A Piano with Russian Bullet Holes: On War, Family, Displacement, the Power of Music, Sich Riflemen Songs, and Russia’s Attack on Ukrainian Culture

“Did they not know that the Ukrainian people sing their beautiful songs, composed over the centuries by national heroes, not only in joy but also in sorrow, misfortune, and grief, during work and at rest, in peaceful times and in times of war? Had they heard the Sich Riflemen song with the lyrics, ‘…as they go into battle, they sing, and in song they die.  …Our glorious volunteers.’ We should cherish our songs, take pride in them. Our enemies want to tear them from us, to silence us forever. We should show them that our songs have not died and will never die, just as the Ukrainian people will always live on. We do not have the right to show our pain and humiliation. On the contrary, even through our suffering we should carry on with our heads held high, show everyone the strength of our souls through our songs.” My great-aunt Maria Levytska-Zahorujko wrote these words in her memoirs – these were words she spoke to fellow Ukrainians while she was in a Gulag labor camp in the mid 1940s, while Ukrainians were still fighting against the Soviets for a free Ukraine. Yet these words could have been written today, about today’s war against the same enemy…

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One of the most powerful images from the EuroMaidan revolution, when Ukrainians shed blood for their choice to cut ties with Russia and join Europe, was of an acquaintance from Lviv playing the piano in front of a line of riot police in Kyiv. During this war, there have also been many deeply emotional images and videos of people playing music or singing folk songs: against the background of burned out cities and inside their destroyed homes, in basements and air raid shelters, in the bunker of the Azov Steel plant.

The video that went most viral, however, was that of Andriy Khlyvniuk, frontman of the Ukrainian rock band BoomBox, singing a Sich Riflemen [a Ukrainian unit within the Austro-Hungarian Army during WWI] song against the background of an empty St. Sophia Square in Kyiv just a few days after the war began. The recording was remixed by artist Kiffness. Then, other Ukrainian singers recorded their performances, even a little boy was recorded singing it, and finally the legendary Pink Floyd recorded their own version of the song, making it a worldwide hit. The song, “Oy u Luzi, Chervona Kalyna,” has always been my favorite patriotic song. We often heard it and also sang it in Chicago where I grew up. The fact, though, is unbelievable – that a song written in Galicia in 1914 during Ukraine’s then-struggle for freedom is now heard around the world.

Not only has this song become famous, but Ukrainian music is now being heard in every corner of the world. As my great-aunt wrote above, Ukrainians are showing the strength of their souls through their songs.

***

So much history has been repeating itself. Another Russian invasion, another attack on the Ukrainian language and culture, displacement, looting, civilian death, fallen soldiers, a fight for freedom…. Ukrainians have experienced this many times. As someone so aptly wrote, in the last couple of centuries, there is not a single generation of Ukrainians which has not been affected by the Russians. 

Through all this suffering, all these wars and hardships, Ukrainians have always sung folk songs and composed new songs. Songs from each past struggle have been reused, new ones have been created, and today, Ukrainians have a large repository of folk, patriotic, and war songs to turn to in this latest war.

Now when Ukraine is again fighting for its freedom and for its culture, I often think of my grandparents who had to flee their home in the west of Ukraine in 1944 as the Russians again came to occupy the whole of Ukraine. If my grandparents had stayed, as members of the intelligentsia and patriotic Ukrainians, they would have been killed or sent to Siberia by the Russians. Thus they left their home, eventually making it to a displaced persons camp in Germany before leaving for America where they began their new life. They were never able to return to their homeland. But they made sure their children and grandchildren learned the Ukrainian language and culture, and instilled in them a love for their country.

Their efforts were not in vain – in 2011 I decided to move to Ukraine, and in a way I felt I was moving back for my grandparents who were never able to return. Come February 2022 I found myself retracing my grandparents’ path west ahead of another Russian invasion. I ended up in Kraków where I have been temporarily living and working. Unlike my grandparents, however, I knew I would return to my home in Lviv (I returned exactly 5 months after the war started). Unlike my grandparents, I know Ukraine will win this war.

On ‘Non-Essential’ Items

I left Lviv with a small backpack of clothes – at that moment not knowing when or if I would be able to return and what would be left. The only “non-essential” item I brought was an old photograph of my great-great grandfather Leon Bednawski. This photo of Leon is the only old family photo that is specifically mine and not in our shared family’s collection in Chicago: it was given to me by Leon’s great-nephew Zbigniew, a sweet old man from Warsaw, who over a series of emails spanning several years happily shared with me his lifetime’s research on the Bednawski family. Soon after I received it, the photo was damaged by water when my apartment in Lviv flooded (it was in the one spot in the whole apartment where water dripped – go figure!).

This 100+ year-old photo survived two world wars, has been passed down four generations, has traveled around Galicia, Poland and Ukraine: originating in Przemyśl, eventually ending up in Warsaw, then in Lviv, now in Kraków. Soon it will go back to Lviv.

When my grandparents left their home in Ukraine in 1944, other than some clothing, they also took old family photos, embroidery, some silverware and china – and sheet music (folk music, patriotic songs, and classical music).

On a visit to Chicago in May, I found some of the old sheet music that they had brought, of particular interest and relevancy was a compilation of Sich Riflemen songs printed in Lviv in 1931 called Sich Riflemen Songs for the Piano with Lyrics arranged by Ya. Yaroslavenko.

When I found the sheet music, I could imagine my ancestors gathered at the piano while someone would play the notes from this very book, singing “Oy u Luzi, Chervona Kalyna” – the first song in the book. Just as today people around the world are singing this very song – from my 2-year-old nephew in Chicago and famous Ukrainian singers, to Pink Floyd and musicians from all over the world.

On the Importance of the Ukrainian Song

“It has been known since the days of antiquity what a profound influence Ukrainian folk music, especially in the choral form, has had on its listeners. Born in the depths of the nation’s soul, beloved, nurtured by their spirituality, the music penetrates into the heart, into every cell of a true Ukrainian…

“The Ukrainian folk song is capable of reviving national consciousness, awakening a hibernating sense of patriotism (of independence, of participation in a great nation), inspiring a person. It is able to stimulatе action, the fight for freedom, for one’s rights, for national dignity, for good and justice. It supplies energy to produce and create, to resolve important matters in the name of one’s nation, one’s Homeland. Our occupants understood the value of our song, saw how it threatened their intentions to definitively ruin our culture, which they had already significantly robbed and sapped. They saw how it prevented them from ruling not only our bodies but also our souls. The occupants’ aim was to poison, crush, and completely efface, to mutilate the ‘aura’ of our people, to leave its body ‘naked’ and create an unscrupulous, subjugated, soulless herd of obedient khokholy [derogatory term for Ukrainians] without a native language, without a native song.

“In order to deprive us of the influence of our accomplished professional choral singers, they did everything in their power to move them as far as possible, uproot them from the nation. As for the largest and most talented choirs and bandurist ensembles, which had in their repertoires an inexhaustible number of patriotic and spiritual Ukrainian songs, they tried to wipe out completely. The members of these collectives, and in particular their leaders, were mercilessly destroyed both physically and psychologically: shootings and execution, concentration camps, exile, implicating them ‘for show’ in ‘Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism.'”

These words were also written many years by my great-aunt, who had lived through WWII and imprisonment in the Gulag and exile in Siberia. For her, for my family, for Ukrainians – music was always very important.

The Songs of the Sich Riflemen

It is no coincidence that Andriy Khlyvniuk chose to sing the anthem of the Sich Riflemen – “Oy u Luzi, Chervona Kalyna.” Under the Soviet Union the song, considered “bourgeois nationalist,” was forbidden. At the end of the 1980s and early 1990s the song was sung at demonstrations for the independence of Ukraine. After the declaration of independence on August 24, 1991, deputies in the Supreme Court sang the song. Thus it is deeply symbolic song for Ukraine’s fight for freedom.

Many other Sich Riflemen songs have also remained popular today, especially during such times. These songs constitute an original spiritual heritage of the Ukrainian people and recreate one of the brightest pages in the history of national liberation struggles in the twentieth century.

“Riflemen songs are a series of diverse Ukrainian songs of both literary and folk origin, united by ideological and thematic features, reflecting the heroic stages of the national liberation struggle of the Ukrainian people during the First World War (1914-1918), Ukrainian-Polish (1918-1919) and Ukrainian-Anti-Bolshevik (1919-1920) wars. They originated mainly among Sich Riflemen (soldiers of the Legion of Ukrainian Sich Riflemen, Ukrainian Galician Army, Sich Riflemen, Rifle Brigades of the UGA-UPR United Army) and organically entered the song repertoire of rural and urban populations in the postwar period,” (Striletksi pisni).

Throughout her memoirs, my great-aunt often mentions the songs of the Sich Riflemen. Growing up in the wake of WWI, in interwar Poland, these songs, especially “Oy u Luzi, Chervona Kalyna,” became popular among Ukrainians, and were passed on to each generation. Though banned under the Soviet Union, under Poland Ukrainians were not forbidden to sing their songs. And in the diaspora, where I grew up, these songs flourished.

In fact, when I first arrived in Kraków after fleeing, the only music I could listen to was Sich Riflemen songs. The lyrics described exactly what was happening: about young men going to battle and dying for a free Ukraine….

***

My Ancestors’ War Experiences

Much of my family history and war stories I know is thanks to the memoirs of my grandmother’s sister Maria. When the war started, I began to occasionally refer to them, at awe that many of her words could be describing what is happening today, decades later. The quoted text below is from her memoirs.

World War I: A Piano Dotted with Russian Bullet Holes

My maternal ancestors were from Galicia – mostly Ukrainians, but also Polish, Austrian, and German. My great-great grandparents lived in Przemyśl (Peremyshl), which is where my great-grandmother Ivanna Bednawska went to school and where she met my great-grandfather Josef Levytskyi. A Greek Catholic priest, Josef served in the village of Śliwnica (Slyvnytsia) near Przemyśl during the First World War. When Josef passed away in 1920, Ivanna moved in with her uncle Toma Dutkevych, a priest in the village of Tsishky, near Olesko. A year later, when he passed away, she moved to Brody with her three young children, her mother, and her aunt.

Of this time, my great-aunt writes: “Consequently, in order to pay for the house in Brody, my mother was forced to sell items she had not planned on selling: a grand piano and a large portion of the library, including a multivolume lexicon. We brought with us to Brody what remained of the library, some furniture, and an upright piano that had been brought to Tsishky from Peremyshl. This piano carried a memory still from the times of the First World War, from Russian bullets. When the Russians occupied Galicia [September 1914–June 1915], which at that time included Peremyshl and its surroundings, our family left our home in Peremyshl on the Sian River under the care of the building’s caretaker and departed for the village. Taking advantage of its hosts’ absence, a group of officers from the Tsar’s Army forced the caretaker to open the building and decided to ‘wander about.’ They were drunk and became rowdy, and began firing rounds. The guard was afraid to get mixed up with the games of the drunk ‘guests,’ and as a result they managed to shatter most of our dishes and destroy furniture and mirrors. Many valuables were lost during this ‘visit.'”

According to my grandmother’s birth certificate, my great-great grandparents lived in this building

“Then, when the Russian Army reached the village of Śliwnica, where my father was the priest, they searched our home and placed my father under house arrest. They contended that a priest should have long hair and a beard, as the Orthodox priests have, but as my father, like all of the Greek Catholic priests, was freshly trimmed and shaven, they thought he must be a foreign spy.”

My great-grandparents with my grandmother

Interwar Poland: The Piano as a Source of Income and a Place to Gather

After the First World War, Galicia came under Poland. In the 1920s, my family was based in Brody. The piano and piano playing became a source of income for my great-grandmother when times were difficult. She would accompany silent films on the piano and also gave private piano lessons: “In order to make ends meet and supplement our meager home budget, my mother taught private piano lessons and also filled consignments for a Lviv salon of artistic embroidery, spending nights embroidering different patterns and fancywork with gold or silver silk threads on thin, delicate fabrics. Despite this, she was still forced to sell family heirlooms and other valuables.”

But the piano was also the heart of the home, the place where her family and their friends gathered to spend evenings singing folk and patriotic songs and listening as people played classical pieces.

“Our guests, not only elders but also youth, came to visit primarily as they said ‘grandmother’ [Maria’s great-aunt Julia] to talk with her. Grandmother Julia enjoyed musical evenings in our home, when young people would come to sing or play violin. One of us would sit at the piano in accompaniment, and during days when we had no guests, which occurred rarely, any one of us – my sister Bohdana [my grandmother], my brother, or I – would sit at the instrument, and sometimes two of us would play an ensemble with four hands. But the best moments were when twilight fell. We would leave the lights off and listen to my mother play, requesting our favorite songs, usually works of Chopin. Then, in complete silence, I would fully submerge into the world of enchanted musical sounds.”

My grandmother and her siblings all learned to play the piano. My grandmother even studied piano at the conservatory in Przemyśl for some time. We have a picture of my grandmother’s youngest sister Oksana at the piano in their house in Brody. 

My great-aunt playing the piano in their home in the 1930s – very likely the piano with the Russian bulletholes

Of the interwar period under Poland, my great-aunt writes: “I cannot but recognize that during those times we could sing our folk, patriotic, and Sich Riflemen songs, and also our Church songs in which we asked God for a better destiny and freedom for Ukraine. No one forced us to sing Polish songs at our concerts. Our carols rang freely on Christmas, and on Easter – ‘Christ is Risen.’ No one officially banned us from this.”

WWII: ‘To Go or Not to Go?’

Toward the end of the war, ahead of the Russian advancement, many Ukrainians, especially those in the west nearest to the front, had to make the decision whether to stay or flee, just as today millions of Ukrainians have been making this decision. 

“The year was 1944. The German-Bolshevik front was quickly approaching Brody from the east…There were rumors that Brody’s residents would be evacuated and the German army would take the city in order to stop the advance of the Red Army. Few believed this. However, the people of Brody, who had not so long ago lived through the first Soviet occupation and who were still very frightened by Bolshevik cruelty and savagery, did not wait for an evacuation to escape the oncoming front. They would use any means to migrate west and away from the so-called liberators, the corrupt hands of the Bolshevik NKVD. They hoped that after the war they would return again to their native homes, to their city. They did not know then that most of them would never again set foot on native soil.” 

“The evacuation of Brody began. The Germans provided wagons for those who chose to leave for the West, which many of our acquaintances took advantage of. The Germans tried to persuade our family to take a wagon as well. My oldest sister Bohdana had been arrested in 1940 by the NKVD, convicted under Article 54-1a of the Criminal Code of Ukrainian SSR, and while in the Lviv prison Brygidky miraculously evaded her death penalty in 1941. Together with her husband Ivan Senyk and their one-year-old daughter Katrusia they left for the village of Turka, where my father’s brother Adrian Levytskyi was the priest of the parish. My stepfather Ostap Dutkevych, his daughter Oksana (my 12-year-old half-sister), and my older brother Stepan were in Radekhiv, about 50 kilometers northwest of us, and only my mother, my 86-year-old grandmother, who could barely rise from her bed, and I remained in our home in Brody.”

“The people of Brody who were preparing to leave packed only their most important belongings. At home we also discussed, ‘To go, or not to go?’ Grandmother said she did not wish to burden us and insisted we head west, that she would stay behind to look after the house so we would have a home to return to. She felt her time had passed and was indifferent to her fate. Mother, of course, would never have left Grandmother alone, so the attention turned to me.”

“In the meantime a rumor was spreading that those who did not voluntarily leave Brody would be shot by the Germans. Though we did not believe the rumor, my mother and grandmother would not leave me in peace. ‘You must leave. You are young and you must leave. If the Bolsheviks occupy Brody again, you will be among the first to be arrested, and us they will send to Siberia, and we may never see you again. Do you remember what happened to Bohdana? Fortunately, she returned home from prison. But how many were there who, through horrific suffering and torture by the NKVD, lost their lives?’ These words stirred me, but nonetheless even further secured the thought that I could not, did not have the right, to leave them behind alone.”

“Every day I encountered fewer and fewer acquaintances on the streets. I accompanied some of my friends and their families to the train station and bid them farewell near the train cars. People were stunned we were staying in Brody and disregarding the danger that certainly awaited us with the imminent arrival of the northeast ‘liberators.’ But Mother’s response to everyone was ‘All is in God’s hands. What God provides, will be!'”

My family’s efforts to persuade my great-aunt to join her sister in Turka were in vain – instead, she decided to go to a village nearby and wait for the chance to return home. This fateful decision separated her from her family for decades. Her mother and grandmother, brother, step-father and younger sister, joined my grandmother and her family in Turka. Maria was left behind in Ukraine, while the rest eventually were able to flee to the West. 

Four generations in Brody (my great-great grandmother, my grandmother holding my aunt, and my great grandmother), 1943. One year later all four fled the Russians

WWII: The Bombing of Brody and the Loss of Our Family Home

When the battle for Brody was over, my great-aunt returned to her hometown:

“When I entered the city I had overheard conversations that the Germans had planted many mines as they were leaving Brody. So with every moment that I walked along the cobblestone road toward our home, I feared an explosion. When I got home, all of the doors were wide open. Everything was bare. There was almost no furniture, in one room I found remnants of beds and a large credence that had been smashed, in another, chairs with slashed leather, and, in yet another, in the center of a room with bare walls, an empty bookshelf. Most likely they had not had the time to take it. In one room our family portraits in rather expensive frames hung with faces to the walls. A portrait of the celebrated Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko had been shredded and was scattered across the floor along with pieces of the broken frame. Everything else from the house had disappeared. Well in truth, I also found an ice cream machine we had used when we hosted larger gatherings. It was still intact then, but when I returned home a mere hour later its most important components had been taken. I felt very peculiar and upset at the knowledge of human greed in such difficult and uncertain times. Our street was deserted, there was no one walking along it. A deep silence reigned and I began to feel very out of sorts. After standing a few more moments inside the empty house, I felt devastated, completely alone, abandoned and forgotten by everyone.”

Their home was looted, destroyed, including the Russian-bullet-dotted piano. Now the only reminder of the piano and memories around it was the sheet music that the family took with them when they fled.

During that battle, the Red Army encircled Brody and destroyed the German forces. Because of the large number of casualties and massive destruction, the battle is known as the Brody Cauldron. Almost 2,000 homes were destroyed, especially in the city center around the square.

WWII: Singing as Part of Life in the Underground

With no way to contact her family and make the long journey to Turka, my great-aunt, homeless and alone, joined the underground resistance movement in western Ukraine. Even during her time in the underground, music and singing were part of their lives:

“I recall well one of the late winter evenings, when our small group of the underground was passing along the outskirts of a village. This was the night before Christmas, when in our Ukrainian houses, in the villages and towns, families traditionally gathered for Christmas Eve dinner. There was a female member of the underground in our group who I often encountered on this route, even though we were not involved in the same underground work. A former student at the university, she was a small woman, with her chestnut hair cut short, and was cheerful and very energetic. She had a pleasant high soprano voice and, like me, liked to sing, so whenever we had the occasion we would sing folk, Sich Riflemen, and partisan songs, as well as ancient Ukrainian romances, of which she knew countless numbers, and which, to great shame, are being forgotten by our people. We usually sang in a duet, where I would always take the second part. She was the niece of our renowned singer Solomyia Krushelnytska, and thus knew a vast repertoire of songs.”

Gulag and Siberian Exile: Music as an Escape from Reality

Ultimately, my great-aunt was arrested by the NKVD and sent to the Gulag in Mordovia. 

“During the first days of my time in the zone, when I was not yet assigned to work, I was very much feeling the absence of the printed word. I began asking among the women who had long ago begun serving their prison terms whether there was a library in the zone, or whether newspapers or magazines were sent here. They advised me to ask at the KVCh (Cultural-Educational Department), which was located in a small building somewhat offset from the barracks…”

“Unexpectedly, among some piled-up furniture, I saw a piano in the corner of the room. I stopped in wonder. ‘Oh, you have a piano here?!’ Not quite approvingly, nor questioningly, I turned again to the woman. She responded, ‘Do you play?’ And when I affirmed that I once played, but surely I had forgotten everything, she suggested I try, remember. Without diverting my eyes from it the instrument drew me like a magnet. With great emotion I opened the lid. After extracting a few chords from the keys, I affirmed it was fairly well tuned. Now I began to recall pieces I had once known. Slowly they came back to me, and I understood that some still remained in my memory, but I noticed that my fingers had lost their elasticity and were not listening to me as they once had. Then I realized that I did not have the right to sit here, at the instrument, as long as I wanted to, bothering this stranger at her work place. And I already was happy that for even a moment I had had the opportunity not to think about reality.” 

Showing the Strength of Our Souls through Our Songs

“When I stood up from the instrument, the KVCh head told me I could come here and engross myself in music whenever I had the opportunity. After thinking a moment, she added, ‘I often hear when your girls, the Ukrainians, gather here on the clearing and sing Ukrainian songs. I listen to them with pleasure, and am captivated. They are so beautiful. It would be nice to create a choir of these singers, most of whom have such lovely voices. They could perform on stage. Would you like to take on this matter?’ I was surprised by her unexpected proposition, but I must admit it did appeal to me. While I was not a choir singer, I recalled how in the gymnasium I had taken part in a quartet in our class, so I promised to talk about this with the girls and try my hand.”

My great-aunt talked to the Ukrainian women, but some felt they could not perform on stage because they felt they had no right to rejoice while in Ukraine their boys were dying in battle against the enemy. Maria expressed to them: “Singing our native folk songs, this does not mean we are rejoicing. Did they not know that the Ukrainian people sing their beautiful songs, composed over the centuries by national heroes, not only in joy but also in sorrow, misfortune, and grief, during work and at rest, in peaceful times and in times of war? Had they heard the Sich Riflemen song with the lyrics, ‘…as they go into battle, they sing, and in song they die.  …Our glorious volunteers.’ We should cherish our songs, take pride in them. Our enemies want to tear them from us, to silence us forever. We should show them that our songs have not died and will never die, just as the Ukrainian people will always live on. We do not have the right to show our pain and humiliation. On the contrary, even through our suffering we should carry on with our heads held high, show everyone the strength of our souls through our songs.”

After Stalin died, my great-aunt was released from the Gulag camp earlier than was expected, but still had to live in exile for several years in Siberia. She lived in Krasnoyarsk. In one of the last years of her time in Siberia, before she and her husband and their young child returned to the west of Ukraine, she worked as a piano tuner in the Yenisei piano factory. 

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Only decades later did my great-aunt make contact with her family, who had moved to the United States. Her sister (my grandmother) and her family had settled in Chicago, while the rest of her relatives had settled in Michigan. After three decades, Maria was reunited with her mother who visited Ukraine in 1970. After almost half a century, she was finally reunited with her sister when she visited Chicago in 1990.

While my family’s Russian-bullet-dotted piano may not have survived the wars, our family’s memories, the sheet music, and our love for Ukrainian music and culture have.

****

Now in 2022, just as then, Ukrainian culture and songs are under threat. Russians are deliberately targeting Ukraine’s rich cultural and architectural heritage: since the full-scale invasion began, 450 landmarks – including museums, historical buildings, and cultural facilities – have been destroyed or damaged by the Russian army, according to International Council of Museums (Icom) Ukraine. Bombing has also damaged over 2,000 educational institutions. Such destruction of cultural heritage is endangering the very identity and history of the Ukrainian people.

Furthermore, a telling example of how Russians have not changed for centuries and continue their blatant attack on Ukrainians and music, in early May a story was shared on social media about how Russian soldiers left a bomb inside a family’s piano in Bucha. Fortunately, the mother noticed that the items on the top of the piano had been moved and returned incorrectly, and so she found the grenade in time.

But our Ukrainian culture and songs will survive just as they did then – indeed, they are in fact today flourishing and being heard around the world. Now, just as then, Ukrainians hold their heads high, and today the whole world is in awe of the courage, bravery, and rich culture of our nation.

Kupyansk Offensive – Ukrainian Troops Sing The National Anthem Hours Before The Offensive. September 5, 2022

By Areta Kovalska

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