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.
He had lived through the occupation of the Poles in his beloved Ukraine as well as through the brutality incurred not only on him but on his family members whom he also deeply loved. Soon, Tato’s life would be pilfered to pieces at the hands of the Gestapo.
As World War II raged on, Tato, now in his early twenties, had survived many a beating by those occupying his homeland. One day a German uniform was tossed his way. With the slap of the clothing laid bare before him, he had no choice but to take what had been handed him. Why would a Ukrainian be given a German uniform? Long story short…somebody had to dig entrenchments for the German army as they were quickly running out of able-bodied men. Tato was chosen for such a time as this, and with no training and no weapon, he was sent to the western front to dig.
How did Tato survive? Barely is how he survived, as the worst was yet to come.
While digging ditches, an Allied bombing raid took place nearby. Tato was struck. Hit in the head with shrapnel and critically wounded, he fell. The final six months of not only the war but his captivity, found him in a field hospital. The shrapnel embedded within would remain inoperably close to his brain for the rest of his life.
The next four years would find Tato in a displaced person’s camp while waiting to immigrate to the United States of America. You see, he couldn’t go back home. The Soviets, who were now the occupiers of his homeland, were sentencing former German slaves (which Tato had been) to seven years in a Siberian Gulag (forced labor camp). Why would someone like Tato be punished as a criminal for basically staying alive? Tato would have been punished by the Soviets, the occupiers of the Ukraine, for failing to die. He would be held captive once again merely because he had been a captive of the German army and had been a slave on their behalf.
In spite of all this, it did not dampen his efforts to make contact with family who remained back home. An exchange of letters seemed like a miracle in the making…never mind the foreboding black ink blotting out things they would think…could censor. But even this small light in his world would eventually be extinguished. The letters were soon shortened, and the final words sent he understood more than they would ever know.
“Please, we cannot continue to write to you and receive your letters. It is drawing too much attention and making life difficult for us here.” And with that, all communication stopped.
Although his skeletal frame appeared delicate, his spirit remained like a spark in his sunken eyes. Rather than roam with the gangs within the camp, Tato set his sights higher. Taking any job he could helped give rise to hope. Repairing shoes while selling his Red Cross cigarettes and chocolate helped keep him productive.
In 1949, Tato’s received the news. He would soon enter the United States. With one dollar in his pocket, a third grade education, undiagnosed and untreated PTSD, no knowledge of the language and no friends, he entered.
What did he bring? He brought courage, hope, faith, and a willingness to work. His first job during his passage over was sorting produce in the galley of the ship. He boldly asked for a job and as they delighted in his boldness, he was given it. Typical Tato style this was, and it served him well as he served others.
Upon arriving, he faced many challenges. “Dirty, dumb DP” (displaced person) was right up there on the list of accusatory boxes he was placed in. In spite of this, he moved forward by juggling as many as four jobs at a time…doing whatever it took to pay the bills. Ranch work, packing plants, steel mills, and construction were just a few jobs he had. Delivering newspapers, bussing tables, shoveling snow, and working as a janitor were on his resume of hard work and determination.
Worthy of note would be one of his first jobs secured in country. Soon after his arrival, he booked a train to Cozad, Neb. The work secured was familiar and he was eager to once again be working with animals.
Upon arriving at the job site, he discovered he was to care for over a million sheep within a two state area. Nebraska and Wyoming is where the massive herds were kept, and upon arrival late in the year, he made his way to his new found home on the range. A covered wagon, a rifle, one dog, and chest high snow, not to mention sheep as far as the eye could see would be his new companions.
Needless to say, come spring, he traveled to Omaha in search of a different job.
What did Tato do when he wasn’t working? He helped. He helped by giving away hard-earned money to people and causes needing it more than he. He helped found, renovate and expand a Ukrainian Catholic Church which still stands seven decades later. Hand carving the wooden altar where the consecration of the Holy Eucharist has daily taken place since then, are a few of the gifts he would give to his new found country.
Eventually, Tato purchased a small plot of land where he would begin building a home, but there is more. 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