For Father's Day: recollections of Tato
My father, Vasyl, died almost nine years ago. The day after my sister's wedding, he suffered a massive heart attack, spent two months in a coma, and died without regaining consciousness on November 1, I978. For some reason, Father's Day is the hardest day in the year for me, more painful than the day of his death, or his birthday. Tato lived a life similar to that of thousands of Ukrainian men of his generation (born right before and during the First World War). He was born and grew up in the Boyko region. His mother died when he was very young, and the stereotypical evil stepmother came into his life. He finished the schooling available under Polish rule to the children of the village (selo). The family was strongly aware of its national and cultural ideals, and participated in the organized life of the selo.
During World War II, my father was one of the 2.5 million young Ukrainians taken as forced laborers to Germany. He was lucky. instead of a munitions factory or a mine, which were prime targets for Allied bombs, my father wound up in a dairy. There he met my mother, who was a forced laborer on a nearby farm. I was told that there were even those who volunteered for work in Germany because ''Hitler promised us a free Ukraine...'' From what I remember of my parents' reminiscences, in the human turmoil during the middle and end of the war in Germany, the Ukrainian slave laborers did not just do their forced jobs for the Reich. A Ukrainian anti-Nazi underground was very active. The one incident I do remember my parents retelling, was when my mother stole (yes, stole) her brother and other Ukrainian political prisoners out of a jail carved into the rock of the Alps (that's another story). Without everyday clothes, identity papers, and a knowledge of the German language, they were as good as dead. The people in my father's underground group forged identification documents for the escapers, who could then move about the country, even go back home. I remember being told by Mama long ago, "If I had stopped to think what I was doing — and the danger involved - never would I have survived. " For most transgressions, it was execution on the spot, or the lager (concentration camp). I suppose in today's anti-Ukrainian climate the Ukrainian slave laborers in Germany are next on the list of our diligent Nazi hunters. After all, they did work for the Reich (what difference does it make whether it was voluntary or not?), then they even forged documents, stole and spied (what difference does it make if it was against the Nazis, a crime is a crime - even during war -- no?).
During that war, my parents suffered through the death of their first-born. Lesia, the older sister I never knew, died of pneumonia at 14 months. There was no medical care for the Untermenschen (subhumans, i.e., the Slavs). My mother was convinced it was the travel on cold military trains, their windows shattered, and her “cold” breast milk which contributed to the baby's death. Now, I'm afraid to ask for more details, because those memories may devastate an already fragile parent. After the war there was no going home. It's hard to imagine the inner turmoil of these idealistic young adults, torn between family and home, and the reality of the foreign political system now ruling that home. For the members of the nationalist underground, going home meant Siberia or immediate death. After what they saw of the forced repatriation in the DP camps, their choice was made for them. Those from western Ukraine could prove they were Polish citizens. The others, from eastern Ukraine (under Russian rule) lied. What irony - desperate people felt grateful for having been under the heel of one cruel foreigner instead of another! Once in the United States, my father worked. Hard. Not knowing the language, he had little choice of jobs. His first, in a mattress factory, left his hands cut and bleeding. Then, there was the truck manufacturing company, and the factory where they made the brass horses with clocks mounted into their stomachs. Along with his day job, and my mother's night job cleaning offices in Lower Manhattan, my parents were janitors of their building in Jersey City. Is there any DP family whose parents were not janitors of an apartment building in 1948 - 1949-1950?
Despite of the drudgery and exhaustion of work, Ukrainian life was not forgotten, with the family participating in church and organizations. Soon I was receiving my own "Miy Pryiatel" (My Friend), a children's magazine published in Winnipeg and edited by Father Semen Izyk, a survivor of the death camps. After all these years, a scene from my childhood stands out. In our apartment on Grand Street, in Jersey City, my father is lying on the couch, quietly weeping, in his hands a letter written in purple ink on graph paper. Mama is pacing the rooms, also crying. The letter was from home. After Stalin's death in 1953, separated families could write to each other again. Only now did my parents learn of the deaths in their families right after the war — my father's father, and my mother's mother and brother.
Tato was a quiet man. He didn't express it to us much, be we knew he loved us and was devoted to his family. But I knew that above family, above everything, his whole being was devoted to his Ukraina. He longed for home, he prayed for Ukraine's freedom, he lived for his homeland. The only way he could practically express his devotion was to belong to the Organization for the Defense of Four Freedoms for Ukraine. Tato always attended meetings, served on the executive, went carolling to raise funds. I wonder if the top brass fully appreciated what the rank and file did. He was one of the foot soldiers, who worked because he believed in The Cause. A long time ago he had pledged himself to Ukraine, and had sworn to obey the organization. He believed, and obeyed. I hurt him deeply once when, during a discussion, I reminded him that during the war Ukrainians fought amongst themselves and, maybe, for the greater good, they shouldn't have. To him, his cause was right. It was for the good of the nation. No discussion. Ukraina and his family there were always in his thoughts. When the parish in Newark voted to change the calendar, and celebrate Christmas on December 25, Tato went along unwillingly. And on January 7 he quietly went to church again, because then he would be celebrating with everyone back home. The understanding pastor held services for the fiercely stubborn people like my father.
Tato was so anti-Communist that he even objected to the red color of my coat. When we talk about the immigrants after World WarII who still kept their emotional suitcases ready, my father was one of them. Rationally, he knew there wouldn't be a change soon in the Soviet political situation. But deep in his heart, he hoped against hope. He wanted so much to believe that one day he would go home. When Mama traveled back in the early 1970s to see her family after 30-some years, Tato would not go along. There was no way he was going to give 'them" (i.e., the Russians) any of his money. And yet I know how he longed to touch his Ukrainian soil. Tato was very proud of my defense of Ukraine in my writing. I didn't know this until after his death, when a friend of his told me how he always bragged about my latest letter to the editor. I knew then, that in spite of all my normal childish and teenage transgressions, I did OK in my father's eyes.
About those eyes. Tato was a handsome man with black bushy eyebrows over very large, very blue eyes. My sister and I inherited his big eyes, as did all our children. You can tell those Paszczak eyes a mile away. As most immigrants, Tato was a devoted American citizen. He always voted — Republican, of course - because they were anti-Communists. In a sad way, I'm relieved that he's not here today to endure what his friends and compatriots are going through. He would have felt betrayed, totally devastated by Ronald Reagan, the Republicans, and the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations (OSI). Tato knew what he worked for and against during the war. And now the country that welcomed him is betraying all Ukrainians because of a lie. His heart and soul could not have taken it. Maybe Tato died from happiness. At the wedding reception he told a friend that this was the happiest day of his life, because now both his daughters wеге married to good Ukrainians. To him that meant everything. He was surrounded by friends, including a wartime and DP camp buddy whom he hadn't seen in decades, who had come all the way from California.
After his collapse, there was hope at first that he would come out of the coma. Then slowly the realization sank in that he would not. We had the time to accept this. At least he was not in pain. To me, Tato's funeral was something I floated through. We were in a daze. I remember the funeral director asking if we wanted flowers from the family. Thinking that he meant another wreath, we decided instead to donate the money to the UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army) veterans. And so, through a misunderstanding, there were no flowers on his coffin, і still regret that. But Tato would have understood. I'm glad he's resting at St. Andrew's Ukrainian Orthodox Cemetery in South Bound Brook. At least there all our people are united, no matter what political stripe or religion. In our post-funeral thank-you announcement I wrote: ''Sleep peacefully, Tatu. May the hospitable American soil take the place of that Ukrainian earth, which you loved above all.''
THE UKRAINIAN WEEKLY SUNDAY, JUNE 21, 1987