Friday, August 22, 2014

Living on a battle field: Katherine’s World War I Story

Village in Galicia destroyed early in World War One.

Katherine Pylatiuk was ten years old when the Russian Army invaded her village, Bila, just outside of Ternopil, in Eastern Galicia.  She was 18 when the World War One finally ended in 1921.  When the war started in 1914, Katherine, my great aunt, lived in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, when all the associated conflicts ended in 1921, she lived in Poland.  Between 1918 and 1921, when the wars ended, her village was ruled by the Germans, then by the Ukrainians and finally, the Poles.

Katherine’s father, Sylvester Rychly had immigrated to the United States and lived in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  Her mother, Marya Bryniak Rychly and her six brothers and sisters lived in Bila.  It was difficult being a single mother, but more difficult when you are living in a battle zone.  She and her family shared their one room house with Russian soldiers for a good part of the war.  The village was often shelled by the armies, food was scarce.  The armies took whatever they wanted from the villagers, and never reimbursed them for anything.

Russian Soldiers in a  village on the outskirts of Ternopil'.

Diadko (Uncle) Panko Bryniak, Marya Rychly’s brother, was drafted into the Austrian army and left a mare and foal in Marya’s keeping.  Katherine and her cousin took the animals to a pasture to graze, thinking it was a safe place to take the horses, since horses were very valuable to the villagers. While they were there, Russian soldiers rode up, took the mare and the foal followed its mother.  The family was upset about the loss, but there was nothing they could do about it.

Russian Soldiers in Galicia

One Christmas, probably in 1914 or 1915, the family had Russian soldiers in their house and yard, chosing the location because it was close to a village well.  They brought their “magazyn” (supply wagon) and set up a kitchen in the yard.  The villagers put straw on the floor of their houses at Christmas to remind them of the stable in Bethlehem where Jesus was born.  Since the Russian soldiers slept on the floor, the straw became dirty and matted down.  Marya had asthma, and the layers of straw made her sick, confining her to bed for several weeks. 

The good thing about having the “magazyn” was that the soldiers shared their food with the family.  Food was scarce during the war, and for a short while, the family had enough to eat.

Cattle being Driven to the Russian Army in Galicia, World War One.

In 1917, when the Russian army retreated back to Russia, the soldiers ordered the villagers to bring all the cattle to a special enclosed field.  Since Marya had only one cow and six children to feed, she didn’t want to give it up.  As Marya and the other villagers herded the cattle down the street, she passed her brother’s yard, and quickly pushed the cow through the gate and hid it.  Fortunately the fence was high and the Russian soldiers didn’t see anything.  The cow was saved, and the family had food.  Since Marya was both mother and father to her family, so she did what she thought was right.  She took a great risk, because if the soldiers discovered her actions, the punishment would have been a beating or death.  The family would lose both the cow and its mother.

This bridge is not in Galicia, but it may be similar to the one built by Russian soldiers over the Syret River.

On Sundays, the village young people walked to the woods, and crossed the river Syret to get to there.  They used a rickety wooden plank bridge that was built by the Russian soldiers, The bridge was considered dangerous, but they used anyway.  One Sunday, Katherine and friends went swimming in the lake, and Russian soldiers stole their clothes.  They did return the clothing, but it was the last time she went swimming during the war.

As the war years passed, old customs changed. In early summer, before the war, the villagers went to their fields on ”Green Sunday” to bless the grain fields and to ask for a good harvest.  The young men and women carried crosses and banners, and people sang hymns.  During the war this happened only at night.  The soldiers would shoot at anything that they thought was a threat, cultural events and speaking the Ukrainian language were considered threats.  Even though the events were conducted at night, it was very dangerous.

Living on a battlefield was dangerous. A person never knew what to expect, life was always changing, and not for the better.

Source:Katerzina(Kaska), Autobiography by Katherine Pylatuik Lymar as told to her Daughter, Julie in 1988.