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Three Stories of Galicia

Documentary film excavates the 20th-century troubles of an Eastern European region

Photo: , License: N/A, Created: 2008:07:29 12:02:29

Olia Ilkiv

Three Stories of Galicia

Directed by Olha Onyshko and Sarah Farhat

Landmark Harbor East May 11 at 7 p.m. For more information visit

In Eastern Europe at the end of World War II, the horrors of the Nazis were often replaced by those of the Soviet Union. Olia Ilkiv, a native of Lviv, knows that fact all too well. Her husband joined the 'Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) to hide in the woods and fight the Soviets, while she, a mother of two, became a clandestine operative for the women’s network, gathering and passing information, helping shelter the men, and, in general, taking risks every bit as dangerous as the men. Like many female operatives, she was captured by the KGB, tortured, and sent to some remote hell of a political prison with a 20-something-year sentence. As Soviet regimes changed, she was occasionally given the option of apologizing in order to be let out or writing a letter of clemency. By the 1960s, Ilkiv, who hadn’t seen her children since her capture and only somewhat knew where they might be, decided to write such a letter. It began with an utterly defiant first line: “I was born on a piece of land that was on fire, and I had to burn with it.”

Ilkiv’s is one of three fascinating lives presented in Three Stories of Galicia, a documentary making its U.S. debut this week in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Produced, directed, and edited by the D.C.-based filmmaking team of Olha Onyshko (originally from the Ukraine) and Sarah Farhat (originally from Lebanon, who now lives in the D.C. area), Galicia tells the story of a region of Eastern Europe whose rich cultural history—and the ethnic cleansing that struck it after WWII—remains largely unknown, in both the East and the West.

Galicia is the name of a region that stretched from eastern Poland into western Ukraine, with the Carpathian Mountains forming a natural border to the south. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was a multicultural pocket where three major groups, among others, lived peacefully side by side: Roman Catholic Poles, Jews, and the 'Ukrainian Orthodox. The arrival of the Nazis brought their inhumanity to the region, and postwar turmoil sparked a whole different variety of ethnic conflicts—the now all too familiar sort that turns neighbor against neighbor, boyhood friends into adult enemies—which have remained untold in official histories and often largely unspoken by the people who survived it.

“I myself am from Ukraine, [and] I always wanted to tell the 'Ukrainian story because I felt it was not well known,” Onyshko says by phone. “From what I heard from my family stories, from my grandfather and my grandparents, I couldn’t find that in the history books. And even more, they would tell me that I should never, ever, ever say anything of what I am talking [about] at home in school, because I would be in trouble. And so these stories kind of were haunting me.”

A former journalist, Onyshko moved to the States in 2002 and entered graduate school for film at American University in 2006, after spending the summer going around the Ukraine collecting oral histories about the war and postwar periods. Her first semester at grad school, she met Farhat, who had then recently relocated to the States and entered the same program.

“She started to tell me about those stories that she had collected in her hometown, and I became very interested in the subject matter and those stories for two reasons,” Farhat says by phone. “First of all, because I thought they were interesting from a human point of view, from a storytelling point of view. It’s kind of those stories if you wanted to invent them in a work of fiction it might be too much.

“And also because I’m Lebanese, from the Middle East, I found that there were a lot of similarities of what happened in Galicia, in that region, during and after the Second World War, with what was currently happening in my own country and in my own region,” she continues. “And you know how sometimes it might be easier for some people to talk about other examples—it might be easier, for example, for a Lebanese to talk about what happened in the Ukraine than what is currently happening in their own town, in their own city, with their own people. Same thing for the Balkans, for Rwanda—so we found similar examples from around the world that could be applied to what happened in that region, and we felt that those stories were very important to be told for those reasons.”

Shooting the bulk of their footage in the summer of 2008, the filmmakers ended up focusing on three people—the 'Ukrainian Ilkiv; Jew Aharon Weiss, whose family hid underground for more than a year, helped by his 'Ukrainian neighbor; and Polish priest the Rev. Stanislav Bartminski, who has shouldered the difficult burden of trying to heal a region by restoring Jewish and Ukrainian cemeteries and synagogues and Ukrainian churches destroyed during the postwar conflicts. It’s a documentary with plenty of harrowing moments and memories, and it impressively balances the difficult task of compactly telling the history of this region while documenting three dramatic lives.

And they manage to do this among people who weren’t always keen on revisiting those memories. “Some people were very eager to tell their stories,” Farhat says. “Some were very eager and felt very underrespresented in mainstream media, and at the same time a lot of other people—they were afraid for so long to talk about those issues.”

“Especially kids,” Onyshko adds. “Not kids today, but kids who were kids in that time.” She recalls visiting a village where an old woman remembered a massacre she saw as a young girl. “But parents were telling kids, ‘Don’t go anywhere, don’t say anything.’ So I would assume they were traumatized by what they saw. So now, nobody ever asked them. They were not supposed to see what they saw. And that burden is still with them. And I think that is what probably characterizes that region.”

Now, they want the movie to become an educational nexus. “We want communities, schools, churches, synagogues, other faith groups, to organize a screening of the film and hold a discussion afterward,” Farhat says. “The main purpose of doing this film was to use it as a tool for generating a constructive dialogue around what happened, because you probably know by now those issues are still very, very sensitive among the three communities at stake.”

“We hope that in the future people can come together and kind of rebuild their pasts and also kind of forgive each other and there’s so much to learn from each other,” Onyshko adds, pointing to Bartminksi’s example as a way to move forward. “That region of Galicia—it never was rich in terms of economics, but it was really rich in terms of different cultures living there. So if that comes back to at least some extent, that would be huge achievement. That’s why we made this film.”

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