'Yearning breaks my heart': Love letters lay bare struggle, joy of Ukrainian settlers

The stories of the first wave of Ukrainian settlers are on display in Ottawa this week as a touring exhibition arrives at the Capital Ukrainian Festival.

Exhibition on display this weekend at Capital Ukrainian Festival

A photo from a Ukrainian wedding in Samburg, Sask., taken in 1917. This weekend, the Capital Ukrainian Festival will be showcasing love letters written by some of Canada's first immigrants from Ukraine. (Library and Archives Canada)

In 1928, 18-year-old Wasyl Kuryliw left Ukraine for Canada with the equivalent of just five dollars in his pocket.

For the next eight years, he would send money home to support his community's folk arts organizations — and also court a young sewer and embroiderer named Anna Zabolotna.

Their long-distance romance is one of eight stories of early Ukrainian immigrants chronicled in a new exhibition called Love Letters from the Past: Courtship, Companionship, and Family in the Ukrainian-Canadian Community

It's making its Ottawa debut this weekend at the Capital Ukrainian Festival.

"One of the themes that comes out is the loneliness [and] the attempt to acclimatize to a new community, a new kind of culture," said Larisa Sembaliuk Cheladyn, the community liaison with the University of Alberta's Kule Folklore Centre, which is touring the exhibition across the country.

The letters do depict the optimism Ukrainian settlers felt upon arriving in a new land, but also the despair at being separated from loved ones — perhaps none more so than one particularly florid letter from Kuryliw to Zabolotna.

'Bitter tears and misery'

"There is no room for me in this wide land, only bitter tears and misery," he wrote. "Yearning breaks my heart.…
Give me hope, for I will be lost."

Happily, the pair would eventually be reunited: in 1936, Kurlyiw was able to bring Zabolotna to Sudbury, where they were married two weeks later.

According to their letters, Zabolotna wore a wedding dress she'd sewn with the money Kurlyiw had sent her.

"You see through all their letters how their relationship grew," said Sembaliuk Cheladyn. "It was just such a compatible relationship."

The exhibition also contains excerpts from "how-to" guides, Sembaliuk Cheladyn said, which gave those early immigrants clear instructions on how to properly write letters for both personal and business purposes.

Some even had forms that could be torn out, with the letter-writer then filling in the blanks and sending it off.

"Many of them were illiterate, and they really wanted to correspond, and they wanted to fit in with the norms. So there was a need to learn how to physically write a letter," she said.

"When you look at them now, they're quite humorous."

This is an English translation of a letter written in 1916 by Maria Marchuk to her husband, Philip, who had by that time been detained in an internment camp for Ukrainians for four months. The translation contains errors — including the spelling of Marchuk's name. (Library and Archives Canada)

'Very emotional'

Less humorous, however, are the letters written between the thousands of Ukrainian men detained in internment camps during the First World War and their wives and families.

In one letter on display in the exhibition, a woman named Maria Marchuk demands answers from the Canadian government as to why her husband has been interned.

You get a real feeling of desperation in the women's letters because they do not understand why their husbands have been interned.- Larisa Sembaliuk Cheladyn

Many of those women would have been without jobs, said Sembaliuk Cheladyn, and would have struggled to feed their families without the income their husbands provided.

"You get a real feeling of desperation in the women's letters because they do not understand why their husbands have been interned [or] incarcerated," she said. "Only because of the fact that he's Ukrainian."

Andriy Sawchuk, a volunteer with the Capital Ukrainian Festival, said his great-grandfather was forced to pay a fine during the war for being Ukrainian and register himself at the local police station.

He said that family history meant the letters on display in the exhibition were "very emotional."

"A lot of people are not familiar with the internment during World War One.... We were looked at as enemy aliens," Sawchuk said.

"[These letters are] illustrating this fact about a sad time in Canadian history."

The exhibition will be on display all weekend at the festival, which runs until Sunday on the grounds of the St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Shrine on Green Valley Crescent, off Prince of Wales Drive.

It will continue to tour Ukrainian festivals across Canada all summer, Sembaliuk Cheladyn said, before arriving at some provincial museums in the fall.