful Easter Sunday day.

Belleville and the MacKays, half a century ago and today

Michael, Harry, and new stone in Belleville CemeteryOn this first unabashedly gorgeous spring day in eastern Ontario, I drove with my Dad down to Belleville. We wanted to see for ourselves the new gravestone for my great-grandfather, William Elmore MacKay. For 55 years there had been only an unmarked grave. My father led a family effort to put up a marker, and rallied some cousins to contribute. In this picture with me and my Dad, you can see that the inscription on the stone is genealogical, and not sentimental or religious. This is my doing. In speaking with my relatives who knew my great-grandfather, I hear mixed reminiscences. There were good times, like him teaching Gaelic songs to his three children. And there were difficult times, like the end of his life which was overshadowed by poverty. The facts are he was a son, a husband, a father, and a grandfather, and I would not exist if it were not for this man’s life.

Bill and HarryWe dropped by to see my Uncle Bill and Aunt Barb. Here’s Bill Senior on the left, and his kid brother Harry (my Dad) on the right.

Family history uncovered: Edward MacKay, 1840-1884

1883 map of New York City south of 93rd StreetMy father has made a remarkable discovery about our MacKay family in the 19th century. He has uncovered a previously unknown uncle, Edward MacKay, who was a brother of my great-great grandfather, James Harold MacKay.

Edward MacKay was born in Canada – likely in Prince Edward Island, but his death certificate says New Brunswick. He was a son of William MacKay and Mary Ann Warren. He was born in 1840, moved to the United States in 1870 at the age of thirty, and died in New York in 1884 when he was only 44 years of age. He died of “acute phthisis” — tuberculosis. He was a carpenter like his father and his brothers (who were also shipwrights). We speculate that the family of William MacKay and his five sons were very hard hit by the Long Depression, which began in 1873, and by the collapse of the wooden shipbuilding industry in the Maritime provinces of Canada. All of the sons except my great-great grandfather left to find work in the United States.

The map of Manhattan is from 1883, the year before Edward MacKay died, and I’ve indicated where he lived on 3rd Avenue.

Canada is United for Ukraine

Patches: Canada for UkraineMy second cousin is a soldier in the 24th “Iron” Division, a mechanized brigade of the Ukrainian armed forces. Last winter in Donbas, in eastern Ukraine, he defended against the Russian invaders. Now, he has gone into the reserves, and his younger brother is on active duty defending Ukraine. I got these patches from a Canadian group which is supporting the welfare of soldiers who serve in the 24th “Iron” Division. The Ukrainian armed forces need all kinds of support, and that has to come from the Ukrainian government, allied governments, and individual supporters of democratic and independent Ukraine throughout the world.

My dear Ukrainian cousins: Canada is with you … Канада з вами … we are United for Ukraine!

The traditional (?) Christmas Eve car washing

Washing the cars on Christmas EveMerry Christmas! I should have been hip-deep in snow on Christmas Eve, and getting out the snow blower. But 24 December 2015 broke the weather records for warmth in Ottawa and its environs. To prove some sort of point, when I got up to the country place I washed three cars that were in the driveway with my dad. Mom took the photo — with a flash, as it is winter by the calendar and it gets dark early. Christmas has to have snow, and so this year didn’t fit into the proper spirit of things, but you can see I made my own fun. Merry Christmas, everyone!

All Saints’ Day

Mushroom in bole of treeNovember 1 is All Saints’ Day. Western Ukrainians observe the custom of visiting the graves of relatives, and remembering them on this day. My Taras cousins in Lviv oblast visited the graves of my great-grandparents. In Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, 6,900 km away, I visited the grave of my grandparents. They were separated in life, but for us there was a connection in remembrance.

The photograph is of a mushroom in the bole of a tree, seen along the way to the gravesite in the cemetery. The leaves have fallen from the trees, but even in autumn life is tenacious.

Handiwork of Staryy Yarychiv, Ukraine

Staryy Yarychiv needlepointWhen I visited my cousins in Staryy Yarychiv last April, along with my parents and brother, I was given this beautiful needlepoint. I love how it integrates traditional Ukrainian and modern design, and how it can be viewed right-side-up from each of the four sides. For my birthday, Mom and Dad had it framed in a shadow box. Such a thoughtful gift, from my cousins in Ukraine and from my parents. Дякую! Thank you!