Ukrainian East Village: A Shortened Oral History of an Immigrant Neighborhood


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title>Ukrainian East Village


Ukrainian East Village
A Shortened Oral History of an Immigrant Neighborhood

Jaroslaw Kurowyckyj, 68, proprietor of the East Village's Kurowycky Meat Market: My parents left Ukraine for the same reasons most Ukrainians left in the 40s. My family left in March of 1944. I was 11 at the time. I was in school outside of my hometown, because my hometown was too small to have a high school. My mother picked me up on her way heading west and we wound up in Poland. My father showed up a couple of weeks later.

Of course, all this started happening after the Battle of Stalingrad, when the Soviets started heading west. And of course all self-respecting Ukrainians and those who were aware of what was going to happen started migrating toward the west. The way it was, I wound up in Poland with my mother–my mother was pregnant at the time with my brother and she couldn't travel any longer–and my dad kept going into Czechoslovakia. The end of the Second World War caught my mother, myself and my brother in Poland. We were in Poland for eight months after the Bolsheviks occupied Poland. Then in late August of 1945 my dad snuck into Poland and put us on a train and after some trials and tribulations we made it into Germany... We wound up in Munich, stayed four years in a displaced persons' camp in Munich. I went to school there. My brother, who was born in '44, was just ready to start grammar school when we were invited to come to the United States. We came to the United States on Nov. 10, 1949, the four of us.


Myron Surmach, 69, proprietor of Surma, the Ukrainian shop on 7th St.: Pre World War I, that's when my father immigrated to this country. 1910, at the age of 15. He had gone through the third or fourth grade under the Emperor Franz Joseph–this is prior to the Treaty of Versailles, when Austria-Hungary was the power in that part of the world. And so my father learned how to read. But when he came to the United States, the only place he could get a job was the coal mines of Scranton. They needed strong backs, and that's what he had. So he went there, to a boarding house in Scranton, digging hard coal, opening the doors for the coal cars in tunnels, and he didn't like that too much. He thought he was wasting time. He wasn't utilizing his potential. He had been a sheepherder in Ukraine, in the Carpathian mountains, and he thought that was a waste of time, too...

Then he moved to New York and said, the best place to put a store is by a church. Because you know that on Sunday mornings you're going to have a congregation going and coming...


He used to run the dances at Webster Hall. Annual Service Radio Ball! Come one, come all, to the Service Radio Ball! Whoever gets engaged at this ball, I will pay their honeymoon. Oh, man, he had a real following. He would be the MC. He'd hire a band to play, and they danced, and they'd have a show, Ukrainian folk dancing and singing, a sort of cabaret...


We were at 103 Ave. A for years. Had a double store there where we demonstrated records in booths so people could hear before they bought. I still have a picture of it. Ukrainian records. Some of them didn't have phonographs, and my dad was in the phonograph business, too. "Radio-phonograph combination!" he used to say.



Lidiia Krushelnytska, 86, theater director: First we were in Lviv. I was living there when the war started. It was 1939. I'd just graduated from the conservatory. On June 26 I took my final exam. And then on Aug. 5 I got married and on Sept. 1 the war started. In a few days the communists came to Lviv. My husband's mother was in Stanislawow, Ivano-Frankivsk now. And she sent his brother a message that the KGB, the NKVD, were already at their house, looking for my husband. She said, run away...


We came here in '49. We came on a boat to Boston, and from Boston by train to New York, and I lost all my jewelry that I had in my pocketbook in the taxicab here. They said to put all your jewelry on, because you will pay duties. It was not true, nobody looked. It was so hot–it was August, and terribly hot. In the train I went to freshen myself up a little bit, and put everything in my pocketbook. We stayed in the 23rd St. YMCA for a night–that was our first night here. We came from the pier by taxicab, and my son fell asleep in the taxi. And I put my pocketbook on the seat. Dr. Karpovich came to meet us, and closed the door, and the taxicab left with my pocketbook with all my papers and everything that I had. That was the first night in New York. I was crying all night.


Valentina Luchkan, 50, artist: When we arrived, it was already dark. I know we were in a hotel on 5th Ave. and 21st St.... We stayed about three weeks in a hotel. And it was like Disneyland, there were so many lights. It was beautiful.


Then the next day, we were surprised, because there was a sanitation strike, with garbage everywhere. This was 1955...I was so disappointed. I thought, if I knew it was going to be dirty like this in this country, I wouldn't have come. I didn't know that it was only a strike... When we ate in a restaurant we had tea, and we were surprised that sugar and salt was for free. We lived on french fries, mostly, because there was no food–we had no food–and some bread. There was no money.



Jaroslaw Leshko, 60, professor of art history, Smith College: We came to the states in '49, in March–actually on the first day of spring, March 21, 1949... It's almost like a birthday in a sense, and every year I remember the anniversary. It's immensely meaningful. I remember vividly, I was a tiny boy, standing on the ship and looking at the Statue of Liberty as it came into the port in New York. It was very, very moving...


My father first worked all sorts of jobs, as many people did, and found this little place on 7th St. Do you know the Stage Restaurant on 2nd Ave.? The original restaurant that my father bought was precisely the same configuration. Just one long narrow, narrow place with a little counter... A corner drugstore on 7th St. went belly-up, it just bankrupted, and the owner of the house was a very, very nice guy named Greenspan who urged my parents to take that locale because he said somebody will take it, and you may have competition there if it's a pizza place or a restaurant or something like that. And he sort of persuaded them, pushed them in the direction of taking it. They did, and then we gutted the whole place...and created the Leshko's that became somewhat prominent in New York...



Krushelnytska: We started to be very active. We built a church, a school. It started almost as soon as we came, we started to collect money... [We bought] this building. And next to it, on the corner, Veselka. Then, next, as you go, is CYM [the Ukrainian Youth Association, referred to even in English by its Cyrillic acronym]. Next, the National Home. Then the CYM building, then the Ukrainian credit union, and another building on 6th St.... We had, I think, almost 30 or 35 organizations. The old immigrants were very active, and right away we started to work with them...



Leshko: We really were blessed in the fact that everybody came here at the same time. We were all part of a vast immigration. We were all dirt poor, our parents came with a couple of dollars in their pocket from the boat, but the truth of the matter is that none of us really felt it, because first of all we were all in the same position, and second of all, as soon as the new immigration came–this was a political immigration, an immigration of immensely talented people, people that had professions back home–and literally within months of coming here there was a Ukrainian music school, there was a dance school, there was Plast [the Ukrainian youth scouting organization], there was CYM, there was this, there was that. The whole infrastructure was immediately in place. We had places to go, to meet, to interact.



Luchkan: Somehow my parents found a basement on 3rd St. and 1st Ave.... We met some Polish people, neighbors. They had an apartment where they had a shower and a bathtub, which they covered and that was used as a table, daytime, but if somebody used the shower, they'd take that away, put the curtain around it and people would take a bath or a shower. They allowed us to do that.



Kurowyckyj: Up to about 4th St. was a Jewish neighborhood. Then, from 4th to 10th it was Slavic. Of course I'm not saying that this was exclusively so, but the predominant ethnic group. Then from 10th to 14th St. there were Italians.



Luchkan: Everybody used to go to Orchard St., because you could really get cheap things. Uptown, not as much. Usually 21st St. was the highest you would go, because there was also another church later on over there. I don't remember us going anywhere too far uptown... We did go to meet our friends uptown as far as 7th St. and 8th St., they used to have Arca [a Ukrainian store] over there, they used to sell all kinds of books and records and candy. That's where we spent most of the time.


And in Greenwich Village... We used to go to the park over there, and go rollerskating. Usually we would skate on one, because we would share the rollerskates, we had one pair of rollerskates. I used to share with my sister the rollerskates. Each one would get one, and that's it.


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