My friend Mary Szpur is one of the very best people, and her remarkable mother, Tatiana Szpur, has just died at age ninety six after living an incredible and full life. Tatiana, who is Ukrainian by birth, would have loved to share her stories with you, and so I am posting Mary’s remembrance here with some photos. Mary delivered the following eulogy February 8, 2014 in Chicago. (please note the photos are mixed up chronologically and in every other way, and Mary is going to provide descriptions of each soon.)
Thank you all for coming. I am Maria Szpur, daughter of Tatiana. I would like to talk a little about my mother’s life. My mother always had a very strong desire to tell and retell her life story, to anyone who would listen. I think this is because her life spanned major events and she experienced societal and personal traumas. Tatiana was born at the end of the first World War, during the Russian Revolution, both of which had a profound effect on her family. She grew up in an area of what is now western Ukraine that during the years of her youth changed hands several times, from Russia, to Poland, then to a newly created Ukrainian Republic that only lasted for 4 years. Tatiana lost her mother, the beautiful, blue-eyed Valentina, when she was only 3 and her brother Levko was only 5. This event left a wound and a yearning for creating her own family that drove my mother for the rest of her life.
Tatiana was in her early 20s when the second World War began, and spent the war years with my father fleeing west, from country to country, enduring the bombing, and trying to survive and outwit their circumstances. All the while my father was trying to complete his veterinary studies. My parents finally ended up as stateless refugees in a displaced persons camp in Germany, waiting to be sponsored to the United States. In their 30s, with two young sons, they would be starting a new life in a new country speaking a new language. Though my parents eventually came to love their new county and were grateful for their lives here, life in the United States for displaced persons, or DPs as they were called, after the war was not easy. There was one move after another, from New York City, to Rapid City, South Dakota, on to Centralia, Illinois, and finally to the city of Chicago. All the while my father was trying to get his veterinary medicine diploma recognized in the US, and trying to learn English and get better-paying jobs to help support his five children, four boys and one girl. My mother was also always working, at jobs ranging from cleaning office buildings to baking and decorating cakes, to cleaning cages and assisting my father in the operating room of his animal hospital in Chicago. The stressors of life for immigrants affected all our family members in different ways. There was drinking, and hard times. My oldest brother Leo volunteered to serve in the United States Army as a paratrooper in Vietnam at the age of 18, an experience that changed his life forever. Despite his having a good wife and four beautiful sons, Leo never got over the terrible experiences of war, which scarred his psyche, and he killed himself when he was 56. My brother Orest, to whom my mother was very close, died at the age of 48, a victim of alcohol. Despite the loss of two of her sons, both of whom she loved dearly, Tatiana did not break and her spirit remained strong. She kept on living for the sake of those of who remained.
Tatiana Krywicka Szpur was born on January 10, 1918, in the town of Turiysk, on the river Turya, in the region of Kovel, province of Volyn, in western Ukraine, though it was then part of Russia. My mother’s father, Lonhyn Krywitsky, started out as a high school teacher of chemistry, math, and music. He was also an accomplished musician, playing guitar and mandolin, and conducting choirs. Due to the tumult of the Bolshevik Revolution, he needed to change careers and became a Greek Orthodox priest before my mother was born. His first assignment was in Turiysk. My mother’s mother was Valentina Kontsevych, of the town of Kupichov, one of nine children of an Orthodox priest and member of Parliament, known as the Duma. Valentina and her sisters were educated at an elite high school in Kyiv known as Blahorodets Divits. My mother’s parents had returned to Turiysk after fleeing east to Belgorod, a town in southern Russia, for the duration of WWI. Turiysk was a crossroads where soldiers often asked to stay at residents’ homes to await further orders. From one of these soldiers who asked to stay at my mother’s home, Valentina contracted typhus and died at the age of 28. Lonhin was forbidden by church law to remarry and so my mother and her brother were raised by servants and relatives.
My mother attended a Lyceum for teacher training in Siedlice, near Warsaw. Her father Lonhin was transferred to head a church in the tiny village of Ozeryany, a demotion due to his Ukrainian patriotic activities in Turiysk. At the start of my mother’s third year at the Lyceum, she heard the first rumors of war, then one day, while she was visiting the town of Kovel, she saw planes dropping bombs and heard people shouting, “Viyna, viyna!” It was war. Germany had invaded Poland, and Poland fell in a matter of weeks. My mother was 21 years old.
My mother finished her teacher training in Lviv, the beautiful city in western Ukraine, which was then under Communist occupation. She got her first job as a teacher and principal in the village of Hrabovets, and worked 7 days a week teaching children and adults, including young soldiers, whom she taught Russian. One day Communist soldiers came to the village. As a school principal my mother was considered a responsible citizen so they took her as a hostage. They threatened to kill her if they found a single gun in any of the village homes. Her life was spared but she was shaken by this incident so she returned to Lviv, which now had changed hands to the Germans. She got a job at City Hall after she learned to speak enough German, and enjoyed the next few years with young friends in this lively city, despite the hardships of war. In Lviv, she met our father Arsen, a veterinary student, on the street, and then, as she said, by a miracle she ran into him again at a party. People tried to warn her away from my father, who had a wild reputation, and after they married, people would ask her, as she liked to say,”Tania, how did you catch that LION?” My father served in the army for a time but was released to continue his veterinary studies. At this point, the Germans were losing, the Communists had returned to Lviv, and fear was everywhere. My parents decided to flee west on the last train our of Lviv with just the clothes on their backs. My mother had asked her father Lonhin to leave with them, but he refused to leave his village of Ozeryany and his parishioners. He was killed in the street by Polish freedom fighters in 1943, and my mother always felt remorse that she hadn’t been able to convince him to leave.
Then followed the flight west, with time in Vienna, in Leipzig during the terrible bombing, and Munich, again in the height of war. All the while my father was trying to finish his veterinary studies. While in Vienna, my mother took an ill-advised trip by train to Poland to try to buy food and other supplies with some leftover Polish zloty currency, a trip which if not for my mother’s ability to speak Polish and the efforts of a sympathetic Polish secretary, would have resulted in her being sent to a labor camp. After the war ended, my parents, along with many thousands of other refugees and stateless people, were placed in a displaced persons camp in Germany. They lived in the DP camp in Berchtesgaden for 5 years, waiting for sponsorship to the United States. Their sons Leo and Walter were born in the camp. Berchtesgaden was also the location of Hitler’s winter retreat, known as the Eagle’s Nest.
My mother was never able to reestablish contact with any of her relatives in Ukraine. To this day, we know nothing about the whereabouts of my mother’s aunts, uncles, and their children.
My parents raised four sons and a daughter, all of whom completed university or higher in the United States. She was so proud of her children’s education, and she and my father produced an environmental specialist, a physician, a teacher, a physician assistant, and a school psychologist. Tatiana has six grandchildren and many great grandchildren, all of whom she loved dearly.
After we were grown, my mother wanted to travel and was eager for any opportunity offered her to go anywhere. So we took her to Ukraine twice, the first time at the age of 78 and the second at the age of 89. We visited her home towns of Turiysk and Ozeryany, and met elderly village babushky who remembered my mother, and dreamily asked about my mother’s handsome brother Lyova, whom they still remembered 60 years later. These babushky had kept up Tatiana’s father’s gravesite for decades. My mother loved visiting her grandchildren in New York and Tennessee. We had a number of trips to Canada, to visit my mother’s brother Levko and his wife Lida, our
cousins Tina and Levko and their families in Toronto, then in Calgary and Edmonton. In Edmonton she also saw our cousin Roman and his family, who had emigrated from Ukraine. My brother Andrew took Tatiana on several road trips, to California, the southern United States, including Graceland, and Canada. We traveled to Washington, D.C., and Douglas and Kalamazoo in Michigan. As my mother grew older and infirm, she would often say, “I wish we could get in the car and just drive, drive, drive.”
When I think of my mother, many things come to mind. Tatiana was kind, energetic, hard-working, selfless, nonjudgmental and never prejudiced, physically and mentally strong and resilient. She was also funny and warm, was a lover of fashion and fur coats, and always up for anything. She loved her children’s friends like her own family, as many of you here know. She tried to fix everyone up romantically, all the time, and loved to hear about girlfriends and boyfriends. She loved music and singing. She was an accomplished painter, especially of portraits. And despite the loss of her mother as a young child, despite the hardships of living in the bloodlands and having lived through wartime, and having to forge a life in a new country, and finally despite the devastating loss of her two beloved sons, she retained a strong spirit, an optimistic attitude, and remained unbowed by hardship or tragedy. A triumphant life. She was a great role model for all of us and I am very proud that she was my own dear mother.