On the Road in Ukraine with Valeria and Alex

Greetings and salutations,

Wow! Thanks for all the views and comments on last week’s post about our walk with Diana. It was a fun time with her and we learned a lot about Lviv and the surrounding area. This week we’ll make a road trip to find ancestors, so here we go!

It was our first full day in Lviv and we spent over half of it traveling the countryside to look for my traveling partner’s ancestors. Here’s a bit of the back story on how this all came about. Our daughter, The Eldest, has been researching family history looking for where her ancestors came from in Europe. From a limited family history written by her grandfather (my traveling partner’s father), she learned they came from what is now central Ukraine although his spelling of the village threw her off for a while as it was the Polish version. As I mentioned in earlier posts, we traveled with The Eldest on this journey, so she arranged to hire a guide and driver through Lviv Ecotour to take us to what we think is the nearest town where the ancestors originated. A few things we know is that the family left Ukraine and landed in Quebec, Canada on June 23, 1900, that’s 119 years ago TODAY when they reached the new world! Why Canada? It might be that there is a large Ukrainian diaspora in Canada, it has the third largest number of Ukrainians outside of Ukraine (Russia comes in second). The currently available documents of the ancestors listed their country as Galicia which at the time was part of Austria. This makes sense because Galicia (an area in present day Ukraine) was then under the rule of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. In the US census reports, they were identified as being from Austria (1910) and Ruthenians (1920) (Note: Ruthenian is the Latin form of Russian) since after WWI the Austrian-Hungarian Empire was no more. They likely left Ukraine because it was one of the poorest places in all of Europe, there was overcrowding and the lack of available farmland as well as famines and blights that reduced the harvest. One can understand why they left, hoping for a better life. Sound familiar? After entering the US, they took the train to Dickinson, North Dakota where they joined other Ukrainian families and claimed a homestead in the new world.

With that bit of information, we met Valeria, our English speaking guide and translator and Alex, our driver, for this little adventure.On the road to Borshchiv-8147IMG_5182

Our goal for the day was the town of Borshchiv located in the Ternopil Oblast (region) that is east and south of Lviv not too far from the border of Romania and Moldova. While the distance is only about 160 miles (260 km) many of the roads in Ukraine are not in good shape even though paved. In many places, Alex had to use the whole road to dodge the potholes and rough spots!

After traveling for a couple of hours we reached the city of Ternopil and decided it was time for coffee, a snack and a restroom break. Alex delivered us close to the central part of the city where I stopped to take a few photos. Not sure who this is a statue of but I like the silhouette against the beautiful morning sky.On the road to Borshchiv-8109

Nearby was this church, a significant landmark in central Ternopil, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception of The Blessed Virgin Mary (formerly a Dominican Church). Construction began on this church in 1749 and was completed 30 years later! It was severely damaged during World War II and restored after the war ended. During the Soviet times it served as an art gallery and didn’t begin operating as a church until 1989 when the Greek Catholics took it over. The second photo is of Pope John Paul II blessing what looks to be an icon of the crucification of Jesus. I don’t know if the Pope stopped in Ternopil during his pilgrimage to Ukraine in 2001 or if the blessing took place in Lviv when he visited and said mass for over a million people. Anyway the church is quite ornate and picturesque. On the road to Borshchiv-8111On the road to Borshchiv-8113

Ternopil is a significant city in western Ukraine with a population of about 220,000 people, a university and a big lake that attracts visitors. It’s a modern city with a very European look and feel. On our way to the coffee shop, we walked on a wide pedestrian boulevard with flowers and benches for sitting and enjoying the sunny, pleasant day. On the road to Borshchiv-8110

After this needed and refreshing stop, we were back in the van for the couple hour ride to Borshchiv. We made one stop at the side of the road along a country road where I took this photo. It could be anyplace in the Midwest or the Great Plains with the rolling hills, a few trees and fields of waving grain. The canola (they still call it rapeseed in much of Europe) was in full bloom and this was the end of May! On our drive we saw fields of corn, winter wheat, sunflowers and soybeans, not unlike the countryside in the US.On the road to Borshchiv-8114

Upon arriving to the outskirts of Borshchiv, a town of about 12,000 people, Alex stopped to ask directions to the City Hall. The city hall was a non descript building sitting on the edge of a large plaza in the center of town. We noted the coat of arms at the top of the building depicting sheaves of golden wheat, a symbol that gave us a bit of clue that we were in the right place given the importance the North Dakota Ukrainians farmers placed on raising wheat.On the road to Borshchiv-8117On the road to Borshchiv-8118

While The Eldest and Valeria entered a small office near the entrance to make inquiries, my traveling partner was invited by this elderly lady to sit next to her. The lady chatted away in Ukrainian even though my traveling partner let her know that she didn’t understand a word she was saying! Anyway, I took a few photos and noted to my traveling partner that she found her people! You decide, I think there is a resemblance!IMG_5147

While the folks at city hall did their best to be helpful, we learned that there were no records before 1930, either they were destroyed by the Soviets or Nazis or dispersed before they could be destroyed. It was disappointing but they directed us to the church a couple blocks away to see if they had any records. On our way, we came across this sign that we considered a good luck omen. The backwards R is I in the Cyrillic alphabet. IMG_5177

As we approached the Church of the Holy Trinity, we saw the priest standing in the courtyard. Valeria and Alex approached him and told him of our mission.IMG_5153On the road to Borshchiv-8126

Again, we learned that no records from 1900 remained in the church, but he was very willing to share what he knew. Through the able translation by Valeria, he told us that at one time Borshchiv was a thriving city with all kinds of people living and working together. He mentioned that prior to WWII there were a lot of Jewish people in the area but when the Nazis arrived, deportations to camps were common. In addition, there was a mass execution of about 2300 Jews at the Jewish cemetery, a reminder to us of the horrible atrocities carried out prior to and during WWII.

His story is interesting too. He told us that in order to study for the priesthood during the Soviet period, he had to sneak across the border to Poland to attend the seminary often at the peril of his life. During our visit he gave a tour of the church, it was small but very ornate. IMG_5166IMG_5167On the road to Borshchiv-8135

To our surprise, he led us to the room behind the alter which we understand is sacred space and not for lay persons. Disregarding “rules” he wanted to show us this picture.On the road to Borshchiv-8129

From what we could gather, this historical relic with captions in both Ukrainian and Polish indicates the collegiality between the two peoples. He was quite proud of it’s presence and wanted his American visitors to know it’s importance.IMG_5163

We did get a clue from the priest, there was a village near Borshchiv that at one time had a church with the same name at the Ukrainian church in North Dakota, St. Demetrius. Because of distance and lack of time, we’ll have to save that for a return visit. As we were leaving, I took a few more photos of the priest and the church. On the road to Borshchiv-8134IMG_5169IMG_5174

This photo is of the latch on the entry gate to the church. Who knows maybe ancestors touched this gate when attending services.IMG_5161

On the bulletin board outside the church, I saw this article that I think commemorates those lost in the starvation of the Ukrainians in 1932-1933 by Stalin. Millions died and is known as the “Holodomor” literally translated from Ukrainian as death by hunger. More on that in a future post.IMG_5170.jpg

In the courtyard and off to the side was this chapel, I believe it’s a shrine to the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy. IMG_5171

As we made our way back to the car, we noticed this sign that gave us another clue that we were on the right trail to find ancestors. Who would think that the embroidery pattern would connect the old world to the new world. We learned that each region in Ukraine features different patterns and colors in their embroidery. This pattern and colors are the same as the Ukrainians make and use in North Dakota!On the road to Borshchiv-8145

We left Borshchiv with some new information and clues but also some disappointments of not finding any physical records. But that doesn’t mean, The Eldest and my traveling partner are giving up, they pledged to return and continue the search.

On our long drive back to Lviv, we stopped again in Ternopil for some dinner at this nice restaurant with good food and atmosphere. A fitting finale to a fun and emotional day.IMG_5181

While it was a lot of seat time in the car, we really enjoyed this day trip to look for ancestors. It was great to see where they came from, one could feel their presence, kind of like a homecoming of sorts.

Next week join me when we meet three delightful young professionals in Lviv and a make a visit to a park under development.

Until then, happy travels!


2 thoughts on “On the Road in Ukraine with Valeria and Alex

  1. Tom, I so enjoy reading your blogs! They are informative, interesting, and educational. Several years ago my husband (and eldest!) visited the Czech Republic to find his family. We, too, had personal tour guides (clients of mine who live in Prague!) They loved that the Americans were there to find their “roots”. We combed cemeteries in search of clues, but came up with nothing. But then our Czech friends were able to trace the ship crossings in the early 1900s from Europe to the US, and found out a lot more information. They ended up finding Dave’s family’s home which is traced back to the 1700s! They created a timeline on a bulletin board tracking the lineage of my husband’s family, which we gave to his mother (remind me to show you a picture of it when I next see you). Interestingly enough, my mother-in-law’s grandparents wanted her to go to the university in Prague and return with them to Bohemia. The year was 1939. Her mother refused, and that was the last time my mother-in-law saw her grandparents – they died in the war :/

    1. Mary,
      Thanks for your kind remarks. Your husband’s story is similar to ours but we haven’t found the end point yet. There is a small but growing cottage industry of people in several European countries helping family members rediscover their heritage. Some are better than others so need some vetting. Our daughter interviewed and then contracted with a person affiliated with a university to help find more about family. In American $ it’s not expensive but worth the cost if they can uncover more. We think the family may have been serfs/peasants as most were illiterate when they came to the US so likely weren’t land owners. Some of the family stories that we heard while in Ukraine are fascinating and horrible at the same time. They were always in the way of European wars and often considered the spoils of war because the land was so productive. At one time, there was a large Jewish population in Ukraine but they were the victims of a diaspora, removed, sent to Siberia, or murdered. The lucky ones got out and made their way to North or South America. I just ordered a recently published book on the history of Ukraine.
      Again, thanks for checking out my blog.

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