Kathy Kowal of Amsterdam tries to bring her children each year to the Ukrainian Easter bazaar at the St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church to give them a taste of a heritage she could easily have let slip away.
Her father was Ukrainian, but he passed away when she was young. She got to see some Ukrainian traditions when she visited her grandparents, “but they didn’t teach us too much, just liked to spend time with us,” she said.
Kowal and her young daughter watched Saturday as sisters Olga and Xrystyna Szyjka painted pysanky, traditional Ukrainian Easter eggs.
“It feels good,” she said.
The annual bazaar was held Saturday in a meeting room of the church, where Ukrainian crafts from pysanky to the popular matryoshka stacking dolls covered display tables. The Rev. Marian Kostyk served up varenyky (more widely known by its Polish name, pierogies), kovbasa (sausage), borshch, holubtsi (cabbage rolls) and homemade pastries and tarts.
The bazaar is both an Easter celebration, with traditional paska Easter cakes in addition to the pysanky, and a fundraiser for the 105-year-old church, which serves as the cultural, social and religious center of the Ukrainian community in Amsterdam.
“Certainly it’s much smaller than it had been in its heyday in the ’50s, ’60s, through the ’80s,” said Martha Swidersky, a volunteer at the event. “It was a very large community.”
At that time, she said, hundreds showed up for the bazaar to peruse table after table of kovbasa, cakes and other foods and handmade crafts.
Ukrainians flowed into the U.S. during and after World War II, fleeing repression and danger. Many found work in the factories of Amsterdam and other Capital Region industrial cities.
“I was brought up speaking Ukrainian exclusively until I was about 4 years old,” said Swidersky. “We didn’t have a TV in the house, and I basically had to learn English when I went to preschool.”
By the time her sister came along, about eight years later, the family had a TV. Her younger sister was hooked on shows like “Lassie” and picked up English at a much younger age. The sisters attended special Ukrainian classes every Saturday, along with other Ukrainian and Ukrainian-American children, to learn Ukrainian history, literature and composition.
When the factories closed, many Ukrainians found work elsewhere, she said.
The community is smaller now, but still close. Taras Kostyk and his sister, Anastasia, came over from Ukraine when they were young. Their father, Marian, eventually became the pastor of St. Nicholas.
“We all kind of stick together within our Ukrainian community,” said the 27-year-old Taras Kostyk. “We all try to help out, help maintain the church.”
When Ukrainians get together today, it’s not long before they begin to talk about the events in Ukraine — “the war,” Taras calls it, between Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine and the Ukrainian military that has made disputed territory of nearly a third of the country and caused a steep crash in the Ukrainian currency.
Taras’ mother is from Donetsk, one of the eastern cities hardest hit by the violence.
“We have family in both eastern and western Ukraine, on both sides of everything going on,” he said. “It’s been frustrating for everybody to see things unfold. We all support one unified Ukraine.”
Next to a raffle jar to support the church at Saturday’s bazaar was another jar to collect donations for medical supplies for Ukrainian soldiers and support those forced out of the east by violence. So far, the Capital Region has collected about $15,500 toward a $25,000 goal.
The amount raised to support the church wasn’t available Saturday.
As Taras and Anastasia Kostyk wrapped up varenyky and holubtsi at the back of the room, the Szyjka sisters were joined by the Susi sisters, 13-year-old Sonia and 11-year-old Eden, in making pysanky.
The Susi sisters’ mother is Slovak, and Sonia Susi said she learned how to make the Slovakian version of pysanky on a trip to Slovenia last summer. She came to the bazaar Saturday to learn the Ukrainian version, and to check out the matryoshka dolls.
Pysanky are a “very traditional and ancient art,” said Xrystyna Szyjka.
“We have done this all our lives,” she said, “since we were kids in Ukrainian school, elementary age, and now as working adults. It’s our honor, and this is for real and true, to be able to share this with young people, because this is the only way that our, like any, traditions live on.”
The sisters were born and raised in Amsterdam by Ukrainian parents, Xrystyna Szyjka explained as she painted black lines on a bare eggshell in the traditional “eight-pointed rose” pattern, a symbol of love and caring.
“We’re very proud to be from Amsterdam, a small city of immigrants from all kinds of nationalities,” she said. “And we’re honored to share ours and learn about others because our Ukrainian national poet laureate, Taras Shevchenko, taught to always learn from others but never forget your own. And that’s our philosophy.”