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The earliest recollection I have of hearing the ethnic appellation Ukrainian applied to our family name Babij was in the Fall Quarter of my first year of college during the Kennedy Era when I received a telephone call from a woman (whose name unfortunately I do not recall) inviting me to a gathering of Ukrainian-descendant students to be held at an apartment in the campus married housing complex. The woman went on to describe what typically went on during such occasions: an exchange of tales relating to family lineage and history; performances of traditional folk songs and dance; picnics where participants cooked and ate traditional food like beet soup, pedaheh (varenyky) dumplings and stuffed cabbage called holubtsi or “pigs in a blanket”, similar to those I’d tasted before that had been made by Grandma Anna; and Sunday excursions to the local Orthodox church for Mass.
I recall asking the caller if she was sure that my surname was in fact Ukrainian. “Oh yes”, she replied. “Babij is definitely a Ukrainian name”. I was so taken aback by that revelation that I declined her offer to attend the gathering (a decision to this day I regret), partly because at the time I hadn’t the slightest idea that our patronymic was of Ukrainian origin. The subject just had never come up — and had never been mentioned by our parents. And even afterwards when I had asked my father about it and whether he ever wanted to visit “the old country”, his reply was: “What for?” We were “American” and assimilated.
And yet, upon reflection there had been another more subtle reason why I demurred: it was the term “Orthodox”. I had just matriculated after three years of liturgical indoctrination from a Roman Catholic all-white, male-only high school run by the Soldiers of Christ, better known to the world as the Society of Jesus or Jesuits (one of whom is currently The Pope). As a consequence, the term orthodox in my mind translated to a form of “apostasy” or heretical behavior that at that particular time in my young Life was not a part of my Jesuit indoctrination, although later in Life “orthodox” would prove to be an integral part of our familial cultural heritage the extent of which we will soon explore.
Even in grade school we had been programmed by the penguin-habited sisters of the Dominican Order to embrace the jingoistic practices of cultural assimilation into the one true faith plus the economic dominance and exceptionalism of American Capitalism. I recall during one class, the “penguin” lectured us on the correct way to write a dollar sign: an “S” not with one but two vertical bars drawn through it because the result depicted a “U” superimposed over an “S” or “US”. A single bar by inference was unpatriotic — akin to a Communist plot. No shit.
Then there was outright fear-mongering: the infamous “duck and cover” alerts during which at the sound of a series of warning bells, we were compelled to crawl under our flip-top wooden desks and cover our heads with our hands (after first cleaning the floor beneath them with a whisk broom, because “cleanliness is next to godliness”) — as if this act alone would protect us from a thermonuclear blast from the Soviet heathen targeted at Detroit — then called by some pundits as “the Arsenal of Democracy”; or the pamphlets that were passed out after Sunday mass by fund-raising McCarthyites extolling the virtues of a strong military with catchy titles exhorting readers to “Kill A Commie For Christ”. Again – no shit.
Of course we were never told that the actual people who lived behind the “Iron Curtain” of Soviet oppression were also by and large Christians of the Byzantine or Roman Rite; mostly Greek or Russian or Armenian Orthodoxy whom had to practice their faith clandestinely because the official “religion” was Communism; and truth be told, by then the Polish Roman Catholics and the Jews had been either forcibly expelled or exterminated, victims of Fascist/Soviet ethnic cleansing programs that have continued well into the present era. This is a dark facet of the Ukrainian story, one that we will visit in more detail in a later post.
Finally let’s talk about the “social engineering program” of coaxing a captive audience of parochial school children into participating in the repatriation (read: indoctrination) of so-called “pagan babies” [not those of the Elmore Leonard crime novel of the same name]. Here’s how it worked. Children had to “populate” (a tech bro “big data” term) or fill-in a blank folio with stamp-sized icons — usually portraits of Saints or Popes or the “Virgin” Mary or the baby Jesus — each stamp representing a donation ostensibly dedicated to help feed and clothe a so-called “pagan baby”; an un-identified, un-white, unfortunate who was located in some faraway place enduring the depravations of idolatry, devil worship or possibly even [Grid Forbid] socialism, and who urgently needed saving through conversion to the one true faith. Each of these stamps cost 25 cents, which meant of course part of my weekly allowance of one dollar had to go to the Pagan Babies so I could complete my folio of blessed icons before any of my classmates did. Sadly, most of the girls in the class were much better at this (among other things) than I so my efforts wound up amounting to a selfless act of “charity”, because that same quarter dollar could’ve gotten me a cream-puff hot fudge sundae at the local Sanders Confectionary and provided me with a taste of heaven that neither the Pagan Babies, nor the Penguins, nor the Pope could ever conjure up.
I had of course previously heard of Ukraine — back in the day often referred to in the West as “The Ukraine” — an appellation that made the locale seem even more foreign and detached perhaps than its name actually denotes — that of a “frontier” place or “borderland” located somewhere on the edge of civilization. And this concept of a space detached from civilized society might help explain the desperation and determination of the people who populate this hinterland — generations of Ruthenians – the Hutsul, the Boyko, the Lemko – Ukrainians — who struggle, fight, and die for their own autonomous identity as a nation. Our family had watched episodes of the 1950’s era documentary series “Victory At Sea” that aired most Sundays (after church) on our ten-inch black and white “boob tube”, which depicted the U.S. Navy as a major vehicle for winning World War II. But none of those propaganda films had documented or even mentioned the horrendous loss of life associated with those six years of mass genocide — upwards of 85 million dead; 20 millions alone in Ukraine – a country plagued by so much death, destruction and suffering, yet still pregnant with hope for a future of self-determination with a vision of blue skies and amber waves of grain stretching as far as the eye can see [and you still CAN see].
At that time I had no idea, no inkling of the history of the land that was home to our paternal grandparents nor the events that had compelled them and other millions to abandon their families and flee from the political and economic upheavals of the early 20th Century there and become a part of the Eastern European diaspora that bore so many to the (then) inviting shores of the West. I was just a cultural neophyte; a wet-behind-the-ears innocent having been fortunate enough to have been born in Paradise; the richest, most powerful, and the self-proclaimed most exceptional nation in the World. But what did I know — what did we as a family know — about our forebears? Next to nothing. Who were we? That question had nagged me for decades.
We did have a family tree for our mother’s side of the family…the Blashills, Blys, Cranstons, and Udells; compiled in part by our mother Elsie, thanks to a shirt-tail Blashill relative named Richard whose forebears were Canadian and Elsie’s sister Mary who had assembled historical documents and photographs that traced the Blashill lineage back to a Francis whom had lived in York during the early part of the 18th century, and whose descendants had also emigrated from England to Canada a century or more later. All of this proved to be inspiration for creating a family tree, together with other extended family collaborators, on the Geni.com site that currently boasts links to more than 700 relatives covering multiple generations that is still growing.
On the Babij side of the ledger, however up to now we had been able to document only two previous ancestral generations…and that sparse information comes solely from our paternal grandparents’ wedding license from May of 1916 in hard-to-decipher long-hand inscriptions depicting the given names of our Babij and Chuda forbears. There were completely legible tidbits on the marriage license as well as locations for where to look: a country of birth called “Austria Galicia” and a town of origin: “Podhajce”.
Now I’ve already speculated on the origins and/or possible meanings of our paternal surname as well as the etymology and anecdotal history of Galicia in a previous blog. And we have posts published here from family members whom have provided insights and recollections of Anna and Ivan’s lives here in The States, most notably Aunt Estelle Spearman’s oral history transcribed by her daughter Anne Chavez entitled All The Farms and cousin Sue Roth’s Hard, Not Happy Times. I heartily recommend reading these posts as they convey some idea of what it was like for a young family of dirt-poor migrants to struggle and survive and ultimately flourish in the often unsettling and harsh environment of the Great Depression sandwiched between two world wars who wound up in a house on “main street” (actually Howard Street) fronted by a white picket fence across from the town bank.
This is the classic American story: from indigent immigrant migratory workers to tax-paying property-owning citizens in one generation. This lesson rings true because we are all immigrants no matter what the fascist “Alt-Right” whom have euphemistically re-branded themselves as Alt-Americans believe.
I wanted to explore our roots in the “old country” as Grandma Anna used to call it or at the very least visit the towns that Anna and Ivan had lived in more than 100 years ago. So, when an opportunity arose via an invitation by Sabin to visit his home country of Romania — just across the border from Ukraine — I decided to act. Of course that meant finding help with the basics of accommodations, transportation, translation, and archival research into our family background — if any existed at all given the tragic history of the area, especially during the 20th century.
Being in the vanguard of creating a whole new class of “tech bro”; the so-called “geezer geek” — someone who sits in a chair all day guzzling filtered water, pomegranate juice, and kombucha, simultaneously wolfing down copious quantities of glucosamine while cruising the web — I pointed DuckDuckGo toward travel sites associated with such resources limited not just to Ukraine, but to Western Ukraine and the city of Lviv in particular both because it is in what was historic Galicia and of its proximity to the towns of Zolotnyky, Burkaniv, and Pidhaitsi (Podhajce) which I hoped to visit.
One of the search results turned up links to a handful of local Lviv guides and tour companies one or two of which seemed promising given the reviews posted on the site. But there was also the problem of scheduling flights during August to and from Lviv which given the time frame appeared to be limited to a choice between Warsaw, Vienna, or Munich. So do I book the guide first and then the flight or vice-versa? Duh! The flight obviously. But when to go, before Romania or after? There was a daily flight between SFO and Munich that Sabin, Marcia, Artemis and Steve Wiesner were scheduled on so I opted to book it departing six days before the Romanian excursion; all the better to have my Ukrainian tour done with first. Besides, by then I would have some tales to tell or at least to fine tune.
The next task then was to settle on the all-important guide; someone who would be up to ferrying around a 75 year-old crooked-nosed codger who had no command of the geography and even less of the language; who loved pedaheh, holubtsi, brown bread, the music of DakhaBrakha, and the idea of traveling in Ukraine but who had no idea of how to even begin. A tall task, you say?
Yes. A task that was to be amply filled by a tall long-haired blonde with an extensive knowledge of Lviv and the surrounding oblasts; who speaks several languages; seems to know everyone who matters and if not, was able to convert newbies; can talk her way past a closed office door or a skeptical guard; and can drive a car like a bat out of hell over tortuous roads all while giving a spiel on the art of “pysanka” painting or the background on an historical monument punctuated at the end with a gorgeous smile. Her name is Diana Borysenko and she is a force of Nature. I just am so fortunate to have been able to book her as my guide, as will soon become evident.
Plus, there is one thing I need to set straight for everyone right out of the “chute” and that is the correct spelling of our surname. The first live glimpse I had of Diana was upon exiting the passenger terminal at Lviv’s Danylo Halytskyi Airport. She was holding a hand-written sign that read “BABIY” and as I walked up to greet her, she said: “This is how you actually spell your name”. Its Cyrillic spelling is: Бабій which when transliterated to English should be “Babiy”. So she is (and always seems to be) right. Guess we’ll all have to change our names.
One of the main themes inherent in all of the projects we’ve done is the old “saw” that along The Road of Life, “it’s the journey, not the destination”. I mean it’s probably a good idea to have a plan for where you’re headed since even wandering about aimlessly can be “the journey” plus experience has taught me to always be open for those unplanned accidents or collisions that can set you off on a different path. The whole point of travel is to expand your knowledge about Life in general and yourself in particular via immersion into other cultures. Otherwise just stay at home and drink kombucha in front of the flat screen and watch more propaganda.
So Diana and I hit The Road for the first day of a four-day tour, headed initially for Pidhaitsi, a small city in Galicia of 3,300 first settled by Poles in the 15th Century that had been inscribed by its Polish name “Podhajce” (which translates to “under the trees or forest” in both Ukrainian and Polish) on Anna and Ivan’s 1916 marriage license as their home base. Motoring Southwest out of Lviv in Diana’s red Saab Aero nicknamed “Mary”, we were quickly surrounded by fields of black Earth, with grain and corn extending as far as the eye could see. Soon the four lane highway narrowed to two-lane blacktop, and as we progressed further South and West past the towns of Lviv Oblast and into those of Ternopil the roads deteriorated rapidly making the journey more “exciting” and causing me to regret the huge breakfast I’d scarfed down back at the Hotel Astoria.
Still, Diana kept the pedal to the metal and in an hour or so we were a few kilometers outside of our destination when we stopped for some water and fuel at a local petrol station that was manned by a sole male attendant. After asking for directions to the local administrative office, Diana mentioned my surname and that I was a tourist of Ukrainian descent hoping to find archives on my ancestors or even relatives in the area. The attendant quickly glanced at me then back at Diana and a light seemed to go off all over his face (this would often be the case for any males that Diana encountered during our all-too-brief brief sojourns). He blurted out something that Diana translated for me as: “I know a Maria Babij. She lives nearby. I can call her for you”. Unfortunately my plan to visit three towns – 250 kilometers round trip – in one day didn’t allow for many side trips if any, outside of a possible short trip to Ternopil, the administrative center of the oblast, so we had to decline his kind offer. But we did manage to stop alongside the road into Pidhaitsi to shoot the following short clip in front of the town sign:
Venturing into town, Diana quickly found the City Hall and inquired about where any accessible archives might be stored. The answer was “Go to Ternopil” — the proverbial response as would soon become apparent. Diana did get directions to the home of a former town council member named Stepan Kolodnytskyi who lived near an old Jewish Cemetery, had written an historical piece on the area and who might have some additional background that could prove to be helpful. We had to walk several blocks because the road was being repaired — a common sight in the oblast — but eventually we came upon a portly individual standing by his front gate, sweating profusely, his shirt completely unbuttoned to reveal his ample belly. He had little more to tell us save to promote his historical treatise of the town, a pamphlet which he offered to sell us for a few hryvna.
We had better luck in Zolotnyky — about 20 kilometers west of Pidhaitsi — a beautiful village with a large school, a substantial civic center which included a town hall and civic offices adjacent to a lovely wooded plaza that shielded an abandoned Roman church; a town that was the ostensible birth place or home base of Grandma Anna Chuda and her family.
As Diana made a bee line for the civic center offices, I ventured onto the plaza to view the church ruin but in so doing, lost track of Diana. Eventually having blundered into the main building and made my way to the second floor, I heard voices coming from one of the rooms. Check it out…
Voila! There was Diana actively engaging several people including a middle-aged man who seemed completely eager to accommodate our search for any information pertaining to potential relatives that I might have in town but who also cautioned that any archives prior to the 1920’s would probably be held in Ternopil. He suggested that we talk with the district school headmaster, a Volodymir Boyko whom had written a history of the local church and the families that had lived in Zolotnyky, and even went so far as to call the headmaster himself and set up an appointment.
By the time Diana and I made it to the school, which was closed for the Summer, the whole building was a-buzz with the news of a decrepit codger from the U.S. with a Ukrainian surname accompanied by a blonde interpreter (or maybe vice/versa) who were there to interview the headmaster. There were a least a dozen babas there, busily scouring floors, washing walls, and cleaning furniture — school was evidently re-opening for the Fall session soon. One baba came up to ask what city I was from. When I replied “Detroit” she answered that she had relatives in Cleveland.
We were ushered into the second floor office of Headmaster Boyko who greeted us with a nod of his head and a generous smile followed by a firm handshake. He and Diana exchanged pleasantries and after she explained our mission he related that there were Chudas and Babijs that lived in the area, mentioning one Teodor Babij who had been a contributor to the school but who had recently passed away.
Headmaster Boyko then offered me a copy of his book “A History of the Church in Zolotnyky” which he then proceeded to inscribe to me commenting that if I would teach him English, he would volunteer to teach me Ukrainian. “I’ll have to come back then” I replied and thanked him, snapped a portrait shot of him at his desk and then he followed us down to the school entrance and where he graciously posed with me for a farewell picture.
The bad news was that we now were obviously pressed for time because of my insane “master plan” to visit all of these towns in one day and then get back to Lviv in one piece; plus by then we had not eaten any lunch which typically makes me less “geezerlicious” than normal and didn’t exactly put Diana in a good mood either. The good news was that our next stop — Burkaniv — was only a few kilometers away over a two-lane bridge that spanned the River Strypa [Стрипа].
So the plan was to take a peek at the hamlet, maybe shoot some video then high-tail it for Ternopil where we hoped to find archives for the oblast that we could take a gander at, then grab an early dinner before heading back to Lviv. We forded the Strypa and after a kilometer or so of following the British-accented GPS voice prompts the voice suddenly blurted: “Proceed to park your car. You will need to walk to your destination from there”. But when Diana didn’t stop, the GPS kept demanding we make a U-turn and go back. Since that was not about to happen, we continued on to a gravel road, pausing for a moment in front of a curiosity: an overgrown concrete berm bearing an embedded sign that read “Brigade Bolzano”. Well what was this Brigade Bolzano? Obviously it was the remnants of some kind of military installation or another, but from what era? WW II or earlier?
Subsequent further research online revealed that this was a bunker — called a “bacino” — which is another term for a “presidio” or military fortification that was built in 1915 by Ukrainian partisan elements of the Austria-Hungarian Army called the Ukrainian Sich Riflemen who were formed by the Austrians to fight the Russians during WW I along the Strypa River that year. The fortification itself was named after its commander a Colonel Bolzano.
No wonder the GPS wanted us to turn back! Here is a video clip of what happened including a short view of Burkaniv:
After little more than an hour’s drive we entered Ternopil, a bustling 16th Century era city with a current population of more than 200 thousand. Like many municipalities in Galicia, it had suffered greatly over the the past half millennium; founded by Poles, invaded by Tatars, burned to the ground several times, sacked by the Russians on numerous occasions, usurped by the Austrians, passed back and forth from the Austrians to the Poles to the Germans to the Russians back to the Poles and then back to the Russians again until Ukrainian independence in 1991. In the process millions went missing, including its entire Jewish and Polish population under both the Nazis and the Soviets.
Since Diana had gone to school in Ternopil, she knew right where the archive would be, on the second floor of an annex adjacent to the Church of the Immaculate Conception. The problem was on that particular day – a Friday – the archive was officially closed because it was a church holiday. That Friday we had seen parades of people in the towns along our route; the faithful on their way to church, some dressed in traditional garb, carrying baskets of flowers and food that were to be blessed during a morning ceremony. But true form, Diana was not to be deterred by a mere church holiday. We soon found our way up to the second floor and either by happy accident or “Divine Plan” she was soon conversing with a woman whose name it turned out was Oksana Romanivna Savchyn who seemed to be receptive to our needs.
After she several minutes of talking with Oksana, Diana took me aside and revealed that Oksana was the in fact the archive administrator and that she was going to help us. My heart just leapt and I’m sure that my mouth was wide open in astonishment. Then Diana whispered to me: “We have been so lucky. Everyone we have met has been so helpful. I can’t believe it.”
Yes. From the admin assistant and beer-belly politico in Pidhaitsi to the city hall aide and the school headmaster and his baba cleaning ladies in Zolotnyky to a State archivist for the entire oblast in Ternopil; all had been eager to help, open to questions, happy to offer suggestions and exceedingly gracious with their time and energies. But I thought to myself: “Luck had nothing to do with it. The people we’ve met here just seem genuinely friendly but more than likely it was your charm, Diana; your enthusiasm, your passion, your engaging personality and your smile. Either that or perhaps they had taken pity on the doddering geezer plodding along in your wake?”
After a quarter-hour or so we were ushered to seats in a narrow office with one window, replete with books stacked against the walls and file folders piled on chairs. The air in the room had the musty smell of mold and decaying paper. After a few moments, an assistant arrived with a stack of several large folios. They appeared to be very old and each were two to three inches thick consisting of archival birth, baptism, and marriage records from the Greek Orthodox Church.
We had specified a date range and locale to search for: 1891-92 for Ivan in Burkaniv and 1894-95 for Anna Chuda in Zolotnyky. That was our best guess for when and where each was born or baptized. After about 20 minutes, Oksana could find no matches for an Anna Chuda born or baptized given the search criteria. Bummer.
Perhaps her familial vital records were stored in another archive — the Polish church — since on her U.S. naturalization form her ethnic origin was listed as “Polish”? Or perhaps “Anna Chuda” was not her actual name. She did have a cousin who was also named Anna Chuda whom we called “Aunt Anna”. Even searching the LDS archives turns up a striking number of Anna Chudas — many from Eastern European origins. Fuel for thought and more than enough reason for a return trip for further research.
More folios were delivered, this time spanning the date ranges for Ivan Babij. Ten more minutes went by. Oksana looked up suddenly and said something to Diana. Diana turned to me and phoneticized: “Panta-lay-mee-on and Maria? Does that sound like a match for your great grandparents?”
I jumped to across the room to her side. I had been waiting for the file of my grandparents’ marriage license to slowly render on my phone given the cell service. “It think so. Just a second while this file loads.” A few agonizing moments later there it was: the father of the groom whose hand-written name had been next to indecipherable on the marriage license now came into focus as “Pantelis” and “Maria” was a match for the mother’s given name and her maiden name appeared to be “Palycha”. I quickly glanced down to the folio page at the inscription in Latin that Diana was pointing to. It read:
“25/27 Junii 1892 — “94” — Joannes — Catholic – Male “tick marks” — Panteleimon Babij, Maria filia Onesimi Palychata et Apolloniae Koslowska, argicolae”. Obstetrix Josepha Alexandrov. Last line: “Baptisairt et confirmairt Vladimirus Dorosz cooperator loci”.
Translation (given my poor recall of three years of high school Latin):
“[Born] 25 June / [Baptized] 27 [June] 1892 — [House Number] 94 — John (Ivan) — first tick mark signifying that his parents are orthodox christians; the second indicating that baby John (Ivan) is a male — Panteleimon (Pantelis is the diminuitive) Babij, Maria daughter of Onesimus (“Onesimi” being the Latin spelling) Palychata and Apollonia Koslowska, farmers. Midwife – Josepha Alexandrov. Baptized and confirmed by Vladimir Dorosz, local priest.”
There were other witnesses as well, including a Procopius Babij whom, as fate [and further research] would have it, turned out to be Panteleimon‘s brother, but the extreme right portion of the folio page and succeeding pages had been torn off so that whatever specific information that was recorded there is lost.
We now are aware of several new bits of Babij family history for certain: when and where Grandpa Ivan had been born and that his baptism was performed in a Greek Orthodox Church; the given names of both of his parents – his father’s being of Greek origin, Pantelis – after a 3rd Century Orthodox saint “Panteleimon” meaning “always merciful”; his mother Maria’s given and maiden names; both of the given names and surnames of her parents – “Onesimi” (after an escaped slave (Onesimus) whom according to scripture was converted by Saint Paul and subsequently canonized a saint) and “Apollonia” – also a of Greek origin, named after a 3rd Century virgin martyr; and finally that Maria’s family were farmers in the area.
Besides actually visiting these towns, finding any archival data was one of the central reasons for traveling back to the Old Country initially and now with Diana’s help it had happened – not just for me, but for our entire family. I was and still am amazed, humbled and very grateful especially to both Oksana and Diana, so what more could I ask for? Maybe to find Babij Mountain?
Be sure to view the second installment of a continuing series on our visits to Ukraine entitled The Old Country – Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast; a third episode titled The Old Country: Lviv; during which we discuss our tours of Ukraine in search of Babij Mountain, Hutsul Art, Easter Eggs, Pigs-in-a-Blanket, and our ancestral background in Galicia; plus both The Old Country – Salt of The Earth and our fifth installment “The Old Country — In Nomine Patris” in which we attempt to trace our extended family first and surnames, parse them and speculate as to possible ancestral connections between the families; and added to that from our most recent visit to Galicia: “The Old Country — Between The Forceps And The Stone“, we expand on even more ancestral links with actual living relatives. You will not want to miss these updates to the Old Country story, plus there is more to come!
And don’t miss all of the videos on our trips to Ukraine featuring our indispensable guide, translator, driver and coordinator Diana Borysenko, including two shorts exploring Pysanky Masterclasses on the art and craft of writing Pysanky under the tutelage of Folk Art Master Halyna Syrotyuk; plus two travelogues, The Old Country – Galicia and “The Old Country – Echoes In Time“, documenting our journeys to the oblasts that made up historic Eastern Galicia, where we explore the sights, sounds and the undiscovered past of our paternal heritage —- and heard some great jazz!
And if all of this doesn’t whet your whistle for a visit to our ancestral homeland, check out Diana Borysenko‘s website DianaTours-WesternUkraine.com for links to all of the tours, masterclasses, activities, and ancestral heritage services she provides.
Postscript: We have subsequently learned from Diana that our Ternopil archivist Oksana, who found the baptismal record for Grandpa Ivan Babiy, has recently passed away. Rest In Peace Oksana Romanivna Savchyn.
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