by Pat Seman
The road lies before me. A dirt road. Empty. On either side vast fields stretch in long, smooth undulations to the far horizon. Not a house, a farm or a person in sight.
I’m about to visit my grandmother’s birthplace, the village she left so long ago to look for a better life in the New World. I’m here in the ‘old country’—a phrase my Dad always used, that I haven’t heard since my childhood.
I have no idea who, if anyone, is left of my grandmother’s family. All I have is the name of a village.
Now, only a few kilometres to go on the last lap of a journey that started in Amsterdam and has brought us more than a thousand kilometres through the forests and hills and wide plains of central Europe to this remote south-west corner of Ukraine.
We’ve just come off the main road—a switch-back road through gently rolling countryside, lined with huge trees leaning towards us, newly-leafed and in blossom.
A wooden signpost at the turning points the way along the dirt road which seems to go on and on in a straight line to nowhere. The village has to be out there somewhere. Surely not far now. I don’t know what to expect. A huddle of houses surrounded by an eternity of empty fields?
Dust rises from our car wheels as we hit the dirt track. We drive slowly, swerve to avoid shallow ruts and potholes. I roll down a window. A lark is singing somewhere over the fields. The earth is a deep, rich brown, alive with tender, green shoots laid out in long, neat rows.
The road goes into a long curve. Trees appear, a farm. The land on our right rises into a steep, grassy bank. We drive downhill past a memorial inscribed 1941-1945, with the figures of two men, strong torsos, heavily muscled, one bare-chested, kneeling, his arm twisted back in the grasp of the other who is booted, holding a gun.
A church, then another large concrete building that could be a school.
The road narrows, steepens, follows the course of a shallow stream. We’re drawn down into a tiny valley. Low houses painted in shades of blue and green amongst trees. Gardens with neat wooden fences. The land, carefully ploughed and planted, reaches down to the stream now lined with willows. Ducks float on the water, waddle in convoy across the road. We slow down to let them pass. The stream disappears. Houses hug the grass verge as the road winds and curves. It climbs round a bend and I look down on a small house with a steep corrugated iron roof, on its sky blue plaster walls and decorative panel work painted green, white and blue. There’s a wooden fence immaculate in exactly the same pattern of colours. A pile of logs is neatly stacked in one corner. I glimpse a vase of flowers at the window. A man pushes aside the curtain at the doorway and steps out into the yard.
I wonder if this is my family’s village. It feels sheltered, intimate. But the road widens, the houses fall away.
Then, on a rocky bank at the side of the road, in large concrete Cyrillic letters, painted blue,
All I had to guide me here was a scrap of paper on which, years ago, my father had written the name of his mother’s village. I remembered him telling me that it was near the town of Chernivtsi, the capital of Bukovina, which is now in Ukraine. He also said that my grandmother’s father was the mayor of the village. This was all the information I had. I’d never thought to ask any questions until it was too late and my father had died, taking any stories about the Old Country with him. So, when I decided to try and trace my roots, the first thing I needed was that scrap of paper. I knew that we’d kept it, put it away somewhere safe. But where?
It was my husband who finally hunted it down; in the attic, on a faded post-it stuck to the screen of an old computer that we’d stored way, gathering dust. We deciphered the faint letters to read ‘Vasolau’. Then poured over atlases – old atlases in which Bukovina was part of the Soviet Union, more recent ones placing it in an independent Ukraine; found nothing. So we homed in on Chernivtsi and its surrounding area on Google Earth. There were villages aplenty in tiny Bukovina: in the foothills of the Carpathians, on the banks of the River Dniester, close to the border with Romania. But none with this name. We’d come to a dead end.
I was teaching at a language school in Amsterdam and in one of my English classes was a Ukrainian student, Luba. She already knew about my Ukrainian roots and, when I told her about my failed efforts to find my grandmother’s village, she offered to look for information online on a Russian site. She came to the next lesson with a printed-out map of Bukovina. She’d circled one village as the most probable.
It lay thirty kilometres north of Chernivtsi on the banks of the River Dniester. It was called Vasyliv.
We drive past the large concrete sign into the village. A long row of low wooden fences stretches on either side of the wide road; beyond it houses set back in courtyards, down narrow side streets, spread out amongst gardens. The road is all but empty of traffic. We pass a group of women in headscarves. They turn and stare at the strangers in the red Renault with its foreign licence plates; at me sitting in the back, my husband, Jaap, at the wheel and beside him the slim figure of Tanya, our interpreter.
I’ve been more confident that this could be my family’s village since Tanya has thrown herself into the task. We were brought into contact with her when we asked at the hotel reception for an interpreter. This is the first time that she’s helped someone find their family and she’s curious, full of enthusiasm. She took us to her language school, to its small office at the edge of a school playground. We sat at a table piled high with English textbooks, next to two teachers preparing lessons, while she made phone calls in an attempt to trace my grandmother’s records. First to the regional office in the neighbouring village to Vasyliv where she was informed that the archives had just been moved to Chernivitsi, then to Chernivitsi where they told her that they were in the process of transferring all records to a new office. Finally, she contacted the chairman of the Vasyliv village council. When she told him my grandmother’s name he said,
“Bring her along. Of course her family is here. Half the village is called Semenyuk”.
I’m nervous, yet at the same time feel strangely numb. It comes, I think, from a sense of surrender. Now that I’ve set this process in motion, that I find myself in this remote corner of Europe about to meet complete strangers—strangers to whom I’m tied by blood and history – I’ve no choice but to take whatever, whoever, comes. I’m also curious.
Last night I talked to a young woman from Canada staying at our hotel, who’s also searching for her relatives. She wants to make a film. But first she must go to the village and find out if there is still family. And if she does find them, she has no idea how they’ll receive her, what she can expect.
When I was a child, about six or seven years old, a stranger came to our flat in London. I was sent down to open the door. Standing on the pathway, framed in the dim and foggy light of 50’s London, was a man in a long, grey raincoat, his face in the shadow of the hat tipped over his forehead. He could have stepped straight out of our tiny black and white TV screen—Harry Lime, the cold war agent, fresh from the war-torn streets of Vienna. In fact, he was an old friend of my Dad’s from his hometown, Brandon, in Canada. He’d just arrived off the boat and had come to see us before setting out on the final part of his journey. He was about to visit his family in Ukraine, to go behind the Iron Curtain—for me, at that time, an undefined but hostile world; a world that was uniformly grey, peopled by dour, unsmiling faces. I realise now that he was probably going to Bukovina. He must have called in again on his way back but I can’t remember. I don’t even know if he managed to meet his family; only that his by presence there and the fact that he was trying to make contact with them, the authorities were alerted and his family was put into danger. He was certainly not made welcome. It was a period, when all communication between Ukraine and the outside world was frozen, when the people and families trapped in that world for all intents and purposes disappeared.
The long line of fences and houses is broken by a football field, then a cemetery—a large field full of white stone crosses. We reach a small concrete building set back from the road. Mikola, the chairman of the village council, is waiting for us at the gate. As Tanya introduces us he reaches out to shake Jaap’s hand, then greets me with a courteous nod. He’s a short man with warm brown eyes, a drooping moustache and grey shoulder-length hair. He takes us into the building, down a wide corridor and into his office. It’s a homely and comfortable room. In one corner is a long three-part dressing table mirror over a small table. On the table stands a jar of wild flowers. Next to it is a computer desk against the wall. Its shelves are full of greeting cards and family photos and one pink toy dog. A big, yellow fishing net is propped near the door and there’s goldfish in a small tank by the window. On one wall hangs a portrait of Tsar Nicholas and his wife Alexandra and facing them, impassively, President Yevtuschenko. Three women rise to greet us as we enter. Mikola introduces us to his assistants; Vanya, Svetlana and his wife, Katya. Katya and Vanya are cousins. They are both Semenyuks. They greet us warmly with firm handshakes and big smiles.
We all sit down at a long table and Tanya shows the photograph taken in Canada of my grandmother and my father, a young boy in his teens. Looking full of responsibility, he stands sternly at her side. Gathered around them are his sister, Jean, his younger brother, Mike and sister, Ann. Only the little ones, Mike and Ann, are smiling. Tanya tells them that my grandmother’s father was chairman of the village.
In Mikola’s white Mercedes we’re driven to a small house on a rise where we’re introduced to Alexander, whose great-grandfather had once been the village chairman.
Alexander is excited to see us. He sits me down and kneels at my side showing me photo after photo of the family in ‘Moose’. Moose? I suddenly realise, he’s talking about Moose Jaw, the Canadian prairie town in Saskatchewan, where my father was born. So one after the other the villagers must have followed each other out to Moose Jaw and formed a community there – an extension of Vasyliv on Canadian soil. I’d had no idea. I’d always thought that my grandmother’s emigration had been a solitary adventure, that she’d followed her husband out to Canada and that they’d settled where there was work. The photographs keep on coming, but I recognise nobody. I can see Tanya shaking her head. Alexander is really keen to establish a family relationship but it turns out that his great-grandfather’s name was not even Semenyuk. The connection is on his mother’s side. He takes us out to meet her. She’s sitting on a bench in the yard. She is blind. She takes hold of my hand, tells me that she spent the years of her childhood in Canada, in Moose. She went to school there, but she can’t remember any English now. All the words have gone. And she certainly can’t remember my grandmother. It was so long ago.
The first time I met my grandmother was not in Moose Jaw but in another prairie town, Brandon, where my Dad grew up. I was eleven and had to take some extra time off school for the big trip to Canada. It was the first time my Dad had been back since before I was born. I remember my grandmother’s hair was tied into two plaits, pinned to her head. She wore dark clothes and an apron. She looked like my Dad, the same long, serious face. I remember the wooden house where she lived. It was long and low with a veranda and out back was a big garden full of vegetables and at the end of the garden, the toilet, a little wooden hut with a hole in the ground. I was scared to go in because the walls were draped with spiders’ webs. I remember her bedroom with an iron bed and plain white sheets. Underneath her bed she kept a trunk, which she drew out and opened to show me the white linen shift that she’d made and embroidered for her deathbed. I remember that she and my Dad spoke Ukrainian together but I had no ear for the lilt and the music of it then, no interest.
I also remember my Dad leaning against a wooden fence in Brandon as he talked in Ukrainian to my grandmother’s neighbour and the two onion-shaped domes of a Ukrainian wooden church that rose in the distance behind them. I can see already how much there is in Vasyliv that would have been familiar to him had he ever been able to come here; how little, at least on the surface of things, life has changed here since my Dad’s childhood, spent far away in Canada. I wonder what more I’ll learn about my father now that I’m in Vasyliv.
Mikola takes us for a tour of the village. He drives us to the river and parks in the middle of a field. in deep grass. We’re on a bluff looking down at a point where the Dniester is joined by a smaller river, the Siret. He tells us that, situated on this confluence, Vasyliv was once an important town linked to the great trade routes that flowed from the Baltic to the Black Sea by way of the Dniester. Here he says, pointing to the banks below, was a harbour and there a trading station, and there, pointing to a large field to our right, a castle. Vasyliv, he says, was once wealthy and powerful, a fortified town with numerous wooden churches and monasteries. All destroyed, burnt to the ground when the Mongols swept through. The bones of the slaughtered still regularly turn up in the gardens and fields around the village.
He drives back along the main street and draws our attention to the big, yellow pipes on either side, high above the ground. After years of wheeling and dealing he’s finally managed to bring gas to the village and is proud of his victory. As we drive past the large football field he points out a small white wooden tribune standing at the far edge – yet another of his achievements in the long struggle with the authorities to get funding to improve the village. He reels out story after story of official corruption and indifference. Yet, Mikola is in buoyant mood. He has plans. Vasyliv, he believes, with its gently rolling hills and river setting is the perfect tourist destination.
And, as if to prove his point, he takes us down another turning to the river; this time down a narrow, bumpy, dirt path lined with low fences and small wooden houses. Here on the left he tells us, along the banks of a tiny stream, were once a row of windmills run by several Jewish families. The path stops by a copse of trees and we walk down to a wide river meadow where two or three tethered cows and a piebald horse quietly graze. Just before us is a small island in the river. Two boys are swimming across the channel, another sits on the bank, fishing. To our left a narrow track trodden through the grass leads along the river, through the trees that crowd its banks, towards a row of small houses visible on the rise, their long plots of land, curving down to the water’s edge. To our right the river makes a wide turn, disappearing behind a high cliff, where the land rises into a steep hill.
The spring sky, high and blue with its thin drift of clouds, the sheltering trees. The green meadow and the winding river; its quiet, steady flow.
It is beautiful here.
On the way back along the bumpy path we glimpse a young girl walking towards us up the slope from a garden below, herding a flock of geese.
Now Mikola takes us along yet another path. It runs down between high grassy banks and this time comes to the river at a point where immediately opposite, on the other side of the water, is a high cliff, its earthy brown and green contours stretched into rippling reflections in the river’s strong flow.
Two women in wellington boots stand ankle-high in the water washing clothes, a pile still stacked in a wheelbarrow behind them. Two little girls sit close by, balanced on the prow of a wooden skiff beached on the riverbank, their feet dangling in the water.
Mikola leads us a few metres up the path again and then turns off and through a gate into a large yard. We’ve come to his house. A well stands in the middle of the yard. It’s made of wood and painted blue with an intricately fretted and decorated tin roof that gleams in the morning sun. Proudly he demonstrates his latest acquisition – an electric pump for the well. He turns on a switch and we watch as the water gushes out. He takes us around his property, shows us pigs in a sty, then a big garden at the back of the house with long, neat rows of vegetables. Their frail green fronds and leaves are just emerging from the soil.
He picks up a handful of soil, holds it out to us. “Black gold, they call it. The richest soil there is. Stalin came here and stripped us of our earth. Took it back to Russia in trainfulls.” He lets the soil slide slowly through his fingers.
Back at the office a woman is waiting for us. She is tall and wears a bright yellow, floral headscarf. Mikola introduces us to Maria Vasileyevna, a teacher at the village school and Vasyliv’s local historian. She’s here to help me trace my family. She sits down with us, puts on her glasses and studies the photograph. As she takes out a notebook I notice her large, work-roughened hands. She has the shape of my father’s mouth, his eyes. She tells me that she’s a Semenyuk on her mother’s side.
“We are one big family here,” she says. “ We all come from the same earth. It’s in our blood, we take it in with our mother’s milk. The earth of this village is a magnet. It pulls its children back. And so you have come to us”.
Maria finishes her notes and asks if she can take my grandmother’s photo with her. She promises she’ll do what she can to find my family.
Mikola drives us, together with Katya, Vanya and Svetlana, to a restaurant by a lake in the next village. We sit in a wooden arbour, eat stuffed chicken cutlets, cabbage salad and a huge carp, fresh from the Dniester. We drink vodka and each time the glass is filled for another toast – to our health, our wealth and happiness, to our continued friendship.
On the way back to Chernivtsi we stop off at a petrol station. In the office a man is leaning against the counter, drunk. As we leave he suddenly bursts into song in a deep, rich baritone.
The next morning Tanya calls me on my mobile. Maria phoned her at seven o’clock. She has found my family.