Freedom can be taken quickly, don’t take it for granted

Theology In The Trenches By Kathleen Kjolhaug
Sunday, May 15, 2022
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Two years ago, a series of four articles entitled “Tato” were published as columns. A condensed reprint of them might be timely. This true story was told to me by Orest who is married to my first cousin. They live in Omaha, Nebraska and have two adopted Ukrainian sons. May we remember well, how quickly freedoms can be taken and to never take what we have for granted. May we hear the voices of those who have gone before us and learn from them. Tato is one voice, and in the end, his perspective is sheer inspiration.

“Tato means ‘dad’ in Ukrainian and that’s what we called him, Tato.” Orest spoke these words over the phone as I listened and took notes. “He was poor, dirt poor. Every piece of clothing worn, every morsel of food eaten, every tool used, and every building crafted was done by the work of his hands and those of his family and friends. Tato was the grandson of a serf (someone owned by another for labor).”

When Tato was just five years old, his mom died. His dad remarried and the wife he chose did not have much time for Tato. Thus, job of raising him fell to his sisters. His education was through grade three and by the age of eight, he was taken out of school in order to help work on the farm. Each morning little Tato herded the sheep and cows up to the mountains in order to eat, and each evening he brought them home. Staving off wolves was the norm for the little boy who carried a heavy load for such a young lad.

As he grew, so did the load given him. While spending time with cousins, they grew as one. World War II was soon upon them and by this time, Tato was in his teens. Ukraine was occupied by Poland and on Sept. 14, 1939, fourteen Polish soldiers in a vehicle and thirty on horseback entered his village. Philip and Ivan, Tato’s cousins, were the first ones shot.

What was their crime? Speaking their native language in public was crime enough as was sporting embroidered Ukrainian attire. Supporting a Ukrainian reading room and advocating for a free and independent Ukraine drew attention to the powers that be. Of these crimes, they were guilty and ultimately, the sentence given would be death. Killed in cold blood while working in a field they were.

As the German army advanced and the Poles retreated, setting fires to villages was the norm. Many villagers retreated into the forests, but those caught were brutally beaten. By the time winter in the Carpathian Mountains was upon them, 135 of the 160 houses in Tato’s village had been burned to the ground. Not only were the homes gone, but the historic log church of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a place of reverent prayer for many, was not gone too.

Evil is a force to be reckoned with as it spills upon all in its path. Methods of medieval torture were used as villagers were forced to watch on. Eyes, tongues, and hands were not spared. The poles emptied themselves from the land only to have it filled with more hatred marching in from just over the ridge.

When the German army arrived, Tato was deported to Germany, held in slave bondage, and valued only by the work extracted from him. Many of his fellow Ukrainians “Ostarbeiters” (foreign slave workers) died in captivity. Tato, however, remained not only strong but resolute. One day, escape he did, but not for long.

Once found, the beatings began. Broken bones and solitary confinement were inflicted upon Tato. Perhaps it was the recurring dreams that would be the outlet needed to keep his mind sane. The alley, the rod-iron gate climbed, the piercing of flesh by the dogs all biting at his subconscious… always present…like torturous taunts haunting.

Quick Tato was to tell a story from the past to those who inquired, but quiet he was when asked about his broken nose. “Boxing,” would be his response. He mentioned not that it took place as he sat in a chair with hands tied behind his back. The Gestapo and his captors in charge cared not about the bodies they used and abused.

There would be more to come. Much more … and Tato would not escape it.

As the country of Ukraine is once again under siege, Lord have mercy. Christ graciously hear us. Amen.

Kathleen Kjolhaug lives outside of Clear Brook, Minn., with her husband Pete and their six children. She can be reached by email at wemenews@gvtel. com.