Saturday, February 11, 2006

Biography of Baba Omaha

In my family, we call my maternal grandmother "Baba Omaha," because of where she has ended up living out the majority of her life in the US. Her current last name is Nakovska, adopted from her second husband, who was a Czech immigrant and who died over 20 years ago. Her first husband was Pidvirnij, so my mama's maiden name was Pidvirna. Baba Omaha's maiden name was Chetveryla. She was born in a hutor (a hamlet, or settlement smaller than a village) called Chetverylivka, which was an old Cossack settlement 14km from the city of Poltava. Chetverylivka no longer exists, extinguished as it was by famine and war and Soviet prohibitions on resettlement there; her relatives now live in the village of Velykyj Bajrak, not far from Dykanka, in Poltava, and elsewhere in Ukraine. She is the only one of her family in the US.

Above is a picture taken of Baba Omaha shortly before she was kidnapped, brought to Germany, and put to work as a slave in a munitions factory that produced bombs and bullets for the Nazi war machine. She is on the right seated next to her cousin. She was 17.

Baba Omaha always shows this picture with the introduction, "Look at this picture of me, looking like an Indian." Hm. Perhaps there is a bit of Tatar blood that runs in this family from a Cossack settlement. . .

It was 1942 when Baba Omaha was working outside and a German lorry came rolling through Chetverylivka, snatching up children and taking them back to Poltava, where they were packed into railcars for a nightmarish trip to Germany.

I have 100 pp written so far of her biography; I have another 100 pp. of my paternal grandparents. Someday I will get a grant and finish.

Barely nine years earlier, Baba Omaha's family were nearly starving to death, and were persecuted as kulaks: to the Bolshevik administrators of the holodomyr, the Chetverylo family of the settlement Chetverylivka = kulaky.

Baba Omaha's father played the violin and her brother played accordion. Baba Omaha and her mother loved to sing along and just to sing in general, and the people of their hutor frequently asked the family to play. She recalls summertimes with children coming by and begging for a tune or two. She remembers her father happily obliging, and that he had a love of children, and particular affection for his little Halja. She absolutely adored her brother, who died in the war, and this probably explains her love for the accordion, which I have inherited from her. I have more than once exclaimed, "The accordion is the highest expression of human musical consciousness!"

The next time she made contact with her family was in 1964, more than 20 years later. They had trouble getting in touch with each other; her repeated attempts to contact her family had failed, and they too had had trouble contacting her, not the least because she originally came to the US under a false name and passport. For much her time in the DP camps, she had used a Polish passport, fearful of being returned to Ukraine, where it was rumored throughout the camps that people returning were being shot or sent to the GULAG.

So much had happened to her in the meantime from her last contact with her family; so much inhumanity she had suffered. The things she survived are unimaginable--I have lost count how many times she outwitted Death. In my 31 years of life, I have never even once come as close to death as she did, countless times, before she was even 20. Nonetheless, or perhaps because of that, she is the most loving and kind person I think I may ever know. Baba Omaha can not stand to see a sad face. Even if her own heart is breaking, she will always seek to put a smile on another's. I have never known a more humble person who loves to laugh and to make others laugh as she. The movie Life is Beautiful was in many ways about my Baba Omaha.

She went back to Poltava in 1982. Her sister had come to the US in the 1970s (gotta find out the year), and wept when she saw a grocery market.

Her sister, now elderly and suffering from not only major health problems but also from poor healthcare in Ukraine, now complains that life in Ukraine was easier in Soviet times, and is a supporter of Oleksandr Moroz.

Her sister still sings beautifully. I was in Poltava a number of times during the past two years to sing and eat and drink and laugh, and to practice my Poltava dialect and surzhyk. They liked teasing me for my Banderivets manner of speech. Back in Pidhajtsi, playing video of my first visit to Poltava, my Galician family could hear the sing-songy Poltava dialect as clearly as a Yankee can distinguish Southern speech or vice versa.

By the way, members of my Poltava family do not speak true surzhyk; I have a Galician relative who has been in the army for some 15 years, and that fellow speaks the real thing that is called surzhyk. The speech of Baba Omaha's Poltava family is still at least 85% or more Ukrainian, which means it is Poltavan-dialect Ukrainian with heavy splashings of Russian. For example, they say: "Zdrastvyj!" instead of "Zdarov!" and "ni nada" instead of "ne treba;" and "opshe" (or however you spell it) instead of "zahali;" and you will hear them say "spasiba" as much as "djakuju" (and not ever the more Central Ukrainian/Poltavan variant of "spasybi").

I hope to take Baba Omaha back at least once more.

Been working today on her biography/oral history. . .


The Ranger said...

Great story. This what I love to read about. Real people with real stories. Thank you. God bless her.

Veronica Khokhlova said...

I can't wait for you to write a book about it: you're in such a unique position, having wonderful Ukrainian family everywhere, in the States, in Western and Eastern Ukraine!

Stefan said...

Thank you both very kindly for your compliments and encouragement. Such stories that provide a human face to political and historical events are indeed the most interesting. You can read in a book that Operation Barbarossa began in 1941, but what did that mean in real terms? Or you can read that there were such a number of refugees, but what was life like on the run or in a camp? How did people eat, find places to sleep? All of that is missing in traditional history books, which provide facts minus the experience. The power of oral history is its power to animate history. Everyone should strive to talk to and really listen to the people of older generations. . .

Anyway, I plan to focus my blog a little more thusly in the coming months. . .

Veronica, by the way, thank you very much for characterizing my writing as peering into the way politics in Ukraine effects real life on the ground in your round up of Ukraine blogs. Dan McMinn also characterizes it thusly, and I am very appreciative of such a description.

I want to focus on finishing the oral history of my family as soon as I get through editing this orange rev doc I've been talkin' about here and there.

Thanx again for the support. . .