The train trip to the birthplace of Bill’s grandfather, Mathew Politylo, started with an easy 45-minute train trip northeast to Krasne. We were still in the L’viv oblast (province), but way out of town. Hrabova was another ten kilometres away.
When we got off the train, we climbed the stairs to a pedestrian walkway the carried us over the tracks and down station-side. It was cold! We followed a gaggle of fellow travelers across the street to a parking lot, where most boarded a yellow marshrutka to the county seat, Busk. (It’s pronounced boosk.) Here found our taxi. The driver’s name was Ihor, and he was a wonderful guide.
With a narrow river on our left, we drove north through farm fields, through a number of villages including Busk (noticeably larger than the rest), across the main Kyiv highway and through a bower of mistletoe-laden trees. We came out into open land again. As we approached Hrabova, we could see it to the right of the road: essentially one main street looping from the abandoned “Polish church” to the Orthodox church, with a little detour to the cemetery and back to the main road. We slowed. Men were cutting down trees beside the road. A horse and cart passed us going the other way.
Bill wondered where the birch trees were. His grandfather had spoken of a Hrabova nestled among birch trees. Bill asked Ihor, “Where are the birch forests?” Ihor swept his hand across the scenery from right to left. “The Poles cut them down,” he said. Ihor turned into Hrabova at the abandoned church. We wished we knew the description of cousin Martha’s old house. A flock of geese patrolled the street and ran toward the car, spreading their wings to shoo us away, but people were not much in evidence. The temperature was dropping. It was bitterly cold.
We passed a little house with a blue plaque on it that told us it was a “house of culture.” We thought it might be a museum, but really it’s where the folks get together for dances and singing and children’s performances and other such fun– a community center. Two young ladies in the building let us inside for a look around. Neither of them knew any Politylos in Hrabova, but one knew a Politylo in Busk.
Ihor took us to the end of the street where we found the Orthodox church. It is a pretty pastel building that seems to be constructed of metal siding. We opened the gate and walked around the grounds. The front doors were new and prettily carved. Two graves in the side yard are probably priests. The date on one of the crosses read 1855.
Our last stop was the cemetery. The cemetery, though a brisk walk away, is enclosed in a bright blue fence that matches the church. The graves are organized in four quadrants, with the quadrants furthest from the road home to the oldest graves. One of the closest quadrants is empty. The other is for the most recent burials. Two new graves were still heaped high with flowers and wreaths and ribbons.
It was amazing to me that the cemetery was here at all, considering two world wars and the Soviet Union had ploughed through here over the past century. There were many mounds without markers. Snow and ice covered the ground between the mounds. But most of the marked graves were well tended. Almost all were decorated with artificial flowers and candles. We were on a hunt for Politylos and Karanets, the maiden name of Bill’s great-grandmother. Bill wrote the names out in Cyrillic so we’d recognize them. Then the four of us left the warmth of Ihor’s taxi and set off to read the monuments in cemetery; Zachary came with me.
The hunt turned out to be relatively (to coin a phrase) easy. The first grave I came to was a Politylo. “Here’s one,” I called. As it turned out, the cemetery was full. After all Bill’s grandfather had twelve brothers and sisters: Ivan, Mary, Stephan, Inofrio, Wasyl, Toma, Ilko, Magda, Yakim, Anna, Dmytro and Zachary. (Yes, our Zachary is named after Zachary Politylo.) We found brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, and nieces and nephews and their descendants: the family that Mathew Politylo had left behind. Picture were placed on many of the markers or carved into the headstones. Bill was surprised and thrilled at how much his great-uncle Zachary looked like his grandfather Mathew.
We spent a good hour in that icy graveyard finding connections that Bill thought had been severed forever as the result of history and politics. We found all those Politylos and a number of Karanets, too. Finally, we went to the furthest corner where the graves were the oldest, the most weathered and broken. “These are people whose relatives moved to North American,” I thought. “There was no one left to take care of them.” The monuments were eroded to the point of being almost impossible to read. Still, the cyrillic form of “Politylo” is an easy name to carve deep on a stone–so many straight lines–and an easy name to read. Bill found a stone that he swears bears the name of his great-grandfather, Michael. He was extraordinarily moved. He took a moment to pay his respects.
Politylos are well represented among these first graves in the cemetery. And a Politylo was the last person to be buried here, last December. When Bill told me “the whole town is Politylos,” he was not far wrong.
Ihor took us back to Krasne. The road back seemed so much shorter. Next time we come back, we hope to see him again. We’ll be bringing Bill’s mother.