Chystia Sonevytsky: PERSISTENCE REWARDED
WHEN: 19 May 2013
WHERE: The home of Carl Lankowski
INTERVIEWER: Carl Lankowski
HOW: transcribed from recorder
TRANSCRIBER: Carl Lankowski
Q: Tell us when and where you were born.
CS: I was born during the Second World War in Poland in the city of Lódz on August 13, 1940.
Q: How did your family come to settle in Lódz?
CS: Some things are unclear. I know that my parents left western Ukraine, which at that time had just become part of the Soviet Union, as the Soviets had arrived to “rescue” us, as was customary to say. When the Soviets came to rescue us [incorporate western Ukraine into the Soviet Union], my father, an agricultural engineer, was a persona non grata, and very quickly found out that his name was on a special list. That special list meant being sent east or being liquidated. Consequently, he was told that it would be best if he were to disappear quickly. So, one fine January day in 1940, my mother and my two older siblings got on the train and headed west. My dad, I believe, walked. Terebovla is in Western Ukraine, hence not that far from the Polish border, By some miracle my parents reconnected and ended up in Lodz. Where I was born in August.
Q: That was not an easy period.
CS: The period lasted many years. We were displaced persons from January 1940 until 1949 at the time of our emigration from a DP [displaced persons] camp in Bregenz, Austria, to western Canada.
Q: Before we get there, let’s talk just a little about your parents and their backgrounds.
CS: My dad was the product of a Ukrainian father and a Polish mother. They lived in Peremyshl which is on the western border of Ukraine, then on Poland’s eastern border. Today it is in Poland. When my father was born, it was Austria-Hungary [the Hapsburg empire]. My dad was a witness to the happenings after World War One, when Poland became the occupier of western Ukraine [Hapsburg Galicia]. People of Ukrainian origin were not really welcome to study in western Ukraine. So consequently, when he pursued his education, he went to Prague and studied at Karl University, where they welcomed a whole large contingent of Ukrainians.
Q: In Agronomy?
CS: Correct. When he returned to western Ukraine, ( Poland) initially he had a hard time getting a job. His first wife had died leaving him with two small children. Eventually, he married my mother with whom he had 2 children and two from his first marriage..
Q: How about your mom?
CS: She has an interesting background as well. Her father was from a family of Austrian colonists who settled in western Ukraine . My mother’s maiden name was Lustig. Her mother was of Polish-Ukrainian origin. How that family became Ukrainian in Austro-Hungary where it was much easier to be Polish—and when it was much easier to be Austrian—is a mystery. But it happened. So, here were her four siblings, all girls, who became Ukrainian, to the point of becoming very Ukrainianized.
Q: Where were they living at the time?
CS: My mother was born in a western town near Ternopil called Terebowla, but because her father was a person who worked on the railroads in some kind of official capacity, the family tended to move quite a lot. During their high school days, they lived in Stanislaviv now Ivano-Frankivsk, Then, when the five girls were of college age, the family moved to the city of L’viv, which is again in western Ukraine, with several universities. As a result, one of my aunts studied law, became a lawyer, maybe became the first woman lawyer in western Ukraine. Another one also studied law, my mother studied Physical Education and Zoology, and two of her sisters were teachers. From then on the action is usually in L’viv. When my mother married my father in October 1938, they moved to Terebowla,
Q: Do you have any memories of the war?
CS: I do remember certain incidents. I remember, for example, the steeple of St. Stephen’s in Vienna burning, bombs falling onto the shelter that belonged to the city where we were hiding during a particularly heavy bombardment of the city.
Q: Your family moved from Lódz to Vienna?
CS: Yes, but it was probably a circuitous path. That was most likely in 1944. I definitely have memories of the Allied bombing raids. At that time, not only my family, but my mother’s sisters’ families all basically lived together. There were all kinds of cousins of different ages living there. When I compare notes with my older cousin, two years older than I, she remembers the war with a lot of fear, a lot of anxiety. I on the other hand looked at it differently. My mother managed to turn it into fun. I remember her saying, “Chrystia, put on your Treningsanzug [a sweat suit] before we go to bed tonight, because maybe we’ll have to run somewhere quickly.” She knew that bombing could be happening and we would have to run into a shelter. She wanted me to be ready to run. So I would put on my sweatsuit hoping for excitement that night.
Q: It sounds like you had already learned German.
CS: I doubt it; I probably spoke Ukrainian, even a bit of Polish. My parents brought a nanny with them, a girl they tried to rescue in western Ukraine. Girls and young women were routinely forcibly taken for labor in Germany. In order to save the girl from this fate, my mother took her on. So she was with us and she was Polish, so I learned to speak Polish.
Q: It sounds like you had a multi-generational and multi-family household.
CS: Yes. My grandmother was there; my grandfather died on the way, so he wasn’t there. One of my aunts was a wonder-woman. I still remember a huge room that functioned like a transition camp for a lot of people who had no place to stay and ended up in our apartment for at least a short time before they moved on.
Q: Do you remember how you got from Vienna to Bregenz?
CS: I do. It must have been the end of the war. As the Soviets occupied Vienna, we had to get out very, very quickly. I can remember my mother admonishing me: “don’t you dare speak to me in Ukrainian.”
Q: What were your choices?
CS: I was already in school, so maybe it was German. We ended up taking the night train to the displaced persons camp in Bregenz. In Bregenz, as in many locations in Germany and Austria, there were Displaced Persons camps set up after the war. I remember we came to Bregenz in April of 1946 where our family of 5 was assigned one room until the birth of my brother in the fall of 1946 when we were given an extra room.
Q: How long were you in Bregenz?
CS: Until March, 1949.
CS: In addition to our two rooms there was a communal kitchen at the end of the barrack for all 20 families, and communal toilettes ( no showers) at the other end of the barrack for the 20 families. For my parents it must have been extremely difficult; they had not previously been living a life of deprivation. For me, I was a child and didn’t know any different. It was fun; there were children playing outside. There were a few swings out there, a field you could play in, and the scenery was lovely, so it was good. Somehow my mother always managed to turn things from lemons into lemonade. She very quickly learned that and was admired for that trait by many people. Even though everybody was on food rations, she managed to bake things and provide for us.
Q: In Bregenz, you were on the western extremity of Austria, on the shores of Lake Constance and right next door to Switzerland.
CS: Yes, and I even visited Switzerland on a school trip. It was a mini-student exchange, maybe for a weekend, probably staying with Swiss families.
Q: What was the character of your contact with the Swiss, the Austrians—and did you come into contact with Germans, too?
CS: Austrians, yes. We went to a regular Austrian school. We did not have a school for DPs in Bregenz. We became integrated into the local school system. I started first grade in Vienna but finished first grade in Bregenz. ; By the time we left Bregenz in March, 1949, I was in the third grade.
Q: By 1949 you must have been quite acculturated.
CS: I spoke excellent German and “meine mutter sprache” Ukrainian
Q: Why Canada? Where were you trying to go?
CS: Most emigrees wanted to go to America. But not everybody could obtain a visa.It required an Affidavit. Someone had to testify that they needed the skills you had or otherwise wanted you. Now, my father actually had a friend from school days who lived in Chicago. He contacted that friend and was waiting for him to send him an Affidavit. But the Affidavit was not forthcoming. My father being the impatient kind, I have to say, could not wait. He would come home and say to my mother, “OK, Natalie, we are going to go to Paraguay.” And my mother would say NO. “OK, let’s go to Uraguay.” As a child I learned an awful lot about geography and names of countries in this way, because every day we were going elsewhere. My mother had the power of veto, so she vetoed all of these undertakings. We didn’t go to Australia or Argentina or Venezuela or other countries where the people from our displaced persons camp were going. Everybody wanted to go to America. But when our Canadian OK came through, my mother no longer vetoed it. And that is how we ended up in Canada. I understand that our Affidavit for the United States arrived while we were on the boat bound for Canada. (laughter)
Q: Where in Canada did you end up?
CS: Well, after a ten-day voyage on the sea and four days on rail, on very hard benches…
CS: Just so. After four days and three nights we ended up in the city of Lethbridge, Alberta, in the southern part of that province. Waiting for us was Mr. Campbell. Evidently, he had been counting on four workers for his sugar-beet farm. The four were my father, about my height, my mother, decidedly shorter, and my two older siblings. These were the potential workers for the 25 acre sugar-beet farm. Then there was I, eight and a half years old then, and my brother, two and a half. The farmer took one look at us and wanted to exchange us, but he was stuck. However, to make a long story short, since my father knew his stuff—after all, he was an agronomist—when harvest time came in October or November, our little family had the highest yield per acre of sugar-beets of anyone in the whole region. Then the farmer very much wanted to keep us for another year. But, we moved on.
Q: Was your year there to pay off your passage from Austria?
CS: I presume that was it. We were obligated to work for the farmer for the year. We had arrived in April and were free to move on after the harvest. By December my dad has purchased an automobile—he was always into automobiles. He drove us to Medicine Hat, Alberta.
Q: The family moved to Medicine Hat?
CS: My father, mother, myself and my younger brother. My sister stayed in Lethbridge for a while and my brother worked for the Canadian Pacific Railroad.
Q: How did you get to the United States?
CS: It’s a long story. There was also 9 years of life in Winnipeg, Manitoba before that. I graduated from the University of Manitoba, where I earned my first bachelor’s degree.
Q: What was your major?
CS: It was in science—Chemistry and Microbiology.
Q: When was that?
CS: It was in 1960. I never lost a year of school because of language. I remember arriving in Canada; instead of putting me in 4th grade, where I belonged, they put me in 5th grade, so again I was pushed upwards a little bit. So, when I graduated from college I was still 19 years old.
Q: Then what happened?
CS: My mother had a sister who had in the meantime immigrated to the environs of Cleveland, Ohio. As the grass is always greener on the other side…they worked towards the reunification of the family and my family emigrated to Cleveland in the late 50’s It was in Cleveland that I got my first job, at Western Reserve Medical School in the Microbiology Department.
Q: What were you doing?
CS: I was working in a microbiology lab for the chairman of the department. But that was short-lived; I went back to school to Kent State University, where I earned another bachelor’s degree in education. I started teaching in September, 1962 at Valley Forge High School in the Parma, Ohio school district.
Q: What were you teaching?
CS: Chemistry and Mathematics.
Q: How long did you teach?
CS: For two years. Having the Wanderlust, I wanted to see the world. But I had no money and travelling was not something I could easily envision. So, I applied for a teaching position at the Department of Defense. On July 4th a telegram came announcing that a job was available in Europe and if I were still interested, it would be mine for the taking. In being passed over when most of these positions were handed out in April and May, I actually lucked out—my assignment was in Wiesbaden, Germany, where the European headquarters of the US Air Force was located. Consequently, I was in the prime position in DoD’s school system. I taught at HH Arnold High School in Wiesbaden.
Q: To American dependents.
CS: That’s right.
Q: How long were you there?
CS: Only a year. Q: So, where did you go?
CS: I applied for a National Science Foundation grant and received it. That took me to the University of Hawaii for one year where I earned my Masters in Pharmacology degree.
Q: That must have been 1965-1966…
Q: How was it that you came to ASCA?
CS: We are now skipping ahead 25 or 30 years. I think it was in 1991 that I read in the Arlington local paper, the Sun Gazette, that a relationship between Arlington and Aachen was being actively contemplated. I was already living in Arlington then. I read that with great interest, because this was the year that Ukraine proclaimed its independence. So, I read the article as an opportunity to begin thinking about establishing a sister city connection between Arlington and a city in Ukraine. I wanted it very much because I was aware that Ukraine had been living under the heavy foot of the Soviet Union. Here was an opportunity for the country to open another window to the west..
Q: Let’s explore that network and your vision for sister cities before we pick up the narrative.
CS: I happened to know about sister cities, because at that time I was working for American Forests the oldest conservation organization in the USA. AF had a program called “Global Releaf.” I had become the international coordinator of that program. I was diligently searching for international partners and had a special interest in forming a partnership between American Forests and a Ukrainian organization. In the meantime, I had already established a program with Czechoslovakia and Hungary and many other countries worldwide. My inquiries in Ukraine were going nowhere. Finally, I succeded and we started a tree-planting project in Ukraine.. We also planted trees in Slovakia, Poland, Romania, Ecuador, South African and other places.
Q: How long were you with American Forests?
CS: Until about 2000. I also started working at the US-Ukraine Foundation, so I became a part-time person at both US-Ukraine Foundation and American Forests. In addition to that I was growing a family then and my children were in need of some attention especially after the sudden death of my husband.
Q: Since you mentioned it, tell us about the US-Ukraine Foundation.
CS: USUF evolved from Ukraine 2000 a dream for an independent Ukraine in the year 2000. Independence actually happened in 1991. The president of it is Nadia McConnell a Ukrainian-American and a friend.
The U.S.-Ukraine Foundation is a nonprofit, non-governmental organization established in 1991 to support democracy, a free market and human rights for Ukraine. The Foundation creates and sustains an exchange of information between the United States and Ukraine in order to build peace and prosperity. The Foundation is dedicated to strengthening U.S.-Ukraine relations and therefore the mutual objectives of both nations, advancing Ukraine as a cornerstone of regional stability and as a full partner in the community of nations.
Q: How did they find you?
CS: It was possible because we are a pretty closely-knit community. In the Washington metropolitan area there is, for example, a school of Ukrainian studies which our children attended. There also are three churches in the DC area that bring people together and various organizations such as Scouting, The Washington Group etc.
Q: Tell us about the school.
CS: At the moment the Saturday Ukrainian School is located in Bethesda where a middle school has been rented out for years On Saturday mornings parents from all over the area bring their children for education. You can start with pre-kindergarten and end up with a high school diploma, so to speak, in Ukrainian studies. There is an emphasis on speaking, reading, writing, history and literature.
Q: A Saturday program.
CS: That’s right. Many, many people use the school as a vehicle to connect and develop friendships.
Q: How would you characterize the church?
CS: There are three churches. The one I attend is right next to Catholic University. It is a Uniate Catholic church, but it has adopted the new calendar, which means that Christmas is celebrated when most Americans and the western world celebrate. There also are two churches in Silver Spring, Maryland. One is Orthodox; the other is also Catholic Uniate, though it has retained the Julian or old calendar.
Q: What other elements are there of a Ukrainian-American network in the area?
CS: There is an organization called The Washington Group , an
association of Ukrainian-American and other professionals.
That network spans the whole country . I am a member and am on the board of the Washington Group Cultural Fund, which has a concert series of classical music featuring Ukrainian composers and musicians. And which holds performances in the Washington, DC area.
Q: Is there a dedicated Ukrainian radio program?
CS: Unfortunately, we don’t have any such thing here. The Washington area community is real but scattered and relatively small in comparison to communities like Philadelphia, Chicago and New York City. There they have radio, television and a lot of different things. The numbers are too small here to sustain media programs.
Q: Off the top of your head, how many people are part of this local Ukrainian community?
CS: I would say around 4,000 or more.
Q: You must have inculcated a real love of Ukraine in your kids that they would give up their Saturday mornings to attend the school.
CS: It was difficult; I could consider myself to be a failure in that regard. There came a time when I had to stop fighting and concede. There was soccer, basketball, baseball, model UN, all kinds of activities scheduled on Saturdays which presented a real conflict.
Q: Did you prepare Ukrainian cuisine?
CS: Always. I celebrate preserving the traditions and hence the cuisine as prescribed for Christmas, Easter and other holidays.
Q: Are your parents still with you?
CS: No, they are deceased for many years now. My husband is also deceased.
Q: Was your husband Ukrainian as well?
CS: Yes, he was a Sonevytsky. I was a Wolynec.
Q: Was his immigration story similar to yours?
CS: Very similar, except for the fact that his family did not leave Ukraine until April, 1944.
Q: He was from Poland?
CS: My husband was born in Ternopil when it was part of Poland but was the territory of western Ukraine. His father was a teacher of Latin and Greek in Ternopil, then Stanyslaviv ( now IvanoFrankivsk) and then in L’viv. As a teacher of Latin and Greek I guess he was not as vulnerable to the Soviets. They let him be. By 1944 it became evident that there was no way of remaining. Early in that year there was a mass emigration, fleeing again. His family exited through Poland and Slovakia and eventually ending up in Strasshof on the outskirts of Vienna.
Q: What happened from there?
CS: He and his family also landed in Vienna and then found their way to a Displaced Persons camp by the name of Freimann outside of Munich. .
Q: In the American sector.
CS: Yes, and my family in Bregenz were in the French sector. At this point I should also mention Operation Keelhaul. There was a plan by the Allies ( Britain and the USA) to deport refugees such as ourselves back to the Soviet Union. Even though it was clear that these people did not want to be repatriated back to the Soviet Union, frequently they were forcibly put on trucks and deported. People committed suicide, jumped off trains, did everything they could to avoid the fate of being repatriated
Q: What year was that?
CS: That was 1945-1946. I was just reading a book The Last Secret by Nicholas Bethell. The full title is The Last Secret – The delivery to Stalin of over 2 million Russians* by Britain and the United States. The Last Secret is the story of Operation Keelhaul and the secret agreement at Yalta by which POWs from the Red Army and people who had gotten out of the Soviet Union during or immediately after the War (or some even before the War) were rounded up by the British and Americans and forcibly taken back to the Soviet Union and Stalin’s control (usually to be killed or imprisoned in the Gulag). In the book there is mention of the ship Scythia as it was used to transport refugees from England to Murmansk.
In 1949 that same ship was used to transport displaced persons like ourselves to Canada. We were on that ship, Cunard’s Scythia going west, whereas five years earlier it had sailed east where the fate of the people was sealed.
Q: So, your husband ended up in Munich.
CS: From there he and his family made it to New York City. The story he told me was that he had received an Affidavit from a colleague of his father’s. Both his father and his friend were academics. But the Affidavit specified that his skills as a meat cutter were required in America. The interview with the Consul in Munich was interesting. “You are a professor of Latin and Greek, but you want to become a meat cutter?” “Oh, yes, I do.” (laughter)
Q: Did he become a meat cutter?
CS: No, indeed. Many people coming over at the time were professionals—lawyers, doctors, engineers—and they couldn’t work professionally, as they shared one great deficiency: they did not have English. Consequently, they ended up washing toilettes, and doing all kinds of menial jobs in order to survive.
Q: What was your husband doing at that time?
CS: My husband received a scholarship to Berea College in Kentucky From Berea he transferred to the free CUNY system in New York City and matriculated from Baruch College in Manhattan.At age 25 and ¾ he was drafted into the US Army. ( Conscription was until the age of 26 )He served two years, returned to New York and got his Masters degree in Economics from Columbia University.
Q: When did you meet?
CS: Not until later in life, in the 1970s.
Q: You were already in Arlington?
CS: Yes. He lived in New York City. The New York Opera and the NY Philharmonic were important to him.
Q: What was his line of work?
CS: He ended up working for IBM as a financial advisor. His work enabled him to travel to Brazil, Canada, Japan, England and other countries on behalf of IBM.
Q: When did he pass away?
Q: By then you had already begun to formulate a plan for launching a sister city…
CS: I didn’t actually see myself in that role. I always wanted to see someone else pick up that initiative. I tried to sell the idea to many different people and many different organizations. Nobody was picking up on it. Finally, I said to myself: “what about you?” And that is when my troubles began. (laughter) “Why don’t you lead by example,” I counseled myself.
Q: Let’s talk about that.You already had the idea in 1991.
CS: That’s right—I had the idea because of American Forests and because of what I read about sister cities. It seemed to me a good thing. But it took me another decade before I actually started doing something.
Q: What came together to make that happen?
CS: I became more convinced of the value of it. I realized I was not going to find anybody to pick up the banner. Maybe I ought to look at myself, maybe I could do something like that. I slowly started thinking that maybe I could. My default position has always been that someone else could do things better than I. Only when no one else presented themselves, I said “OK, I’ll give it a shot.” It took years of maturation and developing confidence in my abilities to come to this point.
Q: And also clearing the decks of other responsibilities you had?
CS: Yes. By then I had retired from my jobs and had time on my hands.
Q: Did the fact that ASCA seemed to be taking off and establishing itself play a role here?
CS: Not particularly, because I really didn’t know much about ASCA. I knew that there was an Aachen sister city relationship. I contacted ASCA and expected to receive a reply, but none was forthcoming. At length, I came to the point where I wanted to see what was happening. Finally, I looked them up and contacted Jim Rowland, who was the ASCA chairman at that time. Jim suggested that I come to an ASCA board meeting and present what I had to say.
I started working on the idea and contacted the Embassy of Ukraine, inquiring about their possible participation, as they were so close to Arlington. It happened that I found a very positive and supportive person. Her name is Natalia Holub, at that time the cultural attaché at the embassy. I came to the ASCA meeting prepared to present my case. I invited Natalia with me. By then I had also talked to other members of the Ukrainian community in Arlington who supported this initiative. By that time it was 2004.
Q: Who did you recruit? What did you ask them to do?
CS: It was all very preliminary expressions of interest. The people were considerably younger than I. They were professionals working in their fields.
Q: They were connected to the Ukrainian network?
CS: Yes. I identified some of them through the various organizations in that network. So, when I made the pitch to Jim Rowland I had already developed a list of interested parties.
Q: When did it start coming together?
CS: It didn’t really start coming together until 2007. Initially, I would attend the meeting, make my presentation and I would never hear any response back. There were pleasant conversations over the phone, but it went nowhere. Absolutely nowhere. I believe it must have been some Christmas party that Jim Rowland pulled me aside to tell me that he very much appreciated what I was trying to do, but that this was not the time to do it. Then I understood that I was not going to get any support. I did not ask for reasons. I felt that he was trying to be a friend in telling me “don’t bother.” So I stepped aside for three years. At one point while at the computer I wondered what ASCA was doing. I found the Arlington County Council’s webpage and found that ASCA’s new chair was Sandra MacDonald. So, there was a new person and I had her contact information. When we talked, she said “Oh, we are having a meeting tonight—why don’t you come? So I did. I now had an active correspondent. I could interact by e-mail with the expectation that I would get a response. Things started looking different than they had looked three years earlier. I felt that I had her support or at the very least I could communicate with somebody. I started attending meetings.
Q: how did they go?
CS: I must say, there was a lot of hostility directed at the idea and the person. But I don’t know about the person, because no one really knew me. There was no reason for them to be hostile to me personally. Because I was presenting something foreign to them, it was not received warmly by some people. There was a lot of skepticism. The questions kept coming up: “well, where are the Ukrainians in Arlington?” I told them: “I really cannot tell you where exactly they are, but they exist; I know quite a few of them myself.” Even a cursory examination of the telephone directory demonstrates that a fair number of people have origins in that part of the world. They might be interested.
Furthermore, I did not think that sister cities meant that you had to cater to an enclave of Ukrainians. My idea was I wanted to introduce to Ukraine and Ukrainians to the Americans.
My idea was fundamentally not understood on the ASCA board.
Q: How interesting that such an assumption would prevail. ASCA’s relationship to Aachen does not make that assumption about people who identify as German-Americans in Arlington.
CS: Consequently, I had to answer that question a few times to a few people. It was not easy. It was a very difficult time. But I am a stubborn person. I felt I needed to persevere. There were times when I sat at those board meetings very deflated.
Despite that, I felt that I had unwavering support from the chair: Sandra MacDonald.
Q: Why do you think she supported you?
CS: She probably thought the way I do, that the sister city relationship does not necessarily need to form around a nucleus of people who share the same background. It could be people who are interested in learning about a country, about a people. That is what brings them together, not necessarily that we can say we are all from country-x. When I tried later on to form our committee, I did not go to the Ukrainian community. My point of departure was another, so as to have on our committee people who are from different ethnicities and different countries, but who share an interest. As a result, today our committee has an African-American whom I recruited, other people who are strictly American with roots in entirely different countries. Interestingly, those are the people who contribute, who have gone as a result to Ukraine with us. Nobody who was Ukrainian-American went on two of the trips I organized to Ukraine. It was mostly unhyphenated Americans. And that’s the way I think it should be.
Q: I think I know one of the persons to whom you are referring—Malcolm Phillips—“Misha”. How did you come across him and was he already working in Ukraine?
CS: This is the story of Misha or Mis’ko. Our committee had organized the screening of a film at NRECA (National Rural Electric Cooperatives of America—a building in the Ballston section with conference space). On the day of the screening a building employee told me that someone had left me a note. The note was accompanied with a Ukrainian flag. I thanked the employee for passing me the note and then I called NRECA and chatted with Malcomb thanking him for the gesture.He suggested that I come over and meet. When I got there, the attendant at the front desk called for him. When he appeared a moment later, he was wearing an embroidered Ukrainian shirt, and then I knew I had found who I was looking for. He told me of his interest in Ukraine and I responded by inviting him to participate in our committee.
Q: Had he already been working with orphans in Ukraine?
CS: Yes, I think that work is what must have spawned his interest in the IF committee.
Q: Who else was involved at an early stage?
CS: There was Xenia Jowyk, my co-president. I never had that position solo. I shy away from being in charge; I prefer to have a partner in leadership. I asked Xenia for a variety of reasons. I would have gladly given the presiding role to anyone else; I had no desire to be the Numero Uno. I always like to play a role and I play it, but I don’t like to be in charge. I was hoping that Xenia, who was much younger than I and possessed many other valuable attributes that I don’t possess, would become not only my co-chair, but allow me to step down very quickly.But she has a very busy professional life and didn’t really have the time to devote to the extra curricular activity.
Q: In the meantime, you selected Ivano-Frankivsk. You said that when you started thinking about sister cities, you did not have in mind any Ukrainian city in particular. How did this come about? What led you to Ivano-Frankivsk?
CS: That’s true, I had nothing specific in mind. But before I took on the task, I did study Sister Cities International (SCI) very carefully and I did look at how to form a partnership, what sorts of things to look for. I had them basically memorized. I knew I was looking for a city appealing to Arlington, so I started by screening Ukrainian cities for population size. Ivano-Frankivsk met the criterion of approximate equality of population. I was also looking for a city with cultural diversity to match Arlington’s impressive diversity. Because of its proximity to the Polish and other borders, Ivano-Frankivsk met this criterion as well. At one time there had been a large Jewish population, a large Polish population. Stanislawiw (the former name of Ivano-Frankivsk) was a Polish city and as the head of the Synagogue told us on our 2008 visit , it used to be “Polski ulitsy, Zhydowski kaminitse” – you understand that?
CS: “Polish streets, Jewish buildings.” That used to be the case. Much has changed of course. But with all those nearby borders—with Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary—and a large Armenian community and a large German speaking community, it was a city that had a lot of diversity. Another interesting aspect was that Ivano-Frankivsk was the gateway to the Carpathian mountains. We can see in Arlington a kind of gateway to the Shenandoah National Park. Also, I knew that Ivano-Frankivsk had a vibrant group of young professionals who were into the arts, into literature, and that’s the kind of city I wanted Arlington to be affiliated with. I also wanted it to be a Ukrainian city, a city of Ukrainians, because with 70 years of Russification, the cities of eastern Ukraine have been transformed to the degree that it no longer makes much difference to many ,whether the designation is Russian or Ukrainian. Ivano-Frankivsk is a Ukrainian city and that’s what I wanted it to be, a Ukrainian city. Arlington’s proximity to Washington DC is important in this regard as well.
Q: So, you were guided by a comprehensive vision.
CS: Somewhat, yes.
Q: After identifying Ivano-Frankivsk, how did you get them to say yes?
CS: In my experience, to get any city in eastern Europe to say yes is fairly easy—they are always interested in America. However, I did not expect that it would be so difficult from the American side. How it was managed is important and relevant. If you go to the sister cities website, there used to be a rubric called “cities seeking cities.” It is organized by world region. Ivano-Frankivsk was on the list, as were many other Ukrainian cities. But if you wrote to them, you would not get any response. However the Peace Corps is quite active in Ukraine. As a matter of fact, the Peace Corps has more volunteers in Ukraine than in any other country in the world. So, I worked through the Peace Corps and located a Peace Corps volunteer in Ivano-Frankivsk. I wrote to him and he answered. I solicited his assistance.
Q: When was that?
CS: It must have been 2004 or even prior to that, as this was during my first go around. In his reply, the volunteer invited me to visit him and offered to do what he could to help. When I arrived in Ukraine some half-year or year later, I contacted him and travelled to Ivano-Frankivsk to meet him. He set up an interview with the mayor.
Q: Who is this unsung hero?
CS: Mark Raczkewych—he told me he was part Polish. He set up this interview for me. I met the mayor and others who were all very friendly and hospitable and very interested. They would have signed an agreement there and then. I had to tell them that my mission was to discover whether there was interest in a relationship and report it back to the ASCA board. I promised that when I got back to Arlington I would pursue it further. And as I mentioned earlier this afternoon, when I did that it led to nothing. That’s the way it was for three years. In the meantime, both Mark Raczkewych and the Mayor had moved on and I was basically back to square one. But when I met Raczkewych it was in the company of a young lady, Mariana Oleksyn was her name. She was probably in her early 20s. She was in on our conversation and she took my contact information. I don’t know how it happened, but when I arrived at my relatives home in Lviv two or three years later, I was greeted with the news that a young lady from Ivano-Frankivsk had been in touch and said she very much wanted to see me.
Q: So, you still have family in Ukraine?
CS: Yes, it’s family on my husband’s side. They are in L’viv. So this Marianna, out of the blue, calls my relatives. I told her “sorry, I tried three years ago, I did not get anywhere, and I do not want to get started again. I don’t have any reason to think that things are going to be different and I don’t want to disappoint people. I was so confident that if your side were interested, the other side would be interested, too, but it was just not the case. Consequently, I just don’t have the heart to come to Ivano-Frankivsk and talk to some important people without purpose.” She was so insistent, that I finally got on the train and went to Ivano-Frankivsk. She met me and said she had a group of people that wanted to talk to me. It’s a group called “Tsynamonovyj Khrushch”. I met this group of men who looked rather nonplussed. I told them I came with no promises and that they could be the ones who could help forge the relationship. Thereupon, I returned to Lviv and then back to Arlington. That is when I began looking into ASCA again and found Sandra MacDonald as the Chair. That was a turning point.
So, I began working on the idea again. There was a board member, Chris Williams, who worked for the Arlington cultural affairs department. He was evidently under an awful lot of pressure regarding my Ivano-Frankivsk initiative. He was a very friendly person, a nice man, but for some reason things never happened. So, I started dealing directly with the Arlington County people. I was innocent of any sense that I may have violated this or that protocol. I needed to get things done.
Q: With which Arlington County people did you need to deal?
CS: With the County Board and with the administration. The problem was with the Cultural Affairs department. There was a stumbling block there. As a result, we tried not to do much with Ivano-Fankivsk itself. We did not want to raise false hopes that something was going to happen. We concentrated our energies more on Arlington. The committee’s strategy was to do events at the library, free to the public that would get our name out—like film screenings on Ukrainian subjects—to demonstrate that we are capable of running programs and arouse interest in our activities. We had attendance of 50-60 people . Clearly people other than Ukrainian-Americans had signaled an interest in learning something about Ukraine.
In 2008 I organized a trip to Ivano-Frankivsk. There were eleven in our party. En route we stopped in our established sister city of Reims, France. We enjoyed a very nice visit, meeting sister city members. We planned to be there during their annual Jean d’Arc festival…
Q: The Jean d’Arc festival?
CS: Exactly. And County Council Chair Barbara Favola was part of the Arlington delegation. Karl Liewer a long time member of ASCA was with our party, representing ASCA. Barbara and Karl got hotel rooms, but the rest of our party stayed with French families. It was lovely, very nicely organized. I remember it with great fondness.
From there we traveled to Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, L’viv, Kolomiya, Yaremche and Ivano-Frankivsk. We did not stay with families there because we had as yet no formal partnership beyod interest. I couldn’t in good conscience propose home-stays when the prospects were so uncertain. So, we stayed in hotel Nadia. The people associated with the “Tsynamonovyj Khrushch” group met with us. Evidently, they were very well connected to the mayor’s office and they took us to meet him. We saw the city as well as travelled into the Carpathian mountains , Ivano-Frankivsk being the gateway to the mountains.It was a successful trip and helped build enthusiasm for continued effort on behalf of building the relationship.
At the initiative of Norma Kaplan from Cultural Affairs, ASCA was to organize a Sister Cities month in January of 2009 featuring different Sister cities. The Ivano-Frankivsk committee decided to do a sit down dinner at the Embassy of Ukraine to show Ukrainian holiday traditions during the Christmas season. This event named “Carol of the Bells” named so by Ed Lytwak a member of our committee became a popular annual event repeated in 2010, 2011 and 2012. The 2012 event at the Embassy had three groups of Carolers, 2 Ukrainian and also the Yorktown Madrigals. In attendance were always a reprentative of the Arlington County Board, Barbara Favola, 2009 Christopher Zimmerman, Mary Hynes, Walter Tejada as well as the chairman of ASCA.
All of the Carol of the Bells events were full house.
Q: You worked assiduously on this. You mobilized Arlingtonians for your events. When would you say your breakthrough came?
CS: Well, you know, at one point I decided that we were able to gather enough people to show that the Arlingtonians are interested. The numbers spoke for themselves. County Board members attended some of our events. Knowing that there was interest in Ivano-Frankivsk, I asked our contacts there whether “Tsynamonovyj Khrushch”would consider forming a sister city organization there. They did and so the Ivano-Frankivsk- Arlington Committee was born.
.I am a little bit like my father—I want things done immediately. I moved forward with the initiative of forming a sister-city relationship, but Sandy MacDonald provided the wise counsel that, according to protocol, we should aim for a friendship agreement first. That is what happened.
A delegation was invited from Ivano-Frankivsk. A group of about 9 people from Ivano-Frankivsk came to Arlington for the signing of the friendship agreement. This was signed on Earth Day April 22
Being that I had worked with American Forests, it was natural for us to celebrate the occasion with a tree-planting.
Q: Where is the tree?
CS: The tree is in Arlington’s Shirlington section on the bike path. Unfortunately, to this day there is nothing to indicate why the tree was planted or by whom or when. I am told that it is not allowed to have a sign, but I know where the tree is. I photograph it once a year and send it to our counterparts in Ivano-Frankivsk to show them how it is growing, that it has survived
The event was very, very emotional, because both the Arlington County Board and the ASCA board voted unanimously to support the initiative leading to the friendship agreement. Again, it was Sandra who helped it along, suggesting the friendship agreement as a first step. And that worked.
Q: What has happened since then?
CS: After the friendship agreement was signed, we felt more secure about the prospects, though even then it was not certain. There were still dissident voices. But we kept working, focusing our efforts here in the United States, as I did not want to make promises to Ivano-Frankivsk until I was certain that something was going to happen.
We continued organizing annual Carol of the Bells events. We invited the Yorktown High School Madrigals to perform. I taught them how to sing Ukrainian Christmas carols. I had the cooperation of Mr. Oliver, the Yorktown music director. As luck would have it, on the day we had a severe snow storm and the Kennedy Center, where the performance was to have been staged, was closed. But the show did go on! It was a full house, though the Madrigals did not arrive that particular year. They did perform the next year, 2011, the fourth annual Carol of the Bells.
Q: A technical question—when you were doing this mobilization work, how many hours a week did you put in?
CS: I honestly don’t know. Since I am retired, I can devote some time to it. There were intense periods and over the course of time I became more proficient. If need be, I can get the word out via e-mail. It is important to point out that we did have a committee of many devoted and interested individuals. Just to mention one, Slava Hart. If it were not for Slava, we probably would not have had any documents in Ukrainian ready for signing for the 2009 event. When 2011 came along, I think she again was instrumental in getting that going. Ed Lytwak was wonderful about writing up reports, contributing to our communications strategy. There were a lot of people involved. It was not a one person show. A lot of people cooperated. Not all of them consistently, because many of them are still working and do not necessarily have the time to devote to it.
Q: How did you find Ed Lytwak?
CS: The very first thing I ever did was organize an event with Andrew Evans. Andrew Evans was the author of the Bradt Travel Guide to Ukraine. It’s an English publication, a very highly respected one. The Smithsonian had invited Evans six months or a year before I did—that’s how I learned of his existence. He graciously acceded to my invitation to address a group at the Ukrainian embassy to people I would invite. He revealed that he particularly likes Ivano-Frankivsk. So, I put out information about the planned event, enlisting a former Peace Corps volunteer living locally now, Ken Bossong who puts out a weekly bulletin of local events related to Ukraine; I probably put a notice in the Ukrainian newspaper. Probably also the Sun Gazette. It was a comprehensive campaign. Seventy people came to the embassy to hear Andrew Evans speak. In fact, a professor visiting with his students from the University of Chicago attended the event. I collected as many names and addresses as I could, which I did at every single event we ever had. I subsequently wrote to them, saying we would love to have you join the committee. That is probably how Ed came along.
The Evans event was in November, 2007. In January, 2008 we had our first committee meeting; Sandra MacDonald offered her home as the meeting place. I will always be grateful to her for that. About 12-14 people attended, many of whom had been at the Andrew Evans presentation, including many I had met for the first time, Ed Lytwak being one of them.
If I may digress for a moment: I have to tell this story—while minute, it is so very important. When I first tried to see whether there was any interest in Ivano-Frankivsk as a sister city, I reached out to a large number of sources to inform people. Prior to the Evans event, there was a picnic that ASCA normally puts on. I figured: picnic, September—I am going to invite those interested in the Ukrainian project to it. I sent the information and came to the picnic. There was not a single soul I recognized. My first reaction was: “Okay, hang it up—obviously there is no interest. You reached out to the School of Ukrainian Studies, you reached out to the Ukrainian press, you reached out through the Sun Gazette—you did everything possible. Nobody is interested, so why bother? Just then, Sandra MacDonald called me over to say that there was someone who wanted to talk to me.” The person was Shane Ahn. He had Asian features. He was a returned Peace Corps volunteer from Ukraine, who happened to read about the picnic and showed up. I thought to myself: “Being that Shane Ahn was there, maybe it’s too early to give up.” Shane was initially a very important part of this; he was involved in trying to get some other Peace Corps volunteers interested. His appearance was critical; it convinced me not to hang it up. And the Evans event at the embassy in November 2007 was the next thing I did.
Q: Shane was living locally?
CS: He was living in Arlington and still lives here as far as I know.
Q: Has he continued to participate?
CS: Very nominally. But I know one thing: if I need something, I can call on him and he will usually respond.
Q: It takes a certain kind of person to participate. People are besieged with opportunities and requests. The constellation of factors has to be just right for anyone to take that step.
CS: Absolutely. That is why I have been mentally reviewing what seems to work. Sending out a blast e-mail seldom works. You have to have that personal contact. You have to call that person up and say, “you know, we would love to have you on our committee. I think I know what you can easily do for us that would be very helpful. You speak very well. You write very well. Maybe you would consider writing for our newsletter. Maybe you would consider doing a graphic diagram for us.” If you can identify a skill that a particular person is good at and sell the idea to them that they could contribute in that way, it makes it so much more likely that they will say yes.
Q: I want to give you an opportunity to crow about some of the other triumphs in the history of the Ivano-Frankivsk relationship. One of them is the exchange of blacksmiths.
CS: The blacksmiths. Well, every year Ivano-Frankivsk celebrates “The Day of the City.” Last year  they marked their 350th anniversary. Last year and for the past ten years, the blacksmiths from the Ivano-Frankivsk region participated. The president of the IF blacksmith association, Mr. Polubotko also serves as president of the all-Ukraine blacksmith association. Each year, they contribute a sculpture fashioned by them to the city of Ivano-Frankivsk on The Day of the City. When we visited Ivano-Frankivsk the first time and the second time, we went on a path where every few feet almost, there would be such a sculpture—a swing, a photo-frame, a carousel, a sun, something for newlyweds, an embroidered towel. It’s called The 100 Meters. Every few feet there is a sculpture done by this international gathering of blacksmiths who contribute to the project. On one of those visits it occurred to me that it would be kind of cool if one of them could visit Arlington. Little did I suspect that my understated suggestion would reverberate so strongly. Before we knew it ,we found out that there was a group of blacksmiths interested in visiting Arlington. Well, I got busy and discovered that there is a “Blacksmith’s Guild of the Potomac.” They have a blacksmith shop on Military Road in Arlington. I discovered that the guild meets every third Friday of the month. I told them about the blacksmiths of Ivano-Frankivsk and after they arrived we enabled them to meet. While visiting Mount Vernon they visited the blacksmith shop on the grounds of Mt. Vernon and befriended Eric Zieg the local blacksmith there. Eric and Anatoly Rudik “communicate with hammers,” as they say—one speaks Ukrainian, the other English. But hammers are a language they can understand.
Now, somehow Anatoly Rudik went on to meet the dean of the medical school at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, who is himself an avid blacksmith. He has a blacksmith shop in his home. He invited Anatoly Rudik after that first visit to come and spend time with him and work together on a project. As a result today the School of Medicine in Baltimore has an absolutely magnificent iron work representing a favorite tree at the school of medicine that had died. The “Davidge Tree” now graces two huge windows at the medical school – the re-creation of that Elm tree that died—the work of Anatoly Rudik and the dean of the medical school jointly.
Q: How did the dean know about Anatoly?
CS: I don’t know. The blacksmiths have their own circle of friends. While at the Blacksmiths Shop on the Potomac, Anatoly made a little tree that was left behind at the guild shop when he returned to Ukraine. That piece has since been donated or loaned to Arlington Central Library. It is now on dispay there, a joint product of Anatoly Rudik and some collaborators from the Blacksmith Guild on the Potomac.
Now a critical part of all of this must be attributed to one of ASCA’s former board members, Karl Liewer. Karl’s residence adjoins the Blacksmith Guild of the Potomac. He opened his home to Anatoly, providing extensive hospitality in the form of an extended home-stay, while he worked with the dean in Baltimore, or next door at the Guild, or in Mount Vernon with Eric Zieg.
Q: Brilliant! Let’s now talk about the student exchanges.
CS: The student exchanges started almost immediately after we signed the sister city agreement, which was in March, 2011. Once we had become sister cities, I organized another trip to Ukraine. This time, Arlington County Board member Christopher Zimmerman led the delegation, accompanied by his wife, Mary-Beth Zimmerman, their daughter and including about nine other individuals from ASCA. While on the train from Kyiv to Ivano-Frankivsk, I asked Mary-Beth if she would be interested in joining our committee and she said yes. Once she had joined, it rapidly became clear that without too much prodding, she would be interested in taking on the student exchange project. She has done a wonderful job of spearheading and leading it. In August 2012 the first group of American students went to Ivano-Frankivsk. In IF, the president of the IF-Arlington committee, Aleksandra Federuk, organized the program. She arranged the home-stays for the students; she arranged the entire program. Evidently, they had a wonderful time. They formed friendships. They were led by Malcolm Phillips, an excellent choice as chaperone insofar as the group had five boys in it. Irina Kowalchuk was also a chaperone, who, as a Ukrainian speaker, was also an excellent choice. Irina Kowalchuk is actually from Calvert County, Maryland. Her son was one of the exchange students. From what I understand, it was a very successful tour. This year in March we had a reciprocal visit from a group of students from Ivano-Frankivsk, most of whom hosted Arlington students in the summer of 2012.
Q: Did you encounter any visa problems this time?
CS: No, they all received their visas and there were no problems.
Q: What other aspects of the Arlington-Ivano-Frankivsk relationship should be mentioned?
CS: Let me say something about my own role. I led the relationship to the point of becoming a sister city. My work consisted in laying the groundwork for that development. That had been accomplished on my watch. Therefore, I felt at that point the time had come for me to step down. I thought that it would be healthy for the committee and also provide an opportunity to a younger generation in the interest of providing for the committee’s sustainability. I did not contemplate disappearing altogether. I had finally realized my dream.
Q: What is your sense of how things have developed since you stepped down as committee president?
CS: The student exchanges have been started after my watch. That is a very positive development. On the other hand, I worry a little. I thought I had found a potentially excellent president in the person of Jerry Lucas. But his tenure unfortunately was very brief. That was bothersome and painful because we thought we had a wonderful candidate. Jerry Lucas had no Ukrainian roots, but his wife is Ukrainian and I like that combination. I knew she could help him on some issues. He even understood and spoke some Ukrainian. He would be able to speak to the wider Arlington community and this could only strengthen us. After he left, the committee was in limbo for awhile. I thought I couldn’t just let it die, so I called a meeting at my house at the end of December, 2011. Quite a few people came. We elected two co-presidents: Darian Diachok, who was an ASCA board member for a number of years and Andriy Tsintsiruk.
Darian stepped down after a month due to conflicting commitments. Andriy assumed the presidency and has been doing a good job.
Q: The visit of Ivano-Frankivsk’s mayor this January seemed like a very successful operation.
CS: Yes, it was. Andriy extended the invitation to the mayor and his wife. Steve Hodskins, a member of our committee, played a key role in it. He noticed that the visit was timed for President Obama’s inaugural festivities. Because of that, suddenly there was an opportunity not only for the mayor to visit the United States and Arlington but also to participate in the inauguration of president Obama , attend the parade and an inauguration ball. The mayor was accompanied by his wife Lydia and they were very pleased.
Q: We have not yet talked about the signing ceremony for formal sister city status. Tell us about that.
CS: At the time, I felt “finally!” But in retrospect maybe not. After all, it had taken the Reims effort more than six years to achieve sister city status. If you look at some of the others, it took them a long time. So, in comparison, we managed it quickly. But to me it felt like, finally, because I felt I had invested so much of myself into this.
Q: When was the signing?
CS: March 4, 2011. To me, it was an absolutely wonderful event. Not only were we signing an agreement, but the “whole world” was able to witness us, as it was done at the annual convention of Sister Cities International, held here in Arlington. So, something we were working so hard on for so many years all of a sudden was coming to fruition.
Q: How many of you were involved at the time from the committee?
CS: Usually, we could count on up to 14 people. That was the stable core. Others floated in and out.
Q: That strikes me as a pretty big core group of activists.
CS: Yes. The event took place during the SCI meeting, one of the first items on SCI’s agenda on Friday morning. The kickoff speech for the convention came immediately after our signing ceremony. A large audience exceeding a couple of hundred witnessed it. Among those participating was the president of SCI, Arlington County Board chairman Christopher Zimmerman, Karl van Newkirk for ASCA, Mayor Viktor Anushkevychus, and Viktor Vintoniak for the counterpart of our committee in Ivano-Frankivsk. Lesia Fedoruk would have been there, but illness in the family made her cancel at the last minute. A group of 10-12 from Ivano-Frankivsk came to the event. Viktor Vintoniak is the one who sponsors the blacksmiths and does a lot of cultural things in the city of IF and is a member of the committee there that works with us.
Q: What is your sense of the impact of the committee since your personal mobilization efforts began a decade ago?
CS: In the case of ASCA, it has brought new board members, some of whom have played important roles. Let’s start with Ed Lytwak, who for a time was ASCA’s newsletter editor who worked on a volunteer basis. John Kun was ASCA treasurer for a number of years. Darian Diachok provided words of wise counsel from time to time, myself, usually a silent partner at board meetings, and last but not least, Malcolm Phillips, who joined the board, became Vice-Chairman and is now serving as ASCA Chairman.
With regard to our impact more broadly in Arlington County, our events through the years resonated, promoting ASCA, promoting the IF committee, through film screenings, the Holodomor exhibit, a Pysanka exhibit, the Carol of the Bells events, the involvement of elementary school students under the leadership of our committee member and teacher Maritza Sadowsky at the signing ceremony, also involvement of the Madrigals and their performance at the Embassy of Ukraine, sending a musician to a school to educate young students about music of the Carpathian Mountains region, and the student exchange program.We also organized two trips to Ukraine which were widely advertised for adults to participate.
Through OPEN WORLD a program of the Library of Congress we were able to sponsor 18 participants from Ukraine who benefited from home stays with Arlingtonians and enjoyed the program that was developed for them be it NGO development or Accountable Governance.
Q: Have you heard anything from the participants in the exchanges since they occurred?
CS: I believe that the students themselves are very frequently on Facebook together, communicating with each other. I have only been involved tangentially with the exchanges; the key persons there are Mary Beth Zimmerman, Malcolm Phillips, and Irene Kowalchyk . Those are the people they would communicate with.
Q: In assessing how Ivano-Frankivsk fits into the overall ASCA mosaic, it has clearly added a lot of dimensionality. What about the impact of IF on the organization itself? You mentioned some not so positive experiences. Do you think that IF has help remediate those?
CS: Absolutely!. From being made to feel less than desired, I now feel very much embraced by ASCA; I no longer feel in any way “foreign”, or in any way not a part of it. I feel I have won the respect of the board members. I have been accepted. Not only have I been accepted, but Ivano-Frankivsk has been accepted into the family of the ASCA organization and is well-liked. I am very happy about that development and can only hope that it will continue.