Last week on Instagram, I shared the story of my family’s history and how a very important family heirloom made its way from a small village in Ukraine to Detroit, Michigan. I took over the WorkWear Community account for a day to tell what I think is a pretty heroic story of my family’s immigration from Ukraine to the US during WWII and how one vintage Singer sewing machine saved my family’s life. I’ve archived that story into the “Drive” highlights on our Insta page, but in case you missed it, I’ve got it all written down here. A big thanks to my sister @kwasylke23 who took all of the amazing pictures, and thanks to my Mama too who helped organize our family’s story.
This sewing machine belonged to my great-grandmother Vera Antonovna Gilinskaja born in 1896 in Yusovka, Eastern Ukraine, now called Donetsk. She had five children, one of whom was my grandmother Rosalia born in 1918. As many young girls of that era, at a young age, Vera was taught sewing, needlepoint, embroidery, knitting and crocheting. At 16 she married Ivan Martynovych Pucatyj, a bookkeeper, who gave her this Singer as a wedding gift. In 1921 after the Bolshevik Revolution, typhoid fever was running rampant. Ivan, Vera and their one-year old twins contracted Typhoid. My great-grandfather and the twins died leaving Vera (age 25) to take care of the family. She took her two daughters to live with her parents on a farm in Volyn, Western Ukraine, and used her sewing skills to get a job in a factory.
*My great grandmother Vera & great grandfather Ivan*
During the next 10 years, in her spare time, Vera sewed dresses for well-to-do women. She had a son, Andriy, and in 1931 married again. My great-grandmother and her family survived the 1932-1933 Russian forced farm collectivization genocide of 7-10 million people (Holodomor) because she bartered sewing work for food. In 1933, her daughter Nelly married and moved to Taganrog, Russia near the Ozov Sea. In 1934 Vera’s father died and Rosalia moved in with her Grandma to help with the farm. In 1939 Germany invaded Poland and WW2 began. Vera and her family moved in with Nelly in Taganrog, hoping to stay away from the western front war zone. Rosalia joined them in early 1940 after Grandma died. The family reunited, and Vera continued to sew to feed the family. By late 1940 Germany controlled most of Ukraine, and was forcibly recruiting men into their army. Vera’s husband, his sons, and Nelly’s husband had no choice and ran away. They were never heard from again. The women, Vera, Nelly (kids Victor 6 & Walter 2), and my grandmother Rosalia once again had to fend for themselves, and so Vera continued to sew.
My great-grandmother Vera found work sewing and repairing German uniforms, while my grandmother Rosalia found work at an aircraft company that specialized in repairing “Ole Basser” planes. When the Germans retreated west, they took their workers and their families with them. Each was allowed only one suitcase, but my great-grandmother wouldn’t leave her sewing machine behind. For the next five years, they traveled with the German army by plane, railroad box cars, or trucks from Uman (south of Kiev), to Lviv through the Carpathian Mountains to Krakow, Poland, Czechoslovakia to Budapest, Hungary. They were housed at farms, work camps, and labor camps. Traveling conditions worsened with each leg of the trip. In October 1944, on their final leg to Germany, my grandmother wrote, “It was the most dangerous trip. Russian planes dropped bombs on every train station and every moving object. When the engineer of the train heard the planes, he stopped the train and people would run in the field and hide in the tall grass cover.”
In 1944, the German army and their workers finally reached Werden. The family was put into an Ostarbeiter Forced Labor Camp. The term Ostarbeiter was a Nazi German designation for foreign slave workers gathered from occupied Central and Eastern Europe (their number estimated at 3 - 5.5 million) to perform forced labor in Germany during WWII. Everyone was required to work except the two young boys. However, one day, my great-grandmother Vera slipped on some ice and broke her ankle. Since she couldn’t work, she stayed in the camp and cared for her two grandsons. Again, she took out her sewing machine and bartered her labor for food, mostly potatoes and bread.
In April of 1945, American troops liberated the labor camps. Germany was split into four occupation zones: American, French, English, and Russian. My grandmother and her family were in the Russian zone, and so they had to run again. They loaded onto an American transport vehicle headed to Bavaria. They got as far as Ansbach, Germany and were housed in a Displaced Person’s Camp run by the United Nations Relief Administration. This time my great-grandmother Vera sewed for money. After a year in the camp, the Soviet government demanded that all its citizens return, but of course no one wanted to go back. My family fled again and found housing and work in Nuremberg. And of course, the sewing machine came along, too. Rose (my grandmother) and Nelly (my great-aunt) worked at an Officer’s club near the airport and my great-grandmother Vera continued to sew.
In 1948, my family traveled to Munich to fill out immigration papers to come to the United States. My grandmother, Rosalia, was the first to arrive in the US. During these war-torn years, the three women always managed to find each other. My Grandmother wrote “I remember Nelly and Mama standing on the platform waving goodbye and crying their hearts out as the train pulled out of the station. Nobody knew if we ever will see each other again.” In Bremerhaven, Rosalia boarded the ship SS Tyler to New York City, carrying a small suit case and $10. Upon arrival she bought her first lipstick and a cup of hot coffee. On October 10th 1949, she arrived by train in Detroit, and six weeks later she married my grandfather, Mykola. A few years later, the rest of the family arrived in Detroit and to no surprise, in my great-grandmother’s hand was her sewing machine. A few years later Vera remarried, continued sewing, and lived to the age of 90. I’m not sure when my grandmother Rosalia learned how to sew, but back then, it was just something that almost every girl learned how to do. My grandmother continued sewing quilts and cross-stitched pillows for us into her early 90’s when macular degeneration took her sight. She lived to the age of 95.
*My grandma (Baba) Rosalia*
My mother taught herself to sew on an automated machine when she was in high school. Her mom, Rosalia (my grandmother), did not teach her because she was busy working as a bookkeeper providing for her family. Neither my grandmother nor mother used the vintage foot powered Singer seen here because the newer machines were automated and quicker. Over the last few decades the leather belt has dried and parts (almost 100 years old) broke. But the machine that saved their lives and traveled with them through Ukraine, Russia, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Germany and the United States still stands in my mother’s home in Michigan.
*From left to right: My great aunt Nelly, my mom, my grandma Rosalia, my great grandma Vera*
Neither my sister nor I could ever sit still, so my mom taught us how to sew so we’d have projects to work on. She taught us how to read and cut out patterns, how to thread the lockstitch machine, how to be careful when using the serger, and how to walk away and take a break when your project wasn’t going so well. We sewed small items like scarves, tote bags and quilted pillows. When I got to college, I tried my hand at sewing clothes from store patterns, but they were just so difficult to follow. That’s when I learned that sewing clothes takes lots of patience and is truly an artistic form of engineering.
So, here’s to preserving the lost art of sewing. Find this story interesting? Me too. I am encouraging my mom to one day write the bigger story of our family’s immigration during WWII into a book. I think it would be fantastic.