I began with some softball questions: name, year born, the usual introductions. I had hoped that the interview would be slightly more casual - but she was a little embarrassed perhaps, or at least a little thrown by the idea of being interviewed by a young American.
Hanna Mixhailivna was born on the 2nd of March 1935. She looks older than my own grandparents even though they have quite a few years on her. Proud of her appearance, she has clearly re-done her hair after coming in from the wind and picked out a nice sweater for the occasion.
I explained why I had wanted to interview her and lead off with a fun ice-breaking question.
On the bus ride over I had imagined how, if asked, I would respond to the question: What is your happiest childhood memory?
Maybe it was the summer that all the neighborhood kids took on two-part alliterated animal names and Rebecca was Paula the Porcupine and I was Aurthur the Alligator. We pretended our dirt lot a small town and because I couldn't ride a bike like the rest of the kids I owned and operated the gas station. Or maybe I would be a little more generic to avoid being so honest and make vague statements about learning to ride a bike, or playing pool with Robbie and Rebecca.
She paused after the question left my mouth. More than a stop-gap it was an awkward pause. I thought about adjusting the question - maybe I could remove the word "favorite" which tends to trick people up - but I could see that she wasn't searching for a memory, she was looking for the right words. After a lengthy pause she began:
"My childhood wasn't very happy, what I remember of it wasn't very happy. The war came soon. My family was persecuted by the Soviet Union. My father was imprisoned for 11 years for taking part in the rebellion. My family was dispersed. My brother, he was taken to Siberia for 20 years. My mother and I were hiding anywhere we could just to survive. So, I cannot remember any happy moments from my childhood."
I shared my own awkward pause.
While I had known most of these facts before the interview began, hearing them all together was rather sobering. I really didn't know how to continue the interview. I was suddenly embarrassed by my care-free childhood and relative lack of struggle.
Grandma Hanna's father had gathered supplies for the UPA (Ukrainian Insurgents Army), a pro-Ukrainian guerrilla-style combat unit that fought against the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany during WWII. Growing up, her family had always respected the names Bandera and Shevchenko and all the others who had believed in an independent Ukraine.
Hanna was only 8 when her father was arrested for his involvement in the conflict. Along with her brother, he was sent to a prison in Siberia. It would be decades before they would be reunited. Hanna and her mother shared the politically dangerous last name, and were forced into hiding. Sometimes there would be long stretches when she wouldn't know where her mother was. She remembered the great strength and determination her mother showed. She would work so hard in the collectivized fields that her hands would bleed. Hanna remembered watching her mother grate beetroot; she couldn't tell where the red dye of of the vegetable ended and the red blood from her mother's hands began.
Did you think about love when you were a teenager? :: "Yes. Of course. We all did. I married when I was 25, which is the perfect age to get married. Not too young, not too old. I was persecuted by the Soviet government until my last name changed when I was married."
When the soviets removed her right to worship in the traditional Ukrainian faith of the Greek Catholic church, she continued worshiping in a Soviet sanctioned Orthodox church. "We believe God is one. God heard our prayers. Greek Catholic ... Orthodox ... it didn't matter so much. We worshiped in the same church we always had - and today that church has become a Greek Catholic church again." When her children and grandchildren were born she had them illegally baptized into the Greek Catholic church. Faith was an integral part of survival for many Ukrainians during these difficult years. Hanna is glad to see so many young people actively living out their faith, but feels quite strongly that more young people need to connect with God for the good of the country.
This was particularly poignant for me. In my work as a missionary in Ukraine, I work for a student-run inter-confessional student ministry. The student-leader of language outreach ministries is a passionately Greek Catholic Christian. I am continually impressed by the faithfulness of our students and their strong desire to serve God.
Grandma Hanna beams with pride as she talks about her grandchildren. "Nazar finished music school with a red diploma - a perfect record." Although several of her family members are part of the diaspora in America, Canada, the Czech Republic and Argentina; she is proud to finally be part of an independent Ukraine. "The years of persecution were worth it. Things are improving, and they must improve ... We did what we had to do for our future."
Hanna felt it was important to tell me that during the Soviet imposed forced-famine in Eastern Ukraine her family had sent food. They, along with the food which would have saved lives, were turned away by the Soviet guards at the border. The guards lied and said that there was no famine.
I thanked Hanna for the interview and she invited me to celebrate the Holy Feast with her family. Like all good Ukrainian grandmothers, she then offered up food that she had spent all day preparing. She fed her grandson and me until we were full - and then insisted that we eat a little more. We chatted a bit in my broken Ukrainian, and she expressed real joy that I was at least trying to learn Ukrainian. She gave an interview of her own and asked me all about my family. Cultures and situations are always different, but people are always the same. I answered with the same beaming pride as I described my family.
I had read about the UPA and heard stories from my students about the difficulties their grandparents had suffered - but this was the first time that I had had the opportunity to sit down one on one with a survivor and hear a first person account of the persecution. I am thankful for the chance to learn more about this difficult time in the history of Ukraine.
[Special thanks to Grandma Hanna for graciously allowing me to interview her. Also, special thanks to my friend and teacher Nazar Yatsyshyn for arranging and interpreting the interview.]