The 12 of us around the kitchen table said our prayers individually in hushed tones.
Michael Ziatyk, the 73-year-old head of the household, dipped his spoon into the large bowl of wheat porridge at the center of the table and twice swept it from side to side in the sign of the cross, then ate a spoonful mixed with nuts, poppy seeds and honey. In turn, we also dipped our spoons and ate, a family communion of sorts.
This meal marked the beginning of the second of three “holy suppers’’ my wife and I shared with relatives on Christmas Eve, on Jan. 6 of this year, in the small Ukrainian village of Shutromynsti. (Ukrainians who are Greek Catholic and Eastern Orthodox usually celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7 because they follow the old Julian calendar as opposed to the newer Gregorian calendar.)
Each meal consisted of 12 vegetarian and pescatarian dishes ranging from salads and golubsi, rice and nuts stuffed in rolled cabbage leaves, to slices of herring and varenyky, dumplings filled with potato or cabbage.
My relatives believe souls of the dead visit on Christmas Eve, the reason I was urged to nibble on a garlic clove to ward off any spirits who might be evil. Garlic cloves also were tucked beneath the corners of the tablecloth for the same purpose. Some food is left out overnight for the good souls — much like treats for Santa Claus in America. Food from the meal also is shared with the family’s pigs and cows because they provide sustenance during the year.
At least three toasts were made during each meal: to the three days of Christmas; to parents, family and friends; and to love, the last usually made while standing. Our shot glasses were filled with homemade nonalcoholic wine, Italian brandy and what a translator called “Lemko Fire,’’ their name for vodka they distilled from potatoes and sugar in the corner of a bedroom.
Since my relatives are Greek Catholic we could have attended a one-hour Christmas Eve mass. But my second cousin Olena Ziatyk, 76, who walks with a cane, opted for the village’s other church, fittingly named St. Nicholas. St. Nicholas also is the patron saint of the village. The three-and-a-half hour Ukrainian Orthodox Divine Liturgy, she said, would allow her time to meditate about her life, her soul.
The opportunity to meet and spend the holiday with Olena, her two brothers and their extended families fulfilled a quest that began years ago when I found a packet of letters and photographs that belonged to my late mother.
A sister of Olena’s grandfather, my mother Eva Stricharchuk ((maiden name, Ziatyk), had emigrated as a child to the United States in 1910. The oldest letters date to 1939. The most recent, a Christmas greeting from Olena in the early 1960s, asked my mother to visit one of Ukraine’s larger cities. “Maybe you’ll come so that we will come and see you,’’ she wrote in Ukrainian. My mom never made the trip.
But about a year and a half ago my wife, Cheryl L. Reed, won a Fulbright scholarship to teach at Kiev-Mohyla National Academy. In September 2016 we moved to Kiev and my roots adventure began in earnest.
Last November, after a five-hour train ride to western Ukraine, where I met up with a translator who drove us another two hours in his car, we pulled into Olena’s village for the first time — after several stops to allow women herding cows to cross the main road. There is no commercial area, just a community center that occasionally opens for dances. Like others in the village, Olena’s family tends to plots of land where they raise potatoes and other vegetables.
After hugs and three kisses on our cheeks Olena showed us her chickens and a shed where she kept a cow and four pigs, including one destined to be slaughtered for Christmas dinner. The main house, separate from a building where food is prepared for the family and the animals, is among a dozen in the village of 400 people that have indoor plumbing and Wi-Fi.
One of our first stops was the village cemetery where I learned I was named after my mother’s brother and Olena’s grandfather, a person I had never heard of before. As we stood at the rickety green wooden cross that marked his grave I wondered why my mother had never told me about Gregory Ziatyk or two other brothers, one who died in the 1940s and another who had sailed to the United States but immediately returned to Ukraine and died three days later.
I also learned why the Ziatyks were living in the Ternopil oblast when the village listed on my mother’s baptism record was some 225 miles to the west, in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains in what had been the Austro-Hungarian empire.
Olena began to cry as she explained how the Soviets at the end of World War II forced people from their village of Soyinka into cattle cars and shipped them to Ukraine while their homeland was annexed to Poland. The Ziatyks were among 100,000 Lemkos, an ethnic minority, scattered about Ukraine as part of the forced-relocation program known as Operation Vistula. In 1947 another 50,000 Lemkos were settled throughout Poland.
“If you didn’t want to leave they threatened to burn you in your house,’’ said Olena, who was six years old when her family was moved. The homes of 250 people who lived in Solinka were set ablaze. One family member claimed he was Polish in the hope he would be allowed to stay. He was tied to the tail of a horse and dragged through the village, Olena said. Paralyzed by his injuries, he died five years ago.
The Ziatyks had left behind 10 hectares of land (roughly 25 acres) and a sizable house, according to a document Olena showed me. They also lost most of their possessions and animals, except for one horse, she said.