Walking the Steppes with Oleksa

(A tale of genealogy by happenstance)

One of my most cherished memories is of having presented my father with documentation of an “old wives’ tale” he had always been fond of relating to me about the family ancestry.

The “tale” related to him in his childhood by numerous “old wives’ and members of the clergy in the Ukrainian enclave of the “Tremont”  neighborhood of the south side of Cleveland where he grew up, was that of a heroic figure of Ukrainian history, one  ‘Dovbush’, who, it was related, was a sort of a “Ukrainian Robin Hood”, a leader of a roving bandit band of outlaws who rode the regions in the borderland between the steppes and the Carpathian mountains, robbing the Polish landowners and distributing the plunder to the poor Ukrainian serfs of his homeland.

Growing up, this relation by him to my brothers and I of stories he had heard in his youth about this ancestry was intriguing, but not supported with documentation.   It was a fine story, but it was no more ‘truth’ in my inquisitive mind than were the stories I read in the elementary school library about Robin Hood.  And, since the legends of that English outlaw  were at least substantial enough to be related in books, my fascination for this alleged, ephemeral “ancestor” waned as I grew and advanced through my primary and secondary education.

It was not until my junior year at college, browsing stacks of books piled on tables at a sale sponsored by my university library, that I came across a book, worn and slim, which bore the title “The Uklraine:  A Submerged Nation“.  I idly picked it up, and leafed through the eighty-five pages.  Although I had become jaded with age, there was still, nonetheless,  a naive longing in me for someday happening on a sliver of evidence that  generations of  ‘old wives’ tales’ were based on some shred of truth.

I perused the ‘Index’, (as was always my wont while browsing) and, under the “d‘s ”, was startled to find an entry for one “Dowbush, Ukrainian Robin Hood, p. 68.   My fingers trembled as I quickly ruffled over to the page.

At the bottom of that page, in a paragraph describing the geographic area known as ‘Carpatho-Ukraine” an area at the eastern end of Czechoslovakia, it was noted that this segment of Ukrainians were hardy, fiercely independent ‘mountaineers’ whose preservation of culture; tradition and folklore  included “songs about legendary Ukrainian heroes, such as Dowbush, the Ukrainian Robin Hood“.  That was all.  The text on the next page continued its’ narration of the sad history of this western section of the country as a cultural and political  prize , alternately ruled; invaded by; claimed or administrated by Hungary; Poland; Russia and Germany.

Hardly a ‘Holy Grail‘ as far as  genealogical revelation is concerned, yet, still, a tangible nugget of information that heartened my resolve to seek out more information.  That summer, I presented the book to my father as a birthday gift.  He was pleased.  It remained with him until his passing, encased among his copious collection of  atlases; histories of WWII; and gun catalogues.  This was in the early ’70’s, before the advent of the internet; genealogy as a hobby, or Goggle search engines.

Since starting my blog nine months ago, I have necessarily become more adept at internet technology and search engineering as I research various subjects for my individual posts.  While my interests are diverse and my scope is wide, I have nonetheless been able to focus enough of my time to amass the following information:

-“Oleksa  Dovbush” was indeed an actual historical figure.  (Born, 1700; died, 1745).

-That his life was the stuff of heroic literature is borne out by the fact that a feature film of his exploits was produced in 1959.  This production is notable in that it was produced during a singularly harsh period of Russian authority, yet celebrated a locally ethnic cultural icon.  ***(A poster of this movie is the image which begins this post)

-The movie has a song devoted to him, and depicts the beauty of the Carpathians and the mounted exploits of his band of Cossacks:

(The music is hypnotic, and, though the lead actor is no Errol Flynn,……I really like the hat)……

 

-He has been memorialized in literature;  an opera (Dovbush’s Kerchief); songs; and paintings (here, a mounted Oleksa is about to pass judgement on a terrified Polish landowner captured in a raid:

-His exploits were more than just those of a  ‘Robin Hood” .  Various homes; hideouts; and rumored sites of buried treasure, are attributed to him, much like those of Jesse James in Missouri.  All of these sites are within a one hundred mile radius of my grandfather’s birthplace.

-He and his band not only stole from the wealthy landlords, but also executed them (and their servants), sometimes after a summary trial.

-His death is memorialized with placards throughout the region.

-Most of the folklore maintains he was betrayed by either his jealous lover, Dzvinka, or her husband (ahem!), and was ultimately shot in his own house.  (Again, a Jesse James kind of mystique imparts itself).

What a guy !!.

 

And now, having assembled these assorted tidbits and facts as I approach another anniversary of my father’s passing, I am consoled by the fact that a quest for answers piqued by old wives of long ago can finally find some resolution.  It is out of curiosity, not pride, that I have exerted the effort to mine the ethernet for the information I submit herein.  The evidence, I admit, is not  conclusive, but…., it’s enough for me.

 

Happy Birthday, Dad.

 

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