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The Globe and Mail

Lives Lived: Anastasia Lysenko Melnycky, 89

Wife, mother, grandmother, teacher. Born on March 14, 1924, in Shpola, Ukraine; died on Nov. 13, 2013, in Winnipeg, of complications from a stroke, aged 89.

Anastasia was born in Shpola, in central Ukraine, to farmers Mykola Lysenko and Elisaveta Bublij. She was their only child, although she had a stepbrother and stepsister from her mother's first marriage. From an early age, Anastasia's life was marked by sorrow and tragedy. When she was three, her father died of typhus and she always lamented that she did not know his face, even through a photograph. After his death she was taken to the home of her paternal grandparents and was raised mainly by them.

Although she was growing up in the rich agricultural heartland of Ukraine, young Anastasia witnessed the starvation deaths of her sister and other relatives during Stalin's genocidal man-made famine of 1932-1933, the Holodomor. During that catastrophic time, her brother disappeared and her mother set out to find him, only to die during her search and be buried in an unmarked grave.

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When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 and occupied her city, Anastasia had just finished her first year at teachers' college. Under the Third Reich, Ukrainians were slated to be slave labourers for the state. Anastasia was shipped by train to Germany and assigned to a factory in Northeim, where she and other young Ukrainian women canned fruit and vegetables. Conditions were harsh. Complaints or breaches of order saw workers removed to concentration camps from which they never returned.

But it was in Northeim that Anastasia met the love of her life, Ivan Melnycky, a farm labourer from western Ukraine who was working in a nearby village. In 1945, in the ruins of post-war Germany, they were married in a displaced persons camp at Gottingen. Anastasia wore a wedding dress fashioned from parachute silk, while Ivan sported a surplus military dress uniform. Refreshments included home brew cooked in the camp, and one of their wedding gifts was a cone of thread. Their new home was in a horse barn, a stall with walls made of cloth sheets.

The couple sought refuge in any country that would accept them; while awaiting a haven, they welcomed their first child, Vera. In 1948, Ivan left for Canada on a work contract with a Manitoba sugar-beet farm. After a year, he sent for Anastasia and Vera to join him in Winnipeg. There they launched a new life involving hard work (Ivan was a steelworker for 30 years); two more children, Peter and Nina; and deep community involvement.

Over the years, Anastasia worked at the Ukrainian Cultural and Educational Centre, the Kalyna Ukrainian Co-operative, and M&S Meat Market on Main Street. The teacher she never got to be in her native land came to life in her Winnipeg home – and what a patient and nurturing teacher she was. She brought her three children into communion with their Ukrainian culture and faith, while encouraging them to take full advantage of educational opportunities. Eventually the family grew to include eight grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren, who filled her with pride and joy.

Anastasia bore witness to the genocide she had lived through as a child. Every year she prayed for her lost relatives and placed flowers at the Holodomor memorial at Winnipeg City Hall. She saw the memorial, depicting a young girl clutching her mother, as a reflection of her own experience.

Anastasia was living proof of the indestructibility of the human spirit, of the infinite ability for the human soul to heal itself. She harboured no ill will or cynicism about humanity, but only love and affection. There was no urge for retribution or intolerance, just a profound sadness at the ability of humans to do evil.

Peter Melnycky is Anastasia's son.

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