Let me begin once more with a short meditation. We are living in exceptional times, with challenges facing us in the Covid19 pandemic; but we are fortunate as well, living in this nation, at this time, with far higher medical treatment than during the Spanish Flu. When we are isolated or locked-down today, the majority still can contact the outside world, with: phone, email, Zoom, or What’sApp. Thank God that our era is not that of the early 20th Century to where this essay now begins. ATK

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I would like to share with you a story of a boy, who as a child was brought up on texts written by Shevchenko, history books by Hrushevskyi; praying within the walls of a Greek Catholic Church, with its rhythmic chants and the wafts of incense; growing up with the idea of a national identity, before an independent nation of Ukraine existed. This boy grow up to be a man who risked his life, not on the ambition to be wealthy, but to help build something for generations to come. By the close of his life – he had failed.

My grandfather, Jan Jakob Kania (1893 – 1947), was born in Jarosław the son of Thimotheus (Timothy) and Kateryna. His parents owned an estate with a manor house. They were a respectable family. On their estate was a large apiary, the produce of which would have supplied not only honey, but beeswax for the making of candles. My father recalled going to this estate. The manor house he described as being a single storey stately building – completely white. He also spoke of old oil paintings in the Manor house with many portraits of dignified looking married couples.

According to his Baptisimus, Jan was baptized by Revd. Jan Chotyniecki in the Pro-Cathedral in Jarosław in 1893. Jan’s parents, it has been said, idolized him. He was their second child, and their only son. From all I have heard about my grandfather, he was a: fierce, sharp-tongued, courageous, and formidable man; these character traits were most likely brought about by long military service and the atrocities he had subsequently witnessed and experienced as a soldier. Jan stood over six feet in height, jet black hair (which was always cut short), and with blue-grey eyes. In comparison to his son, my father, Vladimir (1927 – 2017), could indeed be a very hard man; but as my Aunt Jana’s (1920 – 1987), husband, Volodymyr (1920 – 1995), attested, my father was comparatively very soft when placed beside his father – which says something about Jan.

Like his son after him, Jan could not suffer cowards and fools. In his later years, Jan was somewhat of a loner, holding only a few people close to him; one being his barber, whom he often went to see for a shave, and a game of chess. Jan carried a physical scar all his life – the remnant of a duel (with pistols, in a forest) he had fought over a young woman, when he was a teenager. A bullet fired by her brother, (a friend of her other suitor, who was Jan’s opponent) lodged behind his ear, and could not be removed, due to the proximity to his brain. The duel had been reported on in the town newspaper, and caused the family much chagrin; as although duels took place in Austrian Galicia at the time, they were frowned upon; a case of society having one eye open and one eye closed. I believe the fact that Jan fought a duel as a teenager says much about this man. He was probably about eighteen or nineteen at that time; definitely prior to World War One. (Ironically, I have to note that a modern scholar in Poland, has written a text on the history of dueling in early 20th Century Galicia; his surname is ‘Kania’).

Both my father and his father before him, were men’s men. They were products of their time and the culture and events that helped shape them. Jan and his son, held values that now seem quite outdated. They shared a belief that parents should be obeyed; that rigid army discipline is essential to a young man; that national pride is a concept living, fighting and dying for, and that God exists and His Church is integral to life.

Another aspect of my grandfather, was that he respected the Austrian Emperor, Franz Jozef I, so much so that even when my father was growing up in the family home, there was still a portrait of Franz Jozef hanging up on the wall in the house; twenty years after the Emperor had died. Jan was loyal, and believed in the Old World. Jan Kania was to be arrested and gaoled by the Germans, for a comment he made when Jarosław fell under the NAZI regime; saying that he would never fight for a peasant. It doesn’t take too much intuition to work out who Jan was referring to. My father would visit Jan in gaol, and when he was released, he said of Jan, that his father had been physically broken by this imprisonment. My father never spoke of Jan, by any other name then ‘father’. Jan demanded that his children call him, ‘Father’; not ‘Tato’ (Dad). Titles were very important for Jan – being a soldier.

I doubt whether two more disparate men ever stood under the same family roof, if at any time, Fr. Fedorovych and Jan Kania, ever did as adult men. When my father came home from the Pro-Cathedral and spoke to Jan about what Fr. Federovych was telling him about the family, Jan told his son, not to speak about any of this. Why not? I don’t have the answer. Later research I have conducted, indicates Fr. Fedorovych was indeed speaking the truth – but why Jan Kania was angry, is a mystery. It could be that his life, as you will see, had been so very hard, and family history stories were completely irrelevant. It could also have been after a serious fracture within the family – when after leaving for World War I, he returned to his home, a very different man.

Both the priest and the soldier were loyal to their Ruthenian heritage; Fr. Fedorovych entering the Priesthood of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, and by so doing, ignoring pressure from his family; and Jan Kania, being somewhat of a maverick, ultimately throwing his allegiance behind Symon Petliura, after World War I. It is one thing to serve the illustrious Austro-Hungarian Empire, which Jan did during World War I, but another to believe in the ideal of an independent Ukraine, and risking one’s life fighting, against Tsars and then Commissars. It is easy to be proud of an established force, such as the monarchy of Franz Josef – but Ukraine was a dream; and as has already been written – there was a divide in the family as to where future loyalty should lie. Jan’s sister, would marry a Pole as ardently Polish as Jan was Ukrainian. Jan’s brother-in-law was a senior bureaucrat in Jarosław, and with Jan out of his hometown for a long while, it was a case of opportunism. Presumed dead, Jan’s place had been taken by his brother-in-law. My father would never be welcome at the manor if his Aunt’s husband was at home.

I would suggest there would be many readers who would want to know Jan Kania’s recollections about serving with Petliura’s Cossacks, as Jan passed them down to his son. I will get to these. But let me begin at an earlier point.

After the assassination of the heir to the Habsburg throne, Archduke Ferdinand, the declaration of war by Austro-Hungary, meant that the loyal sons of Galicia: Ukrainians, Poles, Jews, Croats and other peoples of this province, enlisted. I have seen Jan’s enlistment papers – he had magnificent hand-writing. Jan Kania was one of the first to enlist; I know this, as he was in the initial unit that crossed into Serbia. He spoke of the ferocity of the Serbians defending their homeland. Later he was also on a troop-train to the Italian front, when he got into trouble, after a Ukrainian soldier reported him for criticizing the Pope for having blessed the Italian troops prior to a battle with the Austro-Hungarian forces. This may seem insignificant today, but it was a serious offence in World War I. Austria was a very Catholic nation; you should never criticize the Pope, even if he was blessing your enemy. In the court case that took place, a Pole denied, on oath, that Jan had ever made this comment. Jan was exonerated. He said later to his son: “I was betrayed by my brother, only to be rescued by a cousin.”

Jan then fought on the Eastern Front, and was placed in charge of a secret weapon: three machine guns that had the potential to fire for long periods of time without their roars overheating and curling. He led this group of men in a considerable victory against the Tsar’s forces, trapping hundreds of men in an ambush, having positioned the three machine guns over a valley, which the Tsar’s forces were advancing into. The Tsar’s forces could not go forward as they were being mowed down by my grandfather’s guns – they couldn’t retreat as the Tsarist soldiers were shooting their own soldiers if they retreated. My grandfather said later that only the front line of the Tsar’s troops had weapons, and the others had been told that when those who had weapons had been shot or incapacitated, the second line would need to pick up the rifles and advance; and so forth. Through his binoculars, Jan Kania saw the horrible massacre unfold – the waste of human life – the moaning, the groaning, the screaming, the writhing, the bleeding. He knew also, that the first chance this enemy had to cut through, there would be no mercy shown to his troops. My grandfather said he took the binoculars away from his eyes and wept – not only because of the futility of the attack of the Tsar’s forces, but because he knew too well, that many of the soldiers that were now lying dead, and in agony, were ethnic Ukrainians having been forcibly recruited to fight for a Russian tyrant; a tyrant whose memory is highly romanticized today. Notice how I have not used the term Russian Army – Moscow used the Ukrainian people to fight for a cause that did not lead to self-determination. Many dying on the Eastern Front were Ukrainians, dying for a Tsar who had raped and pillaged their culture, their language, their autonomy, their history, their homes, their people.

A photograph of Jan Kania soon after this action shows him with his men, he is kneeling down, looking at the camera with eyes that could send fear into the bravest of hearts. He was in that photograph twenty-two years of age – only a young man, who appears so much older, who has had so much responsibility placed on his shoulders. He still had so many years of warfare left. He had picked up his best friend’s corpse off the battlefield, a young Ukrainian man, a friend of noble heart and soul, a friend he had had since the early days in Jarosław, who was not lying ‘honourably’ dead on the field, as in a heroic image, but with trousers down, shot in the process of defecating. His friend was too good a man to have died like this. It broke his heart. He never forgot this boyhood friend.

Prior to the end of this war, Jan would be captured, but before being so, on the first occasion – he ordered the men to cast the machine guns into a lake, so that they would not be used against them. He was placed into a prisoner of war camp – but escaped.

In the greatest twist of irony after the collapse of the Romanov Dynasty – my grandfather would eventually fight side by side with the Ukrainians he had been shooting at, and they him – under the command of Symon Petliura. It was obviously his desire to protect the newly declared Ukrainian nation, to do something to make the Ukrainian dream a reality.

As an ignorant boy, I could never understand how a young Ukrainian Catholic man from Galicia, could end up fighting under the command of a General who was the grandson of a Ukrainian Orthodox priest, as far away as Kyiv. My childish mind could not understand what my grandfather must have felt in his heart – Ukrainian nationhood was burning within him. He was willing to die for this ideal.

Both Jan’s parents would die while he was away at war – perhaps worried into early graves when they heard of his capture, and communication ceased from their son. Both Jan’s parents were apparently very gentle people.

Jan told his son of the stress he felt, and the disappointment he experienced when recruiting for the Free Cossacks. I cannot remember which town my father said this occurred in – but Jan went on horseback, calling for Ukrainians to join the cause. He saw a group of ten men sitting under a tree, swilling vodka. They replied to him: “You and your Petliura! Idealists! Come and drink, and be happy with us.” Jan never forgot this event. He often repeated that so many would rather drink, and get drunk, rather then fight for freedom and nationhood. While fighting as a Cossack, he was again captured – this time stripped naked with the exception of his great coat. All he had was the coat and the prayer card of Our Lady from Jarosław, hidden in the coat’s lining. The Russians stood the captured Ukrainian Cossacks up in a line – and asked the first soldier to choose a number randomly – he provided a number; they proceeded to shoot him, and any other down the line as they counted according to this the number down. They came to Jan – and the Russian guard looked him in the eye, skipped over him – and shot the next Cossack between the eyes. My grandfather said that he knew Psalm 91, by heart, and prayed this Psalm every day. He begged the Holy Mother to preserve him. He believed that the little prayer card and the Psalm kept him alive. He escaped once more – this time, ‘finding’ a Russian officer’s uniform, in order to do so. I know after this that he fought at the Miracle of the Vistula – I have the photograph of a reunion of Free Cossack officers and Polish officers who fought this battle, under the combined leadership of Pilsudski and Petliura. Petliura’s forces were some five thousand Cossacks strong at the Miracle of the Vistula. It is said to be the greatest defeat the Russian forces experienced prior to World War II. The British historian Edgar Vincent, 1st Viscount D’Abernon assessed this victory as one of the most profound victories in military history – setting the Soviets back decades in their goal of expansion.

The family has the crumpled remains of the prayer card that Jan had with him throughout the war – fragmented. My hands tremble as I hold this card.

Jan spoke to his son also of an event in Vilnius. I have never been there, and once more as a boy could not fathom what a Ukrainian Cossack would be doing in the Lithuanian capital among Polish officers. It would be of course around the time of the Miracle of the Vistula. One day, as large crowds of men, women and children were marching through the city, protesting about the lack of food, my grandfather was ordered to disperse the crowd by shooting at them with machine guns. The order was not to shoot over their heads, but to shoot at the crowd. Grandfather refused to do so. He said to the Polish officer that he would never fire at unarmed civilians. He was arrested and tried for insubordination. But it was Pilsudski, personally, who had my grandfather exonerated and the commanding officer who had given the initial order, arrested, tried, and found guilty – of an order unbecoming of a senior officer.

As said previously, a photograph that my grandfather kept was of a reunion of Petliura’s Cossacks and Polish Officers, who came together commemorating the fifteenth anniversary of the Miracle of the Vistula. This photograph sends shivers through me. The central figure in the photograph is General Bronisław Bohatyrewicz (1870 – 1940), a senior Polish officer. Every one of the Polish officers in this photograph were to be murdered at Katyn. I have seen a photograph of Bohatyrewicz’s decomposed body being taken out of a pit. It is a valuable photograph of a time when the Ukrainian and Polish military fought side by side; and won. As Jan Kania was not a Polish officer, he did not fall at Katyn. He stands proudly in the photograph, having done his part to set the enemy back.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, says this about military service: “2265. Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility. 2266. The efforts of the state to curb the spread of behavior harmful to people’s rights and to the basic rules of civil society correspond to the requirement of safeguarding the common good.”

Jan Kania would die in Czechoslovakia in 1947, after having had a stroke, and being bed-ridden for some time. My father was not with his father when he died. Jan was buried according to the rites of the Catholic Church. His grave no longer exists – the grave was demolished and the site is now a housing complex. The sacrifices he made were never for money – his association with the Ukrainian cause, he gave freely, and led him to near penury. He lost his inheritance, because he was fighting a lost cause. His son, my father, refused ever to take money for services he offered to the Ukrainian Church, or with matters to do with building up the cultural identity of Ukrainians in the diaspora. He would have been ashamed to have done so. For both father and son – service to Ukrainian Church and Life, was a vocation that required the sacrifice of self – totally; “to give and not to count the cost – to fight and not to heed the wounds – to toil and not seek for rest.” (Ignatius of Loyola). Grandfather was a soldier, whereas my father served the Church – both ardently.

Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania

This article was published in The Church and Life Newspaper

This post is also available in: Ukrainian