While the intense focus of the world has turned to the people of Ukraine for more than three months, those concerns have been particularly urgent and personal for River Forest residents Askold and Marta Kozbur. Both have close family and friends in Ukraine, and they are mourning the destruction of a country in which they have deep roots.
Askold’s and Marta’s parents immigrated to the U.S. from western Ukraine following WWII. Askold’s parents settled in Cleveland, and Marta’s parents settled in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village neighborhood. The two first met on a group heritage tour in Ukraine in 1978. They quickly realized that they not only had similar Ukrainian-centric upbringings — but significant family connections as well.
Askold’s aunt and Marta’s mother were best friends living in the same displaced persons’ (DP) camp in Germany following the war. Marta’s aunt and Askold’s father were classmates in another DP camp, where Marta’s grandfather taught history.
“I felt right at home during that first visit to Ukraine,” said Marta. “Growing up, we were both enmeshed in the Ukrainian culture and community,” said Marta. “In Ukrainian Village, we heard Ukrainian spoken on the street. We banked at the Ukrainian bank, went to the Ukrainian grocery store. When we got married, it was like old home week because everyone knew each other.”
The Kozburs have received an outpouring of support from neighbors and the Lincoln School community, where Marta teaches. Trees on their block are festooned with blue and yellow ribbons, and their garage has been the site of a constant stream of food, clothing, and medical supplies They also appreciate that River Forest Village President Cathy Adduci agreed to fly the Ukrainian flag at city hall.
The couple has been back to Ukraine many times since their initial visit and have witnessed great changes. They saw the country in the 1980’s when it was still under Soviet rule, with high rise buildings plastered with images of Leonid Brezhnev and the hammer and sickle and when their cousins were uncomfortable speaking freely in public.
“It was so gray and depressing. But when Ukraine won independence in 1991, they just went to work to beautify all the cities. When I went back for a month in 2012, it was beautiful, with flowers everywhere, cafes, little shops, art galleries, and tourists from around the world. It was just like any other thriving European city,” Marta said.
According to Askold, Lviv was known as “Little Vienna” because of its European architecture and culture, a holdover from when western Ukraine was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. According to many reports, Russian President Vladmir Putin has long viewed Ukraine’s affiliation with Europe, as well as its interest in joining NATO, as a threat and a reason for the recent unprovoked invasion.
The Kozburs bristle at the myth that Ukraine is just a part of Russia and that the countries share an eternal brotherhood.
“Kyiv was established more than 1,000 years ago. By the time Moscow was settled in the 12th century, Kyiv was already a blossoming metropolis and center of trade. We have a different language, a different alphabet, different literature and music. It’s historic — Russian leaders as far back as Catherine the Great have wanted to make Ukraine disappear. But Ukrainians are stubborn and determined and they have always had to fight for their freedom,” Marta said.
The Kozburs visited Ukraine last year. Askold visited with family in Lviv in October, and Marta visited in July with a friend who is the co-founder of a foundation dedicated to preserving the country’s sacred arts. The foundation, with which Marta is involved, is now focused on wrapping, packaging and transporting to safe places as many treasures as it can.
The Kozburs are in constant contact with family in Ukraine. Askold’s family fortunately escaped to Poland and are staying with friends. The Kozburs’ two adult children visited them a few weeks ago.
“They are mad as hell at Putin and the barbaric Russian hordes that attacked them for no reason and forced them to leave their homes when the bombing started,” said Askold.
Many of Marta’s family members are still in the Lviv area. “They are under constant threat of rockets and are experiencing daily air raids. Some of my family is helping with the distribution of food, medicine and medical supplies as well as arranging transportation for refugees,” said Marta.
Askold and Marta are convinced that Ukraine will prevail in this war. “It may come to the point where the Russians have to pull out because they’re running out of money and weaponry. Because of the influx of military support and the fact that the Ukrainians are defending their own, I think it’s ultimately going to end well for Ukraine. Ukraine will keep fighting — this will only end when the Russians leave,” said Askold.
How you can help
For those who are interested in supporting Ukraine, the Kozburs recommend www.razomforukraine.org and the Ukrainian Youth Camping Organization at www.uyco.org.
For information on the history of Ukraine, they recommend opinion pieces by Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale University.