Taras family history revealed

At the grave of Maria (Kulyk) TarasFrom a research visit to the state archives of Ukraine in Lviv, I knew when my great-grandparents were born and when they married. Until now, I did not know when they died. A trip to the cemetery in the village of Staryi Yarychiv with Taras cousins enlightened me. My great-grandfather, Ivan Taras, died in 1947 at the age of 71. My great-grandmother, Maria Kulyk, died in 1961 at the age of 84. They are buried in different areas of the cemetery. The photo shows my mum laying flowers at the grave of the grandmother she never knew.

Michael Taras in the Polish armyWe always knew that my grandfather, Michael Taras, had been in the Polish army, but only for a brief period. My Taras cousins in Staryi Yarychiv had an old photograph of a young man in a military uniform, but did not know who it was. My mother was able to say, positively: “That’s my dad!”

The photograph was taken in the city of Kolomyya, which is today in Ivano-Frankivsk oblast in Ukraine. We estimate the photograph was taken around 1924.

Wieliczka Salt Mine

Wieliczka Salt MineWieliczka Salt Mine is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, located to the south of Kraków. My photo shows a huge vaulted chamber where salt had been mined. The timber framing prevents collapse. The chandelier is made of salt.

Salt mining began at Wieliczka in the 13th century. The origins of the salt deposits go back 136 million years to the Miocene Era, but the story of it’s foundation in legend is more fun. A Hungarian princess, Kinga, was betrothed to Boleslaw the Timid, Prince of Kraków. Before leaving for Poland, she threw her engagement ring down the shaft of a salt mine in Hungary. Once in Kraków, she asked miners to dig a pit. They came across a rock of salt, and when they split it in two they found Kinga’s engagement ring.
Chapel in Wieliczka Salt MineOver a period of 70 years, starting in the 1890s, a succession of three miners carved a chapel out of one of the chambers. They worked after their shifts, and it is today a consecrated church and popular for weddings. The carvings along the walls show scenes from the life of Christ. The tableau to the right of the side chapel is the Slaughter of the Innocents and above it is the Nativity.

Rock salt mining stopped at Wieliczka in 1996 and now an evaporator produces a small amount of salt from the water pumped out of the mine. Tourism is the big business now, to see one of the oldest continuously operating salt mines in the world.

Wawel Royal Castle, Kraków

Wawel Royal Castle, KrakówIn contrast to Warsaw, the city of Kraków survived the tumult of the 20th century relatively intact. What survives in Kraków are layers upun layers of history, going back a thousand years. For example, the Gothic basilica named for Saints Stanislaus and Wenceslaus, pictured here, is the third on the site of Wawel Castle mound. Kings of Poland are buried here, and this is where they were crowned, even after the capital was moved to Warsaw in 1596. The last owner of Wawel Castle was Poniatowski — Stanislaw II August — the last King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, before the Third Partition in 1795. The last resident of Wawel Castle was the Nazi mass-murderer Hans Frank, Governor-General of the ‘General Government’ of the Third Reich, which had its administrative centre in Kraków. The Frank children rode bicycles through the chambers of Wawel Castle while their father sealed the Jewish ghettos in Poland and then carried out the ‘Final Solution’ extermination of Poles who were Jews.

Warsaw razed; Warsaw renewed

Warsaw razedAt the end of the Second World War, Warsaw was a devasted wasteland. 85 percent of the city was in ruins and 800,000 of its inhabitants — more than half — were dead. The invasion by Nazi Germany in September 1939, the Jewish ghetto uprising of 1943, the Warsaw uprising of 1944, and the razing of the city by the retreating Germans (the Red Army entered the city in January 1945) led to the Old City being left in the state you see pictured here.
Rosette mouldings, Royal Palace, WarsawThe puppet government which was imposed on Poland from 1945 to 1990 by the Soviet Union was uninterested in restoring the legacy of Poland. Poles themselves, including the Polish diaspora, were. The Royal Palace in the Old City of Warsaw had been deliberately and completely blown up by the Germans in 1944. Everything that could be saved from the rubble was incorporated into the reconstruction of the Palace, which was undertaken from 1971 to 1984. My photo here shows one original rosette moulding in the arch of a doorway — the darker one — amid the meticulously crafted reproductions.
Royal Palace, Old City, WarsawThis is the reconstructed Royal Palace today. The work of renewal was so expertly done, that the Old City of Warsaw (in Polish: Stare Miasto) is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site — even though very little of what one sees dates from before World War II.

Wilanów Palace

Wilanów PalaceWilanów Palace, located south of Warsaw city centre, was built for King John III Sobieski in the last part of the 17th century. It now houses the royal collection of Poland as the Museum of King John III’s Palace in Wilanów. I took this photo of our little touring party about to enter the museum. These are the first flowers of spring.
Parquet floor, King's Library, Wilanów PalaceThe name Wilanów is Polonized Latin “Villa Nova” and indeed an aristocratic district for Warsaw grew up around the palace. Miraculously, it survived numerous owners, two world wars and the Soviet occupation pretty much intact, and is a magnificent example of the baroque style of architecture. Typically, each chamber has an intricate and unique parquet floor. This one in the King’s Library struck me as effectively modern in its design.
King John III SobiewskiPolish forces under King John III Sobieski were in the vanguard of Europe, defeating the forces the Ottoman Empire at the Battle of Vienna on 12 September 1683. The Christians were outnumbered overwhelmingly by the Turks, but Poland saved Europe. It is in this context that Poles rememeber with great bitterness that Europe did not save Poland when it was invaded by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia in September 1939.


Olga BoznańskaWitamy w Polsce! My parents and I flew to Warsaw from Vilnius very early in the morning, and shortly thereafter met my brother Robin, who flew from Ottawa.

We first visited the National Museum in Warsaw, where there is an exhibition of the paintings of Olga Boznańska. She lived from 1865 to 1940 and is one of the most renowned Polish painters. She was a highly successful portraitist, living in Paris from 1898. A comprehensive selection of Boznańska’s life-work, as well as a few significant influencers are in the exhibition.

Warsaw Uprising MuseumAfter a light Polish lunch in the gallery’s cafe, we visited the Warsaw Uprising Museum. This museum is newly-opened, and commemorates the heroic but doomed uprising of the Home Army (in Polish: Armia Krakowa) which lasted from August 1 to October 2 in 1944. The Warsaw uprising is heroic because the Poles fought against superior German forces with few weapons, and nevertheless inflicted heavy losses on the enemy. It was doomed because a massive Russian army sat idly by on the right bank of the Vistula, gave no support, and allowed the Nazis to slaughter thousands on thousands of Poles and utterly destroy Warsaw. As the Nazis were driven out of Poland, due in no small part to open combat by the Home Army, Stalin’s NKVD disarmed the Polish resistance, arrested and imprisoned its leadership, and imposed a puppet government on Poland. It would be a long 49 years before the invading and occupying Soviet Army would leave Poland, and the brave men and women of the Warsaw Uprising would be redeemed.

Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine

Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine flagsWheels up today, for a trip of a lifetime to the Baltic countries, Poland, and Ukraine. Tallinn is first, then Riga, Vilnius, Warsaw, Krakow, and Lviv. A very emotional reunion will happen in Lviv region, as the descendants of Ivan Taras and Maria Kulyk meet for the first time after having been divided by immigration for almost 90 years. I look forward to seeing a bit of four fascinating countries which are new to me. Bon vol!

Polish passports, 1928 and 2014

Polish passports, 1928 and 2014In 1928, my grandfather, Michael Taras, left his home village of Jaryczów Stary in southeastern Poland to go to the nearby provincial capital of Lwów. Being Ukrainian, he might have said he left his home village of Staryj Yarychiv in western Ukraine to go to the provincial capital of Lviv. He went there to confirm his Polish citizenship, to get the documents he needed to emigrate to Canada. He obtained a certificate of birth and baptism from the Greek Catholic church, got his photograph taken, and got a passport as a citizen of the Republic of Poland. He left Poland in the summer of 1928, and never returned.

On the strength of my grandfather’s careful preservation of these valuable documents, I have been officially confirmed as a Polish citizen. The end of this journey of self-discovery, for me, has been to obtain a Polish passport. Here it is, along with the one my grandfather obtained almost 86 years ago. My grandfather came to love Canada with a fierce pride, but he never renounced his Polish citizenship. I love Canada with the zeal of a well-travelled native son, but I am honoured to have discovered this aspect of the past that informs my present, and to rightfully bear a Polish passport.

Confirmation of Polish Citizenship

Wojewoda Mazowiecki :: Governor of MasoviaI am a Polish citizen. This fact was confirmed today, after an odyssey of bureaucratic trials-and-tribulations that has taken one year.

Poland follows the “right of blood” when it comes to citizenship, as opposed to Canada that predominantly follows the “right of soil”. That means that the citizenship of your parents counts, more so than where you happen to have been born. In my case, my grandfather was a Polish citizen. I simply had to prove that fact, and to prove that he did not lose his citizenship. But “simple” does not in any way describe what I had to undergo to establish convincing proof!

My grandfather was born in Galicia, when it was a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire,[44] in a part that after 1918 was in the Republic of Poland. To establish this fact, I was lucky to have his original certificate of birth and baptism. Unfortunately, this document was written in Latin, and I had a devil of a time getting an acceptable translation into Polish. Immediately before my grandfather emigrated to Canada in 1928 he obtained a passport in Lwów, Poland (which is today Lviv, Ukraine). This Polish passport is, of course, golden proof that my grandfather was a Polish citizen. Next, though, I had to prove that my grandfather did not do anything to lose his Polish citizenship. In 1935, my grandfather was naturalized as a British subject in Canada, and in itself this may have been considered as an act giving up his Polish citizenship. Because he was deemed fit for military service in Poland, and because he did not serve in the “foreign” Canadian military or with the federal government of Canada, he did not in fact do anything to give up his Polish citizenship by being naturalized as a British subject.[45] All I had to do, then, was to prove the negative, and I did this by having an official search made of Canadian records, and a report made that no evidence exists. With this letter in hand, the rest was a matter of proving my line of descent, through birth and marriage certificates from Canadian provinces.

In total, I obtained and presented nine official documents, from five legal jurisdictions, originating over a period from 1904 to 2013. These were all translated into Polish and the translations verified. The layers of bureaucracy would make Byzantium proud! For one letter, to take an example, I had to have its signature notarized, then have the notary’s signature stamped and verified by the Canadian government, and then have the Canadian government’s stamp verified by the Polish government. The pay off to this rigamarole was success. With every objection overcome, my presentation of evidence was accepted as convincing proof.

I am starting to come to terms with an existential fact. I have always been, from the moment of my birth, a citizen of a country whose language I do not speak, and which I have never visited. It is important that I did not obtain Polish citizenship, by seeking that which I did not have. What has happened is that I have confirmed Polish citizenship, by coming to realize something that was true all along, but simply not proven until this moment. I see this not so much as getting something that I wanted, but as finding out something that is true about me. I am a Polish citizen.

Staryi Yarychiv :: Старий Яричів :: Jaryczów Stary

I have recently learned that my grandfather was born in a village that is near the city of Lviv, in what is now the independent country of Ukraine. The village is Staryi Yarychiv (in Cyrillic script: Старий Яричів), and its history in the twentieth century is a complicated one.

My grandfather was Mike Taras. In Ukrainian, his name is Михайло Тарас, and in Polish his name is Michał Taras. He died the year before I was born, and I am named Michael after him.

Jaryczów StaryThe image above is from a military map of 1930. You’re looking at a location 20 km to the north-east of Lviv. When my grandfather was born in 1904, this area was in the province of Galicia in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The city of Lviv was known by its German name, Lemberg, at that time. At the end of the First World War, Galicia was ceded to the newly-independent state of Poland. Lviv was known then by its Polish name, Lwów, and my grandfather’s village, known by its Polish name, Jaryczów Stary, was in Lwów Voivodeship (province). When my grandfather immigrated to Canada in 1928, he had a Polish passport.

Lviv and the surrounding area was grabbed by Stalin when the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939. When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the area came under the “General Government” (Poland under Nazi occupation). After the Second World War, a reconstituted Polish state was positioned substantially to the west of where it had been, and a dividing line fell across the old Lwów Voivodeship. A small area to the west was in Poland, and Lviv and the remaining parts in the east fell to the Soviet Union. Lviv was now known by its Ukrainian name Львів, and my grandfather’s village became known by its Ukrainian name, Старий Яричів (Staryi Yarychiv).

Mike TarasThis is my grandfather, Mike Taras, in 1960. He was born in Austria-Hungary, came of age in Poland, and by immigration became a British subject and then a Canadian. He was very fortunate not to have gone through what his native village went through, which was life under Nazi occupation and then under Soviet rule. I probably have cousins living now in Staryi Yarychiv or in Lviv oblast, but a violent and intolerant political history and my previous lack of knowledge have divided us for over 84 years.