Page last updated at 12:44 GMT, Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Ukraine's border: A family history

Irena Taranyuk
BBC Ukrainian Service

A dot on the westernmost border of Ukraine, Dobromyl is a town resembling a faded beauty - its better days are a distant memory.

Although its population is falling and its infrastructure is in varying degrees of disrepair, it still proudly boasts a Renaissance town hall with its clock tower and a Catholic church.

Dobromyl's town hall
The local town hall is an example of Dobromyl's Renaissance history

Believed to be built by the Venetian Giovanni Battista, it reminds visitors of the town's centuries' old history.

Yet this East European backwater has witnessed many of the tumultuous changes which defined the 20th Century.

On a personal level, this is the birthplace of three generations of my family on my mother's side - all born in the same place, but in three different states.

Second Polish Republic

My grandmother Helena was born in 1911 into a prosperous peasant family. Dobromyl was then part of the Austrian empire.

The old monarch Franz Joseph had five more years to live and his empire, comprising of a multiplicity of peoples and ethnic groups, was beginning to crumble under the pressure of national movements and aggressive neighbours. Finally it collapsed in the wake of the First World War.

 Helena Waciak
Helena Waciak was born an Austrian citizen and died a Soviet citizen

She was a child when, at the end of 1918, returning officers and soldiers of the dissolved Austrian army, now divided into opposing camps of Poles and Ukrainians, fought for control of the little town.

Throughout the region, known then as Eastern Galicia, Ukrainians fought and lost a war against Poles attempting to create a nation state of their own.

Without diplomatic recognition and military support, Galician Ukrainians were defeated and the region incorporated into Poland; just as the Russian Bolsheviks defeated the Ukrainian People's Republic to establish in 1922 the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Meanwhile in Dobromyl, as elsewhere in Galicia, Poles proceeded to build their nation state. Having been born an Austrian citizen, my grandmother became a citizen of the Second Polish Republic. History was moving fast.

Nazi-Soviet pact

1939 promised to be a happy year for her. Having married the love of her life, grandma followed her husband, a railway engineer, to Warsaw.

Helena and Halina Chrobak
Halina Chrobak was four when she had her first encounter with Soviet soldiers

The young couple were expecting their first baby when my grandfather Wladyslaw received his army call-up papers - and sent his pregnant wife back to their home town, Dobromyl.

It was there on 2 September 1939, the day after Nazi Germany invaded Poland, that my mother Halina was born.

Unaware of the Nazi-Soviet pact to divide Eastern Europe, the local townsfolk didn't have long to wait before the war caught up with them.

On 18 September 1939, Dobromyl was occupied by German troops - and later that month it was handed over to the Soviets.

Wartime atrocities

Almost immediately the repressions began. February 1940 saw the first wave of deportations of local Poles - as well as Ukrainians and Jews - to the camps and forced labour settlements of Central Asia and Siberia.

Dobromyl witnessed its first major wartime atrocity in June 1941, when Germany attacked its erstwhile ally, the USSR.

In a scene replicated elsewhere in the Soviet occupation zone, retreating NKVD troops executed over 1,500 prisoners and dumped their bodies in salt mines on the edge of town.

The invading Germans documented this atrocity by the Soviet secret police and made local Jewish men exhume the bodies.

According to the Polish researcher, Leokadia Kurek-Grad, reburials of the exhumed bodies were discontinued after the body count reached 400, because of the oppressive July heat.

Jews leaving railway trucks during the deportation to concentration camps.
Nazi deportation resulted in an indeterminable number of deaths

1942 was another year of tragedy for Dobromyl, when most of its Jewish population was rounded up by the Nazis and sent to Belzec extermination camp.

What had been a thriving multicultural community was further ethnically cleansed by the Soviet regime after the war, in 'population exchanges' between the Soviet Union and its newly-acquired Polish vassal state.

Hardly a picture of happiness and joy, my mother's childhood had its memorable moments, like her memory of picking berries with the older girls when a German bombardment of Soviet positions began.

Dumbstruck and unable to move, she was grabbed by a Soviet soldier and thrown into a cellar serving as an air raid shelter. She was about four.

Border town

After the war, Poland's eastern territories were incorporated into Soviet Ukraine - Poland being compensated with new lands in the West, annexed from Germany on the basis of agreements between the leaders of the Soviet Union, America and Britain.

Dobromyl, once at the crossroads of several regional trade routes, found itself on the Soviet border line - pretty much cut off from its historical connections to Poland, Hungary and Austria.

Born in Poland, my mother found herself living in the USSR, never once leaving the place of her birth.

Many years later, despite marrying and leaving Dobromyl, she too returned there to give birth to her first child. And so I was born a Soviet citizen - but in the same place as my mother and grandmother.

Having experienced four changes of national borders in the last century - not counting wartime occupation - Dobromyl is now ethnically and politically a Ukrainian town.

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