Friday, September 13, 2013

Mother Russia, and The Sky Unwashed by Irene Zabytko

My genealogy research has revealed many surprising things, but nothing has been as surprising as finding out that I married a man whose grandfather lived a short distance from  my grandmother  in what is now the Ukraine.

My great-grandfather John Bacher, or Becker as he was christened at Ellis Island, was an ethnic German living in Tortschine, Volynia, Russia during a time of anti-German sentiment. The Germans had been allowed to live as a separate nation within Russia for centuries, but anti-German sentiment withdrew privileges until finally they were no longer able to sell land and were required to serve in the Czar's army. Service was for 15 years, six active and nine as reserves. John was a saddle maker. He was one of hundreds of German 'draft dodgers' who flew Russia. He arrived in America in 1910 and sent money for his family to join him.

My grandmother Emma Becker Gochenour left Russia as a small child. Her mother Martha Kiln Becker and five siblings traveled by night, and in secret, sleeping in barns during the day. Once they reached the German border, they made their way to Bremen and sailed to America. The Beckers settled in Tonawanda, NY which had been settled by Mohawk Valley Germans a century before.

August Kiln
August Kiln, my great-great grandfather.

My husband's grandfather Gustave August Bekofske was born in Roschischtsch, Vohlynia, Russia. He was baptized in Klementuka, Lutsk. His father Christophe Pekovsky endeavored to immigrate in 1908, but his youngest had Trachoma and was unable to enter the country. They returned to Germany, except for a daughter who was married to a man who was already in Wisconsin. In 1911 Gust immigrated and settled in Port Huron, Michigan where he worked for the railroad.  Later his brother Herman arrived, and Ellis Island in all its wisdom named him Pekosky. Herman settled in Wisconsin. 

When I saw the Kindle book "The Sky Unwashed" by Irene Zabytko was inspired by a true story of Ukrainian villagers during the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident I wanted to read it, partly because Chernobyl is about five hours east of where our ancestors came from. I wanted to know more about the people of the area and what their lives are like.

The book tells of the villagers lives before, during, and after the nuclear melt down. I was shocked by the primitive state they lived in, a style of life hardly changed in a century. The author interviewed survivors of the nuclear accident and their stories obviously informed this moving story.

Funeral of August Kiln
Kiln family funeral a hundred years ago

The main character Marusia lives with her son and his family in a small cottage in Starylis. She lives in a two room cottage with her son, his wife, and their boy. Nearly everyone in town works at the nuclear plant, including the state assigned village priest. One day the villagers notice a metallic taste in their mouths, and irritated eyes afflict them all. The women worry when their men do not return home from work for several days. When Marusia's son does come home, he is already fatally ill from radiation. The villagers are boarded on buses 'for a few days' and taken to Kiev. They are not told the truth of the Chernobyl accident.

The refugees are relegated to hospital hallways without proper sanitation, clean water, or medical treatment. Marusia's daughter-in-law uses bribery to get her husband into care. She escapes the hospital one day and discovers the Kiev women are sending their children away because the radiation has reached Kiev as well. She returns for her son and they leave Marusia behind to care for the dying son.

Eighteen months pass and Marusia has lost her son and she has never heard from her daughter-in-law. Marusia just returns to her home in the banned Starylis. Several more elderly women return over time, and they endeavor to survive alone in the abandoned village. 

Life under the Soviet rule is portrayed very elegantly through the character's voices an through the plot action.

Had our ancestors not left Russia, our fates would have been quite different. By 1915 ethnic Germans were transported to Siberia. In 1940 Volhnian families were warehoused in Berlin detention camps. Many villages were razed and no longer exist. Gust Bekofske never learned what happened to his family after WWII. Gust's sisters Alvine, Wanda and Amalia were last living in East Germany, and never heard from again. Thank God for our immigrant ancestors.

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