I have long been interested in genealogy and my personal family history, but must admit that it was not always so. Regrettably most of it only came after both my parents were no longer around to help me decipher and appreciate the richness of my ancestral legacy. Sad to say, I only started to think about it seriously shortly after my parents passed away a little more than two decades ago, and I was hit with the rueful realization that I really knew very little about their early biographies or the family lineages they came from.
Of course, I was familiar with the basics of how and when they got to Canada, and the fact that they came from typically large families back in Ukraine, but beyond that, I frankly did not have much curiosity about those dour, serious looking and poorly dressed peasants that I saw in the occasional pictures that we would receive from Ukraine. The world back then was sharply divided by the Cold War, and I took it for granted that it was highly unlikely that I would ever get to meet them in person, or that any of them would ever be granted permission to leave the Communist “paradise” to travel to the decadent west.
I would sometimes listen to my father read the letters he received from “back home”, and though I understood Ukrainian, the vocabulary, style and stilted formalism found little resonance in my mind, indoctrinated as it was with Canadian values, jargon and culture. They may have been family, but at that age, with my lack of maturity and understanding, I could find little common ground or empathy to make any kind of connection.
It was not until 1990, when I finally first visited Ukraine in the last days of Perestroika and Glasnost, and just before the Soviet Union broke up, that I started to appreciate the extent and significance of my Ukrainian family. I went with my mother who was then unfortunately already in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, and I wanted to give her a last opportunity to see the land she had left as a teenager when she was taken into forced labour to Germany during the war. It was a poignant return to sisters and cousins she hadn’t seen in forty five years. It was also my first opportunity to meet a surprisingly large family that I never really knew existed. In the space of only two weeks I met a confusingly large number of aunts, uncles and cousins, most of whom I befriended and fell in love with in a whirlwind emotional experience unlike anything I had ever lived through before.
Upon my return, being the pragmatic mathematician, I began a systematic analysis of my family tree and ancestral history. I was hampered by the fact that both my parents passed away shortly thereafter before I was able to tap into their vast personal recollections and memories. Nonetheless, I dug into their treasure trove of over fifty years of letters and photographs from Ukraine, as well as beginning a fruitful exchange of letters with my newly found family in Ukraine.
I was lucky that despite the destruction and ravages of war and a hostile Communist government, most of the church records for western Ukraine which recorded births, deaths, marriages and christenings had been preserved and were now open to research. Further, there was a vast trove of bureaucratic records from the Austro-Hungarian Empire that had held sway for many centuries over the lands where my parents came from that was also now available for the serious amateur genealogist that I had become.
Over the past several decades I have been able to compile the family tree on both my mother and father’s side going back some 250 years. The tree contains close to six hundred names with much supporting detail. I have been able to find detailed maps of what their villages looked like back then, and the plots of land that they owned. I know how many pigs, cows and chickens they had and how much wheat, flax and sugar beets they harvested. Now that I am retired and have a little more time, I hope to extend this ancestral data base as much as time, finances and strength allow me.
Very recently, one more interesting dimension has been added to the mix. This past Christmas, my family bought me a truly remarkable and inspired gift, a DNA testing kit. Over the holidays, I took several cheek swabs and sent them off to the laboratories of the National Geographic Society. I will shortly be receiving the results of their analysis of my DNA which will tell me the details of my ethnic heritage – how much of my genetic make-up is Slavic, how much Asian, Turk, Scandinavian, Germanic, Jewish, etc. This will shed light on my ancestry going back into the distant past, and literally into prehistoric times. I can hardly wait. As I am increasingly finding out, my history is far richer and more interesting than I ever thought.