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Ukrainians await word from home

By Victoria IrwinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 2, 1986



New York

Beautifully painted Easter eggs -- pysanky -- are on display at Surma, a Ukrainian store on Manhattan's Lower East Side. But the joy of the Orthodox Easter season here is blunted by concern about what is happening to relatives, friends, and countrymen far away in the Soviet Ukraine. The accident at the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl -- and the lack of information about what is happening -- is on the mind of many of the estimated 25,000 Ukrainians in this community.

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``We are mourning,'' says one elderly woman outside St. George's Ukrainian Catholic Church on Seventh Street. She says she came over after World War II and still has sisters in the Ukraine. She spoke bitterly of the Soviet government, remembering the starvation of Ukrainians under Stalin in the 1930s.

``All we ask is to know the truth,'' says the Rev. Patrick Paschak, pastor of the church, who spoke of a ``nuclear curtain of silence'' at a prayer vigil Wednesday night.

Getting through to relatives is difficult under normal circumstances, points out the Rev. Leo Goldade, an assistant pastor. Few of the Ukrainians in the Soviet Union have telephones in their homes, he says. Letters that are exchanged are often written in ``cryptogrammic'' manner to avoid getting relatives in trouble.

``We are feeling like [this is] a great tragedy for the Ukrainian population,'' says Y. Haywas at the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, an ethnic and cultural group. He says there is very deep feeling within the community here. But he also notes that the Ukrainian Congress has received countless phone calls from Americans of different heritages, offering to help in any way they can.

``I was very surprised,'' he says. ``The reaction is great. I know American people help those who are suffering, but I did not know to what extent.''

The frustration here is that nothing can be done. Very few people have been able to get through by telephone, and information gleaned from radio and television offers only speculation on the fate of Soviet citizens. That was one reason behind the prayer vigil Wednesday.

The Ukrainians here, many who arrived after the war, are rather ``consternated,'' says Fr. Goldade. The service, held in the beautifully ornate Orthodox church, gave them a chance to express both sorrow and strength. Nearly 1,000 came, holding candles and singing.

Parts of the movie ``Moscow on the Hudson'' were filmed here where East Village newcomers -- artists, yuppies, and punk rockers -- share the streets with older Ukrainian immigrants and their children and grandchildren, who keep up traditions. Many typically American-looking teen-agers talk fluently in both Russian and English.

As Orthodox Easter celebrations begin, there is sadness. Kobasniuk Travel Inc. canceled two Easter tours to the area, which had been scheduled to leave Tuesday. Some of the customers were going to visit relatives for the holidays.