By Marie Holmes
While the East Village, with its multiple churches and well-known restaurants like Veselka, has long been considered a hub of Ukrainian culture in New York City, the Upper West Side is also home to Ukrainian families and cultural institutions. Although their numbers are small, and declining with the passing years, there is a historical presence in the neighborhood.
Many older Ukrainians carry memories from WWII, and the current Russian invasion of Ukraine awakens wounds most readily tended to in a community of shared heritage.
The Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Volodymyr at 160 W. 82nd Street provides services in Ukrainian and a home base for Ukrainians from the UWS and the greater NYC area. They sent WSR the following email:
Our church has about 150 parishioners and guests. Each is very saddened and enraged and disbelieving and horrified and shocked by what is going on in Ukraine. Everyone copes as best as they can. Some people are glued to the news while others don’t want to see what is going on as it is sad and surreal to see an unprovoked attack on Ukraine by Russia. And we are heartened and encouraged to see the Ukrainian nation and people managing to delay the Russian invaders. Each person in our parish deals with the sadness and pain in his or her own way. And we pray for peace with all our hearts, that Ukraine can overcome Russian aggression and retain her independence.
The building the church currently occupies used to be a synagogue, according to parishioner Hilary Zarycky, who lives in Lincoln Towers. Originally located on 14th Street, the church moved to its current location [around 1959].
Zarycky, who is 67, says there are “a smattering” of Ukrainian families living in the neighborhood, mostly older residents. (Even Councilmember Gale Brewer’s office could not provide a more precise estimate. “It’s not available on the census,” a spokesperson said.)
Aside from the Cathedral, the Ukrainian Academy of Arts and Sciences is located on W. 100th Street, providing, Zarycky says, “a center for Ukrainian intellectuals who tended to live in the neighborhood to get together, but they are mostly older, too.”
Orysia Germak, financial secretary in the Sisterhood of the Church, lives in New Jersey now, but has remained part of the church community for some fifty years, and was married in the church.
Germak, who is 74, says of the church, “It’s quite big. It used to be filled with parishioners, many have passed away.”
It is from the newer members who are more recent arrivals that she is hearing about the conditions on the ground in Ukraine.
“We hear their calls to their families and friends,” she says. A young woman studying in the U.S. on a Fulbright scholarship told Germak that her school back home had been bombed, and that her grandparents were starving. Another member worried about a brother and sister-in-law who are doctors in Ukraine.
Watching the violence on the news and hearing these personal stories is painful for Germak. “Words can’t describe [it],” she says, “what it kind of did for me and my age group was it just brought memories of World War II.”
Germak was born in a displaced persons camp in 1947. “My parents met there,” she says. “They were running away from war.”
“It took us three years to come to the U.S., so it was 1950,” she says. “I know it was a military boat. I know men were separated from women,” mirroring images of the families currently splitting at the Ukrainian border as men ages 18-60 are mandated to stay.
Zarycky was born in St. Vincent’ s Hospital downtown to Ukrainian immigrant parents, and his wife, like Germak, was born “in Austria on the way out of Ukraine.” She has close relatives there. “A couple have moved [from Kyiv] to western Ukraine, the rest of them are hunkered down,” says Zarycky. “They don’t really want to leave, they want the Russians to leave.”
Many members of the church community are distraught about family and friends back in Ukraine.
“On Sunday it felt like a funeral in church,” says Germak. “People were very sad, there were young men sobbing.”
Germak says she limits her exposure to news media. “It’s quite heartbreaking. First you’re in a stupor, and then you don’t believe it, and then you cry one day.”
Being with other Ukrainians is a relief, she says. Few words are necessary. “You only have to look at each other. We all understand without having to explain.”
“It means a lot to us,” Zarycky agrees. “Having a community always makes things easier.”
In addition to providing each other with emotional support, parishioners have been involved in collecting money and donations to send to those in need in Ukraine.
“We are hopeful and we’re praying,” says Germak. She adds that those who can are helping financially, and “others physically, going to the warehouses, packing pallets” of goods to send.