By Kayla Ihrig, AmeriCorps serving the American Red Cross NW Region
I first heard about Marta last September. By this time, her story was known by most of my colleagues as “The Ukraine Sisters.” She was at the heart of an unbelievable story of separation—72 years!—suddenly reunited with her sister on a Skype call from the US to Ukraine.
It all came together last summer when a search launched in 2008 finally bore fruit. The result was unexpected discovery for Marta Kruk Lysnewycz, who was born in Ukraine in 1926 and currently lives in the northwest United States. Through a Red Cross program called Restoring Family Links, her sister, Vassia, was found. She was still alive and living in a remote Ukrainian village.
I never expected to meet Marta, much less eat pie in her kitchen on a rainy Saturday afternoon. But that’s exactly where I found myself to learn more about her and film a short video to tell her story. I was humbled, thrilled and nervous. Her story was amazing and I wanted to do it justice.
I had a once-in-a-lifetime afternoon with unforgettable company. I got to hear firsthand the story of a Holocaust survivor and a refugee. Marta was 23 when she came to the United States and with only a few items. She didn’t speak English or have any money. Yet over time, she got a job, learned English and made a life for herself. Her life has been difficult but you wouldn’t know that talking to her. When we first entered Marta’s house, she seemed nervous. But quickly she warmed, she smiled and laughed.
Marta now lives with her daughter, two small dogs and one cat, but in Ukraine she had 10 siblings. She laughed as she told stories about doing the men’s work around the house with her sister, Vassia. Their father had been taken by the Russians for refusing to give up their farm and starved in prison. “All died,” she said when she was going down the list of her family members.
Marta, now 89 years old, was stolen from her family and taken to Germany as forced labor when she was 15 years old. She didn’t speak of what she experienced during that time, but whatever it was hasn’t left her. What was clearly upsetting to Marta were the many years wondering what became of her mother. Finding her sister Vassia gave Marta the single most important news she could have ever hoped for: her mother was taken in and cared for by her own sister until she died of old age.
As I was leaving Marta’s house, a number of sentiments stayed with me: You never know what you’re capable of until you do it, and never take the people in your life for granted. After spending all afternoon with Marta, I felt compelled to call my own sister and check in. Vassia remains in a rural village in the Chernihiv region of Ukraine, without any way of communicating regularly with Marta. It’s hard to imagine the impact a program like Restoring Family Links, bolstered by volunteers across the world—Washington state and Ukraine: Marta and Vassia were able to have a video call to bridge seven decades of separation.
The American Red Cross, the Muslim Community Resource Center, Refugee Women’s Alliance and the Office of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance (ORIA) are hosting an event to celebrate, engage with and learn from our diverse refugee community members. Join us as speakers share their inspirational stories of perseverance and resettlement in Washington state.