She has blue eyes and a round face. She’s wearing a traditional Ukrainian headscarf. “She sings the loudest and the loveliest of us all in the church choir,” Hania’s neighbor praises her. “We can only envy a voice like hers. I’d rather listen to her than the radio.”
“Oh dear, why say such things?” says Hania, blushing.
“We have to praise you when the gentlemen have come all this way!” says the neighbor, who is only just getting into her stride. “She embroiders beautifully too–look what a cute little squirrel she’s got here. And her cooking is finger-licking good. There, I’ve sung your praises–now you tell them about yourself.”
“I really know very little,” says Hania, spreading her hands. “Though ever since childhood I’ve known that something wasn’t right about me. At school in Kashivka, where we used to live, when the kids wanted to tease me they’d say: ‘You’re not your parents’ daughter.’ ‘So who am I?’ ‘A foundling left by the Poles.’ Then I’d go home to my parents in tears, and my mom would cuddle me and say: ‘Don’t listen to that nonsense. You’re ours, and that’s all.’
“Mom and Dad loved me far more than other parents love their children. I was never made to do anything at home. I’d do a little bit of work, and at once Mom would say: ‘Sit down, have a rest, don’t tire yourself. I’ll finish it for you.’ If we went to the church fair, they’d buy me the best material to make dresses. And whatever toys I wanted.
“My dad was called Fedor Boymistruk, and he was born in 1905. In the village they called him Black Fedor, because his hair was as black as a raven. Just after they took me in, he was conscripted into the Red Army and went all the way to Berlin with it. He came back with medals and a serious leg wound. To the day he died that leg of his hurt. And to the day he died he was proud of those medals. Every year on the ninth of May, when we celebrated Victory over Fascism Day, Dad would put on his uniform, comb his hair and pin on the medals, and then a special bus would take him to town. He’d come home with gifts presented to the veterans, it might be a watch, or a commemorative coin. The ninth of May was the most important day of the year for him.
“And God took him up to heaven on his favorite day. He put on his uniform as usual and sat on the bench to wait for the bus, but he never got up again.
“Mom was four years younger than Dad. When he died, she came to live with me. She lived here for another fourteen years, and helped me to raise her grandchildren. She loved me so much that she even wanted to be near me after death. More than once she asked: ‘Don’t put me with your father, but bury me where you’re going to be lying too.’ So that’s what I did. We’ll be side by side for all eternity.”
“My parents never told me a word about how they found me. When Mom was already very old, one of my aunts told me everything. I went to my mother and said: ‘Mom, now I know I’m not yours. Tell me what happened.’ But Mom was in tears. She kept saying: ‘You’re our child, darling,’ and then she fled.
“They had no other children. I came to them quite late in life too, when my father was almost forty. Maybe they were afraid that if I knew the truth I’d leave for Poland.
“But once I’d gone to live in my husband’s village, I suddenly found that people knew. I had never told a soul. Nor had my husband. So how did they know? It turned out that although he refused to talk to me about it, my dad used to chatter a great deal to the people in the village. Clearly it bothered him. And I have gleaned everything that I know from various people. He’d tell a little bit to one, and some other detail to another. And out of all these bits and pieces I have put the story together for myself.
“It was like this. In 1943 a gang attacked a Polish village which was called Gai. They spent all day killing people, not even letting the children survive. They threw the bodies in a ditch. Nowadays there’s no trace of that village left. I know, because I’ve been through the woods that way a number of times. Did I have any particular feelings there? No, absolutely none. Just pity for those people.
“I’ve heard that now they’ve put up a cross there, but I haven’t seen it yet. When I used to go out that way from Kashivka, you could only tell by the cherry trees that people once used to live there.
“Two days after the massacre, some people from my (future adoptive parents’) village went to Gai to pick the cherries. That was when they found me. Apparently I was sitting there with nothing but corpses lying beside me. Two dead boys and an old man–my aunt said they must have been my brothers and grandfather. In one hand I was holding a piece of bread and in the other a handkerchief with two letters on it, surely my initials. What were they? I don’t know. I never saw that handkerchief. I can’t even remember a single image from those days.”
The gang Hania is talking about was a sotnya (equivalent to a company) of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) commanded by a man called Vovk. Was that his surname, or a nom de guerre? Nobody knows. Nor does anybody know who Commander Vovk was, or what became of him later on.
What we do know is that on August 30, 1943 about six hundred Poles were rounded up by his men and herded into the local school. The Ukrainians from the nearby village of Yanivka were then forced to kill their own Polish neighbors using everyday farm implements, such as hoes, axes, and metal bars.
“Very few survived,” says Leon Popek, a historian from the Lublin branch of the Institute for National Remembrance (IPN). His grandmother lived in Gai, and miraculously escaped death. “The Poles and the Ukrainians lived in harmony there, so they never expected the UPA to attack them.”
Hania is unaware of all this. Her neighbors from Kashivka know more details of her rescue than she does herself. I’ve gone there to talk to them. “Indeed, some people did go there to pick the cherries. When they found the child, they started debating what to do with her,” one of them tells me, though he asks me not to publish his name. As Hania’s story was a secret for so many years, he doesn’t want to be the first to tell it in public. “The banderovtsy (militant Ukrainian nationalists, the UPA) killed children like her. If you didn’t obey them, they might burn down your farm, or even shoot you. But on the other hand, how can you kill a small child who has miraculously survived? So they stood over the little girl and argued about what to do with her. Until someone said the Boymistruks didn’t have any children, and they were sure to be willing to take the child in. And if somebody from the UPA came along, they could be told it was their child. The Boymistruks were very happy to take her. They had her christened at the (Orthodox) church, and so she stayed put.”
“The UPA gave them trouble,” recalls an eighty-year-old resident of Kashivka. “It was hard to keep something like that secret in the countryside, especially as several carts had gone for those cherries and there were lots of witnesses. One time Fedor complained to my father that some banderovtsy had come and ordered them to hand Hania over. To which he had responded that they’d have to shoot him first. And they had said that of course they’d shoot the little girl, and then him and his wife. But when they saw the smiling child with a mouth like a little dumpling, they believed she was Ukrainian. Or perhaps they just pretended to believe it? What matters is that they left them in peace. After that the Boymistruks officially registered her as their daughter, and had her baptized as Orthodox, and that was that. Though Fedor was afraid the Poles would come looking for her.”
Another neighbor mentions that when Hania was a teenager her relatives did come from Poland, wanting to take her away with them. “She refused!” the neighbor assures me. “She said: ‘These people are my father and mother. I’m going to stay with them’.”
But on hearing this account, Hania vehemently denies it. “Nobody ever came. Or at least I don’t remember anything of the kind.”
“So many years have gone by that people can’t fully remember anymore,” the neighbor butts in. “One thing’s for sure. Her mom and dad loved our Hania to bits.”
Hania shows us her life, contained in a photo album.
She only has her parents in an old family portrait colored in by a traveling photographer. In it little Hania is about four or five years old, and is wearing a sailor suit that’s been painted in.
There are more photos of her children. There’s her son, and her younger daughter, who lives permanently in Kiev. There’s also the older one, who died of leukemia.
There’s her husband too, whom she buried a few years ago.
“I met him when he came to my village after military service to do drainage work,” says Hania, gazing at the picture. “We went dancing a couple of times, and in the end we got married. When I moved away from my parents, they cried so much I thought they’d die of grief.
“But along came the grandchildren, and they shifted some of their love for me onto them. The children used to go and stay with their grandparents every vacation. When my son Sasha was five, Mom would go out to the cows with him tied to her back in a shawl. I’d say: ‘Mom, he’s a big boy now, he can go on his own two feet.’ And she would say: ‘He’s my grandson, so it’s my business.’ The first time he went to his grandparents for two weeks, he was nine months old. We came to fetch him, and the entire way home he kept bawling:
‘Where’s Granny? Where’s Grandpa?’ Half a day we traveled, and half a day he never stopped bawling.
“Since 1963 I have lived in a small village in Horokhivsky county. My whole life I worked on a collective farm. I helped the cows to deliver their calves and did the milking too. And when the time came to harvest the beetroots or potatoes, I’d go and help gather them in. Life was definitely better in the days of the collective farm. Now they’ve given people the land, but they can’t cope with it. The collective farm had machinery, specialists, everything. But now people are doing it all with horses and carts again, as before the war. All our young people have run off, because digging around in the earth doesn’t appeal to them. My children are all in Kiev, my grandchildren too. What’s it like in Poland? Are there still collective farms? There aren’t any? So you’ve got the same sort of poverty as us.”
“Sometimes I think someone might be looking for me. Nowadays it won’t be a father or mother any more. Maybe a brother or sister, or a cousin… Maybe just someone from that village who survived and remembers that somebody had a one-year-old girl. Perhaps they’d be pleased to find out that somebody else from that village survived.
“I hope that if you write about me someone will come forward. Maybe someone might recognize my face, and will know there was someone living in the village who looked like me? Though the more years go by, the less hope I have of ever discovering anything about my real family.
“I used to long for somebody to come. It’s not that I’ve ever wanted them to take me away from here, because I have had, and still have, a very good life. My parents saved me from certain death and raised me as their own. A year ago, when my children gave me a seventieth birthday party, I was moved to tears. There was a cake, and lots of guests, and a churn full of homebrew. We partied for three days. Nevertheless, a person does need to know where he is from. And who his parents were.
“I once got a letter from Poland. I don’t know how they found me, but I thought my heart was going jump out of my chest. I went to see the neighbor opposite–he was at a Polish school and he knew your language very well. He read it, and said: ‘Hania, they’re looking for a child from Gai. But it’s a boy.’ And so the letter went into the stove.
“I’ve never been to Poland. I’ve never even talked to a Pole before. None of my children have been to your country either. Though wait a moment… Ruslana, my younger daughter, has been there. She went to pick apples somewhere outside Warsaw. Did she tell anyone she has Polish blood? No. If I only knew my first name, or surname, anything, maybe she’d have said something. But as it is, what is there to brag about?
“She was full of praise for the lovely orchards in your country.”