World War 2 devastated Ukraine. The Eastern Front rolled back and forth across the countryside, leaving ten million Ukrainians homeless and decimating nearly 29,000 cities and villages. Western Ukraine, where my grandfather was born, was ruled by Poland during the interwar period, then invaded and occupied by the Soviets, the Nazis, and the Soviets again during the war. By 1945, roughly seven million Ukrainians had died, and 2.2 million had been shipped off to Germany as forced laborers.
It’s hard to fathom that level of turmoil, and as a mother, it’s even more difficult for me to imagine keeping my children safe in that environment. How do you protect your family when you can’t even protect yourself? My great-grandmother faced that very question, and for as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to know more about her life and the choices she had to make.
Growing up, I heard a lot of fascinating stories about life in Ukraine, but I wanted to understand the history behind the stories. As an adult, I pored over first-hand accounts of life in that region, read books, and asked my grandfather and great-uncle countless questions about what they remembered. I scoured archives to find their Displaced Persons camp intake records and the ship manifest from their immigration and worked with a genealogist in Ukraine to try to find family records. I’ve always loved research, but piecing together clues from my own family was incredibly gratifying and made me feel that much closer to understanding what my great-grandmother lived through.
Some of the most special discoveries came when I found a box of my great-grandmother’s items—pictures she’d embroidered, photographs I’d never seen, and small prayer books she’d filled out for the dead and for the continued health of the living. Carefully written in Cyrillic letters, each name she penned was a clue to her past—someone she loved, someone she lost. Finding such a powerful link to her grief and hope inspired me. I knew I wanted to incorporate these books into this novel somehow, so I added them into Halya’s story.
While The Lost Daughters of Ukraine is fiction, it is filled with similar pieces of my family’s history. Treasured stories and experiences—both difficult and beautiful— are woven into the fabric of many scenes, and one whole storyline loosely follows my family’s journey out of Ukraine. Researching this novel has been cathartic and inspiring for me, and learning more about the strength of my great-grandparents and the difficult choices they made to survive and protect their children makes me appreciate my life in a whole new way. The Memory Keeper of Kyiv may have been my first novel, and it will always be special to me, but The Lost Daughters of Ukraine is the book of my heart.