Looking For My Roots

I would like to tell you the story of my great-great-grandmother Julia.

She was born in 1888 in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Ethnically she was Polish, and more specifically Galician; the village she lived in was part of Poland just over 100 years prior, but between 1772 and 1795 Russia, Prussia, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire split up Poland into three pieces, and southern Poland came under Habsburg control. At the time she was born, the village of Nyzhankovychi (Niezankowice in Polish) was quite diverse: Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews each made up about a third of the population. She had six or seven brothers and sisters. In 1906, at the age of eighteen, she decided to immigrate to the United States. The story goes that her father had to lend her the money for the boat fare. She was never able to pay him back.

She and a female relative (probably a cousin?) traveled to Hamburg to embark on the sea voyage to New York. On arrival, she didn’t speak any English and had no prospects. Luckily for her, Catholic charities were taking an active role in assisting new Catholic immigrants. They got her a job as a maid and probably also helped her find a place to live. Within two years, she was married and pregnant with her first child: my great-grandmother.

Meanwhile, over in Europe, war was breaking out and in 1918, the Austro-Hungarian Empire had dissolved. Poland was back on the map, but it was even bigger than it is today: its territory included all of the region of Galicia, which today straddles the Ukraine-Poland border. The rest of Ukraine, however, was soon incorporated into the fledgling Soviet Union. Lucky for the Galicians, they were spared from the terrible famine that struck Ukraine in the early 1930s. In 1939, Poland was invaded by Germany, and most of the country’s Jews—including, I suppose, the ones living in Nyzhankovychi—were killed. At the end of the war, when Poland came back into existence and the border was redrawn, the territory of Galicia was split in two, and Nyzhankovychi ended up on the Soviet side of the border. I don’t know much about the Soviet years, but it’s my impression that the Polish community did not fare well during that time. Polish culture was repressed and Catholics were forbidden from worshipping. Nowadays the Polish population in Nyzhankovychi is almost zero. The descendants of those who survived both world wars, who weren’t very many, have mixed with the Ukrainian population.

Road into Nyzhankovychi

The road into Nyzhankovychi

I wanted to visit this village for myself, first of all to see where one of my ancestors came from and also because it sounded like an interesting place in the crux of history. Not many towns can claim to have been part of five different countries in the past 100 years.

During the Soviet years, Nyzhankovychi was a border town. The international train passed through on its way to Poland. Nowadays the train still runs on the Ukrainian side of the border, but it is not an official border crossing with Poland. Since Poland is in the EU and Ukraine is not, apparently there have been some problems with smuggling (for example, in Ukraine, things like cigarettes are much cheaper.) When we arrived in town, a soldier boarded our bus and we were immediately questioned. First he checked our passports, and asked why we were in Nyzhankovychi. With the help of a passenger who spoke very good English, we explained that we just wanted to see the village, visit the church, and so on. He told us to wait. I was thinking, “Oh no. We’ve come this far and we’re not going to be allowed to get off the bus.” He came back a few minutes later with a plainclothes police officer and another soldier. Checking our passports again, they asked how long we had been in Ukraine. I was flustered and accidentally said “since June 20th” instead of “July 20th.” Luckily, I don’t think they noticed. He asked again why we were there. I gave a more specific answer, explaining about my great-great-grandmother (I hoped this would win me some points, but their expressions didn’t change.) Then he asked, “When are you going to Poland?”

“Poland??” How did he know that our next destination was Poland? Then I realized he meant today, not in general. “We’re not going to Poland. We’re here to see Nyzhankovychi. We’re going back to L’viv tonight.”

After this was translated, he had one more instruction for us. “The last bus is at 5:00. Make sure you’re on it.”

Bus stop, Nyzhankovychi

Bus stop in the center of town. It's a happenin' place

We agreed, and we were allowed to get off the bus. I was relieved, but Bob was paranoid that they’d be watching us the rest of the day. We started to walk around the town a bit, but when we saw more soldiers, Bob insisted that we shouldn’t walk any further; that they’d be suspicious if we were walking towards Poland. It took him a few hours to relax.

Just over 100 years ago, the population of Nyzhankovychi was about 1,750. Now it’s 1,850. The area is still predominantly rural, and we saw several horse-drawn carts traveling up the road.

View from the main road

It was all kind of strange. Cars alongside horse-drawn carts, geese wandering across the road, modern houses next to ancient-looking wells. I imagine that in some ways it still looks a lot like it did 100 years ago. Old well
The Catholic church is still standing, unlike many other churches in the former USSR. The church was established in 1461, although the present structure is from the 19th century. It was used as storage until 1991. I wandered around for awhile, trying to find an unlocked gate. An old woman saw me, showed me in, and waited while I looked around. It was very small; only eight or ten short pews. Interestingly, the Bibles and hymnals were in Polish.

Catholic church

Finding no leads in the church, we headed over to the graveyard to see if we could find any stones with my great-great-grandma’s surname. Eastern European graveyards are always colorful affairs. The graves are very well cared for, and I wonder if the descendants ever compete with each other for the title of “most fabulous.”

Graveyard The Polish graves were all in a separate section. We combed through those, and the Ukrainian ones for good measure, but found nothing. There are other graveyards in the area, so my relatives could be buried there. Or they could’ve moved. I’m really not sure what happened to the rest of the family after Julia immigrated.

Back in the US, my great-great-grandma moved to Philly, became a widow, moved to Chicago, remarried, and eventually took American citizenship, thirty-five years after immigrating. She lived long enough to meet several of her great-grandchildren. When visiting her, my father remembers her asking, always in Polish, for him to give her a kiss.

In the end, it wasn’t a very interesting town. We left sometime around 2 or 3 p.m. because we didn’t want to wait until 5. And I found no evidence that anyone I’m related to had ever lived there. But I felt satisfied anyway. I wanted to see the town and I did. Growing up, I never felt any sort of connection to Europe, even though I’m European-American. Seeing a place where one of my ancestors came from helped me feel more connected to the continent than I did before.

Eating Eastern Europe

Maybe it’s because we are genetically predisposed to it, but eastern European food really agreed with us. Perhaps it’s because our favorite vegetables feature prominently (mine is mushrooms; Bob’s is potatoes.) Or maybe it’s just that good. I mean really. Look at this: Polish buffet dinner

This is mall food in Poland. I am so jealous.

European food is always served in courses, so I should go through one by one. Eastern European salads are not beds of lettuce with some cucumber and tomato on top—there are endless varieties of pickled salads, coleslaw-type salads with mayonnaise, shredded carrot salad, potato salad, and my personal favorite, beetroot salad. Yes, seriously. You can see it in the photo, wedged between the fries and the cucumber-dill salad.

Ukrainian buffet dinner

Clockwise from top left: sour cherry dumplings, potato dumplings, roasted eggplant and tomato salad, and borscht

The next course is soup, so let’s talk borscht. I got to try two types of borscht: green and red. The green one is made with sorrel and the red one is made with beets. Borscht is not Russian in origin, but Ukrainian, and each country in the region seems to have their own variation.

Of course there are more soups: one Belarusian woman I met told me that her mother cooks soup every day. We tried solyanka, rasonyik, tomato cabbage soup, chicken soup…. All were good, but my favorite was rasonyik, made with pork, barley, potatoes, carrot, onion, and cucumber pickles.

Main dishes tend to be meat- or fish-based. When we stayed at Lake Baikal, we ate grilled fish every day, which was fantastic. Unfortunately, most of the rest of Russia doesn’t do seafood, and I didn’t find the meat dishes very exciting (hamburg steak, grilled chicken, etc.) so when possible, I opted for dumplings or just stuck to soup, salad, and bread. Bob is still disappointed he never found a restaurant serving beef stroganoff. In northwestern Ukraine and southern Poland, though, things were better; we really enjoyed Galician chicken pot pie and bigos. When cooking at home, we usually went to the supermarket and picked out a few random kielbasa. We were never disappointed.

Potato dumplings and mushrooms

Potato dumplings and mushrooms

The dumplings were probably my favorite part. Russian dumplings are filled with meat and are called pelmeni. Ukrainian dumplings are filled with vegetables or fruit and are called vareniki. The designation doesn’t mean much; both types are available in both countries. In Poland, all dumplings are called pierogi and come with many different fillings. “Russian” pierogis are filled with cheese, potato, and onion. The funny thing is that in Russia, that combination would definitely not be regarded as Russian. When serving dumplings, don’t forget plenty of butter and sour cream.  The savory ones are more well-known in the US, so the fruit-filled ones were a delicious surprise. Sweet dumplings are usually filled with sour cherries, but we were lucky enough to visit during blueberry season. The berries were tiny and the sweetest I’ve ever tasted.   Blueberry dumplings in Poland In a slightly upscale restaurant, I had them with a white chocolate sauce and powdered sugar, but at home, we ate them with sour cream and coarse granulated sugar. Heaven.Blueberry dumplings in Ukraine

When it comes to sweets, you only need one word in Russia: bliny. In two weeks, we visited a bliny chain called Teremok a total of five times. They do savory blinys too—mushrooms and sour cream is my favorite—but the sweet ones are really, really good. The best ones: apricot and tovorog (a kind of Russian sweet cottage cheese) or mixed berry. Teremok bliny

In one restaurant in Ukraine, we had something that was called baked bliny:

Baked bliny, Ukraine

Yes, that's more sour cream

Being of central and eastern European descent myself, a lot of these dishes were familiar to me. My ancestors all immigrated to the States over 100 years ago, so I’m not particularly close to any European traditions, but when it comes to food, I guess old habits die hard. The flavors and ingredients were very similar to the cuisine my mom cooked when I was growing up. It’s the kind of food that isn’t often served in restaurants—it’s not haute cuisine—but in the home, it really shines. Thanks to couchsurfing, we enjoyed several home-cooked meals while in the region. Our Ukrainian hosts took us to meet their grandparents, who welcomed us like their own grandchildren and stuffed us silly with great food. Since it was just an informal meal at home, they didn’t serve courses, but rather just laid everything out on the table and told us to eat up. In this photo, Bob is reaching for a crepe-like roll that’s filled with chopped mushrooms. It’s eaten with a mushroom cream sauce. For eastern Europeans, there is no such thing as too many mushrooms.Lunch is Ukraine

The potato-looking things on the center top are actually potato dumplings—kind of like gnocchi but much bigger. They’re filled with cottage cheese and can also be eaten with a cream sauce. Our couchsurfing host told us that this was one of her most favorite foods, so her grandma always makes it when she comes to visit. This spread is nothing, by the way; this was just lunch. Apparently, on Christmas Eve, they do a twelve-course dinner.

Eastern Europe is not generally regarded as one of the world’s greatest culinary destinations, but if you come with a big appetite and a liking for dairy products, they will never let you leave hungry.