by John Boivin
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Valley Voice
A West Kootenay woman has used a long-lost family letter to track down relatives in Ukraine.
Terran Ambrosone says the contents of the letter that recently came to her allowed her to find a cousin and his family in the war-torn country
“It has been an emotional roller-coaster,” she said. “I have cried so much.”
Ambrosone has posted the story of her journey to Facebook, and reached out to local supporters of Ukraine to help her in her cause.
The story starts just a few weeks ago – but has also been part of her life, and that of her father, Nick Klapper.
“I don’t think that man had a happy a day in his life,” she says matter-of-factly. “He was tortured by the past. During the war, he was taken by the Nazis to work for them; he was in concentration camps. Horrifying stories. He suffered greatly, the things he saw.”
The whole Klapper family experienced first-hand some of the worst events of the 20th century from their home in the Ukrainian city of Lutsk: the Stalinist political purges, the Soviet-caused Ukrainian famine, known as the Holodomor, the Second World War and the Holocaust.
The family was torn apart and Ambrosone’s father came to Canada after the war, a damaged man who thought his family dead. He settled in Castlegar and worked as a custodian at Woodland Park School.
“He hadn’t any contact with his family since the Second World War,” says Ambrosone.
However, Klapper did receive at least one letter from his sister Lena – Ambrosone’s aunt – in the 1970s. He had to have it translated by a local woman, Anna Gattinger, as he had lost his language in the intervening years, says Ambrosone.
Family history unearthed
His sister’s letter reads in part like a tragedy, recounting 40 years of hard times, births and deaths, and small joys within crushing circumstances.
“After our beloved mother died, then Father lost his reasoning…,” she reported to her brother in one paragraph. “He lived in poverty, used up everything, and people started to help us … I was very sick. There was no hope.”
She ends with a heartfelt plea: “Just two of us left now and I am your only sister and you are my only brother. Let our meeting be full of love, dearest Kolya,” she said, using her pet name for her brother. “In the name of God please consider and do not delay. You do not know what we went through.”
But Klapper never responded. And he would never tell his daughter the letter’s contents.
“I was 14. I begged my father to share it with me,” recalls Ambrosone. “But I think it was just too painful.”
Then in March, Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine. Watching the footage on TV, Ambrosone happened to think of that letter, and her long-lost relations.
Then coincidentally, just days after the invasion of Ukraine began, the letter came back in her life.
She was contacted by some friends of hers who had recently lost their mother. Polly Chernoff was a long-time friend of the Klappers, and while going through her papers they found a translated copy of the letter. They gave it to Ambrosone, who’s now shared the heartbreaking contents.
“It was so totally serendipitous, and meant to be,” she says. It also spurred her to action.
Ambrosone decided to find if any of the long-lost relatives mentioned in the letter – her cousins and second-cousins – were alive and safe.
“I realized, I have family there,” she says. “And they’re having to suffer through yet another war, and maybe my father failed to take action because the trauma was too deep, but maybe I can do something.”
It actually didn’t take that long. Using Facebook and Google Translate, she tracked down one cousin, Petro, still living in Lutsk. His sister Karolina is living in Slovakia. She’s just been in initial touch, but is trying to determine if Petro or any other family members want to come to Canada as refugees.
“Petro says it’s quiet there now, but they are not safe. They have to get out,” she says. “I told them, whatever they need please let me know. I would move mountains to make sure they’re safe.”
Ambrosone is not the only local considering supporting Ukrainian refugees to come to Canada. Hundreds of thousands of B.C. residents of Ukrainian descent have organized to respond to the humanitarian crisis.
Castlegar nurse Olga Hallborg is one of them. She’s helped organize local rallies in support of the embattled country, has set up Facebook networking pages and supported people raising money for her home of origin. She’s helped Ambrosone find her family, and has helped others sponsor Ukrainian refugees to come to this country.
She says the first thing Ambrosone has to do is assess her cousin’s situation, if they want to come to Canada. Then she would have to start the fast-tracked Canada Immigration process to complete the necessary paperwork.
But getting them here is only one major hurdle. She says the Ukrainian immigrants would face difficult times trying to settle in the Kootenays.
“I’m pretty sure people would like to come here; we have nice people and beautiful nature,” she says. “But employment opportunities here are not as ideal as they would be in more populated areas.” (Since the interview, the federal government has started a job bank page to match Ukrainian refugees with employers.)
That’s also the situation for language support (few would speak English), housing, and other challenges.
Even with the special support of the Canadian government, she doubts anyone but the well-off would be able to pull up roots and support themselves in this region.
Other ways to help
Plenty of options have been made available for Canadians to help with their pocketbook, which is the most useful way for most says Hallborg.
Humanitarian agencies like the Red Cross, Phoenix Wings, and the Maple Hope Foundation raise money for services for refugees, medical supplies, and other aid. The Canadian Ukrainian Congress and Canadian Ukrainian Foundation currently have fundraising drives as well.
“We as a world community, we are observing another member of our community suffer, and it is across generations – our elderly, our children are in the same boat,” says Hallborg. “The psychological impact, the effect on a psychological level across generations can have a devastating effect on us too.
“Donating can help. It can help us if we feel we are helping somehow.”