Kat Zaworonok’s grandmother left Ukraine for Poland to escape Stalin’s mass starvation of Ukrainians in the 1930s.
“And then Hitler invaded Poland and she got rounded up and put in a work camp, which is similar to a concentration camp and is pretty brutal,” Zaworonok said.
Her father was born in that camp, and the family eventually came to Canada.
Zaworonok told this story at a dinner on Feb. 27 shared with four other Nelson residents of Ukrainian heritage in solidarity with Ukraine in its war with Russia.
Also at the table were Brent Holowaychuk, Tina Coletti, Janice Hall and her husband Bob Hall. They bonded over their common heritage and their alarm about the war, ate Ukrainian food, and shared family stories.
“We talked about the babas (grandmothers), the strength and beauty that they carried in their traditions and recipes,” said Coletti. “And we talked about some of the Ukrainian Christmases that we’ve experienced in our families, and it was inspiring to see traditions living on.”
Much of that tradition centres around food.
“We had cheese and potato perogies obviously, fried sauerkraut, lots of sour cream, chives, and there was a beautiful borsch that Tina made,” said Zaworonok. “It brought a feeling of connection to our heritage and then to each other.”
Holowaychuk brought pysenkas (traditional Ukranian decorated Easter eggs) painted by a cousin of his grandfather. Holowaychuk’s great grandparents came to Canada around the turn of the 20th century, as did about 150,000 other Ukrainians.
Coletti’s and Hall’s grandparents also came to Canada during that same migration.
“My grandfather deserted an army so he could try to come here to a better life,” Coletti said. “Thank goodness he made that choice.”
In the 1960s, Hall’s parents changed their name from Holowachuk (spelled slightly differently from Brent Holowaychuk’s name) to Hall, to avoid the discrimination many Ukrainians endured in Canada then.
“They wanted to be Canadian,” Hall said. “They didn’t want to be Ukrainian. But I grew up in a Ukrainian house … It was very Ukrainian. It’s my culture.”
Hall says when he was a young man he wanted to change his name back to Holowachuk but his grandmother successfully talked him out of it.
“You’ve always got to listen to your Baba,” Hall said.
Around the dinner table they reminisced about family Christmases and other holidays when they would visit their grandparents and be immersed in Ukrainian culture. Holowaychuk talked about trips back to the family homestead outside of Vegreville, Alta., with family reunions, weddings, and funerals.
Zaworonok says the group did not talk much about the current war.
“We spoke about negative things a little bit,” she said. “But mostly we spoke just about the positive reflection of our heritage and what it means to us today in our families.
“But definitely my sentiment about Ukraine is just a real heavy sadness, because I do have extended family there. I don’t know them, but I do have extended family and this is a separation of families that could be very devastating for future generations. It’s just so heartbreaking.”
Coletti also said she felt a sadness for known and unknown cousins in Ukraine.
“Such utter, utter frustration and anger, to think that a … power-hungry sociopath seems to think he has create his own version of the Soviet Union. Those days are gone … and it’s time for him to wake up.”
Holowaychuk said for him it’s as much about world geopolitics as about Ukraine specifically.
“It’s more about what’s right in the world … I just feel that we need to stand up to tyranny, because if we don’t, we embolden it in future situations.”
Hall said he has been surprised at how personal the war feels.
“I’m not trying to be dramatic and take on somebody else’s tragedy,” he said. “But it feels more personal than anything that I’ve ever experienced in my life, in terms of world events.
“And it was comforting to be amongst people who I know are feeling the same way that I am.”