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Tracing family in Eastern Europe: A heritage trip to the homeland

Tracing your grandparents’ long-lost relatives is one thing; journeying to their birthplace to meet with them first-hand is quite another. In her previous article for Inside History, Elisa Jakymin recounted how she and her sister Anna pieced together the story of her grandparents’ emigration from wartorn Eastern Europe and reconnected with the family members who’d remained. Here, she reflects on how the sisters’ recent heritage trip to Ukraine and Lithuania helped them delve further into the family history — and took them to some unexpected places. 

Growing up in Australia and after our paternal grandmother Olena and grandfather Jan respectively passed in 2002 and 2009, we had little hope that we would learn about – let alone be fortunate enough to meet – their families, so many years after the fallout of the Second World War. However, with the help of a Ukrainian genealogist, and a selection of anonymous photos, a handful of dated letters and a marriage certificate, we have since become acquainted with family members we might never have otherwise discovered.

Olena and Jan Jakymiw. All images courtesy of Elisa Jakymin.
Olena and Jan Jakymiw. All images courtesy Elisa and Anna Jakymin.

Having been incredibly fortunate to get in touch with both sides of the family, thanks to modern technologies such as email, Facebook, Skype and WhatsApp, Anna and I decided that 2017 would be the year in which we would take the next step — exploring the capital city of our family’s homeland, Ukraine.

In anticipation of our trip, we had organised to meet with Serhij, the Kiev-based genealogist (or Kyiv in Ukrainian), in addition to coordinating a trip to Lithuania where we would be spending time with our grandfather’s brother’s descendants. A few days prior to our arrival in Kiev, the descendants of our grandmother’s sister reached out to us on Facebook. They saw that we were travelling around Scandinavia and proposed that this was not too far from where they lived, on the western side of Ukraine, near Lviv. To their surprise and excitement, we notified them that we would be arriving in Kiev in a just a few days’ time. Although we had a jam-packed schedule planned for exploring Kiev, they were adamant and very excited to make the four-hour drive from their home in Stary Mizun – where our grandmother once lived – to Kiev. They were due to arrive on the same night that we were meeting the genealogist, so we proposed for all of us to meet at our hotel, on 6 July 2017 – as fate would have it, our dad’s birthday! His birthday had served as the initial motivation for Anna to get in contact with Serhij several years ago.

While much of our childhood was characterised by Ukrainian lessons, Ukrainian dancing and spending the religious holidays of Easter and Christmas with our grandparents in celebration of our Ukrainian heritage, we did not know what to expect coming to Kiev. The city is not exactly a popular tourist attraction for Australians and is now a place that travel agents refuse to book, owing to the nation’s escalating conflict with Russia in recent years. Fortunately, while the city retains reminders of the conflict – including photography of those soldiers who have perished at war – today, civil unrest is largely confined to regions on the Eastern Ukrainian-Russian border.

Our first glimpse of Kiev would emanate through the airplane window: yellow fields of wheat juxtaposed against a bright blue sky – a fairly accurate depiction of the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag. Talk about a pinch-me moment. After waiting for what seemed like forever to be granted a visa to enter the country, our first full day in Kiev was spent in the care of Vlad – a manager of Kiev’s Free Walking Tours and a young adult who has lived in Kiev his whole life and loves showing visitors around his home city.

It was under Vlad’s guidance that we would learn about Kiev’s rich and turbulent history, dating back to the fifth century. Most notably, Kiev – or Kievan Rus, as it was known 1000 years ago – was a major European power and the birthplace of modern-day Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. The city was flattened during the Mongol conquest and severely damaged during the Second World War, but restored by the mid-1950s.

Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 helped rekindle Kiev’s status as a major European capital. It was upon gaining independence that Ukrainian leaders formally asked the world to refer to their country as “Ukraine” rather than “the Ukraine” as it had become known. In fact, no articles such as “the” even exist in the Ukrainian language. It is easy to see why Ukrainians are so proud of their capital; despite its history alternating between independence and foreign rule, either by Poland-Lithuania, Imperial Russia and the USSR, a unique language and culture has been preserved.

Firstly, we participated in an ancient city walking tour with a group of Australian, German and American travellers, which began at the Maidan monument in Independence Square. The Square is a powerful display of Ukraine’s independence and also the site of the 2004 Orange Revolution, where thousands of Ukrainians protested the corrupt nature of the presidential election. Vlad commenced the tour by calling on the group to state what we already knew about the city. The group remained silent apart from my sister who volunteered that it was “an old city”.

The beautiful St. Michael’s Cathedral, Kiev. All images courtesy Elisa and Anna Jakymin.
The beautiful St. Michael’s Cathedral, Kiev.

Vlad had remembered my sister and me, as we had shared our story via email in anticipation of our long-awaited visit. In what was to become an omnipresent theme during our stay in Ukraine, Vlad then shared his family’s involvement with the tour company, advising that we would be meeting his mother that afternoon. We visited several cathedrals and monuments, many of which were completely destroyed and rebuilt in the aftermath of the Second World War.

St. Michael’s Cathedral, destroyed by the Soviet regime in the 1930s and reconstructed in 2000, embodies the Ukrainian spirit with its blue exterior and sparkling golden domes. Keeping watch over the square stands a sobering reminder of Stalin’s inhumane policies, a monument to the victims of the Holodomor (famine) under which as many as 10 million Ukrainians perished. Architectural gems such as Kiev’s oldest standing church, St. Sophia’s – built in 1037 – and the green-domed, baroque St. Andrew’s Church are interlaced into a stunning cityscape fusing the ancient and newly reconstructed. We also learned about the superstitious nature of Ukrainians – statues needed to be rubbed in a certain fashion to bring about luck, fortune and love.

Not wanting the tour to come to an end, several group members accepted Vlad’s invitation to continue on to an authentic Ukrainian restaurant by the name of Taras Bulba, the namesake of a historical novel by Russian-Ukrainian writer Gogol. The waiters and waitresses were dressed in authentic Ukrainian costume, and we too as patrons were invited to don the traditional floral headdress (for the females), and straw hats (for the males). The restaurant was adorned with genuine Ukrainian embroidery and decorations, and evoked feelings of having lunch at your grandmother’s house.

The tour group donning traditional Ukrainian headdress.
The tour group donning traditional Ukrainian headdress.

We revealed the personal nature of the trip for us – to explore our ancestral roots and the country in which it all started, and it was appropriately dubbed a “heritage trip.” Getting on amazingly well for a group of travellers who had met just a few hours earlier, a fellow traveller aptly exclaimed, “we are all family now.” And so with our appetites satisfied, the group returned to Independence Square to commence another tour, this time under the care of Vlad’s mother, Ludmila.

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