WILLIAMSBURG — Alexandra, Ukrainian by birth, came to the U.S. as a child to flee the wreckage of World War II.
Ukraine has been independent since 1991, but its history is filled with chapters of violent invasions, from would-be conquerors like the 13th century Mongols and, 700 years later, the Nazis. Also, various political forces in neighboring Russia — Muscovites, Tsars, and Communists — have also controlled Ukraine.
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On Tuesday, anxiety filled Ukrainians worldwide as Russian military forces moved into eastern portions of the country that contain citizens of Russian heritage who align with Moscow.
On Friday, Feb. 18, Alexandra, who declined to give her last name, joined a handful of friends for evening Mass at their parish, Holy Ghost Ukrainian Catholic Church in Williamsburg. Now in her mid-80s, she worries that the horrors of her childhood could soon return to family and friends back home.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has pledged to defend the ethnic Russians of eastern Ukraine, and strengthen Russia’s shield against NATO. But Alexandra stated the belief commonly shared in her community: he wants to control Ukraine’s natural resources.
“I believe that it’s the same thing that I went through, just a continuation,” Alexandra said. “Because the Bolsheviks never forget, and they want Ukraine in the worst way. They can’t survive without Ukraine. It’s as simple as that.”
A Man with a Gun
Father Ivan Tyhovych is the pastor of Holy Ghost Ukrainian Catholic Church. He estimated there are at least 100,000 people in Brooklyn and Queens who belong to several parishes of this Eastern rite religion.
“We have a very large Ukrainian Catholic community In Brooklyn,” said Father Tyhovych, also born in Ukraine. “They’re very much located in Coney Island, Brighton Beach, and Manhattan Beach.”
Many Ukrainian Catholics live in Queens as well, and some “commute” to his church from neighborhoods like Ridgewood and Middle Village.
“Some Ukrainians in the community are second and third generations,” Father Tyhovych said. “Many of them were born here, so English is their first language.”
Father Sergiy Emanuel, administrator of Guardian Angel Parish in Brighton Beach, estimated there are about 400 Ukrainians in the Diocese of Brooklyn who are Roman Catholic. He is the coordinator of ministry to Russian and Ukrainian immigrants for the diocese.
The Ukrainian Catholic Church is in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church.
Likewise, people of both rites in Brooklyn share concerns over the current situation with Russia. Father Emanuel was born of Polish heritage in the Czech Republic, but he grew up in Ukraine, where his mother and brother still live.
“They are really worried about what could be happening,” he said of Ukrainians. “They compare Mr. Putin to a mentally sick person. For example, if you see a man in the street with a knife or a gun, you worry because you never know what these people will do.”
The uncertainty heightens the anxiety, Father Tyhovych said.
“Every day there is new information coming in,” he said. “They’re talking about the invasion is going to happen in a few days from now, or maybe next week. This brings a lot of stress and discomfort for many people who live in this community.”
Father Tyhovych said local Ukrainians can easily communicate with loved ones via telephone or video communications services like Skype, which he uses daily to check on his mother and sister.
He said that along with potential widespread casualties, people in Ukraine are worried about being displaced, like what happened to Alexandra’s family more than 75 years ago.
Father Tyhovych has also seen how war uproots people. He served in Iraq as a U.S. Army chaplain and witnessed combat in cities like Fallujah and Ramadi.
“People are concerned about instability, because it’s a war,” he said. “It’s going to affect everybody — young and old. My mom — she’s an older person. She shared with me, ‘What if I have to relocate, where are we going to go?’
“She’s not physically strong enough to move, like young people, from one location to another. So, it’s affecting me as well.”
Members of the Holy Ghost parish noted that a war with Russia could spread beyond Ukraine.
Johnny Korduba suggested Putin also wants to gain a springboard to retake other nations that gained independence in 1991 when the USSR dissolved.
Korduba, whose parents were Ukrainian, came to the U.S. 65 years ago at age 2, and has belonged to the parish ever since.
“It’s a tragedy for the whole world when a bully country like Russia can just decide to invade its neighbor,” he said. “As a democracy-loving person, I think this is a step backwards in history. I mean, it’s surreal. It’s a crime on a grand scale like it used to happen hundreds of years ago. Now, it seems to be happening again, and it’s just wrong.”
Seeking Divine Intervention
Father Tyhovych said that while people in Ukraine worry about the future, they’re not lacking in the courage to face Russian forces, including civilians who eagerly drill for combat to help their army.
Meanwhile, their family and friends in Brooklyn fervently seek divine intervention in the crisis.
“We do what Pope Francis is telling us to do,” Father Emanuel said. “We are praying — praying and fasting. There are special prayers or rosaries. And we pray chaplet to Divine Mercy. We also have some adorations, like the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament.”
The Sunday, Feb. 13 Mass at Holy Ghost was filled with prayer for Ukraine, Father Tyhovych said. A few hours earlier, Pope Francis said at the Sunday Angelus in St. Peter’s Square that the crisis in Ukraine was “very worrying.” He renewed prayers for peace, and Father Tyhovych shared the message at Mass.
“It was very appealing to Ukrainian Catholics,” Father Tyhovych said. “He asked the whole world to pray for peace in Ukraine.
“Many people came to our church just to pray and not only on Sunday. On Monday and Tuesday, the church was opened and people came to the church and they said the rosary.”
Alexandra said she would be out joining demonstrations for peace in Ukraine if it wasn’t for a leg ailment. She can do nothing more than pray. She knows better than anyone what is at stake.
Her son, Yaroslav, said Alexandra had repressed memories of World War II for most of her life, but they returned with the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. She added that the smoke and swelling clouds of concrete dust that hovered above the East River in lower Manhattan triggered memories of her family’s evacuation to Vienna, Austria.
“The war forced us to move,” she said. “We were on a train, maybe 30 or 40 people in cattle cars. We stopped to go to church; there was a Ukrainian church right up the road from the train station.
“I was in Vienna when Vienna was bombed. You could always hear the bombing in back.”