Over 60,000 people of Ukrainian descent and Ukrainian immigrants live in the Philadelphia area, the nation’s second-largest Ukrainian community next to New York City.
When Mykola Kosyk was was a boy in the Somerton section of Philadelphia, his grandfathers told him stories of the horrors that took them from their beloved Ukraine.
His mother’s father was just a child when he watched the Russians make his uncle dig his own grave and execute him. Barely a teenager in World War II, he was snatched from his village by the Nazis for forced labor. When soldiers shot people, he was ordered to get rid of the bodies.
The Germans also took another young Ukrainian, Kosyk’s paternal grandfather, Mykola Kosyk Sr. He slipped potatoes to a hungry, young Ukrainian woman he met at one of the camps. She eventually became his wife.
Ties to their fellow countrymen brought Kosyk’s grandparents to Philadelphia, a place rich in opportunity — and Ukrainians.
Their grandson is now vice president of the Ukrainian League of Philadelphia, one of the city’s oldest Ukrainian-American social and service organizations.
“You hear what they went through, and you have pride,” said Kosyk, 31, a satellite imagery surveyor and Philadelphia resident. “You hear these stories, and you want to hold onto your heritage.
“If you don’t hold on to it,” he said, “it will get lost.”
In the Philadelphia region, proud home of the nation’s second-largest Ukrainian community next to New York City, generations of sons and daughters of Ukrainian Americans have made it a mission to hold on to their heritage. Over 60,000 people of Ukrainian descent and Ukrainian immigrants live in the Philadelphia area.
As war rages in their ancestral homeland, thousands of local Ukrainians have rallied in the streets and prayed in houses of worship. They and their ancestors have embraced American ideals while striving to preserve the culture, traditions, and language they’ve been bringing with them since the late 19th century.
Why are there so many Ukrainian immigrants in Philadelphia?
“From my personal experience growing up, you had a sense that knowing and maintaining the language, the culture, was a responsibility, a duty of first-generation Ukrainians because Ukraine was under the Soviet regime,” said Nicholas Rudnytzky, dean of academic services of Manor College, an institution whose roots go back 75 years, started by the Ukrainian Sisters of St. Basil the Great. The nuns came to Philadelphia starting in 1911 with the mission of helping to serve the educational needs of Ukrainian American children.
Rudnytzky, who teaches Ukrainian history and whose parents immigrated after World War II, said Ukrainians came to Philadelphia in four waves.
The first, near the turn of the last century, brought poor Ukrainians to work in Philadelphia’s factories and refineries, its docks and the railroads. Political oppression fueled both the second wave after World War I, and the post-World War II third wave, when many Ukrainians came here via displaced-persons camps.
“If you don’t hold on to it, it will get lost.”
The current fourth wave, which began with the collapse of the Soviet Union, has brought people seeking all kinds of opportunity. For many, the draw has been economic, but America is also a symbol of freedom from the threat of oppression and instability that has plagued Ukraine for much of its history.
That hope of prosperity and liberty has always drawn immigrants to Philadelphia, but for some Ukrainians, there was an added spiritual significance as well. The city’s Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, with its magnificent gold dome visible from I-95 and miles around, is the base of the Ukrainian Catholic Church’s Archbishop-Metropolitan, the church’s spiritual leader in this country. The current archbishop, Borys Gudziak, was installed in 2019.
Long before the current cathedral was built, the parish served Philly Ukrainians as early as 1886.
Ukrainians of other faiths have also made their homes in the region. The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia estimates it now services over 1,000 Ukrainian Jews, including 200 Holocaust survivors.
As Ukrainians arrived, they settled in neighborhoods like Northern Liberties, Fairmount, Northeast Philadelphia, and later the suburbs.
Alexandra Stasiuk, 80, of Northeast Philadelphia, enjoyed a long career as an executive and medical secretary. She’s now a receptionist and operator for Friends Hospital. On March 5, she and other Philadelphia Ukrainians traveled to Washington to demonstrate in support of Ukraine.
She was a small child when she left Ukraine.
“During World War II, my dad was a freedom fighter. He was fighting against the Nazis and the Communists. Finally, the Nazis got him, and he died in a concentration camp. He died in Buchenwald.”
Believing they would be sent to Siberia if they stayed in Ukraine, her family made their way on foot across three countries, finally reaching a displaced persons camp in Germany. From there, they gained entry to Philadelphia, brought over by an aunt and uncle who had already settled here. Her mother worked in a sewing factory, and the family lived initially in one room in Northern Liberties.
Stasiuk said her first English word was “ice.” Her job, at age 9, was to be on the lookout for the ice vendor for the household icebox.
“He was on a horse and buggy,” Stasiuk said. “It was the highlight of my day — running after him, yelling, ‘Ice!’”
But the immigrants found joy in their new land, too. Some even found a place for themselves at the Jersey Shore.
Maria Taney, 60, is a first-generation Ukrainian American who grew up in Philly. She said her father worked as a mechanic and her mom cleaned offices but still managed to buy a small rooming house in Wildwood Crest. From the late 1950s to the 1980s, it was a summer place for the family, and they rented to fellow Ukrainians.
“There was a little community of Ukrainian rooming houses,” Taney recalled. “When you walked on the beach, every other person spoke Ukrainian. It was a real tight-knit community.”
Philly’s Ukrainian community created lasting organizations to connect
The Ukrainians also created their own institutions. Many have endured for decades.
Like the Ukrainian League of Philadelphia, founded in 1917, the Ukrainian American Citizens Association, opened in 1909, is still a social and service gathering place.
So is the Ukrainian American Sports Center, founded in 1949 and also known as Tryzub in Ukrainian. Many of its teams now include non-Ukrainians, but longtime members still proudly recall the 1960s when its team, the Ukrainian Nationals, won four U.S. Open Cup soccer championships.
“We loved how [Soviet leaders Nikita] Khrushchev and even [Leonid] Brezhnev had to read about all of that in the New York Times,” said Eugene Luciw, 63, center external relations director. “They picked up the paper and it said the Ukrainian Nationals in Philadelphia won the championship of the entire United States. Imagine that.”
Community organizations for seniors, youth organizations, and cultural associations have also endured.
The School of The Voloshky Ukrainian Dance Ensemble will soon celebrate its 50th year. Its school enrolls children as young as 4.
Larysa Spisic, 45, of Jenkintown, grew up in Voloshky. Now her three children, ages 10, 12, and 13, study dance there, and she is the school’s director.
“We have an abundance of people who want to be a part of it,” Spisic said.
For newcomers missing Ukraine, the dance school comes as a pleasant surprise.
“They’re sometimes amazed at how much we have been able to uphold the culture over the years here,” she said.
That’s been no coincidence.
The creation of a Ukrainian culture center and school in Philadelphia
Generations of children in the Ukrainian diaspora have grown up speaking their ancestors’ language at home and attending what families call, simply, “Saturday school.”
For decades, parents sent their children to classes in Ukrainian culture and history held in changing locations around the city. Most of these groups were grassroots — by Ukrainians for Ukrainians who wanted to preserve their heritage. But just as much, they wanted to keep their ties to each other, to being Ukrainian.
Basil Panczak, now 81, was one of those parents. He was a boy when his family left post-World War II Europe and settled on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He was active in many Ukrainian organizations — church, soccer, choir, scouting. He graduated from City College, married a Ukrainian woman, and started a career in business.
After he and his wife had two daughters, they decided to move to Pennsauken. They knew a thriving Ukrainian community was across the river.
“Although I lived in South Jersey, all my time was spent in Philadelphia,” Panczak said.
Natalie Firko, now 53, is one of his daughters.
“I remember growing up, my parents would drive me to Philadelphia to Ukrainian school, and almost every year, we were in a new place,” she said. “They were always looking for leases to house these [classes] on a Saturday.”
But in 1980, the community learned of a former school for sale in Jenkintown. The idea was born — a central location for all those Ukrainian programs.
A widespread fund-raising effort began. Even the kids got involved. In one drive, the child who sold the most candy bars won a 10-speed bicycle.
Firko remembers it well; she won the bike.
“My parents were desperately trying to preserve what they lost.”
She’s now the president of the Ukrainian Educational and Cultural Center of Jenkintown. More than 400 children, kindergarten through 12th grade, are enrolled in its Ukrainian Heritage School. Every Saturday, they learn history, literature, and culture, all taught in Ukrainian. The center is also home to a Ukrainian library, a day-care center and nursery school, and a senior citizens association. In addition, the building is used by about 30 other Ukrainian organizations, making it a hub of the community.
Since the start of Russia’s war against Ukraine, the center has been a base for local members of Ukrainian National Women’s League of America and their army of volunteers who collect donations and pack thousands of boxes of much needed supplies to ship to Ukraine.
“It’s amazing,” Firko said. “My poor staff can’t answer the phone fast enough. It’s beautiful.”
Over time, the school’s purpose has evolved.
“My parents were desperately trying to preserve what they lost,” Firko said.
For newer arrivals, however, the school has been a way for families to maintain ties to Ukraine, where many still have relatives and even visited regularly. About two-thirds of the school’s families are now recent immigrants.
Further-removed generations, including families where both parents aren’t Ukrainian, can find it harder to keep up the language, or to get their kids to relinquish more American pastimes like weekend sporting activities, she acknowledged.
But it is something special when those ties are preserved. The other weekend, one of Firko’s sons, a student at a local college, told her he was going to New York City for a rally, meeting up with old friends from his Ukrainian youth camp.
“‘I need to be around Ukrainians now,’” she said he told her.
“I tried not to say, ‘You’re making me cry.’ I said, ‘That’s cool,’” Firko said. “It was a proud moment.”
The younger generations of Ukrainian immigrants
For many younger immigrants, the local Ukrainian institutions gave them a strong foundation; the war has given them a mission. Yuliana Fartachuk, 19, is a freshman at Temple University and a graduate of the Heritage School. Her family emigrated from Ukraine when she was 10. Since then, she’s visited often and has family and friends there.
The war, she said, is “incredibly personal to me right now. I feel this sadness and anger, but most of all, I have this fire I think my people have breathed into me. Many people think this is the first time Ukraine is fighting so fiercely, when in fact my people have done it over and over again.”
At the start of the war, she felt guilty for not being there, “for having a safe sky over my head.”
But her guilt turned into resolve.
Recently, Fartachuk gave an impassioned speech on behalf of Ukraine at a congressional gathering at Washington’s Holodomor Memorial, which was erected in memory of the victims of the Ukrainian famine-genocide of 1932-1933.
Earlier this month, she and fellow students sold varenyky, a Ukrainian dish similar to pierogies, and jewelry on Temple’s campus to raise money for Ukraine. A psychology and neuroscience major, she plans to study post-traumatic stress disorder so she can help Ukraine in the future.
“After the war is over, I’m sure the damage will be there,” she said.
Taras Smerechanskyy was 9 years old in 2000 when his family came to Philadelphia from Ukraine. They didn’t have much. So when a neighbor put out a television on trash day, his family was delighted to discover it still worked. Shortly afterward, there was a knock on their door. It was the neighbor, bringing a remote for the discarded TV and fresh batteries.
“That just shook me.” Smerechanskyy said. “I think that was my first experience in realizing how good the American people were. Our entire family still talks about that.”
America proved bountiful for his family, he said. He and his brothers went on to college and good lives. Smerechanskyy, 30, works in banking and has a young family of his own.
“We wish more Ukrainians would have a safer environment to live in and raise their children, which is not the case right now,” he said.
So his family is doing what they can to help.
On March 1, Smerechanskyy was at JFK International Airport to pick up the wife of a cousin and their sons, ages 6 and 10. His cousin managed to get his family to Poland and on a flight to safety.
Smerechanskyy made sure there was ice cream and lots of toys awaiting them. The boys keep telling him they miss home. Smerechanskyy said their mother explains that home isn’t safe now. He said he tries to tell them that their new home is a good place.
“I was just telling my nephews, ‘If you do good in school, you can have a good future in America,’” he said.
A wedding in the midst of a war
“Did I ever think I was going to marry somebody Ukrainian? No,” Mykola Kosyk said, telling the story of how he and his fiancee, Olya Bohun, 27, a health-care administrator, met. “I wasn’t even looking. It just happened.”
That was about eight years ago at a function of the Ukrainian American Youth Association. They just got talking.
Come to think of it, he said, his parents met through one of the Ukrainian organizations as well. History repeats.
Right now, though, the war consumes.
His fiancee’s father, brother, and stepmother are there. “It’s hit her pretty hard. She’s checking the news nonstop,” he said.
They have a June wedding planned. Since their families are small, they’ve decided to forgo a big Ukrainian church wedding for a more rustic affair. Kosyk’s grandparents have all passed on. His mother’s father was buried with soil he brought with him from his home village. When he died, it was put in his shoes so his feet might always be touching Ukraine.
But even without the large wedding, heritage will be an honored guest. They’ll probably have traditional Ukrainian music, Kosyk said, and his bride-to-be already has her gown. Of course, he’s not allowed to see it. But Kosyk said he knows this much: It came from Ukraine.