Friday, August 8, 2014

World War One in Galicia: Katherine's Story

Russian Soldiers on the outskirts of Ternopil

Katherine Rychly, my aunt was ten years old when World War One started.  The war continued until 1917, when the Russian Revolution began, and the Russian army retreated from the Ternopil area and the village of Bila.  The end of the war did not bring peace to Galicia, since various groups occupied the area as a result of wars between the Russians, Poles and Germans for control of the area.  Calm returned in 1920, when Eastern Galicia became part of Poland.  A good part of Katherine’s early life took place on the front lines of war.  She details her life in the village of Bila, just outside the city of Ternopol, in her memoir/autobiography: Katheryna (Kashka) Autobiography by Katherine Pylatiuk Lymar, as told to her daughter, Julia, 1988.

Russian Soldiers entering Przemysl in Galicia on March 22, 1915.  (see map below)

Although the Russian Army did not have great success in World War One, losing battles and territory in Northern Poland; they were very successful in Galicia. On August 18, 1914, the Russian Eighth army commanded by General Brusilov, invaded and captured most of Eastern Galicia by the middle of September. The Russians controlled this area until the end of 1915, when the Austrian-German Army pushed them back to the”Riga-Jakobstadt-Dunaburg-Baranovichi-Pinsk-Dubno-Ternopil” line. In 1916, the Russian Army retook much of Eastern Galicia, holding it for several months. The city of Ternopil, and the areas to the east, remained under Russian control from 1914 until 1917, after the Bolshevik October Revolution. From that time until the end of the war in 1918, the easternmost areas of Galicia returned to Austria.

Galicia in 1915, showing the "Riga...Ternopil" line.

The Russian policy in Galicia was very different than that of the Austrians.  The Austrians were tolerant of  ethnic minority people, including the Ruthenians (Ukrainians) and Jews.  They had some representation in the government, as well as schools taught in their language and were allowed religious freedom. For the most part, these groups remained loyal to the Austrian during the Russian occupation. 

Map of Galicia, Eastern Galicia is shown in pink. 

Katherine relates a story of how the War affected her family. Her uncle, Kassian Bryiak, immigrated to Minneapolis in 1913.  Nooshka, wife and son Paul remained in Bila.  The Russians were fighting the Austrians, so this story probably took place in 1915. The village of Bila was in their crossfire, the villagers hid in the fields to avoid the shelling.  Nooshka and Paul were hiding in a hole.  Paul was hungry and started crying, Nooshka decided to go to the barn and get some milk from a cow.  As she entered the barn, it was hit by a shell, it exploded, killing her and all the animals.  According to custom, her body was washed and dressed and put on a board in her house. Nooska’s father and brother were sitting next to her body, receiving visitors paying their respects. They decided to go outside for a few minutes to smoke.  As they sat smoking their pipes, a shell came through the window of the house, exploded in the room where Nooshka was laid out, destroying everything in the room including her body.  What was left of her remains was buried in the village cemetery.  Kassian, her husband, sent money from Minnesota for a stone memorial, which was unusual, since most village people could afford only wooden crosses.   Not long after it was installed, a shell hit her grave and exploded, destroyed the gravestone and left a large hole. Village gossip swirled around Nooshka’s unfortunate end.  People in the village said that she was having an affair with a Russian soldier who often came to the village.  His wife came to see Nooshka and “put a curse on her”.  The villagers believed that the curse led to her horrible death and the destruction of her grave.
Cemetery in Chernobyl, Ukraine, 1998. Photo: David McMillan

Nooshka’s demise continued to affect Katherine’s family.  The family decided that her mother, Marya, and her children should move into Nooshka’s house, since it was much larger and better than theirs. They moved in, but were never comfortable, because the family found that living there was frightening.  When the shell hit the house, Nooshka’s body was blown to bits, staining the walls and ceiling.  Even though it was scrubbed and painted many times, the stains always reappeared, reminding them of her horrific end.

Katherine experienced the shelling first hand again when she visited her grandmother’s house in the village.  A shell landed on the straw roof of her house, but it didn’t explode, and the house wasn’t damaged.

From June of 1915 until 1916, things in Bila were relatively calm.  The Russian soldiers continued to live in the village houses, but life returned to a sort of normal.  People worked in their fields and at their trades.  Adjustments were made, since no one knew when the shooting would start up again.