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A Story of a Teacher
Olga DUBOVYK reminisces about her village school, about her first teacher and proceeds to tell the teacher's life story, full of tragic and momentous events.
I remember clearly and vividly my first day in school. I was wearing two bright-orange ribbons tied into large bows on both sides of my head. The school building looked more like a peasant hut than an educational establishment. But since it was a village school there was nothing surprising in that.
The village is located in the Land of Zhytomyrshchyna, and is called Lypky. The teacher’s name is Mariya Serhiychuk. I remember her patronymic as well — Viktorivna, that is, her father’s name was Viktor. The pupils, following an age-old tradition, addressed the teacher using the first name and patronymic — Mariya Viktorivna. She was more like a mother to us, first graders, than a teacher. For her, we were little human beings, each with his or her individuality and idiosyncrasies, rather than “a uniform mass of pupils.” She knew how to encourage interest in studies and reward the successes achieved.
Many years have passed since my elementary school days, many things have happened in my life. With the passage of time there grew in me a desire to see my native village again and to talk to my first teacher who proved to be much more than “a competent educator” — she set me on the road of discovering my own personality.
Recently I did manage to do both — to talk to my first teacher and to see my native place.
Mrs Serhiychuk, who remains Mariya Viktorivna to me, is now 87. More than half a century she devoted to teaching.
The teacher is still full of energy and youthful vigor, so much so that it is difficult to believe she is an octogenarian. Her eyes look into you as penetratingly as they used to, and with as much love as she always had. She did remember me when I introduced myself, though her retentive memory held the image of me as a small girl.
Life of a village teacher
We talked in Mariya Viktorivna’s house — a typical peasant house, neatly whitewashed, filled with the fragrances of summer that wafted in through the open door. The teacher’s house is situated in the part of the village which used to be referred to as Za tserkivka — Beyond the Church.
The teacher began her story not with telling me about herself but with what had happened to the church.
The church is no more — it was destroyed in the thirties by the militantly atheistic soviets during their “anti-religion” campaign. The graveyard by the church that contained graves of several generations of Lypky’s inhabitants was bulldozed so that no trace of it would remain.
The ruins of the church were used as a foundation on which a community center was built, which, after Ukraine’s independence, was turned back into a church. But the resurrected church burned down and no new church has been built yet.
It was only when I asked about the digits — 77402 — visible on her arm that she shifted her story onto herself.
“It is my number given to me in Oswiencim (or Auschwitz, one of the largest Nazi concentration camps). I seized to be Mariya Serhiychuk, I was robbed of my human identity and turned into just a number…”
Mariya Viktorivna was born into a peasant family on January 11 1922. Her father, Viktor, was of that kind of man who constantly gets himself into trouble with the law, and he spent a lot of time in prisons. Mariya Viktorivna’s mother, Hanna, had to raise her four children practically on her own.
When the famine of 1933 struck, it was close to a miracle that no one died in the Serhiychuk family. The children looked for anything that could be used as food in the forest; frozen potatoes were dug up from the rock-hard earth in the vegetable garden; the cook of the local communal dining room gave the children whatever she could scrape from the bottom of emptied cooking pots and pans.
Mariya Viktorivna went to school when she was nine. The school was set up in the house that used to belong to the local priest. By the time she finished her schooling in 1940, she had been thoroughly brainwashed to become a member of the Komsomol — Young Communist League (the soviet counterpart of Germany’s Hitler Jugend). There was little of the Ukrainian spirit that had been left in her — and in millions of other young Ukrainians — after years of soviet indoctrination, but it did not die altogether. That bit that remained produced green shoots later.
Mariya Viktorivna knew she wanted to be a teacher while she was still in senior grades of school, and upon graduation she went to the city of Zhytomyr to study at the teachers’ training courses which gave her the right to teach at elementary school.
She stayed in Zhytomyr and landed a job of a teacher. A visit to her school by a dashing poet from Kyiv (it was part of the soviet education encouragement program to have literati travel to provinces and countryside to address the locals with interest-boosting words) became a memorable event. Incidentally, during WWII, this poet, Mykola Shpak, headed a group of partisans, and Mariya Viktorivna introduced a liaison man to him.
The Germans invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, unilaterally abrogating the non-aggression pact that Nazi German had concluded with the Soviets in August 1939. In the chaotic months that followed the invasion, when the Red Army was retreating under the devastating blows of the Nazi war machine, Mariya Viktorivna decided she would return to her native village rather than attempt to flee to safety in the east of the vast country.
She walked all the way to the village.
In 1942, the advancing German troops occupied Lypky. Mariya Viktorivna joined the resistance movement, providing information and occasionally food for the resistance fighters.
After a German war train was derailed by the partisans in the vicinity of the village, the retribution followed with little delay. The first attempt to arrest those whom the Germans suspected of being partisan sympathizers ended in a shootout, in which two Germans were killed. A punitive unit was dispatched to the village with a license to kill.
A considerable number of villagers, women and children among them, were rounded up, and the stronger men were ordered to dig a grave. These men were the first to be shot, but neither the women nor the children were spared. The policemen, drafted from the locals, pillaged the dead and the dying, pulling boots off the dead and anything else that they considered worth taking. When somebody tried to run away, the policemen chased them, knocked down and dragged back to the mass grave to be finished off. Some of the people, very young children who were held by their mothers in their arms in particular, found themselves in that horrid pit alive. They died a slow death in terrible agony. An old blind, half-paralyzed woman was thrown on top of the bodies without being shot. Then the earth was heaped upon the still writhing bodies.
The Sehiyhuk family were not among those who had been picked out for execution, and they survived the massacre, the second miracle since the famine.
Listening to this tale of horror, I could not help thinking, “How come Ukrainians were killing their former neighbors, without regard for sex or age, without pity, so brutally and mercilessly... the wildest of beasts would never do a thing like that… These same men, peasants turned murders, would not let a pig die such a horrible death… Was it because the tyrannical communist regime had emptied their souls of all the things that used to be held sacred? And gave nothing in return? Was it a punishment for destroying the house of worship, for discarding the values that had been inviolate for centuries?”
I have no definite answer. I do hope it is not because there is a certain number of men who are evil and cannot be made good, no matter what regime they live under, and who kill whenever a chance presents itself, but I am sure that the full truth is better than lies or evasive and concealing half-truths…
Later, she was arrested on suspicion of being part of a partisan ring, but her life was spared. She spent some time in prisons and later she was taken to Majdanek, one of the German concentration camps in the Nazi-occupied Poland.
The inmates were forced to work but were fed something that could hardly be called food. Those who collapsed from exhaustion were doused with some sort of combustible liquid and burned.
Mariya Viktorivna still remembers that horrible smell that spread over the camp and from which there was no escape.
There were attempts to run away but in most cases the escapees were caught and hanged, with all the other inmates forced to watch the execution.
In 1944, Mariya Viktorivna and a number of other inmates were moved to the death camp in Oswiencim. She did not know what actually the date was but she thought it must have been in April, round the Day of Easter. When she arrived in the camp, she was turned into a number burned in on her arm.
When she, and many other new arrivals, were forced to go to the bathhouse, Mariya Viktorivna thought her end was coming — she knew that for so many “the bathhouse” was in fact a gas chamber from which the bodies would be taken to be burned in the crematorium.
But in her case, it was indeed a bathhouse.
She lived to be liberated by the advancing Red Army on January 27 1945.
A great many people, POWs in particular, who were set free by the Red Army troops soon found themselves transported to the soviet concentration camps — they were considered to be “unreliable” and thus had to serve another term of imprisonment, but this time in concentration camps of the victors.
But Mariya Viktorivna was lucky in this respect — she was allowed to go home. Many women chose to take parentless children freed from other camps to take care of them. Mariya Viktorivna picked a seven-year old boy whose mother she had previously met. It must have facilitated the procedure of being “processed” and then “cleared’ for returning to the Soviet Union.
Part of the way home, she and the boy with her who was named Oleh Ravkov, rode in a tank. She happened to have known one of the tank crew members since before the war. The rest of the way they hitchhiked.
Mariya Viktorivna returned to Lypky in September 1945. Her mother had survived the war too.
The boy’s mother did find him later and took him away with her, but he and Mariya Viktorivna kept exchanging letters for many years to come.
There was no teaching job for Mariya Viktorivna in her native village and she joined other surviving villagers in doing traditional peasants’ work, but when things began to improve a little and the reconstruction was in full swing, she went to Zhytomyr to study at the local teachers’ training college. Her studies confirmed her right to teach at elementary school.
In 1948, Mariya Viktorivna married a man whom she had met during the war. Ivan was an excellent gardener who planted apple trees and then took loving care of them. It was a communal apple garden and it brought good apple harvests, but in the end of the nineteen-seventies, the village management decided it would be more profitable to uproot the trees and turn the plot into a grain-growing field.
“He wept when he learnt about this decision, and before the trees were cut down he went around the garden hugging each tree.”
She and her late husband had two children, and she is a proud grandmother and great-grandmother of five grand children and three great-grandchildren. And in spite of the harrowing experiences she lived through, she has retained a belief in the essential goodness of man.
Mariya Serhiychuk shows visitors the ruins of what used to be a big mill in the village of Lypky. 1970s.
Mariya Serhiychuk and her husband Ivan. 1990s.
Mariya Serhiychuk with Oleh Ravkov, a boy she took care of for some time before his mother turned up.
Mariya Serhiychuk (far left) in the Museum of Mykola Shpak, a poet and leader of a WWII resistance group. 1960s.
Photos are from Mariya Serhiychuk’s archives[Prev][Contents][Next]