I’m trying to find my Ukrainian family.
With the world on the brink of war after Russia invaded Ukraine last week, my family and I realize that we may have distant relatives caught in the violence. But we have no idea who, where or if they are still alive.
A 20-minute phone call with my grandma Olga revealed how little I know about my family history. But what’s fascinating – and frustrating – is that nobody in my family truly knows where the Gzechowski family bloodline begins.
That’s all I had to go on — various spellings of the name Gzechowski (Chicowski, Czechowski). My aunt couldn’t even remember her grandpa’s name (though she thought it may have been Klehm) — and neither did my dad. But they did know grandma Annie. So I began digging around online grave listings for Annie Gzechowski, Chicowski or Czechowski in Hamilton and within a few minutes, I spotted what I was looking for: “Gzechowski. In Loving Memory Of: Klymens (1894-1959) Annie (1900-1997) At Rest.
Tears began to well in my eyes. Of joy. Of shame.
Knowing that I spent close to 40 years without knowing the names of my great-grandpa and grandma is heartbreaking. I was 14 years old when my great-grandma Annie died, and I was clearly more interested in hockey and video games to take notice.
As a father of two, I could have spent the last decade educating my kids on their Ukrainian heritage — telling them the stories that I’m learning now (like the time my dad and his siblings found a deer carcass on the side of the road and brought it into the house for supper because they couldn’t afford a proper meal).
And, as I write this editorial, I’m learning about my ancestry and reporting it in real-time. My aunt just told me that great-grandpa Klymens died in a logging accident and that the two first met in Montreal in 1914 after immigrating from Ukraine through Ellis Island in N.Y.
It’s not entirely clear how they ended up in Hamilton - or when – but according to voting records, they were listed as residents of Wentworth, Ont. in 1957. Wentworth became a part of Hamilton in 2001.
And this is where we hit our dead-end. There are no records of a Klymens Gzechowski or the other spellings that we can find, and a quick search of Annie Fredal on ancestry sites (great-grandma’s maiden name) pulls up close to 2,000 results, mostly from U.S. residents. This breaks my grandma’s heart. She is devastated to see Russia invading the birthplace of her parents, but she’s even more heartbroken that she has no known ties to her own heritage. “If there is anyone over there from our family, how would we ever know?”
I’ve now got a team of family members working together to unravel this Greenway family mystery, with siblings, aunts and my dad working long-lost relatives to find out who we really are. The goal is to have a completely mapped-out family tree by the time grandma Olga turns 85 this July.
But, in the meantime, if there are any Gzechowskis, Czechowskis or Chicowskis facing the brunt of Vladimir Putin’s offensive, please know that you are in our hearts, our thoughts and in our blood.
Are you searching for your loved ones in Ukraine? The Low Down would love to hear from you. Email us your stories and experiences during this crisis at firstname.lastname@example.org.