Olha Petrenko-Tseunova, Private Traumas of War: Experience of the Widow of One of the Leaders of the Ukrainian Nationalist Underground After World War II, Reesources.Rerhinking Eastern Europe, Center for Urban History, 09.05.2024

Private Traumas of War: Experience of the Widow of One of the Leaders of the Ukrainian Nationalist Underground After World War II

Publication date 09.05.2024
This module by literary scholar Olha Petrenko-Tseunova tells the story of Kateryna Biletska-Kandyba, the wife of Oleh Kandyba (known by the literary pseudonym Oleh Olzhych), a poet and member of the Ukrainian nationalist underground, head of the cultural and educational department of the Leadership of Ukrainian Nationalists (PUN) and the Revolutionary Tribunal of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) (1939-1941), and her WWII experience and post-war emigration.

In 1919, Kamianets in Podillia became the last capital of the Ukrainian People’s Republic (UPR). Kamianets is where the UPR government operated, where money was printed, and where members of the Directory received foreign delegations. Composer Kyrylo Stetsenko, writer Liudmyla Starytska-Cherniakhivska, and poets Spyrydon Cherkasenko and Volodymyr Samiilenko created their works here. The Kamianets-Podilskyi Ukrainian State University, founded during the Hetmanate of Pavlo Skoropadskyi, was operating too. And on October 30, 1919, the family of Nadia Verpeto, an artist and employee of the Ministry of Education of the UPR, and Leonid Biletskyi, an associate professor at the university and a literary critic, had a baby girl they named Kateryna.

The situation deteriorated as the Bolsheviks were occupying the Right Bank. After the agreement with the Poles on May 7, 1920, the division of Marko Bezruchko, the khorunzhyi general of the UPR Army, together with Polish units, repelled the offensive and entered Kyiv. The further advance of the Bolsheviks, led by Semyon Budyonny, was stopped near Warsaw (the “Miracle on the Vistula”), and Ukrainian-Polish forces pushed the Bolshevik units back to Podillia. However, in October 1920, the Polish government signed the armistice proposed by the Russian side, and more than 20,000 soldiers of the UPR Army were forced to cross the Zbruch River into the territory of the Polish state, where they were interned. The second winter campaign of the UPR Army, led by the khorunzhyi general Yurii Tiutiunnyk in the fall of 1921, was the last attempt of the Ukrainian national-state forces to maintain Ukraine’s independence and ended in the Bazar tragedy.

At the end of 1920, the Biletskyi family left Kamianets. In 1922-1924 Leonid Biletskyi taught methodology of Ukrainian literature and history of Ukrainian drama at the Secret Ukrainian University in Lviv. Their family was growing. A photo of the Biletskyi family from Lviv, dated 1923, has been preserved: it shows Leonid, Nadiia, and their daughters Kateryna and Olena – or Kalynka and Yalynka (“Little Viburnum” and “Little Spruce”), as the girls were called by their relatives.

The Biletskyis then traveled to the Czechoslovak Republic, where they joined many Ukrainian intellectuals and artists who had emigrated there. Prague in the 1920s and 1930s became the cultural center of the Ukrainian diaspora.

The President of the Czechoslovak Republic, Tomáš Masaryk, remembered the role of the UPR in the establishment of Czechoslovakia’s statehood (in 1917, the UPR allowed the formation of units from numerous Czech and Slovak prisoners of war on its territory, which became an important factor in the proclamation of the independent Czechoslovakia). Thus, Masaryk supported the activities of the Ukrainian diaspora in Czechoslovak Republic, contributed to the opening of the Ukrainian Free University in Prague (1921), the Ukrainian Academy of Economics in Poděbrady (1922), and the Mykhailo Drahomanov Higher Pedagogical Institute (1923). Leonid Biletskyi became the rector of the latter. Students frequented the professor’s home, including his student Oleh Kandyba, the son of the poet Oleksandr Oles. Kalynka (Kateryna) was five years old at the time of their first encounter.

Her mother, the artist Nadia Biletska, ran a painting studio, and there is a photo of her among the art students in Prague in 1928. She was friends with other artists, including the pianist and composer Nestor Nyzhankivskyi. In 1932, she graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts, Prague in addition to her diploma from the St. Petersburg Conservatory.

The Biletskyi girls grew up in a Ukrainian environment, attending emigrant parties and Plast camps. After finishing high school, Kateryna entered the philosophy department of the Ukrainian Free University in Prague. During her leisure time, she and her friends served lunch in the canteen of the Ukrainian Women’s Union (UWU), an organization of Ukrainian women in Prague in 1923-1948. In the 1930s, out of all the Ukrainian emigrant canteens in Czechoslovakia, only the UWU canteen remained operational; and in 1933, at meetings held in this canteen, assistance to the victims of the Holodomor in the Ukrainian SSR was discussed [1].

Kateryna, like many of her acquaintances, worked in the cultural department of the Provid (Leadership council) of Ukrainian Nationalists. At the first Conference of Ukrainian Nationalists (1927), which aimed to consolidate the efforts of Ukrainian emigrants to continue the struggle for their own state, the Provid of Ukrainian Nationalists (PUN) was formed, which became the governing body of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), formed in 1929. In 1937, to consolidate Ukrainian artists and scholars, the PUN’s cultural reference center was created. It was founded and headed by Oleh Kandyba, who was already known as an archaeologist and poet, and the author of the poetry collection Rin (“Pebble”) under the pseudonym Oleh Olzhych. The OUN’s activities were not legal, so for reasons of secrecy, Kateryna Biletska received assignments through intermediaries and did not contact her supervisor. For a long time, she did not even know that Olzhych was the head of the department. Among Kateryna Biletska’s assignments in the OUN was the collection of materials for the children’s recitation book Sonechko (“Ladybug”). It was published in the Ukrainian Publishing House in Kraków in 1941 [2].

Their second encounter took place in March 1940 in a Prague cafe. By that time, Olzhych had defended his dissertation in archaeology, worked in the United States and Italy for a while, almost married the American journalist and archaeologist Ethel Lesser, took part in the battle for Carpathian Ukraine, and spent some time under arrest in the Tyachiv prison. They were introduced by a mutual friend, Oleh Lashchenko.

The period between the spring of 1940 and the summer of 1944 (the death of Olzhych in the Nazi concentration camp at Sachsenhausen, the birth of their son Oleh, and the death of Olzhych’s father) is best known thanks to the published memoirs of Kateryna Biletska [3]. In them, she described in detail how their relationship developed at a time when the Second World War was already underway, and it seemed to her that the war would never end. Olzhych went with OUN march units to the Ukrainian lands liberated from the Bolsheviks and occupied by the Nazis. On June 30, 1941, in Lviv, members of the OUN-B, led by Stepan Bandera, proclaimed the Act of Restoration of the Ukrainian State. And on October 5, 1941, followers of Andriy Melnyk of the OUN-M, led by Oleh Olzhych, created the Ukrainian National Council in Kyiv. Being in the city at the time, Oleh Olzhych was likely aware of the Babyn Yar tragedy that began in late September 1941, when the Nazis murdered about 34,000 Jews in just two days on September 29-30.

Meanwhile, Kateryna Biletska lived in Prague, taking care of Olzhych’s parents and waiting for the message that she could come to Kyiv, but this did not happen. As early as November 1941, the Nazis replaced the pro-Ukrainian members of the Kyiv magistrate and banned the OUN activity. After the Germans murdered Olena Teliha and other Ukrainian underground nationalists in February 1942, Olzhych went into hiding. In June 1942, Kateryna Biletska came to Lviv, where Olzhych was living at the time. He was already wanted by the Gestapo. In August 1943, they secretly married in the village of Verkhnia Yablunka near the city of Turka in the Lviv region. While traveling by rail, they saw through the window a dead village without a single inhabitant. Biletska, without specifying the perpetrators, recalled what she saw in her memoirs as follows: “A burned village… An extinguished village. People, children shot… When did this happen, recently? Maybe at that time I was sitting quietly in my room thinking about what to cook for dinner or singing and dreaming about Oleh. And people were dying at that time…”

In late autumn of 1943, the couple somehow managed to go on a short hike in the Carpathians, as recalled by the writer Dokiia Humenna. On January 27, 1944, Olzhych, sensing the approaching danger, sent his pregnant wife away from Lviv, saying that they would meet in Slovakia. However, they never met again, and on June 9 or 10, 1944, Oleh Olzhych was killed in Sachsenhausen.

Fleeing the Soviet offensive, Kateryna and her parents, like many Ukrainian emigrants, moved to Neu-Ulm in Germany in 1945 and lived in displaced persons (DP) camps. In 1949, the family emigrated to Canada, settling in Winnipeg, which had hosted a large Ukrainian diaspora since the early twentieth century.

Kateryna Biletska’s memoirs were not published for quite some time – until the 1980s. Perhaps it was the amount of time it took her to cope with her personal losses, the challenges of single motherhood, and her forced move overseas, or perhaps there were other reasons.

It took a while to piece their life back together in Canada. “All day long, working and fighting for bare existence. This is a stigma imprinted on every face,” Kateryna Biletska writes in one of her letters to Oleh Lashchenko. “However, not everyone is struggling for existence! Some people buy a coat for $500 and work for it all year round. I don’t even want a coat (!). We work with Yalynka to pay for our accommodation and somehow manage to make it to the next paycheck. (Today is the second day without bread (what an irony – in Canada!), and we have to hold out until Wednesday, because then we will get paid.) Daddy works gratis, at least partially so, because he was told he would be paid $100 a month, but he got $25, maybe he borrowed $100 when we arrived and still has to reimburse the train tickets for us all, $240. So maybe the wage is covering all that – ignorance is definitely striking.”

Biletska writes that “physical labor did not wear her down at all” and that she plans to continue working “to be her own master.” She mentions Canadian Ukrainians who helped their fellow countrymen find their feet: “Matsenko and Kossar treat us well, but there are hundreds of people like us. And they themselves work selflessly in these conditions.” Pavlo Matsenko, mentioned in the letter, was a musicologist, conductor, and former soldier in the Ukrainian People’s Republic army, who had been in Canada since 1937; Volodymyr Kossar, who emigrated in 1927, was a commander in the Ukrainian Galician Army and one of the initiators of the Ukrainian Canadian Committee. In the end, Biletska asks Lashchenko to keep these details about her family’s situation private: “Anyway, I ask you not to breathe a word of what I wrote to anyone.”

Biletska is less enthusiastic about the local Ukrainian community and cultural environment compared to her experiences in Europe. “I don’t even go to see a good movie (there are very few good ones, after all), and there is no opera or theater here at all. However, even if there were something, I would not be attracted to it anyway,” she notes in another letter to Lashchenko. Her youth in Prague keeps popping up in her memories: she writes a continuation of a long letter that took her several days to compose, listening to Wagner’s “overture to Tannhäuser” on the radio, and recalls The Valkyrie she saw with Lashchenko. She recalls a “sad Easter” when she and Lashchenko went to an Easter service, and now (in 1969) “it feels very, very joyless.”

Biletska lives with her son, sister, and parents, but she feels lonely without the social circle that had formed in Prague. “You can imagine how it is for me here, especially without you; because there, in Ulm, although I did not write to you, we somehow always had an opportunity to meet,” she writes to Lashchenko, “and here… a letter falls short!.. I don’t want to write at all, because I know that the day will come when we will pour out our hearts about what was unwritten or unfinished.” These testimonies prompt us to consider the language of trauma and the silent repetition of suffering, to think of trauma as a crisis of language, a crisis of representation.

According to trauma theory researcher Cathy Caruth, who develops the thought of Sigmund Freud, a person who has undergone a traumatic experience is constantly repeating it [4]. This involuntary re-experiencing of the event that cannot simply be left behind both retraumatizes and allows for a gradual rethinking of the experience.

Some of Biletska’s letters are full of despair: “I am not capable of anything here. It seems to me that I have ceased to exist here. Nothing moves me, I don’t want anything, I don’t long for anything.” Her letters to Lashchenko become a kind of psychotherapy where she can express her feelings: “Life seems so trivial, so insignificant that I think it’s better to stand somewhere on a rock fragment as a run-down ruin, and measure the past with the future”; “…the only solution was to become a nun or not to live. Not because I am scared to live, or just fed up with everything. No, but simply because I don’t live the right way. I have no right to be Oleh’s mother and I had no right to be Oleh’s wife.”

Kateryna also recalls the day she learned the news of Olzhych’s death from Andrii Melnyk: “I didn’t cry then either. But I clenched my teeth so firmly that my jaws hurt,” and “I couldn’t realize the horror that he was gone.” Biletska doubts whether she truly understood her husband and reflects that she wanted her son more than anything else, wanted happiness.

In October 1950, she married journalist Yevhen Lazor and became the editor of the Ukrainian Women’s Organization of Canada’s magazine, Women’s World. For about thirty years, she worked in the acquisitions and binding departments, as well as the Slavic studies department at the University of Toronto. She tried her hand at science, directing, and fiction: she researched the Ukrainian press in the Czech Republic in 1848-1919, directed the children’s theater “Grandma’s Fairy Tale,” and wrote for children. The letter below provides insight into her situation, mentioning that she transcribed for Ukrainian studies courses and earned $15.

The second issue of the Women’s World magazine contains her article “The Role of Lesia Ukrainka’s Parents in Her Spiritual Growth,” along with the poem “And Yet My Thought Flies Back to You” (“I vse-taky do tebe dumka lyne”) by Lesia Ukrainka, which probably reflected Biletska’s own inner state. In this issue, under the pseudonym Grandma Kalyna, Biletska’s fairy tale The Princess Swan was published as well, a variation on the chronicle legend about the Lybid and the founding of Kyiv.

Gradually, Biletska becomes inspired by a new idea – a memoir project. She organized the archives of her father, Leonid Biletskyi, and donated his manuscripts and correspondence to the Ukrainian Free Academy of Sciences in the 1980s. And after observing the activities of the widow of assassinated President John F. Kennedy, as mentioned in a letter to Lashchenko, she decides to start writing up her own memories of Olzhych and her own youth. She discusses this idea with Lashchenko and writes that she dreamed of not working at all for a year so that she could devote herself entirely to writing her memoirs. However, this was not possible, so “I have to continue slogging through my ‘existentia’.” Kateryna edits, crosses out, and reprints on a typewriter. She rejects some memoirs that were never published and are kept as drafts at the Institute of Manuscript of the Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine. She corresponds with Olzhych’s acquaintances. In 1977, Biletska even wrote a letter to Ethel Lesser, Olzhych’s former fiancée. Lesser sent her letters and belongings she preserved, including dried rose petals and a doll in Ukrainian folk costume that Olzhych had given her.

Overcoming depression (Biletska uses this word in her correspondence with Lashchenko) and finding words to represent trauma was partly facilitated by the discovery of the role model, namely Jacqueline Kennedy, as well as the activation of collective memory – memories of World War II survivors were being published, and a public narrative about the role of Ukrainians in the struggle for independence began to emerge in the diaspora. Since residents of Soviet Ukraine were not able to broadcast their traumatic experiences openly, and contacts with Ukrainian emigration were occasional, the comprehension of individual and collective traumas was renewed only after 1991, and it reached a new level after 2014. As the researcher of traumatic experiences Marinella Rodi-Risberg points out, the transformation of individual suffering into collective trauma depends on ritual, political action, and various forms of narrative [5].

Trauma increases the existential threat that prompts the search for meaning, and the experience and comprehension of trauma becomes a process of identity construction [6]. It is cynical to talk about the creative potential of trauma, because a person’s self-determination is possible without it, but when this experience does happen, one has to live with it. The memory of trauma prompts attempts to construct meaning around the experience of extreme distress, and it allows one to regain a sense of control over one’s own life. Writing her memoirs was an attempt for Kateryna Biletska to make sense of her own tragedy.



[1] Zubko, O. “Prague everyday life of Professor Vasyl Simovych (1923-1933)” [Празьке повсякдення професора Василя Сімовича (1923–1933)]. History Journal of Yuriy Fedkovych Chernivtsi National University. Chernivtsi: Chernivtsi University, 2022. № 1. 47.

[2] Kardash. “Ukrainian preschool education” [Українське дошкілля]. Neznanomu voiakovi. Kyiv, 1994, 132.

[3] Lazor, K. “Following Olzhych in thoughts” [Думками вслід за Ольжичем], The Ukrainian Historian. 1985. No. 1-4; Lazor, K. “Olzhych in my memories” [Ольжич, яким я його пам’ятаю], Oleh Olzhych. Tsytadelia dukha. Bratislava, 1991.

[4] Cathy Caruth, “Introduction: The Wound and the Voice”, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History. JHU Press, 1996, 1-10.

[5] Marinella Rodi-Risberg, “Problems in Representing Trauma” Trauma and Literature. J. Robert Kurtz eds. Cembridge UP, 2018, 110-124.

[6] Gilard Hirshberger, “Collective Trauma and the Social Construction of Meaning” Frontiers in Psychology. Vol. 9, 10.08.2018, 1-14.


Photos courtesy of the author.

Translated into English by Yulia Kulish


Primary Sources

Documents (2)

Image for Kateryna Biletska’s correspondence with Oleh Lashchenko, 1950-1990
Kateryna Biletska’s correspondence with Oleh Lashchenko, 1950-1990
The fund of the Ukrainian publicist and public character Oleh Lashchenko at the Central State Archive of Public Associations of Ukraine contains seven letters and one postcard from Kateryna Biletska (Kandyba by first husband), Oleh Kandyba’s wife (literary pseudonym Oleh Olzhych), a poet and member of the Ukrainian nationalist underground movement, head of the cultural and educational department of the Provid of Ukrainian Nationalists (PUN) and the Revolutionary Tribunal of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) (1939-1941). Lashchenko was not only a longtime friend of the Kandybas, but also the godfather of their only son. He was born in Kyiv in 1914, in 1920 he emigrated to Poland with his parents and elder...
Image for Kateryna Biletska’s memoir of life in Lviv in 1943
Kateryna Biletska’s memoir of life in Lviv in 1943
Kateryna Biletska (Kandyba by her first husband), the wife of Oleh Kandyba (known by the literary pseudonym Oleh Olzhych), a poet and member of the Ukrainian nationalist underground, head of the cultural and educational department of the Provid (Leadership) of Ukrainian Nationalists (PUN) and the Revolutionary Tribunal of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) (1939-1941), wrote her memoirs for decades. She first mentions the idea of writing a memoir in letters to a mutual friend of the Kandybas since the 1950s, Oleh Lashchenko. One of the last surviving memoirs is dated May 1994. She sent some of her memoirs to Lashchenko and wrote that she had more. These memoirs mainly cover the years...
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Recommended literature


Lazor Kateryna. “Dumkamy vslid za Olzhychem”, Oleh Olzhych. Vybrani tvory. Kyiv: Smoloskyp, 2009. S. 421-440.

Lazor Kateryna. “Olzhych, yakym ya yoho pamiataiu”, Oleh Olzhych. Tsytadelia dukha. Bratyslava, 1991.

Kandyba Oleh. “Olzhych ochyma syna”, Oleh Olzhych. Vybrani tvory. Kyiv: Smoloskyp, 2009. S. 12-17.

Lashchenko Halyna. “Oles i yoho syn”, Samostiina Ukraina. 1950, № 6–7.

Lashchenko Halyna. “Shche trokhy Ukrainy: frah­ment zi spomyniv pro Oleha Kan­dybu-Olzhycha”,  Samostiina Ukraina. 1952, № 6.

Zaleska-Onyshkevych Larysa. Bomby, hranytsi i dva pravi cherevychky. Lviv: Litopys, 2018.

Mazepa Halyna. Spohady. Toronto, 1993.

Palidvor-Zienyk Liarysa. Tysiacha dorih – tysiacha stezhyn. Spomyny. Niu-York, 2020.

Secondary Sources: 

Caruth Сathy. “Introduction: The Wound and the Voice” Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History, JHU Press, 1996: p. 1-10.

Hirshberger Gilard. “Collective Trauma and the Social Construction of Meaning”, Frontiers in Psychology. Vol. 9, 10.08.2018: p. 1-14.

Laub MD Dori. “Bearing Witness or the Vicissitudes of Listening”, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History, pp. 57-74.

Rachel N. Spear. “Let Me Tell You a Story”: On Teaching Trauma. Narratives, Writing, and Healing Pedagogy, Volume 14, Issue 1, Winter 2014, pp. 53-79 

Rodi-Risberg Marinella. “Problems in Representing Trauma”, Trauma and Literature. J. Robert Kurtz eds. Cembridge UP, 2018.  p. 110-124

Van der Merwe Chris, Gobodo-M Pumla. Narrating our Healing: Perspectives on Working through Trauma. Cambridge Scholars Publishing; New edition. 2008.

Additional Literature: 

Goldberg Shari. A New Chapter in the Story of Trauma: Narratives of Bodily Healing from 1860s America. American Literature (2019) 91 (4): 721–749.

Shkandrij Myroslav. Ukrainian Nationalism: Politics, Ideology and Literature, 1929-1956. 2015.

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