Throughout history, Ukraine has been at the crossroads of various powers including Polish-Lithuania, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Russia. This has been particularly and painfully apparent during the 1930s and 1940s. In the early 1930s, Ukrainian suffered through the Holodomor, a devastating man-made famine created by the Soviets, and resulting in the deaths of millions of Ukrainian, with estimates ranging from 3 to 12 million. This was followed by the ravages of World War II where Ukraine was trapped between competing powers, Nazi-led Germany and Soviet Russia, with total losses estimated at about 6 million. For individual Ukrainians survival meant threading the needle between Nazi administrators, pro-Soviet partisans, and fighters for Ukrainian independence.
This is the setting for Souvenirs from Kiev: Ukraine and Ukrainians in WWII, the best collection of short stories I have read in a long time.
The short stories are inspired by accounts of various family members who lived through the horrors of World War II in Ukraine, in the labor camps in Germany, and in displaced persons camps after the war. While the book is pitched as a collection of separate stories and each can indeed be read independently, the stories are loosely linked through family connections and a consecutive time frame and together form a complex arc of heartrending history. Lucyk-Berger’s writing is stunning. She rings lyrical beauty out of experiences that shatter the soul. Images and phrases stay with you long after you have finished reading. “I will fight for those beneath the snow.” Exquisite details lend color and texture to the stories; for instance, at one point, in order to ease tensions and to distract enemy soldiers, one character in the book engages the soldiers in a game of egg cracking—something my family always played at Easter. In another scene several characters, overcoming fear and distrust, share bread and stories in a timeless encounter in the middle of devastation. The author conveys the remarkable resilience of Ukrainians, whose family spirit, courage, and generosity shine through. I might add that the author provides a short glossary together with succinct historical commentary, both of which are helpful for those not so familiar with the history.