Anna Bihun was only 15-years old when she left her family’s farm outside Ivano-Frankivsk in Western Ukraine for an arranged marriage in the United States.
Accompanied by her Uncle John (Ivanko), Anna made her way safely to Johnstown, Pennsylvania in April of 1913 and, by May 1913, she and Mike Dimenko, an older gentleman who had emigrated from Ivano-Frankivsk the year before, had filed a marriage certificate. But, Mike died suddenly before they were actually married, leaving his teen-aged fiance stranded in a country where she knew almost no one.
Her uncle returned to Ukraine and Anna ended up living with a distant cousin until she married another older gentleman, George Semko, a year later. The two moved to Colver, PA where George worked in the coal mines and Anna tended to their growing family until tragedy struck again. Their house caught fire in the middle of the night. Anna escaped with their youngest baby while their oldest child, Julie, stood on the roof and handed the other five children down to George. The fire damaged George’s lungs and he died a year later. Their baby also died of pneumonia a month later.
Anna was my great-grandmother and, despite all that tragedy, I remember her as a smiley woman with a beautiful garden who was always feeding us delicious treats when we visited her house.
She never returned to Ukraine, but she also never forgot her family there. She sent care packages home regularly until she died in 1983 and she wore her Ukrainian heritage proudly.
“I remember sitting in her kitchen and watching her and my mom make care packages to send back to Ukraine,” my Aunt Martha Stephenson said yesterday when we talked about our family’s Ukrainian history.
At the time my great-grandma left Ukraine, just before World War I, it was under Austrian rule. Ukrainian men were conscripted into the Austrian army. Five years later, the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed and Ivano-Frankivsk became a temporary capital of the newly declared West Ukrainian National Republic. Poland later claimed control until WWII, during which Germany took over. Following the war, Ukraine became part of the Soviet Union until it fell in 1991.
While its strategic import and rich natural resources have made Ukraine a target throughout history, its people are its greatest resource.
I join so many others around the world in praying for them and hoping for a swift end to the Russian invasion. May the world continue to rally around Ukraine, tell its stories and send aid to its people.