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My paternal Ukrainian grandparents immigrated before (my grandfather) and after WW1 (my grandmother). When I researched my family history, documentation didn’t always agree with family story. What should I believe, the documentation or the story? In this blog post, I outline some of the conflicting types information that I came across.
I’ve met a number of people who’ve learned that, unbeknownst to them, their grandfathers had families in both Canada and the old country. In one case, the secret was only revealed when the grandfather passed away, when they found old letters. I suspect it was much easier to hide such truths many decades ago; now we have DNA testing and potential revelations of many more uncomfortable truths. Be careful what you ask for.
Family story indicates my 26-year-old grandfather wanted to avoid conscription by the Austrian army. He arrived in Winnipeg in May 1914, just months before WWI started. Even so, the concept of an oncoming war was uncertain at the time. A stronger motivation for my grandparents was the possibility of creating a better life for their family in Canada. Yes, in all likelihood he’d already performed the mandatory three-year service 19-year-olds were obligated to undertake in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I’ve since read it was common for young Ukrainian men to want to avoid conscription: they knew there’d be a good chance they’d become cannon fodder.
Family story indicates our grandparents owned a farm near Polonia, Manitoba for a short time. Someone even suggested they knew the land location. Local residents mentioned to me that settlers in this area were primarily Polish, not Ukrainian, although there were a few of the latter. Land in the area had already been taken up and farmed before my grandparents arrived. Just a few months ago, a friend spent some time investigating land titles in the Rural Municipality; no records were found for my grandfather in the Polonia area but she found records of a person by the name of William Nikoluk (and the Confederation Life Association Company of Winnipeg, a financing company) who owned a farm just east of Eden, Manitoba between the years 1926 and 1933. The land location was the SW ¼ of 24-26-15.
My grandfather did become known as William Nykoluk after he came to Canada. Misspellings (or different spellings) of Ukrainian names were common. I’m thinking the chance of there being two Wasyl/William Nykoluks in the area at the same time are close to nil.
Family story indicates my grandfather was the only son in his family; his parents had suffered the loss of a number of children in the late 1800’s. Yes, child and mother mortality in Galicia during that time was very high (Martynowych, 1991). I have been asked whether there might be a possibility my grandfather may have left family behind? About a year and a half ago, one of my cousins hired a Ukrainian genealogist to search family records in our ancestral village. And yes, Church records indicated this story was true. The genealogist provided scans of Church death records of my grandfather’s siblings (including cause of infant deaths – including smallpox) along with present-day photos of their grave markers.
TRUE OR FALSE?
My older cousins related a family story in which it was believed my grandfather was a worker on my grandmother’s more-wealthy family farm. As the story goes, my grandmother could read and write. This does not agree with our ancestor’s documentation - also, it was more common to educate sons and not daughters in the old country. My grandfather’s Passenger Arrival document indicated he could read and write. His signature also appeared on a land purchase document in 1940. In contrast, my grandmother signed her Passenger Arrival document with an “O” and I am not aware of any documentation in which her signature appears.
STORIES NOT TOLD
Ukrainians, mostly young unemployed single men, were interned by the Canadian government during 1914 -- 1920, a time when Austria was viewed as an enemy of Britain. Internment records were destroyed by the Canadian government in the 1950’s but were partially reconstructed by Ukrainians (www.infoukes.com/history/internment/roll_call/ ).
You can imagine my surprise when I found my grandfather’s name on the Brandon Internment Camp roll call list! The man, named Wasyl Nykoluik (sic), was interned, released or paroled on November 13th, 1915. Was it him?
My family knew nothing about this. But, is it really surprising? In her book published in 2019, “The Stories Were Not Told,” Sandra Semchuk recorded Ukrainian accounts of these times: “Don’t mention anything what took place or else it will be tough for the men that spoke about it.”
It’s common for people to conceal difficult stories. In any case, when my grandparents were reunited in Sioux Lookout in 1923, after being separated for nine long years, they were determined to reconstruct their lives as Canadians. War had left their homeland shattered. I found another Wasyl Nykoluk in Manitoba at the time: he was about ten years younger and part of a large family of brothers who’d immigrated to Winnipeg much earlier. We’ll never know the truth. However, there is a 50% chance the interned Wasyl Nykoluk was indeed our grandfather.
Family stories are important, but in my experience, they must be taken “with a grain of salt.” There’s ample opportunity for stories to be changed over the course of lifetimes. However, documentation can be an important tool for ascertaining their accuracy. Used together, they help strengthen our own understanding of our ancestry.
My curiosity, and desire to fill in gaps of my knowledge, eventually led me to write a historical fiction novel called Heart Stones: A Ukrainian Immigration Story of Love and Hope, which was published in mid-February 2023.
Visit my website for more details about Heart Stones, read book reviews and visit my bookstore, listen to media interviews and, and read more blog posts. While there, you can download Chapter One from my book, it’s absolutely free!
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Martynowych, O. 1991. Ukrainians in Canada - The Formative Period: 1891-1924. Edmonton: University of Alberta - Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies Press.
Project Roll Call: Lest We Forget. Downloaded on April 15th, 2023 from: http://www.infoukes.com/history/internment/roll_call/
Semchuck, S. 2019. The Stories Were Not Told: Canada’s First World War Internment Camps. Edmonton: The University of Alberta Press.