A Memorial to Silence

An essay on Vera Jacyk: Chysto, Chysto, Chysto

© Vera Jacyk

I try to imagine a memorial to silence.  What shape would it take?  Where would it stand?  Would there be one or many?  Who would visit?  These are the thoughts I have after hearing my parents’ stories.  My parents’ voices resonate with millions of others - all victims of totalitarian oppression.  The stories are deafening, yet reticence pervades.  Perhaps this is the memorial to silence. 

Historical circumstances dictated the fate of millions following the cataclysmic events of the Second World War.  For artist Vera Jacyk, these historical events linger long afterward.  This is the story of the artist’s parents, my parents and an entire generation which was forced to flee their Ukrainian homeland as Displaced Persons or DPs.  Historian Norman Davies sheds light on the no-win dilemma faced by Ukrainians during the Second World War: “There was murder, genocide, oppression on both sides and there was no way to escape.  If you fled eastward, you were running the gauntlet of Soviet oppression; if you fled westward you were running the risk of Nazi oppression … Many people in the West don’t realize that Ukrainians were fighting both against Hitler and against Stalin.” 1

Eventually settling in Canada and establishing a sense of place, this group joined others in the Ukrainian Diaspora.  One writer offers some cogent impressions, defining this socio-political grouping as such: “Diaspora refers to the scattering and dispersal of people who will never literally be able to return to the places from which they came … They are people who belong to more than one world, speak more than one language (literally and metaphorically); inhabit more than one identity, have more than one home; who have learned to ‘negotiate and translate’ between cultures, and who, because they are ‘irrevocably the product of several interlocking histories and cultures’ have learned to live with, and speak from difference.” 2 These are valuable words in orienting the hybrid identities in an ever-shifting demographic landscape in the late-modern world.  However, the passage relegates diasporic communities to the realm of otherness.  The pronoun “they” deflects entire communities into the margins of what may be considered the mainstream “we” and “us.”

A more inclusive consideration of exile can be found in the memoirs of Esther Salaman.  Dr. Salaman, a well-respected research physicist who received a formal education in pre-war Germany, was born to well-to-do Jewish parents in what is current-day Ukraine.  In 1919, following the Bolshevik Revolution, the family was forced to emigrate to various places in the West, eventually settling in Germany.  With the rise of Fascism there, once again the émigré family was forced to relocate, this time to America.  Salaman’s forced peregrination and subsequent readjustments allow us to view her in the light of diasporic communities.  She was a multi-lingual, inter-cultural woman who was in a state of flux in her formative years.  In her autobiography, Salaman writes: “It was years before I realized that my homesickness in Berlin had been for the past, that people who have never left their country have similar experiences: we are all exiles from the past.” 3  Here the exile takes on new meaning as not only one who is displaced spatially, by political and geographical factors, but also in terms of temporal and psychical vicissitudes.  In this regard, we are all displaced persons, continually negotiating between what we once were and what we are to become. 

The title of this installation transliterates and reiterates the Ukrainian word for clean.  As in English, the word has obvious connotations such as tidy or pure.  The twentieth century experience has given the word other, more sinister associations relating to catharsis, ethnic cleansing or purgation as in chystky or Stalinist purges (one of the first major ones known as yezhovshchyna occurred seventy years ago).  As viewers, we enter the installation as though on a stage.  Upon entering we simultaneously become audience members and players in a psychodrama.  As with all cultural modes, the vicissitudes that shape our life experiences will activate how we as viewers read this installation.  Some of us will be aware of the historical symbols and references which inform the works.  Others will be able to bring entirely new associations to the pieces and activate discourse anew.  Displayed in a public gallery context, this is a make-believe house complete with quotation marks around it.  Each setting is infused with something foreign, anonymous and intimate.

Jacyk’s work is an environment of misplaced memory.  The artist presents us with fractured narratives.  Each episode recounts a partial story that is set against a domestic background.  Here the fragmented architectural interiors are pristine, whitewashed stage sets.  The artist recreates a home away from a homeland.  For each set, Jacyk displays finely hand-wrought artefacts which range from the vaguely familiar to the strangely obscure: a writhing bust, embroidery pulled asunder, anthemic words on eggs, newspaper parcels, disembodied appendages, phantom limbs, a tiny suit.  Many of these symbols refer directly to Ukraine’s tumultuous twentieth century history.  They are ciphers which traveled the same trajectory as the artist’s émigré parents.  Nefarious chapters such as forced collectivization, terror, deportation, labour camps, genocidal famine and foreign occupation are alluded to symbolically.  These become emblematic of a nation without statehood.  For the artist these symbols are not her own - they are one generation removed.  They do however predicate the conditions of forced exile, ultimately telling the story of why Vera Jacyk was to become a first-generation Canadian.

The children of exiles, immigrants, Displaced Persons, experience histories in odd ways - maintaining uneasy relations with the past as embodied by their parents’ generation.  A tensile relationship exists between the realities we know and that which we can never know first hand.  Of the same generation and sharing similar life-experiences as Jacyk, Lubomyr Luciuk writes “Most of my generation, the sons and daughters of the DPs… jettisoned our parents’ struggle, one which we never fully understood.” 4 In her text, which appears in this catalogue, the artist is candidly skeptical of the unexamined nationalism and rigid belief systems she witnessed growing up in the Ukrainian community.  On the other hand, this same community elicits empathy, contemplation and a sense of wonder.  Jacyk can be included among other cultural producers which draw on the vast repository of immigrant experience.  In the Canadian context, children of Ukrainian parents such as William Kurelek, Myrna Kostash, Janice Kulyk-Keefer, Natalka Husar and Halya Kuchmij come to mind.  These individuals grew up speaking their native tongue, hearing the stories that defined their communities and themselves.  They translated their experiences into the language of the Canadian mainstream.  As one writer observes: “Bilingual and multilingual consciousness is frequently described as a complex mental geography that is hidden from view and finds its best manifestations in artworks.” 5 As poignant cultural output, these artworks are a way of reclaiming what may otherwise have been lost.  Here, no hyphenated dictionary can help translate this moment of flux.

How are these stories communicated from one generation to another?  Australian writer Kateryna O.  Longley explores communication and transference patterns among Fifth World peoples.  Her eponymous essay on the topic defines this socio-political grouping as a “vast, world-scattered migrant population of disempowered people who have lost their cultural, linguistic and political bases.” 6 She underscores the pervasiveness and importance of story-telling among both First Nations and Fifth World communities.  Oral traditions in aboriginal cultures are observed by Longley as a communal pool of stories that have a sacred relevance.  Fifth World accounts, on the other hand, are “first-hand and autobiographical … cut off from similar stories told within the closed circle of the family or small friendship group.” 7 As such, Fifth World stories are not a unified tradition, but an aggregate of atomized narratives generated in the homes of émigré families.

At times, immigrants’ stories are closely guarded.  Local historian Laura Suchan encountered a degree of impermeability in conducting interviews with post-Second World War immigrants who settled in the Oshawa area.  She observes difficulties in accessing oral accounts from interviewees; “the community as a whole is introverted and most DPs are reluctant to speak of their experiences to someone who is not an ‘insider.’” 8 We find, in the case of Jacyk, that even an “insider” is not privy to narratives told in the first person.  From the artist’s diaristic writings we learn that silence was the surrogate for oral tradition in her home.  Oral traditions were substituted for something terse and voiceless, something she refers to as “silent transmission.” The artwork that comes out of this experience vacillates between the generic and autobiographic.  Yes, the artist cites her ancestral roots but there are no markings of distinction, nothing specific such as a family photograph hangs on the walls of her installation.  Jacyk’s enterprise is not a transcriptive one; instead the artist recounts a story that remains fictional, filled with conjecture and enigma.

To be certain, the historical events the artist conjures in Chysto, Chysto, Chysto are unequivocally real and legitimately address human suffering.  Survivors’ stories and first-hand accounts of those who witness acts of genocide and war are compelling.  The hope exists that in recounting these stories future hostilities will be prevented.  In cinema, for instance, titles such as Schindler’s List, Ararat, The Killing Fields, Hotel Rwanda are just a few which give voice to those who endured crimes against humanity.  These were all stories that had to be told.  One of the largest acts of genocide in European history, the Ukrainian Famine of 1932-33 (sometimes referred to as the Holodomor), does not have an English-language counterpart to the above-mentioned motion pictures.  The staggering losses, between seven to ten million, perished during the “peace-time” of the inter-war period.  To this day the atrocity is absent from the secondary school curriculum and forgotten in the context of twentieth century European history.  The topic has been long-neglected in the field of scholarship and only recently, the Holodomor has received a modicum of media attention.  This year marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of the tragedy.  Less than a decade after 1933, the same people who survived the man-made famine now faced the total societal collapse during the Second World War.  The loss of life was astounding; “Ukraine suffered more damage in the war than any other European country.… Ukrainians during the Second World War were caught between the Nazis and Soviets.” 9 The silence that was felt by the artist on a personal level is one which continues on a societal level into the twenty-first century.

The traumas experienced in the twentieth century are slowly being redressed.  The historic changes that follow a generation, two at the most, boggle the mind.  Ukraine is now an independent nation state.  The offspring of those who came to Canada as DPs enjoy levels of prosperity and living standards unimagined by their parents.  Perhaps, most importantly, it will be the restorative powers of art that create the forum for discussion. Vera Jacyk adds a necessary, poetic and articulate voice to this dialogue.


Olexander Wlasenko
Exhibition Curator



1 Slawko Nowytski, dir. Between Hitler & Stalin: The Untold Story of Ukraine in World War Two, Dr. Norman Davies interviewed. (Toronto: Ukrainian Canadian Research & Documentation Centre, 2004).

2 Stuart Hall, “New cultures for old”, in A Place in the World: Places, Cultures and Globalization, eds. D. Massey and P. Jess (Oxford: University of Oxford, 1995), 206.

3 Esther Salaman, A Collection of Moments: A Study of Involuntary Memories (London: Longman, 1970),16.

4 Lubomyr Luciuk, Searching for Place: Ukrainian Displaced Persons, Canada, and the Migration of Memory (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000), 273.

5 Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001), 256.

6 Katherina O. Longley, “Fifth World” in Striking Chords: Multi-cultural Literary Interpretations, ed. S. Gunew (Sidney: Allen & Unwin, 1992), 19.

7 ibid, 236.

8 Laura Suchan, Ukrainian Immigration in Oshawa (Oshawa: Oshawa Community Museum & Archives), 2.

9 Orest Subtelny, Ukraine: A History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000), 480.


Exhibition at The Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa, Ontario, Canada
Exhibition Dates: 2007