Postcards from a Ukrainian Past: An excerpt from Epic Journey by Andrei Kushnir

We are pleased to present an excerpt from Epic Journey: The Life and Times of Wasyl Kushnir by Andrei Kushnir. The book presents an account of the author’s father, Wasyl Kushnir, in his own voice, as he and his family lived through the harsh Soviet regime in Ukraine, famine during the Ukrainian Holodomor, and forced labor in Germany during World War II, eventually emigrating to the U.S., making a new life and raising a family. The following excerpt presents selections of postcards sent to Wasyl Kushnir (mostly from his parents) during the years 1943–1944, with a short introduction from Andrei Kushnir.

If there is a section from Epic Journey that I think is most loaded with information (direct and implied), it is that of the postcards from my father’s family in Nazi-occupied Kyiv, to my father while he was living under forced labor conscription in Germany.  I spent a full week going over them with my father, word by word, line by line, because it seemed to me they were unfiltered snippets of history.  Many readers might breeze through them otherwise, but in highlighting them here, their importance and meanings may become more apparent. 

Apart from the seemingly endless determination by his parents to figure out whether he was receiving their postcards, and they his, the bleakness of the details of their life, as peasants totally dependent on their meager crops, few livestock, struggling bees, and the weather (both beautiful, and rainy and cold), to merely subsist, become clear.  The weariness of Wasyl’s father from the constant labor to scratch out an existence, the concern of his mother to get packages to him, their anxiety of living among neighbors and petty officials who had been involved in dispossessing the family, and who themselves dwelt uncertainly under the German occupation, all of these impressions and sensations are expressed beyond the bare written words. In the postcards, there are unexpected details about a girl Wasyl may have had feelings for (never mentioned in the previous text), who married the son of one of his father’s friends; about the miserable existence of a cousin who had been taken by the Germans to work in a mine; and about the frightening lawlessness and disintegration (“drunkenness day and night”) that occurred among the population when the war front was again passing through the area.  The tension provided by the blacked-out censored words and phrases belied the family’s more immediate worrying concern and prayers for their son keeping healthy, and the constant stress, both physical and mental, of a family torn apart by war. 

—Andrei Kushnir 

Postcard 1. June 27, 1943

To: Kuschnir Wasill, Ostarbeiter Lager, Wiesengrund, Kreis Mies.

From: Kuschnir Andrei, Dorf Nowa Bubnowka, Kreis Tscherno-Ostrowskii, Gebiet Kameniz Podolskii [later the Gebiet was reorganized. The new name was Proskurow]. 

Front of the card:

Good day, our son Vasya [Wasyl’s parents always called him “Vasya,” a short nickname for Wasyl]. We are all alive and well, and thus wish you all good fortune and health. Yesterday, on June 26, we received your first two postcards. Here at home, everything is as of old, everything is alright. It was difficult to wait for news from you for so long. A postcard from Kubich [a neighbor] arrived on June 19. Mother wrote you a postcard from his address. We don’t know whether you received it. Glory be to God that you are well—that is to us a great joy. We wait for you very much, mother cries and is ill.

Back of the card:

On June 17, six more souls went to Germany: four girls and two boys, and from Velyka Bubnivka, sixteen souls went, [including] Vyshnevski’s girl, Jessica and Zosia Vyshnevski’s boy [both from Polish families], Little Budaretska’s girl, Piunkovski’s boy and two other girls [all Polish families], but ten souls returned from Chornyi Ostriv employment as monitors. Yesterday we travelled from Chernyava [the village where Wasyl’s mother Anna was born]. Vasya, the village officials are not telling us anything and are not bothering us, all is unchanged. All springtime work is concluded in our garden. All that is left is to mow the shore [the edges of a former river, now a ravine, near their property]. We have raked over the potatoes, cabbage, and corn. Everything is growing very well. Frequent rains have increased the prospective harvest. The garden is growing beautifully, except for one apple tree and one pine tree which did not adjust well. We have made thirty frames [for the apiary] and are making one hive. On June 23 we took honey [from the hives]. After you left, we could not work for a whole month. We cried and did not look after the apiary, and one hive lost its queen and is now very weak. It is difficult to strengthen it. The krukhliaka [the round hive which produced new bees and where a new queen could be born] will produce a swarm in a day. Our large calf goes through the field grazing, but it has lost some weight. The geese have all grown larger than the old goose. We have twenty-three chicks. Everything is well, glory be to God, but we miss you very much. We all kiss you heartily, be well. Write your response, watch after your health.¹


Postcard 7. August 1, 1943

Front of the card:

Good day, Vasya

In the first lines of our letter, we want to send you our family greeting and wish you good success in your work as your youthful time carries forth. As of now, we find ourselves alive …

Back of the card:

… and well, which is what we wish for you. We are working at the commune, just as we have worked the whole time. To say the truth, the weather at this time is exceptionally not good, but we must suffer it. You are first of all interested in Dunka’s fate, but about her I cannot write. Why? You should have already guessed it yourself. Later, maybe, I will write to you about it, but now it is not possible. [Dunka, daughter of Vysokyi Hrytz, was a close young female acquaintance, maybe a girlfriend, of Wasyl’s.] It is useless to write to you about any kind of news, because everything is as of old. On this, I will end. Next time I will write more. With warm friendly greetings, C. Nosak. In case you are not familiar with me, I am the son-in-law of Vysokyi Hrytz. [Vysokyi Hrytz, or “Tall Greg(ory),” was with Wasyl’s father Andrei in Petliura’s army and also served time with him in Siberia.]

Postcard 10. August 13, 1943

Front of the card:

Peace and blessings, [unintelligible] dear unforgotten son. We kiss you, your father, mother, and grandmother. We wish you all the best in the whole world, fortune and health. Vasya, I am sending you nine packages, there are six of tobacco and three measures of cookies. [Wasyl had written his parents that he could exchange tobacco for bread with Czechs in Germany.]

Back of the card:

Vasya, when you receive them, write whether the baked goods have arrived safely. If all is well, then I will send you more. We are sending by way of Chornyi Ostriv. It [the package] is in the mail. Mother [?] delivered six packages of tobacco. Vasya, we received a postcard from you, the one in which you wrote that you received a postcard from us. We wrote to you very often, but you are not receiving them.² Vasya, at home we have already gathered the bread grain. You are worried how we harvested, that we are hungry. Dear son, you better worry about yourself and watch your health. Write how your health is. I am very worried about you. Kissing you, Mama.


Postcard 14. September 11, 1943

Front of the card:

Glory to the Lord Jesus Christ. Greetings, our Vasya. Greetings from us and wishes for good health and all blessings. We are all, so far, alive and well, and so far all is well. I have written to you about this misfortune and do not know what to do. Our situation right now is as it was in Bilychi in the previous days of our lives. And the work is not going well. Vasya, we received the postcard you wrote on August 6th. In it you wrote that you have experienced a strain and are sitting on [unintelligible] …

Back of the card:

We have already brought in all of our belongings and fixed things up, and do not know what will happen next. Maybe it will turn out so that we must direct ourselves to you by way of Narkevich. In Chornyi Ostriv and Proskuriv there are occurrences such as happened around Bilychi when we were walking home [when Wasyl and his father were traveling back from Bilychi to Nova Bubnivka]. All of the work around the house was completed. We planted the wheat and the rye, the kitchen garden has been put to order. We now only have to dig up the potatoes and finish planting, and God knows for whom. We are working so hard, we have worked very hard all summer. Our garden was plowed by a fellow from Velyka Bubnivka who was sent from Poltava [people from Poltava were arriving, escaping from the Bolsheviks] with horses, because the commune would not give us horses. We plowed much with the shovel and did everything well. But maybe the timing was bad? They were to be taking people to Germany [for forced labor], they took but thirteen souls, but I cannot write about everything, you must think about it yourself. The propaganda [political propaganda by the Communists] does not let us live and breathe. [Apparently, the war was going badly for the Germans.] All enemies are gleeful, and we are awaiting God’s will and mercy because we no longer have the health to escape. But we ask you to not be saddened by God’s mercies. We gave one package to Vysokyi’s son in law, so mother is going to find out where he took it, to the post office or not. We also left a postcard [with him], but we do not know whether he took it to Poland or not. Because the postcard we [unintelligible] handed over. Be well, father, mother. September 11, 1943. Until we see each other again. Very little [unintelligible].

Postcard 15. September 12, 1943

Front of the card:

Glory to the Lord Jesus Christ. Vasya, greetings and a bow to you. We wish you all blessings. With us, everything is well so far. I’m writing to you today about this postcard and about everything [that happens to us]. Today we are sending the sixteenth postcard. You write that so far, you have received six. The last ones are still on the way. Our grandmother is going to the harvest for the stalks. She gathered a whole [abandoned] beehive [routinely used to collect grain]. Vasya, we wish you could see our beautiful winter wheat in our kitchen garden, as it is very green. Wheat and rye are coming up.

Back of the card:

Winter has come very early. Ksenia’s Ivan [Ksenia was Andrei’s sister; Ivan Mashtaler was her husband, taken for slave labor by the Germans] writes that for him [Ivan] his work is very hard. He works in the mine. [Interestingly, Ivan Moiseievych Pidkalyuk, Anna Kushnir’s nephew, son of her brother Moisei, was also forced to work in a mine.] She asks that we send them special food from the selo and packages. We read his two postcards. She does not talk to her Zoia from Zelenya [unintelligible]. Everyone has been watching us and everything has been plowed. Here, the period of reaping was very hot and dry, but now the rains have come. We have yet to dig up the potatoes and gather the corn, and the grass needs mowing, and I don’t have the time because the wheat has not been ground into flour. We are thinking to plant a piece of land with potatoes. Our entire kitchen garden has been wonderfully plowed. The hemp has been soaked [hemp was planted into water, and women had to get into the water to pull it out—many got sick and even died.] Vasya, how is the growth on your leg, what happened to it? Did you hurt it, did you catch cold? [Censored.] Right now, there is no [unintelligible]. No one is bothering us. Vasya, when you receive our postcards, let us know the date, and I will know if they are all coming through or not. I feel worse. All of us are currently healthy, but everything hurts from working. Do they celebrate holidays such as Spasy [a sequence of holidays when people take fruits and vegetable to church for blessing], Mother of God, Beheading of John the Baptist, and the True Christ there? With this, goodbye, we send you kisses and hugs and wish you well. Write a reply. Greetings from grandmother. Father and Mother, September 12, 1943.

Postcard 17. September 12, 1943

Front of the card:

Glory to the Lord Jesus Christ. Good day, Vasya. We are alive and well and wish you all blessings. Yesterday evening we received your two postcards written 21/VIII and 26 [August 21 and 26]. Thank God that you are well and making us happy with your life. [Unintelligible] write more and so we will [unintelligible] for all [unintelligible] and all fourteen postcards written on 9/VI. We received two postcards on 26/VI; the postcard from 23/VI we received on 10/VII, and the postcard from 1/VII we received on 27/VII. Vasya, write what you discuss with your gathered companions.

Back of the card:

… VI we had one, and your second postcard from 13/VII we received on 31/VII, then we received your two post-cards from 18/VII and 25/VII on 10/VIII. One sewn postcard from 26/VII we received on 24/VIII, and on 28/VIII we received a two-page photo card of Wiesengrund, sent on 7/VIII. The postcard from 6 /VIII was received on 7/IX, and the two postcards from 21/VIII and 26/VIII were received on 11/IX. The understanding is thus the circled numbers indicate the date we received your postcards and the uncircled ones indicate the date you wrote to us. One of your cards we sent back to you so that you could see how seven words were blacked out [censored]. It was written on 27/VI, you received it but didn’t write to us about this. So we are receiving your postcards accurately. Vasya, here we have is a new village head, they elected Yukim Stetsko [censored—blacked out]. When you receive a response [unintelligible] day we write you 3 postcards. Be well, so long. Write. Zosya Vyshnevski’s son came home. He worked [in Germany] at a brick factory.


Postcard 19. October 31, 1943

Back of the card:

Glory to the Lord Jesus Christ. Dear and unforgotten son of ours, Vasya. Greetings and a bow from us, and we wish you all blessings. Vasya, we received your postcard and photo, as well as your card. Both [unintelligible] … we cannot wait, because you write that you sent two. Vasya, we are all alive, well, and all is well. Truth be told, it is very uncertain here, as I have already written. We have already gotten rid of [unintelligible] tenant, he was here only two weeks, now he has gone to Jessika Bublias. Here it has become bad and frightening, yester-day in Pakhutyntsi [a neighboring village] they killed two Schutzmänner,³ Podhurshyn and Tremelnytskyi, and a Fuhrmann.⁴ They were sent to direct refugees there. And a week ago, when in Chernyava … there was killed in Kupelskyi [a town, very Jewish] … a Schutzmann [unintelligible]. … Here on our friends there haven’t been any. There is a lot of news but I cannot write all of them. We received an announcement that we must give 5 tsentnars [1 tsentnar = 100 kilograms] of potatoes. We had planted ten hundred [unintelligible] … twenty hundred. … all this is done by our enemies. In [village] Prokop they have started making a lot of moonshine. Drunkenness day and night, one cannot … [unintelligible] and carry/drive home. And bread and beets are beginning, they are taking them from the houses. What will happen now, I don’t know. We remain all healthy, and we wish you good health and fortune. Father, Mother, 31 October, 1943. Goodbye.


Postcard 21. November 28, 1943

Front of the card:

Glory to the Lord Jesus Christ. Good health to you, our dear son Vasya. We send our greetings and wish for all blessings. We are all alive, healthy, and so far, all is well, we are living in our own house. Vasya, we wrote to you about the terrible news, and have survived very frightful and dangerous days when Zhytomyr [a city 200 kilometers from Nova Bubnivka] was taken over by the enemy. We were threatened with death.

Back of the card:

We wanted to escape, but they would not give us a pass, and there was nowhere to escape to. For now, glory be to God, the front is further from us. We now live in our house by ourselves. We have four geese and nineteen chickens. We also have ten puds of corn and a whole bag of wheat and barley, as well as one small sewn up bag of seeds, not ground, in reserve. The barley is not ground, and neither is the buckwheat. Because of the [German] withdrawal, all work has stopped. We are worried thinking which winter clothes you have, what the winter there is like, and what you are doing. Here, after a big rain, snow fell and there is a strong wind. We do not receive any mail at all. Your last postcard was from 6/X, and there are no more. We received your three photo cards, but we don’t know if you received the package weighing one kilo—we know you received nine packages, but of that one we don’t know. Stay healthy, we wish you good heath, fortune, and blessings. We still find ourselves in danger. We kiss you heartily, Father, Mother. Goodbye. 28/XI, 1943. Write, Vasya.


Postcard 22. November 28, 1943

Front of the card:

Greetings, our Vasya! We are all healthy, and wish you well. Here all is well, we are in our own house. All difficulties and dangers, thank God, will be over. We received a postcard from Vanko [Ivan Pidkalyuk—Wasyl’s cousin]. We write to you every Sunday. Here it is already winter. My best wishes to you for the coming holidays of Christmas and the New Year …

Back of the card:

… that you be alive and healthy and that we shall soon see you and all live together. Vasya, we have lived through and are living through great danger, but don’t worry, God knows all. We beg you to watch over your health, so that you do not catch cold, because it is winter now. Watch over yourself, because there is no one there to remind you. Dress warm, cover your neck, wear boots, make trousers and a jacket for yourself from a blanket. Only God knows what will be with us. We received help in the amount of 620 karbovantsi. This will be for you. Ksenia did not receive anything. Zoska [Ksenia’s daughter] is serving in [the village] Zelentsi [working with the Germans as a translator]. The sel′rada does not really bother us. We have paid all taxes. All is well as of now. Questionable refugees have not come here so far. We received your photo cards. Be well, dear son, write, though the postal service is weak. We wish you blessings and health. Father, Mother. November 28, 43. Goodbye.⁵


Postcard 23. February 16, 1944

Front of the card:

To: Wasillii Kuschnir, Vert Marschalek, Mies—Isabental [sic], No. 474, Sudetengau [This was the address of Wasyl’s new place of work at farmer Marschalek’s.]

From: Ivan Pidkalyuk, No. 868, D.A.F. Lager Dalzburg, Zecke (Saar) (Saargruben)

Greetings, dear brother Vasya. In the first place, I want to tell you that I have received your latest letter as well as all others. Only, dear brother Vasya, I was sad because I could not respond to you, for two [unintelligible] written your letters and all [unintelligible]. …

Back of the card:

… situation with paper. Vasya, in our camp, they did not, for a long time, permit receipt of letters, and only now they began receiving a translator. We also have no postage stamps. And so I could not send you anything, as I have written to you in previous letters. Dear brother Vasya, I did not receive the package that you sent me. I don’t know exactly why … [unintelligible], I think that it was because of the translator. But now there is a new translator, our own camp’s translator, and the situation has improved, letters started arriving more often and packages as well. Vasya, my life has now grown thin. I am working now on the topside, every day it is cold, and I am freezing because … [unintelligible] there is rain, and snow, and wind, and I am just forced to suffer it all. We receive, for our work, thirty grams of bread and … [unintelligible] only watery soup, and [unintelligible], and water.


1. Wasyl wrote his first postcards in May 1943. He had left his home on May 17, 1943.

2. Apparently, while mail through the German postcard system was delivered (albeit with censorship), the mail sent by Wasyl’s parents through any other postal system that may have existed did not reach the addressees.

3. As noted earlier, in the village of Pakhutyntsi in 1932, fifty houses were left empty due to the starvation genocide, the Holodomor, brought by Stalin upon the Ukrainian people, and beggars went from house to house. When the Germans occupied the region, they created a militia called Schutzmänner (singular: Schutzmann).

4. German: coach driver.

5. This was a very difficult time. The Germans were retreating from Ukraine. People were afraid of what would happen.

Andrei Kushnir is an American artist/author of Ukrainian-American descent. He is the author of Oh, Shenandoah: Paintings of the Historic Valley and River; Painted History, and other collections of his artistic works. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois (BA), Georgetown University (MA) and Howard University School of Law (JD), and served as a civilian attorney with the Federal Aviation Administration, and U.S. Department of the Navy.

Epic Journey: The Life and Times of Wasyl Kushnir is available for purchase from our website and wherever books are sold.