Souvenirs from Kyiv
by Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger
I want to believe Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger’s stories in Souvenirs from Kyiv are more fiction than history, but I know that is not true. She has researched and conducted interviews with survivors of World War II and its aftermath. She has compiled their memories into composite stories that share brutal truths about war. Her goal Is to “make it clear that conflict is not about two teams meeting on the battlefield—one called ‘good’ and one called ‘bad.’ There are no winners in this story.”
These tales are emotionally hard to read; I put aside the book several times to regroup. Because the author is Ukrainian-American, I expected the book would be slanted towards the Ukrainians. While they are certainly the focus, they are not depicted as guiltless. The barbarism of war is demonstrated in acts performed by Germany, Poland, the USSR, Ukraine, and the United Nations. “Sides” were not clear cut and people had to quickly change their nationalism based on necessity for survival.
In Ukraine’s War of Independence (1917-1921), a chant was popular:
Glory to Ukraine.
Glory to the heroes!
Death to the enemies.
It was revived in the 1940’s as a partisan group struggled to “ ‘purify’ Ukraine of Jews, of Poles, of Nazis, of Soviets.” The Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) was founded after WW I. It fractured into two groups, each fiercely loyal to its leader. They expended energy which would have been better used in fighting their common enemy. That is an easy position to take from my safe twenty-first century armchair.
The author creates believable, fictional characters. Through them she makes real:
–the desperation of those in labor camps
–the hard work required just to survive each day
–the quick adjusting of priorities for those fleeing
–the raw, animalistic violence that emerged during the fight for survival—whether to get a place in a bomb shelter or to grasp a stale piece of bread.
There are also shining lights:
–parents sacrificing for children
–the kindness of a German officer leading a refuge family to safety during a bombing
–everyday citizens risking their lives by sharing their homes and what little food had been left for them by ravaging soldiers.
These are all stories that need to be told, but the tale goes further. When the dust of battle settles, what happens to the survivors? To what country will they claim allegiance? Even those captured by an army and put in uniform or forced into slave labor, can be blacklisted as traitors in their home country. There is the unimaginable prospect of labor camps once more. If these threats are not realized, the survivors still have to overcome physical and mental hurdles of reintegrating into a society, perhaps not the one of their birth. During and after the war, Ukraine Diaspora occurred in the U.S. and in Europe.
Although this book is historical fiction, I learned a lot about the strife between Ukraine and its neighbors. Conflict is not new in that area. The author made history come alive with characters caught up in a war not of their making. It is important to read the forward. The first story slowly immersed me into the time period. Then the rest of the book sped by quickly. This author has written other books, and I am interested in reading them as well. Although Souvenirs from Kyiv is about Ukraine, its theme, the devastation of war, has worldwide applications.
I would like to extend my thanks to NetGalley and to Bookouture for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.
Category: Historical Fiction, General Fiction (Adult)
Notes: 1. A map of Ukraine is included.
2. The book ends with a letter from the author and also a valuable glossary. Some foreign language words are defined within the story, but the glossary is helpful for the other terms.
Publication: April 22, 2022—Bookouture
I think of the Germans picking up and fleeing, the Red Army laying claim to the scorched land, and I know that one oppressor is no better than the next.
[Pretend death notification letter composed by an enlisted Ukrainian forced into the German army.] As we waited for our weapons to thaw, your son took a bullet. He did not die a hero. He did not kill many Red Army troops. He was shot, and others have died of TB, frozen to death, or have simply lost hope. You may stop sending blankets. They go to the officers, anyway. You could send clubs and knives, for we have been forced to turn into primitive cavemen. Our weapons are useless in this frozen land.
…if he has learned anything on this journey, it is this: he will give up everything—including his principles, including his painting, his life—to keep his family alive.