He was there every day, without fail. He stared, searched, and yearned to see anything on the horizon that resembled a passenger ship. The dock workers knew him well for they’d grown accustomed to seeing him. Every time a different vessel came into port, they observed how he’d anxiously find his way to the front of the disembarkment area and eagerly, yet with care, scrutinize each woman and child’s face. The men at the dock would look to see what would happen next. Did Michael find who he was looking for? Or would he return again, to repeat this ritual? Most often, they would see Michael’s shoulders slump and his head fall – a man who stood silent yet strong. He would no doubt be back again they thought, for he was a man on a mission.
This is the story of my great grandfather and his family, at least as I imagine it went, based on stories I was told. His name was Michael and he was Ukrainian. He had met and married, Alexandra (also Ukrainian) and had two daughters, Stefania and Doris. They lived in Buffalo,
Michael, in his later years
New York and were happy there, for a time. “That’s Michael,” one dock worker would tell a newcomer, “His wife and daughters went to visit family in Lviv, Poland.” I’m sure that bit of information on any ordinary day would not garner much notice, but in this case – the family in question had been gone far too long and with reason to worry.
A Visit Back to the “Old Country”
What started out as a month long visit back to the “old country”, turned into an unimaginable drama. World War I had just broken out, and Alexandra and her two daughters found themselves unable to
War in Lviv
return home as planned. Correspondence became unreliable, and as war often produces many challenges, this would not be any different. Michael would be waiting for them at their predetermined time of return, but they would not be there.
With Stefania about three years of age, and her sister just a few years older than that, Alexandra needed to remain calm, protect her girls and try to figure out a way to get home. I’m sure that getting a letter or a telegram to her husband was of the utmost importance – for there were no modern conveniences like email, fax machines, readily available telephones or cell phones. I believe the year was 1914, and things were very, very different then.
A World Turned Upside Down
Michael continued to go to the docks every day. What had happened to his family? He checked his mail constantly for a letter and he waited for a telegram. He asked friends and family if they had heard anything. Nothing. What was he to do? Did he know about the war? Did he know that Soviet troops had captured the city of Lviv in September? The trip that was to take about a month had now lasted for over a half of a year.
I can’t begin to imagine what living under militaristic enemy rule would’ve been (or be) like, but my great-grandmother Alexandra would soon find out. Similar to what we’ve heard of as “The Quartering Act” during Revolutionary War times, the citizens of Lviv found themselves, (or at least Alexandra did) having to take in and house an enemy soldier.
Alexandra was young and attractive, and “single”, or so it appeared. It was only by quick thinking that she would escape the advances of an aggressive soldier who had recently made her home his. Rushing to pick up Stefania, she secretly pinched her as hard as she could. She made her daughter cry, she made her scream! The soldier was relentless, but Alexandra would continue to pinch her daughter very hard, so that she could say, “My daughter needs me! I must tend to my daughter! Listen to how she cries!” Thankfully – this worked, and the soldier retreated.
Living in Two Separate Worlds
I assume that both Michael and Alexandra were living in their own private hell. Without any word going out or coming in from the other, what were they to do? Time would continue to pass. One year would turn into two, three, four, five, six, and for whatever reason – money, inability to communicate, continued issues of war – Alexandra, Stefania and Doris had not been able to return home.
I’m sure my great-grandfather grieved greatly. For all he had known – his family had died in the war or had become lost at sea.
Life Goes On
Michael eventually remarried and started a new family. He had a daughter named Olga. But it wasn’t long after that, news would come that would be supremely bittersweet.
From top clockwise: Doris, Stefania and Alexandra
Alexandra, Stefania and Doris were alive! They would finally be returning home, and very soon! I can’t begin to fathom the joy and distress that he must’ve felt at hearing the news. He married another woman, he started a new family. He was elated that his first family was alive and well, and would be seeing them soon, but what was going to happen now? What was he supposed to do?
Wait a Minute…
You may be wondering where I am going with all of this. The idea for this article came to me last week while at the funeral of my Uncle Bob. I thought it was important to share and as you read on, I’ll tell you why.
Some of My Thoughts…
First, I think history is great. I love it. Family history is even more amazing, because it is ours! We all come from such varied backgrounds and have really interesting stories to tell.
Secondly, I’d like to encourage you to spend quality time with your grandparents, aunts, uncles, parents, etc. now. Make it meaningful and take the time to ask some important family history questions. Appoint a scribe or family historian, someone to document information and take pictures and film. Learn your family history while you have it available to you. If your kids aren’t that interested in it now, they will be later.
Thirdly, consider what impact we can have on those that come after us. What treasures of learned experience or fun stories do you have to share with the younger ones? Make memories with an eye toward the future. Keep a journal of thoughts about yourself and the world around you. We may not all be fans of history or genealogy, but we do bring something to the table that completes the big picture. Think about it.
But What About Alexandra, Stefania and Doris?
Michael made the decision to remain married to his second wife. Though their relationship was stressed for a time, Michael, Stefania and Doris reconciled
My grandma (Stella) and me
and continued a relationship. He grew closer to Stefania (who changed her name to the popular American “Stella”) as she married and had children of her own. Stella married John Daniel (see sepia-toned wedding photo above, left) and gave birth to five children; John, Bob, Joan, Terry and Richard (Tim). I am the daughter of Richard. I have many wonderful memories of my grandma and have included a picture of her and I together from the early nineties.
I hope you enjoyed reading some of my family history. If you have a story that you’d like to briefly tell, I invite you to share it. I would LOVE to hear it!
As always, thanks for reading. I appreciate your interest!