Ukrainian-Canadian Research and Documentation Center
What impact did World War II events have on the life of the Ukrainian woman?
On the basis of oral testimonies—oral history
Until recent times the historiography of World War II and Ukraine was focused on political aspects: struggle for power, new states, new borders, and leading figures. Little attention has been paid to ordinary people. It should be noted that in the past years, when the study of the Holodomor began, the data bank of Ukraine’s history expanded to include interesting material collected from oral testimonies given by ordinary people. In order to put a human face on World War II events, the Ukrainian-Canadian Research and Documentation Center in Toronto (Canada) started recording interviews with eyewitnesses of World War II events back in 1984. In 1992, cooperation was established with the Institute for Historical Research at Ivan Franko Lviv University and the interviewing project spread to the territory of Ukraine1. In order to assess the achievements and attempt an analysis of the collected data, this article is divided into three parts: the first one describes the procedure of collecting oral testimonies at the Ukrainian-Canadian Research and Documentation Center (Toronto). The second part reviews the interviewing process, while the third one is an attempt to use women’s voices to illustrate the events or phenomena that were caused by the war or its consequences and immediately affected the lives of these women.
The recordings of oral testimonies are known in the English-speaking world as “oral history.” In Ukrainian we suggest using zhyva istoria (lit. living history) rather than usna istoria (lit. oral history).
ORAL HISTORY AT THE UKRAINIAN-CANADIAN
RESEARCH AND DOCUMENTATION CENTER
The Ukrainian-Canadian Research and Documentation Center (UCRDC) is an archival storage of oral history. At present over 1,000 hours of recordings of oral testimonies are kept here. Half of these are interviews with women, including over 200 hours with women who witnessed World War II events. Out of this collection 70 testimonies were selected for analysis. These testimonies are a result of two projects and stages of collecting data:
1) the UCRDC project and 2) the project of Ivan Franko Lviv National University’s Institute for Historical Research (IHR LNU). [The UCRDC project to collect oral testimonies is continuing.]
All the interviews mentioned above were taken between 1986 and 2008. At the time of interviewing the eyewitnesses were residents of Australia, Canada, Germany, Poland, the USA, and Ukraine. At the time of World War II they were aged 2 to 48, with the majority falling between 12 and 28. They lived in 16 oblasts of Ukraine (Volyn, Dnipropetrovsk, Donetsk, Zhytomyr, Transcarpatian, Zaporizhia, Ivano-Frankivsk, Kyiv, Lviv, Odesa, Poltava, Rivne, Ternopil, Kharkiv, Khmelnytsk, and Cherkasy oblasts), as well as in the Crimea and on the ethnic Ukrainian lands in the region along the Sian River. During or soon after the war these women were in such countries as Argentina, Canada, Germany, Austria, Poland, and Czechoslovakia, as well as in the GULAGs in the Siberia. They had different levels of education: 10 percent had higher education, 60 percent—secondary education or its equivalent, 26 finished elementary school, and 4 percent had no formal education at all. It should be noted that out of the 60 percent that had secondary education 20 percent had already enrolled in universities but were unable to continue and complete their studies due to circumstances caused by the war, such as arrest, imprisonment, deportation, exile to Siberia, and emigration.
A detailed interview questionnaire was worked out. Interviews lasted for one to three hours and were conducted in Ukrainian. First, personal data were obtained: full name, maiden name, date and place of birth, education, family, and family background. This was followed by data on living conditions before 1939, and the interviewees told how they remembered the beginning of World War II, the so-called first arrival of the Soviets in Western Ukraine, the arrival of German troops, the destruction of Jews, and whether they knew of any cases when Jews were saved. A lot of attention was given to a detailed description of events, establishing dates, names of localities, and names of specific individuals. Special attention was paid to personal emotional moments, such as family disasters caused by the warfare and anything the respondents wanted to share: birth of children, separation from family members, arrests, imprisonment, bombardments, violence, emigration, forced labor in Germany, as well as happy and joyful experiences.
Most respondents were interviewed at home on the hope that a familiar surrounding will reduce the trauma. Every interview brought forth deep emotions and often tears. All testimonies left both the respondents and the interviewees emotionally exhausted.
Unfortunately, we were unable to use some other approach than a random selection of eyewitnesses, and we are aware that this may be subject to criticism.
What do these oral testimonies contribute to the understanding of World War II events, and what impact did these events have on the life of the Ukrainian woman? Here we will consider three questions:
Mothers as war victims
Repressions against women for the political activities of their husbands
Women in the UPA’s underground struggle.
AN ATTEMPT TO USE WOMEN’S VOICES TO ILLUSTRATE EVENTS OR PHENOMENA THAT WERE CAUSED BY THE WAR OR ITS CONSEQUENCES AND AFFECTED WOMEN
Mothers as war victims
All respondents who are mothers spontaneously spoke about their motherhood and their children. Some memories were difficult and were accompanied by strong emotions or even bursts of tears. Let us quote from an interview with Sofia Stepaniuk (UCRDC-78v), who told, through tears, about how she was fleeing to the West over the Carpathians with her family and went into labor pains in the village of Teleshnytsi:
In Teleshnytsi I gave birth to Maria on a straw-covered floor in an empty school building where we stopped. The Bolshevik-German front was two kilometers away from the village. My husband rushed to the village, because I was unable to deliver and began to die. He locked Hania [their three-year-old daughter–I.W.] in a closet and ran. He returned with an old woman wearing a white apron. She produced a small bottle of alcohol from her pocket, washed her hands, and turned the baby so that I delivered it head first. She said she had delivered over 500 children in her life. She wore a white kerchief and was very clean. She saved me.
So after two days we had to flee farther to the west following the German troops. I walked after delivery—20 kilometers in two days. Maria and Hania were put on a cart, while I had to walk…
At the time of Word War II, 22 out of 70 respondents in our sample were aged between 18 and 35 and were married; 72 percent of them had children during the war. This indicates that regardless of the wartime hardships women fulfilled their natural duty and gave birth to children. In their interviews they tell how they had to deliver in difficult conditions: in bombardments, near the frontline, without medical care, and in unsanitary conditions.2
Anelia Varvaruk (UCRDC–365a) testified about the inhumanly cruel treatment of a pregnant woman in Neumarkoberfeis, a German concentration camp in Bavaria:
We had this thing happen: a mother who was in labor and her three little children were captured somewhere and moved from their home in Volyn. As she was about to die, she told her children to be quiet and blessed them. O Lord, I am thinking about this now and it rends my heart. When she died, she was in the seventh month of pregnancy and died. The Germans had beaten her badly, because they said she had allowed partisans to use her home as a hiding place…
And she died in the camp, in that hospital, perhaps she died because of the baby. Or perhaps the baby had already been dead when she arrived? They had beaten her somewhere, so you couldn’t tell. After about a week [in the camp] she died. And so she blessed those children and told the oldest one to respect the family and take care of the two younger ones. And I say, O Lord, and we all wept bitterly.
A series of tragic events that can be put under the heading “Mother and child” were also recorded after the war as one of its consequences. In particular, events on the territory of Western Ukraine, where the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) continued to operate, were recorded. The new—Soviet—authorities engaged in a fierce struggle against all UPA activities and arrested individuals for any cooperation with the UPA. Among the arrested were also innocent people. At the same time, the Soviets fought against “bourgeois nationalism.” Young Ukrainians who were true to the national idea were imprisoned and sent to concentration camps without trial. One of such victims was Oleksandra Blavatska (UCRDC–400a), who was arrested and spent 10 years in exile for carrying a wreath at the funeral of Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky. In GULAG she gave birth to her daughter, who after 1.5 years was taken away from her to be raised in an orphanage in Otradna. Hanna Svyrydova (IHR LNU–392) was convicted of cooperation with the UPA and gave birth to her son in exile. In a similar fashion, the child was taken away from her and placed in an orphanage. His mother was allowed to see him twice a month in the presence of a warden. Halyna Skaskiv3 was charged with having connections with the Banderites. In the Lviv prison she gave birth to her daughter, who died in a Kyiv prison a year later.
In her monumental work GULAG Anna Applebaum included a chapter on the issue of mothers and their children in the system of Soviet penal labor camps.4 The author writes that, in contradiction to the formal ban on arresting pregnant and nursing women, in practice both were arrested all the time. She cites the example of Natalia Zaporozhets, who was arrested when she was in the eighth month of pregnancy. During the difficult trip by truck and by freight train to the place of exile she delivered a dead baby.5
The time mothers spent with their newborn children was limited. Marta Chyz writes in her work6 that, according to the law, a woman arrested in the USSR had the right to have her child with her until the child was four years old.7 At the same time, the author states that the Soviet penal system did not follow this law to the disadvantage of the victims. This is confirmed by the abovementioned testimonies of Blavatska, Svyrydova, and others.
Regardless of how long mothers were allowed to keep their newborn children with them, the time of separation would come when the authorities would take the child to be raised in an orphanage. This moment of separation is described in the testimony of Vaselyna Salamon (UCRDC–51a), who was imprisoned in a camp located in Inta:
I saw a scene that I will remember all my life. A child would turn three and would be immediately taken away… What did it look like? At that time we were all there, in the prison; perhaps it was Sunday… We went to see how those children would be taken away. Every mother had the right to take her child from the barracks to the guard post, and every mother tried to give her child some kind of a hat or a sweater. And she carried that child—possibly for the last time. And they brought the children to the guard post. At the post every child was taken over by a free (not convicted–I.W.) nurse with a convoy. There was a convoy and a nurse for every child. They read out: such and such child, born on a such and such date, the child’s name, and the mother’s name. And the mothers … some would not give their children, and then these were forcibly taken from them. Here or there a child would cry or a mother would throw herself to the ground, kick with her legs, and flail her arms. She… Horrible. I saw this. Several children, not many of them, they were taken away, about five children. And it often happened that mothers never found those children.
We noted an interesting episode in an interview with Anna Marteniuk (UCRDC–357a) that reflects the moral humiliation that mothers suffered in prison. After the end of the war Anna and her husband were arrested by the Soviet KGB in Warsaw. Both were charged with participation in the UPA activities during the war. In prison Anna gave birth to her son. Anna describes how her child got sick and how it led to an incident in a prison located in the Urals:
I remember that it once happened like this: the door opened and the woman on duty started saying something. I did not yet know Russian well at the time. I only understood “let that Bandera’s offspring die.” As I heard this, you know, I put down Oles’ and jumped at her; I don’t know how my hands found a way to her hair. I remember that I was pulling her here and there and she was screaming. Other women on duty came running and pulled her away from me, but see, I never saw her again.
It should be noted that when a minor was left unattended after the mother’s arrest, further relatives or even unrelated people took care of him/her. After being released from prison or exile, the mother would start searching for the child, and these searches yielded different results. Vasylyna Salamon (UCRDC–51a) spent six years in prison, returned, and began searching for her sons, who were taken care of by relatives after she was imprisoned:
But the first thing, where did I go? I went to search for my children. This was the first thing.
I came to Zbarazh, where my aunt lived. I entered. My son had changed so much. “I did not recognize you.” I said, “Zenusiu!” He reddened in the face and did not move. Well, then he promptly ran to a neighbor to brag that his mother had returned.
Then I went in search of the other son, in Petryky near Ternopil. I was walking, walking up the hill, and then saw a boy picking cherries from a large cherry tree. I said: “Listen, boy, where do the Shumskis live here?” “Over there, the second house.” I went there, to the place where my son was. They dashed here and there: “Where is Ihorchyk? Where is he?” And there came the boy I had seen perched on the cherry tree.
Not everyone was as fortunate as Vasylyna was. Yevhenia Tselinska (IHR LNU–246) completed her 10-year sentence in prison and exile and, after she was released, learned that her son, who had been taken away from her as a newborn, was adopted and lived in Yelna, Smolensk oblast. She went to court and succeeded in getting her son back, but he refused to go with his mother as long as his “grandma” lived. After the woman’s death Yevhenia and her son moved to Kostopil. She tells about their conflict over the language and how she patiently taught him to accept all things Ukrainian.
Life has treated Evdokia Fihur in arguably the cruelest fashion. Her daughter, Anelia Varvaruk, testified about her. In 1946, her mother was deported to Siberia together with her brothers, aged 9 and 15. On the way there she was separated from her mother and it is not known what happened to her brothers. She failed to find them, even through the Canadian Red Cross Society.
Repression against women for the political activities of their husbands
Both Germans and Bolsheviks used principles of collective responsibility. This approach victimized women, in particular wives.
Sofia Stepaniuk (UCRDC–78v) served a sentence in Nazi prisons in Kremianets and Rivne for the political activities of her husband. She said in her interview:
Then, back in 1943, arrests were made in Volyn and Kremianets, starting on July 168…Two armed men and another one shoved me into a car and slammed the door behind me. I was thinking: “Where are they taking me?” They were taking me to prison. I had already grasped that those were their arrests and that I was as good as gone.
I was asked: “Why you? Why were you arrested?” I said: “I don’t know.” “Where is your husband?” I said: ”He went to work.” “Where is he now? Did he join the bandits?” And I said: “No, my husband went to work. I hasn’t seen him after he left.” … Then the first man said to me: “When your husband comes, we will let you go” … I didn’t know anything. I spoke sincerely because I didn’t know anything. I did not understand what they were doing with me…
Natalia Bashuk (UCRDC–91a) was born in Lviv oblast. She was a law student and was also arrested for her husband’s political activities. She came to her sister, who lived in Mokrotyn, with her little child, and there the German police arrested her. This is how she remembers the arrest:
“Where is you husband?” I said: “I don’t know… I came to my sister and I don’t know where my husband has gone to.” … “Then we will indeed arrest you.” I said: “You can’t arrest me because I have a child. Otherwise I will go to prison with my child.” He produced a revolver, put it against my child’s temple, and said: “I will shoot her. You will not go to prison with a child.” I became numb, then said good-bye to her, and told her: “Remember who your father and mother are…” I left her with my sister.
Raisa Symchych (IHR LNU #397) was born in Zaporizhia oblast. In 1963, UPA Captain Myroslav came to Zaporizhia and married her. In 1968, Myroslav was arrested by the KGB and sentenced to 25 years in prison. The respondent says that this was when constant persecution, searches, wiretapping, intimidation of her began—all because of her husband’s imprisonment.
Women in the UPA’s underground struggle
A statement made by Jeffrey Burns, stunning in its truthfulness, is in place:
“One of the most notable features of the history of gender in the Ukrainian underground of the 1940s is the relative silence about women’s contributions. Soviet operations files reveal a regular presence, even majority, of women in Ukrainian rebel operations. In contrast, Ukrainian nationalist and diaspora publications contain comparatively little concrete information regarding women’s roles in the underground. It is remarkable that in a literature that has produced such a rich and voluminous hagiography of Ukrainian male heroes, there are so very few accounts of women warriors”9.
Forty-six out of 70 interviewees we have selected were on the territory where the UPA was active. It should be emphasized that 68 percent testify that they cooperated with the UPA in various ways and were persecuted by both the German and Soviet occupational regimes for their activities.
Reviewing the literature on the UPA, it can be said that the most exhaustive women’s memoirs come from Maria Savchyn10 and Halyna Kokhanska11—participants in the underground liberation struggle during and after World War II. In other materials, if there are mentions of women in the UPA, they mostly refer to their contribution to the Underground Ukrainian Red Cross.12 In the Chronicle of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army,13 in particular in volume 23, which is devoted to medical care in the UPA, we come across some data on the Ukrainian Red Cross, bibliographical data on Katrusia Zarytska and Halyna Didyk, as well as several photos and seven testimonies of different length about women’s participation in the URC. Using our recorded interviews, we can supplement this material on women’s contribution with certain valuable parts of the testimonies given by Yulia Hanushchak (IHR LNU 339), Iryna Kaminska (UCRDC–136a), Iryna Kozak (UCRDC–18v), and Anna Marteniuk (UCRDC–357a).
As our interviewees say, women’s participation in the underground was not limited to the URC. The work in the URC was often combined with other duties. A good example of this is Iryna Kozak (UCRDC–18v), who was the organizational officer in the URC and at the same time Roman Shukhevych’s liaison officer; on his orders she established contacts with the OUN’s foreign units.
Let us take a look at the various roles that interviewed women played in the UPA. Our respondents say that the majority of UPA liaison officers were women. Olha Eliiashevska (UCRDC–5a) was a liaison officer among Vienna, Lviv, and Berlin. Olena Klymyshyn (UCRDC–12v) and Iryna Rusnak (UCRDC–413a) were liaison officers in the Lemko region, and Liuba Los (IHR LNU–329)—in villages of Ternopil oblast. Natalia Bashuk (UCRDC–91a) performed these functions for the Krai Command in Zakerzonnia and described this period in the book Na mezhovii zemli14.
The duties of a liaison officer were combined with other duties, as we learn from the testimony of Stefania Hurko (UCRDC–154a). During the war she was active in the underground—as a liaison officer and a cultural-educational officer for the Yevhen Konovalets OUN Youth Training Camp in Yamnytsia in August 1941. As a member of mobile groups, she carried out agitation work among the peasants of the Kamianets-Podilsky district, while she taught and studied in a gymnasium to legalize her presence. Likewise, her friend Klavdia-Marta Basarab (IHR LNU–8) was a liaison officer and member of the same mobile groups. However, their further lives went different ways. Stefania found herself in emigration in Canada, where she developed her talent of a writer, while Klavdia was handed a 10-year sentence, deported to the Komi Republic and then to Vorkuta. She returned to Ukraine only in 1964.
From the testimony of Sofia Stepaniuk (UCRDC–78v) we learn that women, rather than men, were chosen as messengers in various dangerous missions:
I received an order from Antonivtsi to take [something] to Rivne. (This was a connection to Rivne and I had it.) So I was told: “You will take that briefcase”—it was so discreet that I didn’t even know what was in it. “You will take the briefcase, and such and such young man will approach you there [in Rivne]. You will hold a twig with lilac flowers in your hands; he will come close to you and will tell you the password; you will reply and will give him the briefcase.” I later learned that it contained four revolvers, and the only possible way to transport these was by bus. Our men in Rivne oblast needed these guns.
Apart from military training, the Ukrainian masses needed adequate political-psychological training to resist the German authorities.
This is what Petro Mirchuk15 states. Earlier training was given to propagandists. Nadia Oliinyk (UCRDC–408) received ideological training at the age of 17 and said in her testimony:
I already received the position of a propagandist. This is what it was about: on a designated day, typically on a Saturday afternoon, a cart would come to the appointed place. The carter and I had to exchange the [two-part] password. Then he took me to the chosen village. In the evening girls would gather there, and I had to speak to them. Today I can’t imagine how, at such a young age, I was able to tell older girls something, but at the time, you know, being young, I felt I was equal to anything. I told them about everything according to instructions: the international situation, possible war, need for armed struggle that would soon begin, being ready, things that had to be prepared, and, above all, being true to the idea and having no regrets even if you have to sacrifice your life. And so it happened that many of them died, while I, unfortunately, found myself in emigration and have been lounging around here instead of living in Ukraine. But that’s the path my life has taken.
The dramatic testimony of Iryna Kaminska lifted the veil over another area in which women were active and which is always associated with men in the UPA. She told about her participation in clashes with the Poles. She was in Brodych’s company near Krynytsia. She and two riflemen, Orlyk and Zalizo, ran into a Polish military detachment in the forest. Orlyk was killed and Zalizo wounded. Kaminska said:
And then I hear the bullets whistling by, and I have that PPSh [Shpagin Machine Pistol] with the jammed drum that would not fire. So I fell on the ground and I made this kind of motion with that useless PPSh, I made this kind of turn, and all of them fell before my very eyes. … This meant that there were shooters somewhere there, far away. I sprang to my feet and started running. As I was running, I repeated the same maneuver… Try to imagine this: we reached the forest and were not caught by them. This was the longest day in my life, because I was left alone with a wounded rifleman. … And, you know, for the first time in my life I had these thoughts: “How close am I to death? What is my life worth? I don’t even know the taste of love; I know nothing. I am from the forest. There are so many man in the company, but I … I was only for the service…
Most our interviewees remember collecting foodstuffs, clothes, and medications for UPA men, as well as carrying instructions, doing reconnaissance, and fulfilling certain tasks.16 In order to answer the question why women were part of the UPA, let us look at the testimony of Anna Martyniuk (UCRDC–357a), a UPA liaison officer and a nurse with the URC:
I was not a member of the OUN; I was only in the UPA… We had an organized network of women to supply medications and establish connections… I wanted to help and so joined the organization. At the time they accepted everyone who was needed. And you know, somehow I couldn’t just sit at home and watch the dire situation around. Most young people got involved.
Numerous interviews show that this movement against the invaders involved large masses of the population. The fact that the UPA was a people’s army and that the people supported and cooperated with it is illustrated by the testimony given by Hanna Svyrydova (IHR LNU–392). She told how she moved from village to village with the Germans as their interpreter at the time when they confiscated cattle from peasants. She warned the UPA about their routes, so that the insurgents could take away the cattle from the Germans.
As was already mentioned, the number of women in the UPA was high. A question arises: Why was so little attention paid to this topic by researchers? In Petro Mirchuk’s work17 we come across a brief mention of the URC and a photo of unidentified gun-wielding women with the caption “Face as pretty as a poppy flower” … In his handbook by Petro Sodolia18 included as few as 17 women’s names among 338 men’s names. Why?
In conclusion, we may ask: Why is this kind of research needed? Above all, it is a change in the approach to historical events. This approach makes it possible to hear individual voices—in our case, women. Their personal experiences lend a human dimension to history and can have an impact on the generally accepted notions about certain events and the associated stereotypes. The material we have collected enables us to say that, because the ethnic Ukrainian lands were the battlefield of the eastern front in the World War II, the Ukrainian woman was a victim of both the Nazi and Soviet occupational regimes. The Ukrainian woman, who manifested her original Ukrainian character, often fell victim to ethnic conflicts that erupted over redrawing state borders. On the basis of our interviews we can say that historical memory has preserved information about significant events in the lives of women who experiences the atrocities of World War II. Our respondents confirm the thesis put forward by Martha Bohachesky-Chomiak19: the Ukrainian woman was interested not in theoretical feminism but in its pragmatic realization. She viewed motherhood, care for the family, and service to “Mother Ukraine” as her equally important duties. In many cases civic duties and struggle against national oppression took prevailed.
To our knowledge, in the past 10 years two projects to record oral testimonies of women were carried out in Ukraine. Certain publications20 appeared in print as a result of these projects. At the same time, there were publications based on interviews with so-called Ostarbeiter workers.21 However, few of them touch upon the topics discussed here.
The proposed material casts light only on a part of the issue of women in World War II. The archives of the UCRDC and IHR LNU contain numerous recordings of oral testimonies about the plight of women taken to Germany to do forced labor, exiled to GULAGs, or put in Polish, Soviet, and German prisons, as well as about repatriation, Operation Vistula, and everyday family life with all its bright and dark pages. Our archive is a depository that will enable further research, which we must and desire to continue.