Research and family history brought me to Ukraine. I was writing a book about my Polish aunt who had emigrated from a village in what is now Eastern Ukraine. She left in 1910; I arrived almost exactly one hundred and three years later.
I took an overnight train from Kyiv, where Eve, a friend I’d known since we were fifteen years old, now lived, and arrived in Kovel, the city from which first my great-great-aunt and great-grandfather had begun their emigrations, at six the next morning. The sun was bright and the small arrivals platform dotted with a handful of people awaiting travelers. Near the front was a local historian with whom I’d been corresponding through email and Google Translate. I recognized him immediately from his self-description: iron gray hair straight to his chin, denim pants, and a wooden walking cane. So that I’d look as much like the picture I’d sent him, I exited the train with a smile stretched broad across my face and strode over to introduce myself.
Anatol, the historian, had arranged for me to stay at the rectory of the local Catholic Church. “You will not find hotels in Kovel that are not too expensive,” the google translation of his email had told me. “The church has accommodations for pilgrims, what can pay a small donation.” I liked thinking of myself as a pilgrim: the sole representative of my maternal line, returned to the holy land of where we came from.
After I had a nap and lunch, Anatol came back to the rectory with his granddaughter. We piled into the church’s van and, after a stop to pick up another young woman who, as the priest who drove us told me, spoke fluent English and could interpret for us, we were on our way to Radoszyn, the village about a half hour’s drive from Kovel where my Polish family had once lived and farmed.
Father Tadeusz parked the van along the side of a road near what had once been my family’s village. Now there stood only a handful of houses and the iron gates of a small cemetery overgrown in that way land does when human hands leave it alone for long enough. Anatol led us through the knee-high weeds toward the center of the cemetery, and we stood in front of the headstone he’d written me about just a few weeks ago: my great-great-grandmother’s.
Through Lyudmila, the woman interpreting, he explained to me the divisions in the cemetery, Catholic and Orthodox. He walked me to another headstone with a long list of names and explained that it was a group grave for people of the now-gone nearby villages who had been killed in an ethnic-cleansing massacre in 1943. He pointed across the field and reminded me of the name of one of the villages – Chobut – and told me it has disappeared. He and Father Tadeusz prayed over the grave of my great-great-grandmother in Polish. I couldn’t understand the words, but the rhythm of prayer was familiar. It brought me back to every Mass I’d attended as a child and a young adult, to sitting in a straight-backed chair as a room full of people holding rosaries chanted Hail Marys, heads bowed in the direction of my grandmother’s body, and how all of our breath caught every time we’d had to say her name. And I felt connected to the land, felt an intense and unexpected grief for the people and the lives that had existed in this war-scarred place.
Before I’d left for the trip, a Ukrainian professor at my University to whom I’d gone for advice on archival research had told me, “Once you make a human connection, miracles can happen.” Standing in the cemetery outside my family’s former village with a group of strangers who had gone out of their ways to help me, I finally believed him.