For Ukrainians who fled during World War II, watching today’s news is like reliving a nightmare

Anger and deep sorrow are some of the emotions Chicago-area Ukrainians are feeling after the Russian invasion of their homeland.

SHARE For Ukrainians who fled during World War II, watching today’s news is like reliving a nightmare
Luka Kostelyna, 91, who fled Ukraine with his family during World War II, stands with his 90-year-old wife, Maria Kostelyna, in their living room Friday afternoon in Mount Prospect. The couple have been together since their wedding in 1953.

Luka Kostelyna, 91, who fled Ukraine with his family during World War II, stands with his 90-year-old wife, Maria Kostelyna, in their living room Friday afternoon in Mount Prospect.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

When the sirens sounded in the middle of the night, Olena Matwyshyn trembled so hard her parents couldn’t get clothes on the little girl — choosing instead to wrap her in a blanket before hurrying to the bomb shelter.

For comfort, little Olena clutched a teddy bear — “Misio” in her native Ukrainian. She still has the bear, although it is worn smooth from being “hugged and kissed,” Matwyshyn said.

Matwyshyn, now 83, is reminded of that bear as she’s bombarded daily with news images of families — much like her own almost 80 years ago — picking through smoking rubble or tightroping over rivers on a plank bridge as they flee the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“It’s horrible because I truly can identify with the families and the children … and the horror of it, and not knowing what tomorrow will bring. It’s awful,” said Matwyshyn, a retired Sears executive who now lives in the Sauganash neighborhood, decadesafter her family escaped the fighting in her homeland during World War II.

The teddy bear Olena Matwyshyn took with her as a child as her family fled Ukraine almost 80 years ago.

The teddy bear Olena Matwyshyn took with her as a child as her family fled Ukraine almost 80 years ago.

Provided

Tears well and anger simmers among Ukrainians long settled in the Chicago area who thought stories like theirs might only be found in history books, faded letters or their own memories.

Luka Kostelyna, 91, has been glued to his TV set in his Mount Prospect home since the Russian invasion began in February, spending hours each day watching CNN and Fox News.

He’s frustrated at what he sees as a failure of American leadership to stand up to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“I wish we had [President] Ronald Reagan,” Kostelyna said. “If he was president, things would have been much, much different.”

Kostelyna, then 14, his father and pregnant mother fled western Ukraine in the early 1940s as the battle lines shifted in Europe and both the Germans and Russians occupied his homeland. Kostelyna’s father, a Ukrainian nationalist, feared being arrested by the Russians and sent to Siberia. The Russians had already shot the son of one of Kostelyna’s neighbors.

The family headed west, traveling in a wagon pulled by two horses. They slept in barns along the way. The family made it to Germany, and one morning, Kostelyna’s mother woke up in a hay barn and announced she was about to give birth.

“My brother was born in a German military truck,” Kostelyna said.

The family spent four years living in Germany in a camp for displaced people. They eventually made it to New York and then to Chicago, where Kostelyna worked, among other jobs, as an operations manager for a company that made aluminum products.

Luka Kostelyna, 91, points to a picture of himself at the age of 14 with his parents before they fled Ukraine during World War II.

Luka Kostelyna, 91, points to a picture of himself at the age of 14 with his parents before they fled Ukraine during World War II.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Olenka Pryma was only 6 months old when her family left Ukraine in 1944. What she knows of the journey came from her mother, who died in 2001. Pryma, 78, grew up speaking Ukrainian.

“It was a question of patriotism and to preserve what was taken away from us,” said Pryma, who lives in Ukrainian Village.

She said it’s been “very painful” watching the “depravity” of the Russian invaders.

She and her husband, also Ukrainian, spend much of the day watching the news coming out of Ukraine.

“We walk away, maybe turn it off for an hour or so, then we turn it back on,” said Pryma, a retired language teacher. It’s like “deja vu,” she said.

“I pray, pray and pray, and that gives me peace of mind,” she said.

There’s a key difference, she said, between what’s happening now and back in the 1940s: video.

“Today, people can see the atrocities from one minute to the other, and so people cannot write stories that are totally not true,” she said.

Pryma has taken her children to Ukraine and, three years ago, her grandchildren, too — showing them the house where she was born.

“Thank God I did it then because now what am I going to show them?” she said.

Like Pryma, Matwyshyn spends a lot of time watching the news.

“I watch it, then I cry, then I can’t watch any more. I have to stop for a couple of hours,” she said.

Matwyshyn says she sees herself in the frightened children fleeing along shattered roads and muddy fields.

“I remember having to run off a train because the train was being attacked, and we had to go to the nearest ditch or into a little forest,” said Matwyshyn, whose family arrived in Chicago in 1949. “That was very scary, and that’s one of the things that stays with you.”

And she remembers her parents reminding her over and over again of her name, their names and where she was born.

“So that if for some reason they got killed or we were separated, I would at least know who I was,” she said.

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