It was Father’s Day 2012 when I began this travel diary, of a pilgrimage to the birthplace of my father, in Vinnitsya, Ukraine. In June of that year I launched myself into preparations. I bought an airline ticket and a guide book.
Vinnitsya occupies a position west of the geographical centre of Ukraine, and it is built on the river Buh (listed as Bug on Western maps). It feels somewhat unglamourous compared to cities such as Kiev, Lviv, Odessa or the old capital Kharkiv. But as I read my guide book I realised it has a rich history and is a typical Ukrainian town in many ways. I was heading for the heart of Ukraine, not only in a geographical sense, but also in a cultural sense – I would observe how ordinary Ukrainian people live.
Ukraine became independent in 1991 and not long after that, a letter from my father finally found its way to the family of his long-lost brother, and he was able to make the journey back to his old family home the following year. Over 20 years later, I planned to make that same journey. It wasn’t simply a pleasure trip, but a journey to put pieces of my family history back together.
The experience of writing ‘Sliding on the Snow Stone’ was a voyage of discovery that is difficult to put into words. But, even though I’d researched that history in some detail, it remained for me to make the voyage back home to walk on Ukrainian soil.
I knew that, as soon as my plane landed in Kiev, I’d have crossed the Buh, and a car journey later would be at that old family home, where the twists of history dealt such a cruel hand to my family. It’s occurred to me many times that I’m lucky to even be here, but maybe I’ve finally found a mission in life: to tell these stories.
I planned to see as much as I could while over there, including my grandmother’s grave and the area my father was brought up in. I also planned to visit Werwolf, one of Adolf Hitler’s military headquarters during World War Two.
Most of all, I looked forward to meeting the people, to see how they lived.