The Unexpected Present

We Are Today Who They Were Then

Shypskiy Family & Ivanka

Where do the strength and resilience we need to face the unknowns come from? I read that the state of hopefulness and the will to live may produce biological changes that may help influence a more positive outcome. Prayers and good wishes. July 15th would have been my mother’s 100th birthday. It was also the day she died, a beautiful summer morning surrounded by flowers from her garden, her husband, and children, in the home she loved and protected, twenty-four years ago.

On this day, I read one of many handwritten notebooks of her childhood and young adult years (1926 through 1949) when Ivanka Shypska lived through one of the darkest times this world has ever known, surviving by her wit and adaptability; faith, and sensibility; hard work and tenacity. She wrote about her village Brunary, Hrybiv county near the Slovakian border in Lemkivschyna, (think of it akin to Appalachia) Carpathian Mountains, once part of the Austrian-Hungarian empire. The inhabitants in surrounding villages considered themselves Ukrainian Lemkos, a culture of melodious voices, vivid oral storytelling, seasonal living with Nature, and a church calendar.

Her paternal ancestors lived there for centuries – great-grandfather, Dmytro Shypskiy; grandfather, Bartolomy Shypskiy and father, Metody Shypskiy. Her mother, Pelagia Sysak, was a talented industrious woman who planned for a prosperous future. She went to America and worked as a seamstress. With money, there’s independence and choices to marry a wealthy man instead of being forced into an arranged and loveless marriage.

Metody did not have money, but he was handsome, charismatic, and signed on with the military. He promised to marry her if she lent him the $200 for a ticket to America. Pelagia believed in him, and he headed for New York. After a few letters and renewed conviction, she followed him to America where he took a vow. They married in Cohoes, New York, USA in 1912 and within the year, the first of their children was born. Metody worked in the coal mines of Old Forge, PA, not an easy life for a growing family. He often spent his $2 per week pay at the company store and bar. Pelagia picked coal that flew out of the coal hoppers passing through on railroad tracks. By May 1922 seven months pregnant with her sixth child, she took Mary, 10, Rosalia, 8, Anna, 6, Olha, 4, and John, 2, and returned to Brunary.

It was a difficult homecoming. The house was emptied of its furnishings, windows were broken, and locals worked on the family’s parcel of land for themselves. Her mother-in-law racked up debt and her mother needed a place to live having stayed with her brother and sister, not happily. Two months later, Ivanka was born on a summer’s day in the fields where her mother worked from dawn to dusk, coming home to hungry children and chores, sewing as a seamstress at night.

Metody remained in America during the 1930s Depression with no work and no money to send to them and there was never enough to eat. As the youngest, Ivanka remained closest to her mama. She got the shabby hand-me-downs and was appointed herder of the geese that didn’t fear a little girl so her legs were often nipped, bitten, and beaten by their wings. She sang like an angel and at a young age was asked to sing in the church choir. But her sisters teased mercilessly that she never knew their father and she may very well never, ever see him in her lifetime.

As the second world war approached, the Germans came through forcefully taking young, strong boys and girls to work as slave labor. Ivanka wound up in Bavaria not knowing the language or what was expected of her. The first landowner beat her regularly giving her only a slice of bread for her meals. She requested a transfer to another farm many times before the administration placed her with another landowner where she worked long days into the late evenings, but was treated more humanely allowing as much to eat as she wanted. American planes bombed the countryside and there were times when she feared she would be killed by the Allies. In May 1945, Ivanka witnessed American tanks rolling in victoriously and the war was over. It was time to go home and find her family. It was a dangerous time.

Russian soldiers terrorized the countryside, rampantly pillaging anyone and everyone. ID documents were necessary but could mean a death warrant. The border guards took everything they could off the desperate refugees and then shot at people running through the fields under the cover of night. Plans to cross borders without ID papers sometimes worked out of sheer luck, until the next obstacle, another soldier or group of soldiers wanting something more. Sleeping in the forests, hiding in the grasses until nightfall small groups escaped navigating under the stars.

With so little food available, it was only a matter of time before Ivanka got sick and her friends had to leave her behind. A local farm woman found her feverish with stomach cramps. She took Ivanka to her home and nursed her back to health where she was kept hidden behind cupboards from unannounced arrivals of Russian soldiers searching for young women to rape. Her other extreme fear was rodents. Rats infested the barns she found refuge in.

Ivanka eventually learned her family was deported from their ancestral homeland to Tarnopil, Ukraine. A charity organization helped her locate Metody and she wrote to him asking him to bring her to America. He replied she should return to the family farm, but there was no one left in Brunary. Ivanka proceeded to apply for passage to the U.S. after a move to a Displaced Persons (DP) camp in the American Sector in West Germany. She worked in the kitchen, cooked for hundreds, and delivered meals to the infirmary where she volunteered.

It wasn’t long before she heard about a group of resistance fighters recently arrived. Some came from Lemkivschyna and she longed for the Lemko connection that was familiar and safe. That’s where she met a handsome young man, charming and charismatic. He had no money but his smile and gentle eyes felt like home. His name was Levko, who in due course became her husband and my father. Ivanka left for America in May 1949 with a promise to marry this man.

Upon her arrival at Pier 61, New York City, Ivanka, at age 26, finally met Metody for the first time, the man she had never seen but called father. She settled in the diaspora of the Ukrainian community, sang in the church choir, and wrote letters yearning for her one true love on almost a daily basis until Levko found family members in Pittsburgh to sponsor him. It took a year to get to America but when he did, they married three weeks later. I have the love letters.

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