One hundred and four years ago my great-grandfather Ivan Potiahaylo, a teenager, left Ukraine for Canada. We know little of how or why he left. As far as we know he was never in contact with his Ukrainian family again. He died in 1940 at the age of 46. The same age I am now. My father was 3 years old at the time; he remembers going to the funeral. Here’s his record in the 1911 census in Fort William, Ontario, where he settled:
He had two children, and of those children it was only my grandmother who had a child of her own, my father. Other than his birthplace of Serafintsy and his birthdate (tomorrow, July 17, in either 1891, 1893 or 1894 depending on the source) we know nothing else of his life. It has always seemed like a miracle to me that he was, somehow, able to leave the remote rural western Ukraine and make his way to Canada. It’s hard to imagine even the simple logistics of travel.
Last year, in another sort of miracle, an email from Ukraine:
Hello Piter! I write you from Ukraine.
A woman named Aleksandra writing. Over subsequent emails we established that we share the same great-great-grandfather, and therefore are third cousins. She found me through the page about my great-grandfather in the Rukapedia. The first contact in over a century from our Ukrainian family.
Fast-forward 7 months and her husband Sergey is in Prince Edward Island learning English, with hopes of finding work. He becomes part of our family. We fly to Ontario and meet my parents. Visit the grave of Aleksandra’s grandfather near Simcoe (he also someone who came to Canada never to return to Ukraine). Spend Christmas together.
In two days I will land in Kiev. Sergey will meet me at the airport. I will meet Aleksandra for the first time. We will drive across Ukraine and see the birthplace of my great-grandfather. And meet the family that remains there to this day.
I’m both terrified and very excited.
I am excited for you too Peter — have a wonderful time
(Maybe afterwards you should read Safron Foer’s “Everything is Illuminated” …although its angle’s expressly Jewish)