Visit to Bukovina – 1996

By Isabel Jungwirth (Saskatchewan, Canada)
Published by the author in the Bukovina Society of the Americas Newsletter,
Vol. 8, No.1, March, 1998

My husband and I have been researching our joint family history for at least a dozen years. His ancestors were Germans who came from Bohemia to Wisconsin in 1881. They came to Saskatchewan to homestead in 1903. My ancestors were Polish & Germans who came from Bukovina to Saskatchewan, some as early as 1898. Our research has taken us to Wisconsin and Salt Lake several times, but it has always been our dream to someday go to Eastern Europe.

In the fall of 1996 we heard about a tour being planned for the Czech & Slovak Republics. The June Festival Tour would take us to the exact area where the Jungwirth ancestors came from. This tour also offered a visit to the ancestral village with a driver and a translator. We could also extend our stay in Europe if we chose to do so. This made it possible to plan a visit to Bukovina. The Czech part of our trip was being arranged for us, but the Bukovina, Ukraine excursion was up to us to figure out.

Fortunately we discovered a travel company in Alberta with experience in travel to Ukraine. We were told that we needed a visa to go to Ukraine. This involved either an invitation from someone over there, or a hotel reservation. Since we did not know anyone there, the travel agent arranged a hotel reservation for us and also handled the visa arrangements. An itinerary was set up for us to spend at least a week in Bukovina.

On June 17, 1997 we left Saskatoon for Chicago and then on to Newark, New Jersey where we were to join the tour group going to the Czech & Slovak Republics. In Newark, we boarded a Czech Airlines flight to Prague and spent the next 2 weeks on that tour. When the group left Prague on July 2, we stayed behind to continue with our Bukovina adventure.

This was the scary part. Both of us speak only English and remember a bit of German from our younger days. We were not sure what to expect in Ukraine, even though we had been told “some” people speak English. We had been promised that an English-speaking driver would meet us at the train in Lviv, and that we could find a translator through the hotel in Chernivtsi. We also had the names of a couple of residents of Chernivtsi who could speak English, knew we were coming and were willing to help us out in case of need.

At 7 p.m. on Wednesday, July 2, we boarded a train in Prague that would take us, 24 hours later, to the city of Lviv. The train trip was comfortable since a sleeper compartment had been arranged or us. We brought our own food , since there did not seem to be a food service on the train. We had fruit, buns, cheese, juice and water with us., and that was quite adequate for our needs. Our compartment had 3 bunks, and we were joined by a young Ukrainian man at about 10 p.m. This made things a bit crowded and awkward, but was not unusual on this train.

We were awakened during the night when we got to the border between the Czech & Slovak Republics. Border guards made the rounds of all the cars, and asked to see our passports. The also did a quick check of the compartment, even looking under the seat of the bottom bunk. Thankfully there was nothing for them to find, since the language differences would have had made it hard for us to explain anything. After the guards left, we were told to make sure our door was well locked.

In the morning we were given the Customs Declaration forms, all in Ukrainian, to complete before we got to the border crossing a Chop. Most of the people in our train car did not speak English, but we were very lucky to meet a young Swiss teacher who did. She was very helpful to us in filling out these forms. We had prepared for the trip by obtaining traveler’s cheques and cash in U.S. funds, and had to declare the amount of money we were carrying in all currencies. By this time we had Canadian, U.S. and Czech money with us.

It was about 10 a.m. when we reached the border at Chop. At this point the train makes a two hour stop so that the bogies (wheels) on the passenger cars can be changed to accommodate the different gauge tracks in Ukraine. This gives the border guards ample time to board the train and examine all passports and declarations. This much we had expected. Our declarations were collected, and then we were surprised to have our passports taken as well. After a short time, my husband and I, were invited to step off the train and follow the guards into the border station. About 12 of us from this train were asked to be seated and wait. All communication had been conducted in Ukrainian, and we were very worried about how we would answer any questions, that might be put to us. While we waited, guards kept walking back and forth past us, in and out of the offices, but no one asked us anything. While we waited, we were approached by one of the other people form the train. This was a young man from the U.S. who was going to Lviv to teach for a year. He seemed to speak some of the language. None of the guards spoke to us, but after waiting for about 45 minutes, our passports were returned to us and we were allowed to return to the train. We found this to be a very intimidating experience.

The train continued its journey through the Carpathian Mountains, and made only a few stops along the way. Each time the train stopped, there would be people along the tracks waving loaves of bread and bottled water in the hope that someone on the train would buy an item. This was an indication of things to come and of conditions in the country.

We were able to enjoy the beautiful countryside in the daylight hours. Most of the other people in our train car were getting tired of sitting by now, and spent much of their time standing at the windows in the aisle. We got to meet some very nice people during this time. We had expected to arrive in Lviv in the afternoon, but it was 7:45 p.m. local time when we finally got there. Of course, this also includes the one hour time difference in the next time zone.

Our next task was to find the taxi driver that had been arranged for us. We had no idea what to expect and made our way slowly through the busy train station and down to the lower level to the exit onto the street. We finally noticed a man standing in the midst of the crowd holding a placard with the name “JUNGWIRTH” on it. What a welcome sight that was! When we finally reached him and introduced ourselves, we were disappointed to find that he spoke no English at all! However, he took some of our luggage and led the way to the car, a new Renault, which belonged to the hotel.

According to the road map of Ukraine that I had been able to find at home, the distance from Lviv to Chernivtsi is only 282 km (about 170 miles). It took us 5 hours to get there by car. The road was paved and in reasonably good condition, but we had to pass through many small villages along the way, and this meant slowing down each time. Since our driver could not communicate with us, and the road sign were all in the Cyrillic alphabet, we found it difficult to even know where we were going. By showing him our map, he realized that we were interested in the names of the villages, and after that he began to tell us what places we were going through. Along the way we were stopped a couple of times by military police and our driver was asked to produce a handful of papers, which he kept handy on the sun visor. We wee never asked for anything, and may as well have been invisible. We tried to find our from the driver what this was about, and he just said it was “Control.”

We finally reached our hotel, the Cheremosh, in Chernivtsi (formerly Czernowitz) at 1:00 a.m. Here one of the receptionists spoke English and we arranged for a translator for the next day, as well as a car and our driver, Vasyly. We were shown to a very comfortable room with a private bath. After a good night’s rest we went for breakfast in the hotel dining room. This is a big tourist hotel, but there were very few tourists to be seen. We paid $76 US a night for the hotel room, with breakfast for an extra dollar. It seemed that they would make sausage and eggs for us, in addition to the meat and cheese, buns and jam, and tea or coffee that was already laid out on the table. This proved to be a bigger breakfast than we are used to.

On our first morning we met the translator who works for the hotel in the summer. Zoya was most indispensable to us in the days to come. Our first task was to obtain some of the local currency at the exchange office in the hotel. The currency had recently changed from the old Kupon to the Hryvnyas. I found out later that this ‘large’ amount quite shocked Zoya, since common wages seem to be $40.00 a month. We paid the hotel $7 US per hour for the car and driver, and $3.50 an hour for the translator, usually about $100 each day. We do not know how much these people were actually paid by the hotel.

Our faithful driver, Vasyly had the car all fueled and polished for our journey. Our first destination was Velykyj Kucuriv (Kuczurmare) where my paternal grandfather came from. Of course, Zoya insisted that we should first have a short tour of Chernivtsi, which is a beautiful old city along the Prut river, and was not destroyed during the war. We were most impressed with the University, which we were told is proud to be twinned with our University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, and exchange students come and go between the two.

When we arrived in Velyky Kucuriv, a distance of a about 10 km, south of Chernivtsi, we found the town hall and met the young assistant mayor. However, the former assistant mayor was also there, and since he is now retired, he offered to accompany us in our quest for information about my family. There are no Polish people living in the area any longer. We were told they all left in 1940, along with the German and Jewish people. Also, the records were not there either. It was thought they may be in Suceava, Romania. We were also told that Kuczurmare was a large area made up of many smaller villages. We were not sure which of these villages was the one where my grandparents had lived. Apparently Polish people had lived in Godiliv, but when we asked in a couple of places no one remembered the name. This was not surprising, since they left there in 1902.

The next day we set out for Sniatyn, which I had always assumed to be the place my paternal grandmother came from This was a distance of about 30 km northwest of Chernivtsi. Our first stop was the town office. Since it was Saturday, it was open to accommodate weddings. At first the two young ladies in the office were a bit annoyed to be asked to find records dating back to 1900. However, the records were in the building and were brought out. Apparently these records are not normally shown to anyone, but our translator was able to persuade the clerk to show them to us. I was overjoyed to find the marriage record of my grandparents, and then the birth record of my grandmother. We paid a small fee for the search of each book of records, and were able to hand copy the records. We were also directed to the local cemetery where we hoped to find other information. The place was very large, and we were unable to find any tombstones bearing names we recognized.

In the course of speaking to several people, we were told that there was still someone in the town who had the same surname as my grandmother. We found the lady and she is convinced that we are cousins. This was totally unexpected, and still remains to be proven. However, she invited us into her home and then took us to the Polish Catholic Church where my grandparents were married. The building is in a sad state and is now slowly being restored. Apparently it had been used as a repair shop for buses during the previous regime.

Our next stop was Rohsa (Rosch), which is a suburb of Chernivtsi. This was formerly a German area where another of my grandparents once lived. We did not find a Catholic Church there. The church we did see was the former Lutheran Church, which is now used by a different denomination. We were sorry we did not have more time to explore this place.

Next day we set out for Molodia, about 10 km southeast of Chernivtsi. My maternal great-grandparents once lived there. The Catholic Church is now being used as a veterinarian clinic, since there are no Catholics left in the village. We located the old German cemetery and were very disappointed to find it in ruins, with most of the large tombstones knocked down and broken. There did not seem to be any smaller ones. We were able to read the names on some, and I recognized names of families that came to Canada.

Back in Chernivtsi we found the Archives, which are located in the former Jesuit Church. Here I was able to ask the clerk to search for some information. I was also able to make an application to have her continue this search , and will be notified in about three months concerning the outcome.

We were very surprised when my new-found cousin and her son met us at the hotel that afternoon, and insisted that we join them for supper in Sniatyn that evening. Since they only speak Ukrainian, we wondered how we would communicate, but they assured us that they had a young friend who would be our interpreter. We spent a very pleasant evening with this family. They made a delicious supper and brought out champagne and other treats that they probably do not normally enjoy. We got back to our hotel very late, and had to be up at 5 a.m. next morning to meet Vasyly, who made sure we got to the train station at Lviv in good time to get our train back to Prague.

During the four days we were in Ukraine we enjoyed beautiful summer weather. In fact, it was sunny and very hot the first few days. Sunday afternoon a rain storm went through the area, and that cooled things down. We were able to go for an evening walk down to the river. We did learn that winters are usually mild, with temperatures around minus 8 degrees and very little snow. However, last winter was unusually cold, with temperatures down to minus 30. Most of their walnut trees were killed.

Our visit to Ukraine was certainly memorable. It was incredible to see the places where my grandparents once lived. The people were all most hospitable and helpful to us in our quest. They are all struggling to make a life for themselves under new and difficult circumstances.

We hope we can go back again at some time in the future. Our biggest difficulties were the language barrier and the use of the Cyrillic alphabet. We could certainly have been better prepared to deal with these things, but the young people there are learning English, and as tourism increases in the area, things will change. We also have some friends there now. The next trip will be so much better.