Kataryna Swerhun: Survivor. Friend. Craftswoman. Matriarch. Born March 2, 1924, in Yabluniv, Ukraine; died July 11, 2019, in Toronto, of heart failure; age 95.
For decades, Kataryna Swerhun prepared traditional Ukrainian wheat sheaves, called didukhy for Christmas Eve celebrations, which she decorated with her own embroidery to raise money for community groups. Her wheat sheaf undertaking eventually involved the whole family, from growing and harvesting the wheat, to design, assembly, transport and sales. Some of the family came to dread the annual Christmas bazaar circuit around Toronto. She always underpriced the sheaves, which didn’t reflect the cost of materials, nevermind transport and time. But, as she intended, the didukh succeeded in its long-held purpose of bringing families together; hundreds benefited from her efforts. Kataryna was no ordinary salesperson, she shared the history and tradition of the didukh with every customer.
Kataryna’s life was not easy: Her father died when she was young and she had to leave school around the age of 12 to look after her younger siblings. She was also captured and displaced as a forced labourer in Germany during the Second World War.
In a twist of fate, while crossing a market square near the end of the war, Kataryna recognized Hryhorij (Harry), a young man from her village of Sukhostav, whom she hadn’t seen in years. He had recently escaped from a German prisoner-of-war camp and he was not too happy to be recognized. Nevertheless, their courtship progressed quickly. Harry and Kataryna married in 1945 in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany, and lived there as displaced persons for a few years until an uncle of Harry’s could help them immigrate to Canada. There was no hope of going home; borders had shifted and Sukhostav was now part of the Soviet Union. They arrived in 1949 with a suitcase in one hand and their toddler, Irene, holding the other.
In Canada, Kataryna was often the main breadwinner after Harry suffered accidents on construction sites that required a long recovery. In Toronto, she worked as a machinist at Campbell’s Soup while also raising her daughters, Irene and Chrystyna.
One of her respites was embroidery, stealing moments to work on the many regional designs of Ukraine. Her work was exhibited throughout Toronto. She also helped embroider church linens for St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church (where she was a long-time parishioner) that are still in use. Kataryna taught others the skill for as long as she was able, and up until last year worked on embroidered pillows for each of her eight great-grandchildren.
She and Harry donated to numerous causes, including helping to rebuild the Ukrainian Catholic church in their home village after Ukraine’s independence in 1991. Her volunteerism was recognized with a 60-year Ontario Volunteer Service Award in 2017.
But awards were not the point; it was always about doing the right thing. Kataryna was a practical, progressive and humane woman. Well into her old age, she refined her views on social issues, whether it was feminism or recognizing human rights. At 65, she took swimming lessons. Her Ukrainian roots were important but she was a proud Canadian citizen, serving as a scrutineer in more than one election.
Kataryna’s life experiences could have made her bitter, but instead most people noticed her unfailing sense of humour and her observing eyes. In January, her family will set a place for her on Ukrainian Christmas Eve, bringing in one of her sheaves to keep alive the traditions she loved.
Anna Ochrym and Natalka Haras are two of Kataryna’s grandchildren.
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