Good things from bad times
No one appreciates stability and security as much as someone who grew up without them. And no one works harder or sacrifices more to gain them. Take, for example, the lives of Nick and Catherine Bucierko Orynycz.
Catherine was born in 1922 in the Ukraine, a country that was then the southwestern part of the Soviet Union, bordering Romania and Poland. Four years later, her mother died from complications after the birth of Helen, Catherine’s only sibling.
“Over there, in those years, there were no doctors, no nothing,” Catherine said. “If something went wrong, there was no one to help.”
Her father was a farmer, which meant they were very poor. In 1942, Germany was recruiting people from eastern Europe to work civilian jobs for two years in place of the young German men, who were all in the army. The Germans promised to pay them, so Catherine and seven of her friends voluntarily left home and family to work in Germany.
“A lot of young people didn’t want to go to Germany. They went into hiding, but the Germans knew they were religious. About a year after I left, the Germans brought a truck to the church on Sunday and took away all the young people, including my sister.”
Catherine worked on a farm in eastern Germany. Conditions weren’t bad because they could always get food, and she earned just enough money to keep going.
Ironically, things changed for the worse when the war ended.
“The American soldiers told us we better escape from the east to the west because the Russians were coming. Six or seven families rented a truck and drove to the west. We were put into a ‘waiting camp’ in the American occupation zone, with about 2000 other people.”
Living conditions in the camp were terrible, and there was a severe shortage of food. The only real help came through the Red Cross. But there was a bigger problem: the threat of being taken back to Russia. The Russians viewed those who had gone to work in Germany as traitors. The Ukrainians who had worked in Germany knew they probably would not make it back home alive.
“We were all scared while we lived in that camp,” Catherine said. “The Americans guarded us, but they let the Russians come in and try to talk us into going back home. The Americans didn’t know much about the Russians. The Russians wanted to steal our people. They grabbed one man who had lost one leg in the war, but he jumped from the truck, fell in a ditch, and came back to camp.”
In the camp Catherine met Nick Orynycz, a Ukrainian who had worked in a Messerschmitt airplane factory during the war. They got married in 1946, and their first child, Irene, was born in 1947.
It was up to the refugees themselves to find a place to go. Nick had a sister who lived in France, so they were able to go there. They stayed there four years. Their second child, Eugene, was born in France in 1951. Nick had to work on a farm from sunup to sundown for very little pay, but he saved up enough to buy passage to America.
A Ukrainian connection that enabled them to come to the Shenango Valley. The son of one of Nick’s neighbors in the Ukraine was living and farming in Brookfield. He agreed to give Nick a job on his farm and signed all the papers for Nick and his family to come to the United States.
Before long, Nick realized that working on the farm wasn’t going to provide his family with what he wanted for them. It was 1952, with the Korean War creating a need for steel products and a shortage of manpower. Nick was able to get a job at Sharon Steel.
Not surprisingly, language proved to be a challenge. Their daughter, Irene, being young and quicker at learning English, evolved into the spokesperson for the family.
“When we went out, whether it was shopping or wherever, I was the one who was able to read or make conversation in public,” Irene said.
She did that not only to ease communication, but to protect her parents.
“Americans are more open now, but during that time, they looked down on people who spoke other languages,” Irene said. “My mother and my dad would keep quiet and I would do all the talking because I knew English.”
Nick’s job at Sharon Steel provided good income, but work was sporadic. He would work for six months or so, then would get laid off for six months.
“There was no unemployment compensation, and we didn’t have anyone we could turn to for help,” Irene said. “So when he was laid off, Dad did whatever work he could find. He drove truck for Red Star Trucking and did construction work for Spadin Brothers. He was also a handyman, working for the Jubiliers and others.”
They lived wherever they could – for a while in an apartment in a run-down neighborhood in Masury, and then in a converted street car set over a basement. Heat came from a coal furnace that had to be stoked every morning.
What Nick learned doing construction work proved to be very valuable. In 1959, he and Catherine built a house, doing everything except the electrical and plumbing work. Catherine worked alongside him, lifting cement blocks and doing whatever she had to do to get the job done.
Nick worked at Sharon Steel for 33 years until he retired. During all those years he did extra work whenever he could.
“I think his mindset was ‘we have to make it, we have to survive, it’s on my shoulders,’” Irene said. “It was a stark realism towards everyday living. Work equals money, and money equals a better life. But he believed it was his responsibility to provide. He never asked my brother or me to work even when we were in high school and college. He paid for our education at Youngstown State. Both of us were there five years because we took extra courses.”
Catherine worked part time cleaning houses for well-known families in the area, at first for 50 cents an hour. Other than that, she did little else outside her home because Nick had the old-world notion that the wife and mother should stay home. However, about 20 years ago, a neighbor across the street got her to come out to the Senior Center, which was in Farrell at that time.
“She started realizing the people there liked her and responded to her,” Irene said, “and she realized that there was more to life than just staying at home. She really blossomed into a new person.”
During the late 90s, Nick started having blood pressure problems.
“He refused to take medication for it,” Irene said, “so in 1999, when he had a stroke, it was massive. He was gone within a week.”
Catherine is still living in the house she built with her husband more than 45 year ago, and she still serves daily as a volunteer at the Senior Center.
And she’s still a living example of how good things can come from bad times:
“Because I worked in Germany sixty years ago, I now get $114 a month German pension. All I have to do is fill out papers every year to let them know I’m still alive. My husband worked four years in France, and was eligible for their social security. France sent him $500 and said that’s it.”
Nick’s and Catherine’s hard work paved the way for their children. Irene, with her degree in English, recently retired after teaching for 33 years in New Wilmington High School. Eugene, with his degree in math and computers, has worked for a number of telephone companies, and will retire next year from AT&T.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 1, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2007