Candelo’s Tabitha Bilaniwskyj-Zarins has reconnected with long lost family members during her recent trip to this year’s Eurovision Song Contest held in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv.
In possession of three addresses in the village of Trebukhiv, 35 kilometres east of the capital, she knew her family had once lived in the village, but what she found was beyond her wildest dreams.
“When I went to the Ukraine I saw most of my family lived like me. It felt so natural, like I’d come home,” the 47-year-old said.
“The smells, and the whole thing was just like our home in Merrylands where I grew up.”
The eldest of nine children, Ms Bilaniwskyj-Zarins’ grandmother, Galina Korniyko, or “Baba” as she is affectionately know, immigrated to Australia after surviving the Holodomor famine of the 1930s and the horrors of the German labour camps during World War 2.
She was the last of her siblings still alive, and just 17-years-old when she arrived in Germany.
“Once word got home about the conditions in Germany, nobody volunteered anymore,” Ms Bilaniwskyj-Zarins said.
In Germany she married a Belarusian, Ivan Bilaniwskyj, and during the Allied occupation she was offered the choice of immigrating to Canda, the United States, or Australia.
Ms Bilaniwskyj-Zarins believes if she had been living in Eastern Germany she may have faced a different fate in the Siberian labour camps, in the hands of the Russian army.
She considered returning to the Ukraine, but concerned she may be labelled a traitor, chose to immigrate to Australia with her husband, child and unable to speak English.
Ms Bilaniwskyj-Zarins’ research led her to an extended family still living in the village of just over 6000 people.
“When my Baba’s sister came through the door, I just broke down. It was so amazing,” Ms Bilaniwskyj-Zarins said.
As a child, she remembers being told to never forget her Ukrainian heritage.
“I always saw in her face a sense of sadness in her heart, but she was a positive, strong woman who knew she was free,” she said.
“You would see her sitting there reflecting, or shaking her head. Her whole childhood was traumatising.”
While visiting a memorial in Kyiv, she knew among a trove of books full of immaculately kept records, would sit her grandmother’s name.
After being helped with translation, the book was found and the reconnection became a reality, and it is a bond she says she will keep forever.
“I’m in communication with my family all the time, because I don’t want to lose them,” she said.
“We have Skype cooking sessions all the time.”
Ms Bilaniwskyj-Zarins says the next chapter in her journey of discovery is to reconnect with her Belarusian side of the family, and she is already organising her next trip to the Ukraine next year.
“The biggest thing I have learned is that we should treasure that we have the ability to make choices,” she said.
“I feel so at peace with everything.”