Azerbaijan International

Autumn 2004 (12.3)
Pages 24-25

Documenting History

Priceless Legacy from our Parents and Grandparents
by Orysia Paszczak Tracz

The following article by Orysia Paszczak Tracz appeared in the Ukrainian Weekly (published in New Jersey) on November 30, 2003 (Vol. 71: No. 48). We include it here to encourage oral history projects to be undertaken in Azerbaijan (another former Soviet republic) to document both the social life of the Old City, which is changing rapidly, as well as the tumultuous tragedies of the last century suffered under the Soviet regime.

"No, I don't want to. And I can't. I just can't. After all I've lived through, I want to remember the good times, happiness, mostly now. My heart could not bear remembering and retelling all those bitter stories..."

The elderly woman thanked me for inviting her to record her recollections of the Holodomor (Famine Genocide of 1932-33), but she declined to get involved. There had been the Holodomor, then World War II, the Displaced Persons' camp and fear of repatriation, then emigration to the United States, settling in a new land, and the deaths of her husband, son and grandson. She wanted to remember only the good times with her grandchildren and to block out any other thoughts that weren't happy. While her husband had been alive, the two of them used to sit and keep what she called an "oral journal" about their memories. But now that he was gone, she didn't want to dredge up those heart-wrenching memories.

But someone must. Those experiences-those memories-are history. In the introduction to the "Ten Testimonies of Survivors", which I translated for the special Holodomor Issue of the Canadian American Slavic Studies (Vol. 37, No. 3, Fall 2003), I noted: "All the statistics, documents and studies in the world are worthless without the first person accounts-without the survivor and eyewitness testimonies of those who lived through the events. There can be no history without the stories of the individuals who were there."

This applies to any place and time, for example: the first emigration from Ukraine, pioneer times, the mines and mills, World War I, the years between the two world wars, Pacification, Holodomor, World War II, UPA (Ukrains'ka Povstans'ka Armiya-Ukrainian Insurgent Army), the underground, repatriation, exile to Siberia and Central Asia, Soviet persecution and imprisonment, refugee camps, immigration to North America, Soviet times and Polish post-war times for those who remained back home, dissident experiences. Ukrainians certainly have experienced more than their share of history in their own lifetimes.

Documenting memories

So take out that tape recorder, or video camera, have some coffee or tea, and sit down with your parents, elderly relatives and friends, and start asking a few questions.

Left: Sculpture by Emin Guliyev,
artist in the Old City
AZgallery. org

What is Baba's first memory? When did Dido start school? Where did they live? What did they eat? What songs did they sing? How many siblings were there? How did they eventually find their way to America or Canada? Questions like that will get them started.

Documenting their lives orally is much easier than trying to get them to write their stories. For most elderly people, that's too intimidating and too difficult. The tape recorder can be set up nearby, ready to be turned on at the appropriate moment.

If these individuals realize that family members are interested in their lives, and told how important it is to the family and community, they will be encouraged to tell their stories. Of course, it will be difficult for them to remember and relive the horrors. But the good times will also be remembered. Each ordinary life is important, as it is a part of the greater whole. It will be easier to get them to tell the stories in small segments, over time. The tape can then be transcribed, typed out in Ukrainian and then translated into English.

A booklet can be prepared for the family, and can include photographs and maps. Such a project can remain a private family affair or can be expanded into a genealogical record or an actual book.

So many times I've heard people express regret that they did not listen to their elders' stories and write them down or tape them. "And now it's too late..."

Oral History Projects
Recording and documenting historical personal experiences is becoming very popular now. There are many memory projects. The Library of Congress has its "American Memory: Historical Collections" for the National Digital Library. The Dominion Institute in Canada, in partnership with The Globe and Mail newspaper has "The Memory Project" to provide Canadians with a venue to share oral histories of their Canadian experience.

This project includes separate sections on "Passages to Canada" and "Peace and War." The CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) has just begun "Canada's War: The Lost Color Archives", and is asking for wartime diaries, films, photos, letters, to create a documentary to coincide with the 60th Anniversary of D-Day.

The Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association (UCCLA) has initiated the "Roll Call Project" in which they are contacting thousands of Canadian families who are descendants of Ukrainians and other Europeans imprisoned as "enemy aliens" during Canada's first national internment operations of 1914-1920. See UCCLA's Web site ( In Ukraine, a number of books on wartime and Holodomor experiences have already been published. Over the decades, many books in the Diaspora have covered the same topics.

The Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies published by the Concordia University Chair in Canadian Jewish Studies in Montreal have launched a project entitled, "The Memoirs of Holocaust Survivors in Canada" to enable them to bring these eyewitness accounts to a wider audience. They describe their mission: "Therefore, at irregular intervals, time and funds permitting, they are making these memoirs available in two forms: a small number of copies will be photocopied and deposited in relevant libraries and Holocaust Centers; in addition, the memoirs will be posted on the Internet:"

When I see these kinds of projects and other memoirs about the Holocaust and how widely they have been distributed, I cannot help but think about how few projects there are about the experiences of Ukrainians during the 20th century. There is so little material in the English language-both are needed for general readers and for academia.

Ukrainian material must be available in excellent English translations. Our stories must be out there, printed and distributed by mainstream publishers. Occasionally, over the decades, some memoirs have been collected in the community, but these have been stored locally and by now have mostly been forgotten. Of course, there have been some excellent publications in English by Ukrainian academic presses.
Perhaps, I'm naive, but I ask: why can't Ukrainian stories be published the way some of the Polish combatants' memoirs have recently been told. Why wouldn't a Holodomor survivor's story not be as mind gripping as a Holocaust survivor's?

Our Ukrainian schools and youth and other organizations could take on projects like this and go out into the community, after being trained, and tape the life stories of family members and the elderly. These could then be transcribed, edited and translated by qualified personnel. This project could be coordinated nationally and internationally by one of our major umbrella organizations, university chairs or foundations.

What a project for cooperation and coordination among the many groups. Surely, a philanthropist or foundation could help fund such a project. Both American and Canadian-granting agencies could be approached as these are the memories of citizens of these countries. A memoir series could be published in translation and posted on the Internet. The Ukrainian version could also be published and posted online, for the benefit of those in Ukraine and those learning English anywhere.

This could be a learning experience for us all, as well as a teaching experience for the world. We need this individual documentation of the Ukrainian 20th Century History. We must do it before it is too late.

All the statistics, documents and studies in the world are worthless without first person accounts-without the survivor and eyewitness testimonies of those who lived through the events. There can be no history without the stories of the individuals who were there.

1. Ukrains'ka Povstans'ka Armiya (Ukrainian Insurgent Army). Established in 1942 to fight against both the German and Soviet occupational regimes, its immediate purpose was to protect the Ukrainian population from German and Soviet repression and exploitation. Its ultimate goal was an independent and unified Ukraine. Armed struggle in Western Ukraine continued until 1954 (See Encyclopedia of Ukraine (1993) and P. Sodol. "UPA: They Fought Hitler and Stalin". New York, 1987).

2. Millions of East Europeans, including Ukrainians were displaced during WWII, especially by the Nazis, who took forced laborers from Ukraine to Germany. After the war, most of them found themselves in Germany and Austria, including about 3 million Ukrainians (forced laborers and prisoners of war), survivors of Nazi concentration camps (more than 200,000 Ukrainians), and those who had fled their homes before the westward expansion of the Red Army. Many were housed in Displaced Persons Camps run by UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration). These camps were usually set up in former German army barracks. [Orysia, the author, lived in one of these camps for four years].

The UNRRA worked to repatriate [house] all persons displaced by the war. At Yalta, the Western Allies signed an agreement with the Soviet Union, guaranteeing the repatriation of all Soviet nationals. This term was understood, particularly by the Soviets, to mean (if necessary) forcible repatriation.

Few refugees had any doubt about the harsh treatment (exile to Siberia or execution) that they would receive if they returned to the Soviet Union. Many committed suicide rather than risk being returned to the USSR. As Americans became aware of the tragic fate of those who returned, they stopped assisting the Soviets.
(See N. Tolstoy. "Victims of Yalta", London, 1978; J. Epstein. "Operation Keelhaul: the Story of Forced Repatriation from 1944 to the Present", Old Greenwich, Conn., 1973).
"Ukraine During World War II: History and its Aftermath: A Symposium", edited by Yury Boshyk with assistance from Roman Waschuk and Andriy Wynnyckyj. Edmonton: Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, University of Alberta, 1986.


Orysia Paszczak Tracz was born in post-war Germany to parents who were forced laborers during World War II. She came to the U.S. as a refugee, grew up in New Jersey and now lives in Winnipeg, Canada. Orysia is a writer, translator and lecturer. She works at the University of Manitoba Library and leads an annual folk art and culture tour to Ukraine, which is called: "Return to the Source".

She is the author of "Denied, Defiled, or Ignored: the Ukrainian Famine of 1932-33-Fifty Years Later" originally published by the Ukrainian Weekly and available on the WEB. Tracz has translated: "Ukrainian Folk Costume" (1992), "Ukrainian Antiquities: Folk Art of the Hutsul and Pokuttia Regions in Private Collections" (2002), and "Painted Wood: Naïve Art of the Ukrainian Village" (2003).

Azerbaijan International (12.3) Autumn 2004.
© Azerbaijan International 2004. All rights reserved.

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