OMAHA – Three days before the Russian bombs begin to fall, the lights of the Ukrainian Catholic Church chapel flip on. It’s the start of the Sunday morning service.
Father Petro Kozar steps through the gate of the iconostasis and opens his arms to the congregation. He takes a censer of incense. He swings it and it clangs.
The smoke symbolizes the congregation’s prayers rising to heaven.
The 24 people in the pews begin to sing a hymn in Ukrainian. Older people in the back, some who have been here nearly every Sunday since the church was founded by people fleeing the tyranny of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, know every word. These elders, born in Ukraine, sing the loudest, the surest, the clearest.
The service continues with prayers for peace in both English and Ukrainian, but no specific mention of the topic on everyone’s mind: the looming possibility, more real by the moment, that Vladimir Putin’s Russia will invade these Nebraskans’ homeland.
That is, until the service nears its end, when the Right Rev. Archimandrite Ivan Krotec addresses the congregation: “Let us continue to pray for Ukraine,” he says. “We don’t know what is going to happen, but we believe God is stronger.”
The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Church, located at 16th and Martha Streets, just south of downtown Omaha, is the local Ukrainian community’s nerve center. Its congregation continues to watch developments in Ukraine, including Wednesday’s invasion by Russia, with a mixture of anger, sadness and growing dread.
The elders in this community immigrated as children to the United States after the horrors of World War II. Some were taken by the Nazis to do forced labor in Germany – farming, factory work, fighting the fires caused by Allied strategic bombing. Then they watched Stalin – and now Putin – ravage their homeland.
Subscribe for free
Get stories like this delivered to your inbox every Friday.
“Putin has always wanted Ukraine. He wants the former Soviet Union,” said Daria Blazauskas, 83, whose memories of the Nazi labor camp are still vivid eight decades later. “If he gets Ukraine, he’s going after the Baltic (States) next.”
The church also consists of their children, who work to keep older traditions alive. In the chatter after the service, it’s easy to pick out the accents of more recent immigrants, also wrestling with dread.
“It just looks like a game of wise people right now,” said Iuliia Grytsyk, 34, of Council Bluffs, Iowa, who moved to the United States as a student 15 years ago and is now a U.S. citizen. “Something is trying to prove something to someone else and innocent citizens have to suffer.”
Sitting in the basement fellowship hall after church, Olesia Repichowskyj, 88, can recite from memory the lines from a 19th Century Ukrainian poet: “Ukraine will rise again and blow away the gloom of servitude.”
She can tell you about the traditions of the Ukrainian Catholic Church – four prayers for the pope per service instead of one in a Roman Catholic service – and how Christianity was brought to Ukraine from Greece more than a millennium ago.
She can talk about how Ukraine was controlled by Czarist Russia for centuries. And then about her childhood in Soviet-controlled Ukraine, where a man-made famine killed a third of her village. “I still have the gift of gab,” she says.
She can tell you about her baptism in her grandmother’s kitchen. Her village church had been closed and turned into a granary under Stalin. “The priest disappeared. We didn’t know if he was shipped to Siberia or if he was killed.” But her grandmother insisted she be baptized, and sent her father to find a priest.
“I was baptized at home, by a priest, and there were six children in the village baptized at the same time, because that was the situation,” she said.
And she can tell you about how she and others were taken by the Nazis and put to work. She and her family were hauled to Germany in a boxcar with straw lining the floor. She was separated from her family and forced to work on farms milking cows and cleaning chicken coops.
Rather than return to the Soviet Union, the reunited family immigrated to the US, living first in Minnesota. She met her husband as a student at Ohio State University. When he took a job with Leo Daly, the architectural and engineering firm, they moved to Omaha in 1964.
To her, Ukraine’s current troubles are part of a long line of Russia trying to dominate Ukraine. The country has some of the best soil in Europe. The Russians also value Ukraine’s warm-water ports on the Black Sea.
“We have tried so hard for centuries … We have never attacked Russians. They are coming after us,” she said. “They need that good soil. They need a place where they can grow food so they can feed themselves.”
“Putin wants to rebuild the Soviet Union. And it isn’t just Ukraine that he wants.”
Tyler White, director of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s National Security Program, also said history has long been stacked against the Ukraine.
“Ukraine has always been a subject of Russian whims and it has never gotten anything good out of the deal,” said White, also a UNL political science professor.
Ukraine has spent much of its history under the thumb of the Russians. Briefly independent after World War I, it was soon conquered by the new Soviet Union.
In the 1930s, Ukraine was ravaged by the so-called Holodomor, a man-made famine that started after Stalin attempted to collectivize agriculture. It led to the deaths of 4 million Ukrainians. The Holodomor was not publicly discussed in the Soviet Union until 1986 – after the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl, which also occurred in Ukraine.
In World War II when the Germans attacked the USSR, the Ukrainians initially saw them as liberators and helped the Germans, something White said was common throughout the East. It didn’t last long, he said, due to Nazi barbarism. But Stalin didn’t forget it.
“Stalin takes all of this very personally and takes it all out on generations of Ukrainians,” White said. “Stalin has a view of Poles and Ukrainians as a real disposable group of people.”
Almost any Ukrainian who could avoid returning to Ukraine after the war found someplace else to live. With the dawn of the Cold War, the allies allowed Ukrainians to immigrate to several countries, including Brazil, Australia, Canada and the United States.
Blazauskas was 12 years old when her family crossed the Missouri River on a bus on a July night in 1950. Then she saw the lights of Omaha for the first time.
“For me, as a child, I looked and thought, ‘oh! It’s Christmas!” she said.
The Ukrainian Catholics purchased their current house of worship in 1951, remodeled, paid off the mortgage, and dug the basement where people still gather after services today. Blazauskas said the local Roman Catholic community was helpful. “They were very good to us,“ she said.
Today, the church is likely unnoticed by most motorists zipping to and from downtown, though some glimpse its small golden onion dome with a cross atop. It is one of two Ukrainian Catholic Churches in Nebraska. The other: St. George in Lincoln.
That early generation of Ukrainian immigrants in Omaha raised another generation, some of whom remain with the church and are conscious of their Ukrainian heritage. Many have moved to other parts of the Omaha metro, but return to the old neighborhood for services on Sunday morning.
“This used to be a Ukrainian neighborhood right here,” said David Woloszyn, 39, of Omaha. “This (church) used to be packed because everyone lived in this community.”
Orest Lechnowsky, 54, grew up in the church. His father was one of its founders. His mother was German, and in his home, both cultures were celebrated. Traditional foods. Embroidered Ukrainian clothes. Ukrainian poetry recitations. Spectacular dyed Easter eggs. “We’ve pretty much been immersed in it for our whole lives,” he said.
Woloszyn is now studying to be a deacon in the church. A tattoo on his right forearm says “Ukrainian Pride.” He’s frustrated by the West’s handling of Putin and Ukraine.
“The sad thing is we will fight for our independence again,” Woloszyn said. “The sad thing is there is going to be a lot of innocent blood shed.”
After the fall of the Soviet Union, many congregants visited their relatives in Ukraine for the first time. Lechnowsky first went back with his father in the 1990s.
“It was very emotional. My dad was from a small village in the Carpathian Mountains,” he said. “It was to a large extent almost unchanged …. They were still farming with 19th-century equipment. Everything was horse drawn or human powered. No one had cars.”
Few people were left of his father’s age. His father’s siblings were dead. Some died in World War II. Some died of hard labor. Others died from poor health care or poor nutrition.
Lechnowsky has been back several times since. He feels fortunate that, like many members of the Omaha church, his family lives in the western part of Ukraine.
Friends of his in Ukraine have evacuated their children from the country or moved them as far west in the country as possible.
“More and more people are joining territorial defense units, taking training on the weekends,” he said. “There have been dramatic increases in the purchase of firearms and ammunition … I think there is a determination to defend their homes.”
In the Omaha church, nearly everyone knows this fact: In the early 1990s, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Ukraine had the third-largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the world. And it gave them up.
It did so in an accord known as the Budapest Memorandum, signed by the U.S., Russia, Ukraine and the United Kingdom, in return for assurances that its borders would be respected. In May 1996, the last of its nuclear weapons left the country.
It’s hard to imagine Putin invading Ukraine if the country still had those weapons, White said.
In 2014, Russian troops took control of the Crimean Region, and later formally annexed it. Putin justified that invasion by saying the rights of Russian speakers needed to be protected. Two months after the seizure, pro-Russian separatists in two regions of eastern Ukraine declared independence from Ukraine.
Since then, violence between the Ukrainian Military and separatist forces has killed more than 10,300 people. And that bloodshed appears to have served as a precursor for the wider Russian invasion of Ukraine, which began Wednesday evening.
By Thursday afternoon, the Russian invasion had killed dozens of Ukrainian soldiers, wounded many more. The Russians appeared to be in control of the Chernobyl nuclear site, and had pushed into the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.
“Putin is planning this game to try to invigorate Russia as an international power player. He doesn’t have a very strong hand at home. This military adventurism is a very good way of distracting the people at home,” White said. “This is less about what the Russian people want and it’s a lot more about what Putin wants.”
While finding someone to criticize Putin was easy, no one at the church is cheering for war. No one suggested that U.S. troops be sent to Ukraine.
“We are all made in the image and likeness of God. All the Slavic people, whether it be from Belarus, Ukraine, or Russia, we all descended from the same heavenly father,” Woloszyn said. “We’re brothers.”
The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.