Aylesbury woman's remarkable story of her parents' journey surviving the Second World War and leaving Ukraine for Bucks

A guest column from Marusia Mary Lawrence whose parents left Ukraine to call Bucks home, she reminisces about her parents and growing up as a Ukrainian in Aylesbury

By Marusia Mary Lawrence
Tuesday, 15th March 2022, 11:17 am

My mother Ewa (Eva) Nyznyk was born in the tiny farming hamlet Dolena near Rava Ruska, Poland in May 1922. This area is now part of the Ukraine.

My father Oleksa (Alexander) Wytwyckyj was born in Vovchinetz, Stanislaw, Ukraine in October 1911. Stanislaw was renamed Ivano-Frankivska.

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Marusia Mary Lawrence

In 1940, my mother was taken and rounded up with other young peasant girls by German soldiers for forced labour.

They were loaded into cattle trucks and travelled the long way around into Germany due to the war raging in Poland. This journey took three days with no food or water provided. The train reached Munich, where my mother collapsed. It was her 18th birthday.

The girls were transported to Pfaffenhofen where they were brutalised if not seen working hard enough to grow food for the Germans. Near the end of the war all the young women were herded into a large barn.

Small groups of them were taken out and shot. My mother’s group were next. The barn doors opened and the Americans had arrived and liberated my mother and the remaining young women.

Ewa (Eva) Nyznyk

They were finally transported to a German Army camp in Augsburg in 1945 where she met my father.

My father was married with a wife and three children and owned a grocery store in Vovchinetz. When the Germans invaded his village they ransacked his shop. Ukraine was now under Soviet rule.

Some time later my father received news that his family had been killed by the German invasion and he started to make his way towards American held territory At the end of the war he was transported to Augsburg, where he met my mother.

Oleksa (Alexander) Wytwyckyj

The Ukrainian Camp in Augsburg had to be guarded by American soldiers due to threats from the local German people.

The Ukrainians here had organised a complete self functioning society within the Camp with church services, schools, a university, growing food, entertainment, and even a football team.

News was reaching authorities that returning displaced Ukrainians were being shot by Soviet soldiers. My parents were offered safe passage to England in 1947.

My mother was seconded to work for three years in the Avon Mill in Manchester helping make cotton products. My parents were married in the Manchester Registry Office on their arrival.

Immediately my father was taken to work in Ventnor, Isle of Wight where the Chest Hospital was located for tuberculosis patients. My mother was allowed to join him a year later.

Due to the Alien Act, all refugees had to check into their local police station weekly to verify that they were still in employment, were not breaking any laws and were saving some money.

After working for three years in this way, they were allowed to settle down and chose to work at Stoke Mandeville Hospital. They bought a house in Aylesbury.

Though we lived near the Royal Bucks Hospital, I was born in Amersham General Hospital in 1953. My full name was Marusia Mary Wytwyckyj. At the time, the authorities weren’t keen on foreign names which is why Mary had to be added.

Due to my parents limited English and speaking Ukrainian at home, I couldn’t speak English when I started school at St Louis Convent School run by the nuns.

I lost three years education because of this. I wasn’t at all happy there and managed to persuade my parents to go to the more local school St John’s Church of England School which was next to St John’s Church in Cambridge Street, where we lived.

I flourished there and we all liked walking to St Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church for our Religious Education lessons, as I was a Roman Catholic.

Living with my parents in England was like living in Little Ukraine, as I called it. They cooked Ukrainian food, both worked very hard, and taught both me and my sister Anna solid values but rarely spoke about their lives in Ukraine.

It wasn’t until I became a mother and started asking the odd question that bit by bit they told me snippets of their life in Ukraine.

I particularly remember journeying up to the Ukrainian Cathedral in Duke Street, London and kneeling on its stone floor for what seemed ages for Easter and Christmas services! We would then eat a prepared meal downstairs. I loved hearing the choir singing the Gospels in the specific Ukrainians tones.

Our favourite was attending the Ukrainian Arts Festival every year in June at the De Montfort Hall in Leicester. We would journey in an organised coach with a lot of other Ukrainian people who lived in Aylesbury.

There was traditional dancing, singing and recitals. You could also buy Ukrainian ornaments, books, artwork and clothing there too.

Besides working full time at Tindal General Hospital on the ENT Ward and tending two allotments, my mother would also work two part time jobs, so the childcare, cooking, housework and shopping was shared between them.

Both my father and mother died in Stoke Mandeville Hospital where they had worked for many years, My father on Christmas Day, 1999 and my mother on 9 January, 2001. Both are buried locally.

My parents taught me standards and values that have been hugely influential in my life and the lives of my five children.

Marusia Mary Lawrence is a retired administrator who is an active church member and a local Parish Councillor.