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A Chronicle of a Life
Author Biography: Ulas Samchuk
Soft cover, 256 pp; ISBN 978-0-99877750-0-9
Ulas Samchuk is considered to be one of the most important Ukrainian writers of the 20th century. He was born on Feb. 20, 1905, in the village of Derman in the Volyn region of north-central Ukraine, to parents Alexander and Anastasia Samchuk, who toiled on a small piece of land. In 1913, his family moved to the nearby village of Tyliavka, where larger properties were available. At that time, Volyn was under Austro-Hungarian rule.
Derman is an old village with a rich history that is first mentioned in written records in 1332. A fortified castle was erected there at the beginning of the 15th century and was later converted into a monastery. In 1602, the monastery became a centre for the printing of books. Samchuk wrote of his ancestors: “…we were not only farmers and hunters, but also warriors. In 1512, joint forces from Volyn crushed a 25,000-man army led by Khan Meñli I Giray…” For Samchuk, Derman was the “centre of the world.”
After a few years in Tyliavka, Samchuk returned to Derman where a higher level of primary schooling was available. Subsequently, he attended high school in Kremеnec, a larger urban centre. After World War I, Volyn came under Polish rule, and for the first time in his young life, he felt discriminated against. The Polish authorities were far from fair in their treatment of Samchuk and his friends who attended school in Kremenec from outlying Ukrainian villages. Samchuk later recounted these years in the novel The Youth of Vasyl Sheremeta (1947), which is considered to be partially autobiographical. His protagonist Vasyl says: “All around we hear ‘FORBIDDEN.’ We are the planet’s only youth that does not have the right to take a step into the future…”
Disappointed, he initially succumbed to Soviet propaganda: “Ukraine іs free, prosperous, everybody is happy and satisfied…” In July 1924, Samchuk decided to illegally cross the border into newly established Soviet Ukraine and find his luck there. But he was caught at the frontier by Polish border authorities and jailed. After serving his sentence, he returned to high school. While still a student, he had his first literary works published in the journal Besida in Warsaw in 1926. Due to time lost in jail, Samchuk was the oldest in his class, and before he was able to complete his studies he was drafted into the Polish army, where Ukrainians were treated harshly. Samchuk deserted in 1927 and escaped to Germany.
At first he worked delivering coal. With the help of a supportive German family, Samchuk enrolled at the University of Breslau. In his spare time, he continued to write. The novel Insult and a translation of Thomas Mann’s Das Eisenbahnunglück [The Railway Accident] were published in the Literary-Academic Journal in Lviv. He received modest remuneration for some of his writing.
In 1929, Samchuk moved to Prague, Czechoslovakia. He was attracted by the city’s vibrant Ukrainian community and the Ukrainian Free University in which he enrolled, and where he was active in the Students’ Academic Society. In the 1930s, Prague was a cultural and academic centre for Ukrainian exiles, and in this milieu Samchuk flourished. He became active in Ukrainian community life, and continued to write. In his memoirs, Samchuk wrote that it was in this period that he matured as an author. He also married, to Maria Zots. Years later he wrote about his wife in the book On a White Horse (1965): “With exceptional tenderness and love I reminisce about my first wife Maria, with whom I traversed a good part of my life in Prague which generally was filled with worries, little joy and great uncertainties…”
In 1932, while in Prague, Samchuk first heard about the artificial famine unleashed by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin upon the Ukrainian people, which some sources say eventually claimed as many as ten million lives. Overwhelmed by the horror, he wrote the novel Maria (1934)––the first literary work about the famine, and a powerful characterization of village life at the time. That same year the first volume of the trilogy Volyn–Where the River Flows was published. The young author was not only honoured for the work with a literary prize, but was also nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
A second volume, Volyn–War and Revolution was published in 1935, and two years later a third volume Father and Son appeared. Volyn follows its two main protagonists, a man and his son Volodko, as they journey through life, and is to a large extent autobiographical. Volodko, a peasant boy, searches for truth, thirsts for knowledge and seeks to dicover new worlds. His father personifies the Ukrainian peasant: hard-working and rooted to the land. And he understands his son's aspirations, and provides him with guidance and help. A critic wrote that the author did not take the traditional literary line of describing Ukrainian peasants as dim-witted simpletons but rather portrayed them as intelligent, rational people.
Samchuk concurrently wrote the novel Kulak (1937) about the eternal commitment of the Ukrainian peasant to tilling the land and the undying optimism of farmers.
Samchuk’s next major work was the two-volume novel The Mountains Speak (1934) which explored Carpatho-Ukraine’s struggle against Hungary. Carpatho-Ukraine nestled in the mountainous border area of Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia. It had a predominantly Ukrainian population, and had no desire to be occupied by any of its neighbours.
In the novel, Samchuk expresses his life’s credo through the words of the main character: “It is better to die in freedom than to live as a serf.”
Based on his experiences, Samchuk portrayed life in Germany and Czechoslovakia in the short stories Rediscovered Paradise (1936).
In 1938, Samchuk journeyed tо Carpatho-Ukraine and joined in its struggle for independence. A passionate and respected orator, he ardently promoted independence. Samchuk recounts: “I criss-crossed the whole of Carpatho-Ukraine giving speeches, not missing even one city, town or larger village.” Arrested and jailed by invading Hungarian forces, Samchuk managed to escape and returned to Prague.
Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941 and Ukraine was soon occupied. Samchuk moved to Ukraine where in Rivne he became the editor of the newspaper Volyn (1941-43). Rivne was visited by movie producer Ivan Kavaleridze and a cast of actors and actresses en route from a film shoot. Impressed with the novel Volyn, Kavaleridze encouraged Samchuk to consider a screen adaptation. It was then that Samchuk met film actress Tania Prakhova whom he later married, having lost contact with his first wife Maria in the tempest of war.
Samchuk was arrested by the German occupation forces for writing the editorial The Way it Was–The Way it Will Be, promoting Ukraine’s independence. After a month and much effort he was released, but forbidden to continue editorial work.
Samchuk depicted this turbulent period in the books On a White Horse (1965) and On a Black Horse (1975). On a White Horse recounts Samchuk’s journey to Ukraine, the events he witnessed, the people he met, their mood and their daily problems due to the brutality of war and occupation.
In the book On a Black Horse Samchuk resumed his recollections as of October 1941. He was able to travel through parts of Ukraine and described in detail the war-torn country and its people under occupation.
Samchuk captured the horror of war in the book Five after Twelve (1954). It was based on his diary entries during the final days of World War II. The book begins with the words “I saw Berlin dying... Bombardment, fires, ruins…nervous apprehension, the unknown…” It ends with the words “The end of the gunpowder epoch. The atomic epoch looms.” The book also notes the decision by the Allies made at the Yalta Conference that would profoundly impact millions: “…May 7, …Today, [General] Eisenhower’s supreme headquarters announced that all Soviet citizens, whether they want to or not, will have to return to their homeland… Hundreds of thousands of hearts trembled in deathly fear on hearing this grim news.”
Like many others fleeing the advancing Soviet army, at war’s end Samchuk found himself in a Displaced Persons (DP) camp in the sector of Germany controlled by the western Allies. There he continued writing and again became immersed in community work, including organizing and heading the Ukrainian Literary Artistic Movement. Despite the ruined post-war infrastructure and a meagre subsistence, he managed to visit all the DP camps that housed Ukrainian refugees. Samchuk found it personally necessary to witness first-hand the daily grind of his DP compatriots, to learn of their problems and how they coped.
The first volume of his monumental trilogy Ost–The Farm of Moroz was published in Germany in 1948. The second volume Darkness was published in New York in 1957, while the third Escaping from Oneself appeared in Winnipeg in 1982.
The trilogy follows the lives of three generations of the Moroz family. The story begins with the Bolshevik revolution that changed the course of history, culture, and personal and collective freedom, and which established totalitarian control of speech, thought, association and movement. In Ukraine, independence was proclaimed after more than 350 years of Russian rule, but it was short-lived as the Bolsheviks invaded and seized power. The Moroz family, from patriarch Hryhoriy to grandson Vasyl, each in their own way are participants and observers of the drama unfolding around them.
Hryhoriy’s four sons chose to follow different paths with the arrival of the new order. These paths included acceptance, persecution, adaptation, protest and forced exile, and gave rise to conflict and the fracturing of the family. The destiny of the Moroz family traverses the northern hemisphere from Siberia to Western Europe to Edmonton, Canada, after World War II. The trilogy incorporates dramatic moments in Ukrainian and European history while portraying man’s struggle for survival and dignity while battling communist and Nazi regimes and ideologies, and eventually finding spiritual solace in Canada.
Samchuk’s portrayal of life in DP camps in Germany was published in Canada, where he and his wife Tania had immigrated in 1948. Planet of DPs: Notes and Letters (1979) recounts the tragic forced repatriation of Ukrainians to the Soviet Union by the Allies, and the struggle to survive while awaiting an unknown destiny. To counter these threats, Ukrainians established self-help organizations and churches, which rapidly turned the camps into vibrant, tight-knit communities. While life was difficult, it was thankfully not under the boot of communism or Nazism.
Samchuk contemplated the question: “Why are we here?” in the book: “Who could possibly describe the number of extraordinarily grave thoughts and tragic feelings that have entered my mind and heart during these difficult years as a displaced stateless person… I am 42 years old, and yet I’m a beggar surviving on the aid of an international organization… It is a dreadful, all-encompassing hopelessness.” He concluded the book with the words: “Our liner slowly moves from shore. On deck, nearly motionless people stand with their eyes fixed in farewell at the final moments of a receding Europe, which slowly, almost frighteningly is disappearing in the expanse of the east… In silence we watch as the shore disappears in darkness. The shore of our past. And in front of us the shore of our future…”
Samchuk’s first years in Canada were trying. Subsistence required employment and he worked as a labourer, often beyond his physical means. Nevertheless, Samchuk’s Canadian period became one the most fruitful in the author’s life. He wrote prolifically and his works were regularly published and sought by the Ukrainian diaspora. Upon arriving in Canada, Samchuk cofounded and became the long-time head of the Slovo Association of Ukrainian Writers in Exile.
The novel What Fire Does Not Heal was published in New York in 1959. In it the author portrays the heroic struggle of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army against all occupiers of Volyn during and after World War II. The centre of action is his home village of Derman.
Samchuk wrote about his observations of Canadian life in the book On Solid Ground (1967) which was dedicated to the centennial of Canada’s Confederation and the 75th anniversary of Ukrainian settlement in Canada. Samchuk recognized Ukrainian pioneers “with a feeling of deep respect for their creative, industrious and organizational genius.”
The book In the Footsteps of Pioneers: The Saga of Ukrainian America (1979) is an epic about Ukrainians in the United States. It is dedicated to one of North America’s oldest Ukrainian organizations, the Ukrainian National Association established in 1894, its founders and Ukrainian pioneers. Samchuk writes in the introduction: “This book is about our people who first set foot in the United States of America and who first began to organize. The book is dedicated to the Ukrainian National Association and in memory of its benevolent founders, builders and flagbearers!”
Samchuk’s love of music, and in particular for the Ukrainian bandura and the renowned Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus of Detroit, was expressed in the book Living Strings–Bandura and Bandurists (1976).
These are just some of Samchuk’s works. Be they fiction, nonfiction or memoirs, they have a common thread––the chronicling of the Ukrainian experience. In the preface to the novel The Youth of Vasyl Sheremeta, Samchuk wrote “… I want to chronicle the Ukrainian realm of the era that I see, hear, experience…” Nevertheless, his works are not dry chronological recountings of events. Instead, they provide deep insights into the human soul set against a landscape often determined by fate. The works often incorporate poetic prose, at times with a sprinkling of humour. His characters are real people with feelings, purpose and aspirations. Samchuk’s works are his life story. And the events that he writes about, the dramatic moments that shaped the Ukrainian realm that he was part of, are a look back at the 20th century.
Samchuk was friendly, jovial and extroverted. Being a prolific writer did not keep him from actively participating in the Ukrainian community. He traversed Canada and the United States to deliver lectures, drawing a large following. He attended concerts, rallies and public meetings, and found time to visit a Ukrainian Plast scout camp called “Cultural Paths” where he, with artist William Kurelek and others, promoted arts and culture. Registration for the camp was conditional on having read Samchuk’s Where the River Flows, and the author rewarded each camper with an autographed copy of the book.
Toward the end of his life, Samchuk was stricken with debilitating arthritis. Though confined to a wheelchair, he made every effort to be part of the Ukrainian community in Toronto. He also paid close attention to events in his homeland of Ukraine. The land of his ancestors was dear to him and he always believed in the inevitability of an independent Ukrainian nation.
Samchuk passed away on July 9, 1987, in Toronto. At the Ivan Franko Home for the Aged where he and his wife last resided, Tania Samchuk funded the establishment of the Ulas Samchuk Museum. The museum opened on Sept. 18, 1988. After the death of Mrs. Samchuk in April 1990, the museum was transferred to Tyliavka in Ukraine, while archival material including manuscripts were transferred to the Institute of Literature in Ukraine’s capital Kyiv.
Samchuk’s writing had been banned in the USSR and he was labelled an “enemy of the state.” The authorities feared that his works would reveal forbidden truths. When Ukraine declared its independence in 1991, Ukrainians expressed a great thirst for his writing, and many of his books were reprinted. In addition to the museum in Tyliavka, Rivne and Derman also established museums dedicated to the author. The school that he had attended in Kremenec was renamed Lyceum Ulas Samchuk in his honour. Streets now bear his name in many towns and cities.
In 2005, the 100th anniversary of Samchuk’s birth was widely celebrated in Ukraine. The federal government issued a two-hryvnia coin and a prestamped postal envelope honouring the author. In Rivne’s main town square, Ukraine’s Minister of Culture Oksana Bilozir unveiled a larger-than-life statue of Samchuk on his birthday. The Ostroh Academy National University sponsored essay writing and web-design contests for youth, while a number of universities hosted academic conferences focusing on Samchuk and his works.
No longer an “enemy of the state” in his homeland, the press noted that Ulas Samchuk had returned to Ukraine on a White Horse. He was lauded for his contributions to literature and was hailed as “Ukraine’s Homer.”
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