Souvenirs from Kyiv is a collection of short stories, each capable of standing alone but taken together they give the reader some understanding of the harrowing experiences of the Ukrainian people during World War 2.
The stories are arranged chronologically from 1942 to the war’s end, moving geographically around Ukraine beginning in Kyiv and then on to the Wilhelmshagen forced labour camp and finally Bavaria at the end of the war. Each story is told from a different point of view ranging from an embroiderer supporting what remains of her family in Kyiv, a young soldier fighting with the Nazis against the Red Army, to a family of siblings involved with the partisans, a small child in a Wilhelmshagen labour camp and a family reunited when the war is over but still not free of fear and regulation.
The author’s Introduction places these stories in the context of Ukraine’s complex history, particularly in the earlier part of the twentieth century. Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger is a child of the Ukrainian diaspora, her parents having settled in the United States following the war, wanting a new life away from reminders of the horrors of both the war and what had preceded it. While the characters are fictional, the stories are based of the experiences of Lucyk-Berger’s family members. At the end of the book, she provides notes on the stories and the people who provided inspiration. There is also a short glossary of Ukrainian words. The map at the front of the book is particularly useful for those of us without a strong grasp of the geography of Ukraine.
The spare and unembellished prose heightens the reality of the stories being told. The collection is not an easy read, not only because of the subject matter, but also the strength of Lucyk-Berger’s storytelling. The story that has stuck with me the most vividly is the first in the book, ‘Souvenirs from Kyiv’. Larissa, a gifted embroiderer is forced to make and embroiderer shirts for the Nazi occupiers and their hangers-on. With glimpses of life before the war, this story captures the breath-stealing fear, bitter adjustments and deadening hopelessness of life under the ruthless occupier.
…my hands shook. Not from curiosity, or desire. From fear. Fear of the killer instinct within each of us. Our intuition rarely fails us, and I have crossed borders I never dreamed of in order to survive. (p.2)
While clear in its presentation of the cruelties and inhumanity of war and occupation, there are still moments when humanity rises above the worst and the collection does end on a note of hope for the future. Souvenirs from Kyiv is a timely book, not only does it bring the past alive and put a human face to history, but it gives us in the wider community an understanding of the strength of the Ukrainian people in the face of their present suffering.