A Woman For Her Times The first time Alexandra Yezerska married Konstantin Melnyk was in a ceremony marked by dire warnings, drama, and worldly flair. The father of the bride uttered the dire warnings; the bride supplied the drama; and the groom provided a flair that can only come from long exposure to foreign lands, in his case, Prague and Sachsenhausen. That wedding took place in Vienna in the afternoon on March 9th , 1945, at the sacristy of the Church of Saint Varvara (Barbara) as WWII was coming to its agonizing end amid daily strafing, and as thousands of Eastern Europeans, hungry, cold, tired, and destitute, were swarming through the Reich, barely ahead of the Soviet front, to reach the Allies and seek their protection. But unlike the discouraged Armies of the Reich, those emigrants drew on an enormous reserve of hope, carried by an irrepressible faith in the freedom and the legendary cornucopia of the West. And in this spirit, the six people gathered at Saint Varvara‟s celebrated, not only a marriage, but Konstantin‟s return from the concentration camp and the forthcoming victory of the Allies against totalitarian regimes and that included, in their minds and hearts, not just the Nazis but also the Soviets. If any of the six people in the Church wondered why, in view of their looming defeat, the Nazis had not abandoned their conviction of being the superior race, they did it in the privacy of their homes. In Vienna, there was an arbitrary injunction against „untermenchen‟ marriage. By conducting the ceremony that was to unite Alexandra and Konstantin in the Sacristy, the officiating priest, a Ukrainian, hoped to circumvent the edict and at the same time escape whatever punishment might befall him for the deed. Konstantin, Kostyk to his friends and he had many, sported a black patch over an eye, jauntily positioned at a dashing angle. That was the only visible sign left of his 9-month stay in Sachsenhausen. Beside him stood the bride whose black outfit seemed designed to complement the groom‟s eye patch. Both had been weakened by the deprivations of the war, the bride to a far greater extent than the groom. She steadied herself against him from time to time because she had difficulty standing and walking. In fact, she was gravely ill though her illness had no name and therefore no cure. She tired easily but she was not infectious. At first sight, the pair was strangely mismatched: he very tall and dreamy, she diminutive and determined; he thirty-seven and she eighteen, and looking even younger with two braids pleated behind the ears like a school girl; he surrounded by a few friends from Vienna, and she alone. Lesya had finished one year of Medical School at Lviv University; while he had to abandon his studies in journalism at the University of Prague. Yet they shared the same background: Ukrainian culture, Greek Catholic religion (Uniate), Ukrainian interests, and above all a commitment to a Ukraine free and independent of foreign interests. Kostyk had known Lesya and her parents from his days in the Underground working against, first the Soviets and then the Nazis. And it was at their house that the Gestapo tracked him down and arrested him in January 1944. In return, Lesya showed exceptional loyalty to him by fetching him from Berlin as soon as he was released from Sachsenhausen. In that respect, it was lucky that Lesya had arrival in Vienna in October 1944. She had traveled from Czechoslovakia with a friend, taking a circuitous route through the vast forests of that country, because her father, Konstantin Yezersky, did not want her to go through the humiliating delousing process the Austrians imposed on all Eastern Europeans who wanted to cross the border. Once in Vienna, she quickly learned her way around town. She found shelter in a homeless center but as for food she was at the mercy of luck and of the acquaintances she made among the expatriate Ukrainian community. The heart of that community was the „Die Ukrainische Vetraungstelle‟ Information and Help Center. It was located near the center of the city close to the inner ring road, off Mariahilfer strasse. The information disseminated was mostly word of mouth from refugees but sometimes there were messages brought by agents or couriers mainly from Partisan or Nationalist Organizations. Much of it came from chance encounters or tidbits culled in camps, trains, or on the road. On the whole, though, it proved to be solid and reliable. It seemed that the whole Ukrainian refugee community, and they were about two hundred thousands of them, went regularly to the Center, seeking news of their relatives and friends, and so did she. It was at the Vetraungstelle Center, in early December that she heard of the release of the political prisoners from the concentration camps near Berlin. People, savvy people, were saying that the Germans released the political prisoners from Sachsenhausen, on the outskirts of Berlin, and Ravensburg, just a few kilometers further, only so they could help them fight the approaching Red Army on the grounds that the Communists were common enemies. Even people who were not savvy could see that the Germans were running scared and needed to co-opt anybody they could into their ranks, including the Slavic „untermenschen‟, to save the Capital of their Reich. Earlier, in October, in a pyrrhic victory, the German forces had finally subdued the Warsaw Uprising as Marshall Zhukov of the Red Army watched in the East while the Poles and the Nazis weakened each other, and bid his time the better to defeat them one at a time. In Vienna, at the Vetraungstelle, people were saying that it was only a matter of weeks before Warsaw and then Berlin would fall to the Soviets but that, in spite of the enfeebled German forces, the battle for Berlin would be a battle to end all battles. There was no doubt that in that fight the exprisoners would just be cannon fodder. To Lesya the news of the release was a decisive moment. Back in Lviv after his arrest by the Gestapo in January 1944 she reckoned that Kostyk had been transferred to Sachsenhausen because that was where most of the political prisoners ended up. Unfortunately, she had no proof. And, now in Vienna to add to that first uncertainty, Kostyk Melnyk‟s name did not appear on the list posted at the Vetraungstelle, and Lesya hesitated. In the end, she decided that she had to go to Berlin and see for herself, hopefully to bring him to Vienna, however small the odds of making contacts with him. The principal reason for her decision was that she knew first hand of what cruelty armies were capable. But besides that, she had a message to deliver to the ex-prisoners from one of the leaders of the Ukrainian Underground. That first hand knowledge Lesya acquired in Lviv on June 27th 1941 just before the Germans entered the city. She was fourteen at the time but the horrors of the images became embedded in her mind in a scene too horrible to describe in words to anybody. She did not talk about it until some forty years later from the safety of her home in Columbus in Ohio when the words were easier to find. June 27th 1941 was a beautiful day that should have been full of the fragrances of late spring. Instead, from her home in the city Lesya smelled something acrid, sweet and putrid at the same time. She got out of the house to investigate and noticed a great movement of people. On an impulse she followed the crowd. As she walked the odors became nauseatingly stronger. They were hard to identify; she had never smelled anything of this sort before. She put a handkerchief to her nose but still she walked on, following an ever-growing mass of people who seemed to be converging on the Lonski Prison. Within the prison gates, the stench became unbearable and she finally realized why. In the prison yard, decomposing bodies had been piled up, one on top of another, at least a meter high, few of them recognizable enough to be identified. It took Lesya a few minutes to understand that the bodies were not recognizable because they had been mutilated, many beyond recognition. Eyes had been gauged out. Teeth had been pulled. Hair had been yanked. Breasts had been cut off. Genitals had been mangled. Fingers and toes had been severed. Limbs were missing. Coagulated blood clung to the corpses, brown and malodorous under the buzz of flies. She fainted, and the last image she remembered was that of a naked woman who had one breast cutoff and a red bow placed derisively on a gaping hole in her genitalia. Lesya does not know how she got home from the prison but she was sick for days afterwards. She tried to put the images out of her mind but they kept intruding. Later she was told that the massacre had been the work of the Soviet Secret Police on orders from Stalin as the Soviets fled before the German Army as the Nazis were advancing east. Overnight, the order of command had changed and the rules that defined friends and enemies had flipped: The Soviets and the Germans were no longer co-operating. The Non-aggression Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact was abrogated and the two empires were at war. What had not changed was the brutal way the local population was suppressed. As soon as she recovered from the sight of the Lonski Prison, Lesya saw that executions and seizures of people and goods continued as before. By the time she visited the Vetraungstelle in Vienna, Lesya had all the proof she needed to know there was nothing to choose between the Communists and the Nazis. And with this knowledge her duty was clear: She had to go to Berlin to see for herself what happened to Kostyk. What‟s more, it was only in Berlin that she would be able to discharge the mission she had been entrusted by Olzhych, the Ukrainian Nationalist leader. Olzhych was the „nom de guerre‟ of the poet Oleh Kandyba. In Lesya‟s circumstances going to Berlin from Vienna was quite an undertaking. But she came up with a plan that was realistic though daring because of her age and the restricted means at her disposal and because it had to be put into action quickly since Berlin was about to be put through fire and blood, and since the same fate awaited Vienna albeit later. Berlin was over 500 kilometers, as the crow flies, from Vienna. She needed transportation and money and a permit to go beyond the 50-kilometer periphery allowed to foreigners. The only transportation available for such a journey was the train. It left Vienna late in the evening, crossing Czechoslovakia, and arriving in Berlin early the following afternoon. To board the train one needed tickets and those tickets were restricted to civilians who could prove they had urgent business in Berlin, and who, obviously, had the Marks to pay for them. She had to figure out how to get money to pay for the tickets and a reason that would convince the ticket master to sell them to her. Lesya did not have money but she had a few gold coins her father had sown into the hem of her gray wool coat before she left Czechoslovakia. She weighted her chances at finding somebody to change them into Deutsche Marks in a manner that would be fair yet not draw attention to her. She concluded the risks outweighed the benefits. Luckily for her, Dr. Borys Andriievsky, an acquaintance of her parents and a man of some prominence in the medical field, had a brother reported to be among the prisoners freed from Sachsenhausen. He also wanted to go to Berlin. He suggested that they join forces. With Dr. Andriievsky‟s help, her plan took shape. He loaned her money for the tickets and even gave her a few dry biscuits to quell her pangs of hunger. Armed with the legal documents attesting to her domicile in Vienna, she went to the railroad station concocting a story of a desperately sick mother in Berlin. To better make her case, she borrowed her landlady‟s trench coat, a size or two too large for her but that emphasized the pitiful state of her condition. The ticket master must have believed her for she got a round trip ticket that was valid for the following evening. But back at her lodgings, she then found that her landlady had washed her own gray wool coat under the pretext that it was dirty. The few gold pieces were gone. The landlady swore there were no gold pieces in the hem or anywhere else. And so it was that Lesya put on a damp coat and, accompanied by a venerable professor of surgery from the University of Kiev boarded the train to Berlin. Though the pair had carefully noted the address of the safe-house that was posted at the „Die Ukrainische Vetraungstelle‟, finding it was another matter. The city had been bombed severely by the British and the Americans, the streets were not marked and sometimes not even passable, the people hurried into their cold houses clutching what little food they could find to their chest, suspicious and afraid. For all their bravery, neither Lesya nor Andriievsky dared accost anybody to ask for directions. They meandered for hours, Lesya in the lead, cold and exhausted, in the hostile city until by instinct they found the house, and in the house among some 22 people, incredibly, their loved ones. And for a few precious moments Lesya and Kostyk let the euphoria of the reunion engulf them. For one glorious instant the war stopped. The sirens stopped. The fears stopped. There were only two people who, unexpectedly, had a future in front of them. But of course, Lesya noticed immediately that Kostyk was lankier than ever and that he was trying to control the spread of a pink eye infection he had developed. And yet that was nothing. Far more insidious was the sorrow that gnawed at him at the thought of comrades who had died, beaten or starved, or simply too ill to survive. The leader of their group, Olzhych, had been among the dead, beaten during an interrogation. He was the one who had entrusted Lesya with a message for all who had tried and still wanted to try to free his country from both Soviets and Nazis. He had been Kostyk‟s best friend though they had not talked to each other while in Sachsenhausen for Olzhych had been held in solitary confinement ever since he was captured in Lvivin May 1944. The whole group mourned him, even though the mourning distressed them to the point of incapacitation. Lesya was quick to catch the despair behind their sarcasms when they talked sarcastically about the conditions of their release. “We‟re supposed to fight the Reds! Imagine!” “In the name of the Superior Race, no less!” “We have to report to the Police Station daily so they know where we are!” “Yeah! The better to press us into their army!” They sneered. To them the proposition was absurd. Sadistic, even after all they had been through. They all believed that the Allies, in their promise to liberate Poland, would bring democracy to Eastern Europe and liberate the nations from the Soviet Menace. Their problem was how best to insure the liberation of Ukraine. They debated the issue endlessly, though without a clear direction. It seemed to Lesya that they clung to their cause as to a raft, perhaps to ease their sorrows and vindicate the deaths in their ranks, without fully realizing that their nationalistic dreams and aspirations had been overtaken by forces too powerful for them. The men and the women in the safe-house in Berlin would not be players in the battles ahead. It was time for Lesya to deliver her message from Olzhych. She had met him in Lviv in May 1944. It had been a momentous moment. Olzhych knew he was under surveillance and came dressed as a painter, with all the paraphernalia of his trade. He had warned her of the cataclysmic upheavals that awaited Eastern Europe at the end of the war. He had told her that the first duty of the Ukrainian nation would be to “survive” and that the means of survival must be the covert resistance to both Facists and Communists . Their cause would not advance if they died in a heroic but futile attempt to fight both Communists and Nazis. Lesya now repeated that message to Kostyk and his companions. And they listened to her, a teenager still, by at least a generation younger than the youngest of them. To the battle hardened group it surely was an unexpected directive putting an end to their life-work, but the men and the two women listened attentively first because of their respect for Olzhych, and then because life had a way of creating imperatives of its own. For the return journey from Berlin with Kostyk, Lesya was still wearing the damp gray coat. Not surprisingly she caught a fever and started to cough in the train. But through the shivers and the sweats and the coughs and the eye discharges they still made plans to get married. Kostyk said he was going to leave her with some friends while he procured the necessary papers to get legally established in Vienna. “They‟ll make you comfortable,” he promised of his friends. And they did, and they spread the word of Kostyk Melnyk‟s return from Sachsenhausen thanks to her efforts and of the pair‟s forthcoming nuptials. In Vienna, in spite of her youth and resilience, Lesya‟s condition deteriorated. Her fever and cough were aggravated by the daily trips to dark and dank bomb shelters, and by the lack of food. By January she could barely stand. Kostyk did not know what to do to make her better. At wits end, he finally took her to the nearest hospital. At the hospital, Lesya was transferred to a small ward with five other Ukrainian girls. There were few medicines available but she got an injection. However, there was no improvement in her condition. To the contrary, within two hours of the injection she could no longer move her arms or her legs, she couldn‟t even talk. She lay on the bed half comatose and helpless. Later, in that half conscious state she overheard the Sisters saying that the other girls had been injected with the same serum and that they all had died within days. The Medical Staff were waiting for her to die too. She couldn‟t sort out in her mind how much of that conversation was a dream and how much of it was real, improbable though it seemed. She had been aware of medical experiments the Nazis had been conducting on humans but she could not quite bring herself to believe such tales. Besides this was Austria and the war was coming to an end. Surely, people were coming back to their senses? But the nurses continued to monitor her condition. She grew thirsty but could not find her voice to ask for some water. Once an aide came in with a glass of milk but the Sister shooed her away saying that the milk was reserved for their „own‟ people. And the image of the glass of milk stayed with Lesya, haunting her dreams and nagging her wakeful moments. She remembered Olzhych‟s directives and determined that she would survive for the sake of all those, including the five girls in her ward, who had died. And survive she did, one painful moment after another. And as she became more lucid, she was able to attribute her worsening health to the injection. But what had she been injected with to make her so weak? She did not have the strength to ask the staff and the doctors. By the end of February she just had enough force to whisper to Kostyk: “Take me away from here.” And so he hurriedly arranged for their marriage at Saint Varvara in March, which included publishing the banns, and organizing the witnesses and the officiating priest. But, on the eve of the ceremony he had to abduct her from the hospital, wrapped in a kilim, for the doctors would not discharge her. And that is how Alexandra Yezerska and Konstantin Melnyk stood side by side in the Vestry of Saint Varvara, well aware that all their prospects consisted of their wits and determination, giving thanks for their luck and praying that it would see them safely out of Vienna. As the ceremony progressed, Lesya concentrated in staying upright though she thought the candelabra above the small altar was swaying precariously over her head. She tried to avoid it by swaying in the opposite direction. It was a Kafkaesque moment, rendered all the more surreal when she suddenly heard her father‟s voice booming with suppressed anger from the entrance door across the congregation. “Any fool can get married! Any FOOL can get married!! ANY FOOL can get married!!!” The words and their underlying passion, let alone her father‟s unexpected appearance, startled Lesya. What was he doing in Vienna and why was he so mad? There was nothing for it but to interrupt the ceremony. Konstantin Yezerski‟s words were laden with the suppressed anger brought about from his experiences with employment conditions under the Polish Administration in Western Ukraine. His appearance was far more easily explained. It turned out that he had heard of the banns promulgated at Saint Varvara and now hurried to his daughter‟s side. It also appeared that he did not object to her marriage to Kostyk but to her lack of University education. In his mind that was the equivalent of „a fool‟. Viewed in the historical context of Galicia in the twentieth century where the ruling powers after the first World War were Poland, then the Soviet Union, and then Germany, this invective was most logical for all three powers used education as a means to control and sometimes subjugate the native population. Under the Polish Rule, when Lesya started school, the Yezerskis had to enroll her in a private „academy‟ that was taught in Ukrainian, for Ukrainians who were Uniates. It was very expensive, but it had a curriculum that led to the University. The Gymnasium she attended following her elementary school remained open during the Soviet first invasion, but a great part of the curriculum was devoted to communist propaganda so that real education suffered. And afterwards, under the Nazis, since most schools could not offer classes beyond the fourth grade, under the pretext that education was not to be wasted on „untermenschen‟, Lesya and her brother continued with their studies with private lessons taught by four gymnasium teachers hired at an even greater expense. Families joined together to give their children some degree of learning though for the most part accreditation and certification went by the wayside. After the ignominious German defeat at Stalingrad, restrictions on limiting education to four grades were eased and, following the abitur (matriculation) exam that she passed with flying colors, Lesya was able to start studies in Medicine at Lviv University. The Soviet advance interrupted those studies. For Lesya and her parents, this interruption was not just another casualty of the war, but one of the heaviest. Her father wanted her to complete those studies before consenting to any marriage. Now, in her conversation with her father at her wedding, she sought to reassure him with the promise that she would get a university diploma as soon as the War was over. She would not to let the responsibilities of marriage interfere with that goal. But she couldn‟t tell whether he believed her as he then vanished again. Her thoughts were in a jumble but instinctively she knew her first duty was to get better, and the rest would take care of itself. Eventually, they would all return to their homeland under the protection of the Allies when they would liberate Poland and then she would go to some university near her home, preferably in Lviv. It would not be a big deal. Instead, by summer, she was in Munich with the whole Yezerski clan, Vienna having fallen in an ironic twist of fate to the 3rd Ukrainian Front. Lesya and Kostyk were safe in the American Zone, no longer hoping to return to Lviv. A new order had come to Eastern Europe, and it was not the world of Democracy of their dreams but that of the totalitarian Communist state of Stalin. The war in Europe was over on all fronts. The Nationalist cause was dead. And there would be no Medical degree for Lesya at the University of Lviv. Yet they had much to celebrate. At this point, Mrs. Anna Yezerska decided it would be a good time to give her daughter a proper wedding. In a church. Not in a sacristy. So Lesya married Kostyk again, in Munich on July 3rd, 1945 in the church of St Anton. To officiate at the ceremony Anna Yezerska found a priest from Lviv of the Greek Catholic denomination who promised that every ritual be observed. That wedding was a grand affair. The friends and family of the bride and groom now crowded the church. And the reception was spectacular as the „plat de resistance‟ was a whole wheel of cheese that Kostyk‟s friends had rolled triumphantly up through the streets of Munich as if it were a trophy of unsurpassed valor, which of course it was for all the proteins it contained. People ate the cheese – delicious, with sardines as an accompaniment - and drank moonshine „a la ukrainienne‟. After the wedding Lesya applied herself to find a cure for whatever ailed her. In the end, she spent over a year at a sanatorium in Leysin in Switzerland where the Swiss doctors diagnosed her as having bovine tuberculosis that paralyzed her spine. They speculated that she had been injected, in Vienna, with a strain of the Bacillus CalmetteGuerin, a common enough inoculation at the time but one that was modified in her case to test a greater range of bacilli against tuberculosis and other diseases. It would seem that she had been an unwilling participant in an experiment. After the treatment in the sanatorium she started to walk, albeit on crutches. For the other members of her family the post war years were a hollow period of waiting for the Allies to decide their fate. Their great fear was repatriation to the Soviet Union, but instead the Western Nations in 1948 opened their doors to the „Displaced Persons‟ who sought refuge in the American, British, and French zones of Germany. The emigrants couldn‟t wait to get out of Germany, where the local population was far from welcoming. There were no jobs for them. For food they relied on the CARE packages from the USA. For shelter they used the old concentration camps. Instead of currency, they bartered. While waiting to be admitted to the West, Lesya enrolled in the Department of Pharmacy at the University of Munich. She knew she wouldn‟t be able to complete her studies but she wanted to be ready to enter a university as soon as she emigrated. And it was because of the rules that governed that emigration that she married Kostyk Melnyk again. That third marriage took place on August 7th, 1950 still in Munich. The rules at issue were the requirements spelled out by the Unites States for all the Displaced Persons who applied for admission: they needed a civil marriage certificate. Such a certificate is usually issued automatically after the religious ceremony. However, in their case, the civil authorities were not informed of either marriage, in Vienna or in Munich. Lesya speculates that this might have happened because in Vienna in the chaos of the end of the war, papers got lost or were never sent, and in Munich there were no Greek Catholic parishes to do the proper legal paper work. As a result, in the eyes of the Law, Lesya and Kostyk were not properly married. In that third ceremony, they were still surrounded by friends and family but now they ceded the place of honor to their little daughter, Arkadia, born in July 1946. The Melnyks disembarked from the boat from Bremen in New York in December 1950. They had received six dollars from the Catholic Action Committee. Their first lesson was in the value of the currency and their second lesson was that the English they had learned in Munich bore little resemblance to the language spoken around them. University would have to be postponed for a while yet. It was not until the late 1950s that Lesya restarted her studies in Chemistry. By that time they had settled in Cleveland, in Ohio, and she finally could walk without the use of her crutches. She got a bachelor‟s degree, followed by a master‟s degree from Case Western University in 1964 while working for a pharmaceutical company, Strong Cobb, Inc. After earning her Master‟s degree Lesya found a job at Chemical Abstracts in Columbus where she moved with her family that now included a son. And in Columbus she enrolled in the Department of Chemistry at the Ohio State University, getting a PHD in 1973. By any measure she had kept her promise to her father though it had been much harder then she had ever imagined and had taken much longer. Her father had been proud of her efforts and her accomplishments, but to Lesya it seemed that, to meet the spirit of the promise, she would have to do something with a social dimension, something that would carry an impact beyond her private world. The problem was that she did not have a ready cause until, by happenstance, in 1977, she wrote an article, “Chemist in Business for himself” for the Columbus Section of the American Chemical Society. To her surprise, all the chemists she interviewed for that article, well educated, full of innovative ideas and business savvy, were struggling to keep their heads above water. They had to comply with the heavy regulations imposed by OSHA (The Occupational Safety and Health Administration), EPA (The Environmental Protection Agency), IRS (Internal Revenue Service). They all told her that they spent more of their time on paperwork than on developing and honing their business lines. Lesya saw that they were losing ground, that innovation was stymied, and that small businesses carried a disproportionate administrative burden. “They‟re like our people, they have no institutions to represent them and plead their case,” concluded Kostyk upon hearing their tale of woe from his wife. Now that was a cause that could engage her heart and her mind, particularly in the context, both, of her degree and of her family tradition. With her expertise, she turned the cause into a mission. She had the perfect framework for that at Chemical Abstracts, and her experience with minority issues stood her in good stead. Of the enterprises she contacted in Columbus, 16 Chemical companies were willing to follow her lead. She organized them, and contacted more in 17 other states. She presented their case to the executive committee of the American Chemical Society, publishers of the Chemical Abstracts, making the point dear to her heart that freedom rests upon the ability of small groups to push the boundaries of technology and thus the dynamics of society. Her plea did not have the directness of her father‟s warning at her wedding but it had the same passion. The result was the formation of the Small Business Division of the American Chemical Society, of which she was elected Councilor. The first meeting of the Division was held on September 11, 1978 in a room overfilled with eager practitioners. Nobody had ever taken their part as serious and energetically as Lesya. As the founder of the Division, Lesya continued to advise and further the interests of the group for several years. When the Soviet Union sunk into oblivion under its own weight and the Ukrainian State emerged as a country, though too late for Kostyk who died in 1984 she took comfort in the peaceful rise of the democracy he had so fervently wished. She now shares her time between Kiev and Columbus, still contributing her part to causes that make the world smaller.
Pages to are hidden for
"Newsletter '04"Please download to view full document