For such a time as this we are born — your time, my time, his time — our time. For a purpose and a plan we are created, and Tato was no exception. Orest, who is married to my first cousin, continues telling the story of his father, Tato. It is with permission that I continue.
The time? World War II. Initially, Poland occupied Ukraine, the country in which Tato and his family lived. The German army was advancing. In fact, just over the ridge in the next valley they were. Mere miles away. It was Tuesday, September 14, 1939 to be exact. Fourteen Poles in a vehicle and about 30 on horseback entered his village.
Philip and Ivan, Tato’s cousins were the first ones shot. What were their crimes? Speaking their language in public was crime enough as was sporting embroidered Ukrainian attire. Supporting a Ukrainian reading room, and advocating for a free and independent Ukraine drew attention to the powers that be. Of these “crimes” they were guilty, and ultimately, the sentence given would be death.
The generations that followed remember. The news reached the family of the victims rapidly. Killed in cold blood they were while working in a field. As the Poles were hastily retreating from the advancing Germans army…crimes were perpetrated against not only Tato’s family, but his people as a whole. And that was just the beginning of what was to come.
Setting fires came next at the hands of the officers. Villagers, while shielding small children, fled into the nearby forests, and all who were caught were brutally beaten. Not only were 135 of the 160 houses in the village burned, but the historic log church of the Blessed Virgin Mary which had once faithfully stood watch over many was now gone as well. Cold as ice were the winters in the Carpathian Mountains, and as winter was upon them, a coldness like they never felt before settled deep within.
Evil is a force to be reckoned with as it spills upon all in its path. Methods of medieval torture were used upon many as villagers were forced to watch on. Eyes, tongues, and hands were not spared as blasphemous spouts of anger performed crude acts of hatred upon the Ukrainians. The Poles emptied themselves from the land…only to have it filled once again with more hatred marching in from just over the ridge of the valley.
When the German army arrived, Tato was a mere teenager. Like many of his neighbors and countrymen, he was taken from his family, put on a train and deported to Germany. There, Tato was held in slave bondage, valued only by the work extracted from him. Many of his fellow Ukrainians “Ostarbeiters” (foreign slave workers) died in captivity by being overworked, malnourished and diseased. Heavy laden it was to be considered subhuman “Untermenschen.” The slaves were to be used and discarded.
Tato was not only attentive to his surroundings but strong. One day, when the time was right, he mustered the courage to escape his captors. Escape he did, but not for long.
As the Gestapo and their Dobermans feverishly did all they could to find him, they eventually did. Once caught, the beatings began. Broken bones and solitary confinement were two forms of punishment inflicted upon Tato for his rash decision to escape.
Of the many stories he told, this was not one. Perhaps it was the recurring dreams that would be the outlet needed to keep his mind sane. The alley, the rod-iron gate climbed, the piercing of flesh by dogs all biting at his subconscious…always present…like torturous taunts that haunted. Yes, quick to tell a story he was for the most part. But when asked about his broken nose, the reply was short, “Boxing.” No mention that it took place as he sat in a chair with hands tied behind his back while “boxing” with the Gestapo.
No, Tato rarely shared much about this particular episode, but when it was whispered, it was remembered by those who heard.
The captors in charge cared not about the bodies they used and abused, and there would be more to come. Much more…and Tato would not escape it. To be continued.
Kathleen Kjolhaug lives on the family homestead outside of Clearbrook with her husband Pete. She enjoys writing about family life and brings humor into the sacred moments of everyday living.
Theology in the Trenches appears in several local newspapers throughout Minnesota. Kathleen can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com