My mother was born in Sambir, Ukraine, and my father in Przemyśl, Poland. They both spent their childhood as refugees.
They lived among displaced Ukrainians who fled to Austria and Germany as the Red Army advanced in July 1944. My grandparents’ decision to abandon their homes and leave everything behind saved my parents from the tyranny of the Soviet occupation.
They were among 2,00,000 Ukrainians who chose to live in exile rather than be repatriated to the Soviet Union. They organized themselves around civic, educational, cultural and political interests. Within these circles, Ukrainians have produced newsletters, pamphlets and books to connect with each other and tell the world about the country’s history.
This publication effort was in addition to the work done by Ukrainians who immigrated for economic reasons to North America. from the 1890sand those who lived abroad for political reasons during the revolutionary period in the early 1920s.
I am the custodian of these publications in my role as a librarian developing, making accessible and researching the collections of Ukrainian – and other Slavic languages at the University of Toronto Libraries.
Our library Ukrainian holdings – whether published in Ukraine under Austrian, Polish or Russian rule, at independence or in refugee centers and diaspora communities – offer a perspective on Ukraine’s distinct history that sets it apart of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s belief that Ukraine was “entirely created by Russia”.
history in libraries
Librarians and libraries around the world play a role in preserving and sharing Ukraine’s cultural history. They acquire Western observations on Ukraine or material printed on its territories. And people can learn a lot from these resources.
French architect and military engineer, map of Guillaume le Vasseur de Beauplan, Map of Ukrainefirst depicted the country as a discrete territory with demarcated borders in 1660. It was commissioned by King Władysław IV of Poland to help him better understand the land and its people in order to protect the territory from enemies (in especially Russia).
In History of Charles XII (1731)Voltaire similarly describes and textually maps Ukraine as the country of the cossacks, located between Little Tartary, Poland and Muscovy. He said: “Ukraine has always wanted to be free.”
Other documents in our libraries bear physical traces of the horrors of Soviet domination. At Thomas Fisher Rare Book Librarya Gospel book printed in Pochaiv, Ukrainebetween 1735 and 1758, and written in Church Slavonic, bears a notation that it was given to the Golden-domed Monastery of St. Michael in kyiv, “forever remain irremovable from the church”. However, this monastery was destroyed on Stalin’s orders in the mid-1930s and the library volumes were sold by the Soviet government.
But books also enter library collections through more honest means – refugees sometimes donate their personal libraries to universities. At the University of Toronto, we have a handwritten and watercolored issue of a Ukrainian POW periodical entitled Liazaroni (Vagabond) (1920). It was produced in an internment camp near Cassino, Italy, where tens of thousands of Ukrainians were held captive after fighting in the Austro-Hungarian Army.
Among the relatives of 1,000 books and pamphlets which were published by displaced Ukrainians after World War II, is a children’s story that I remember reading in my youth, housed at the University of Toronto. The book, Bim-bom, dzelen’-bom! (1949), tells how a group of chickens and cats help put out a fire in a house. A passage from the book can be applied to Russia’s war against Ukraine:
“Roosters, hens and chicks, cats and kittens know how to work together to save their home. So, you little ones, learn to live in the world, and to defend your country against all dangers!
Knowledge at Risk
Today, teams of archivists and librarians respond to a similar call and work to save Ukrainian library and museum collections. Their efforts echo the work of Men’s Monuments which, during the Second World War, gave “first aid art and booksand engaged in the recovery of cultural materials.
The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine declares that the Russian military police are destroy Ukrainian literature and history textbooks – Russian forces also bombed archives, libraries and museums.
They destroyed the archives of the security service in Chernihiv who documented the Soviet repression of Ukrainians, they also damaged the Korolenko State Scientific Library in Kharkivthe second largest library collection in Ukraine.
Archives staff in Ukraine work day and night to digitize paper documents and move scanned content to overseas servers. Librarians and volunteers also pack and plan disposal of books.
Maintaining and preserving online archives or digital wartime artifacts is difficult. They are as precarious as printed matter because they depend on infrastructure in the physical world. Computer equipment connected to cables and servers needs electricity to operate. Power outages or server failures can mean temporary or permanent loss of data.
More than 1,000 volunteers, in partnership with universities in Canada and the United States, participate in the participatory project called Safeguarding Ukrainian cultural heritage online to preserve and secure digitized manuscripts, music, photographs, 3D architectural models and other publications. So far, the team has captured 15,000 files, which are accessible through the Internet Archive.
Just as libraries have collected, preserved and shared the knowledge held by their own institutions over the past century, they are now sharing this knowledge globally so that, once the war is over, Ukraine can see its cultural treasures. saved and restored.
Ksenya Kiebuzinski is Slavic Resource Coordinator and Director of the Petro Jacyk Resource Center, University of Toronto Libraries at the University of Toronto.
This article first appeared on The conversation.