Friday, November 11, 2011

Remembering Filip Konowal, Ukrainian Canadian WW I veteran, and recipient of the Victoria Cross

above: A memorial to Canadian war hero Filip Konowal is located in Dauphin, Manitoba.
Konowal was a corporal serving with the 47th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.
(Click on photos to enlarge)

This story by Mitch Potter, Europe Bureau, (Toronto Star, Oct.13, 2007):

"Ukrainian village honours Filip Konowal, recipient of Canada's Victoria Cross

Victoria Cross winner in WWI, Filip Konowal, never learned Ukrainian wife, child survived Lenin's and Stalin's purges

KUDKIV, Ukraine – An impoverished village in deep rural Ukraine seems a strange place to go looking for Canada's greatest soldier. But Filip Konowal is here. A legend, a monument, a memory in granite and steel, casting shadows more tragic than previously known.

Chances are you have never heard of Konowal. Then again, who among us can name a single soldier from the Great War of 1914-1918. Canada is good at building monuments to its military past. We are not so good at reading them.

Born in 1888, Konowal left Ukraine at age 26 searching for work just as the world was about to turn upside down, presumably with every intention of returning to his wife and young daughter here. He made his way via Vladivostok to Vancouver, arriving in Canada at precisely the moment the government began rounding up and imprisoning Ukrainian Canadians as "enemy aliens." The war could easily have conquered him as well. Instead, he enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Konowal's exploits over the next three years and 357 days included combat at the 1916 Battle of the Somme and the offensive at Vimy Ridge the following spring.

But it was in August 1917, during a 48-hour stand off known as the battle for Hill 70 in Lens, France, that Konowal astonished all, rushing forward and single-handedly taking out German machine-gun emplacements that were ravaging the Canadian lines. His sleepless frenzy ended when he fell to injury that left his face disfigured for life. Two months later, Konowal found himself in London, standing before King George V, who pinned on this peripatetic Ukrainian the rarely awarded Victoria Cross: "Your exploit is one of the most daring and heroic in the history of my army. For this, accept my thanks."

Ukraine was no longer in reach by war's end, and here in Kudkiv, it is easy to see why. Across the town square, opposite the statue to Konowal, amounted bust of Vladimir Ilich Lenin can still be found. Now, Lenin's nose has been chiselled away, perhaps to spite his face. Kudkiv Mayor Konstantin Dukunets says the Lenin statue will soon be gone. "There are a handful of Communist supporters left. I invited them to pay to repair Lenin's statue. But they declined, so we are tearing it down," says Dukunets, 46. "Ukraine lost 80 years to dictatorship and we are still crawling out of this legacy. But we will leave some of the memory of what happened. We need to remember so we do not make the same mistakes again."

Dukunets' predecessor would not have been able to speak to a foreign journalist. He would have reported us to the secret police. But on this night, in a village with no hotel, the mayor opens his home, offering spare beds, old-world home cooking and, inevitably, vodka. At dusk he takes us on a walkabout and everywhere we see babushkas –ubiquitous Ukrainian grandmothers – busy in their black-dirt gardens, pulling in the last of the harvest. The Internet has yet to arrive in Kudkiv. In fact, it was only this month that the last of the area villages were hooked up to the national gas line, a feat that means no more chopping wood to stay warm in winter. Half the village has running water; the other half relies on a community well.

We bump into a smiling pensioner, Olexandre Guslyakov, 67, who proudly displays the "Guslyakov One" – a working tractor, replete with hydraulic steering, that he has cobbled together from parts salvaged from six rusting trucks, tractors and cars. It took three years of ingenuity to get the thing running. Asked if he will make another, Guslyakov shrugs: "Maybe, if necessary. This is how Ukraine survives."

As we move deeper along a footpath into the waterless side of Kudkiv, Dukunets leads us to a single-storey dwelling that was Konowal's ancestral home. We have no expectations here, as it is widely understood among Canadian-Ukrainians that Konowal's wife and child perished in the Stalin reign of terror.

The loss of his original family was a wound that Konowal eventually overcame: he remarried in Canada and became a janitor on Parliament Hill. He was sanguine about his employment status in later life, once telling the Ottawa Citizen: "I mopped up overseas with a rifle and here I must mop up with a mop."

But as Konowal's door swings open in Kudkiv, a shock awaits. Here before us stands Ganna Vasylyivna Motsna, 71, granddaughter of Filip Konowal. Konowal died in 1959, never living long enough to know his original family survived Stalin's purges. His wife Anna, lived well into the 1940s. Daughter Maria, whom he last saw at age 3, lived until 1986, to age 75. Ganna, now a grandmother herself, bursts into tears as we revisit the story of the grandfather she knows only by legend. "It was a difficult time in history," she says. "Filip had to go away to earn money. Just like today, the young people go away to earn."

Ganna says the Konowal genes served the family well through the Soviet years. "We were survivors. Even my mother. She was very brave, not afraid of anything. Through all those years, we knew nothing of my grandfather. There was no information on people abroad. "Not until the Soviet collapse did we learn anything. And now here I am crying for a man I never met. I don't know why. I am just touched that people come from so far away to pay respects."

The next morning, as we take our leave of Kudkiv, fresh flowers can be seen on the monument to Konowal. Across the square, Lenin is still missing his nose."

Thank you.

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