U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) looks over family pictures on her desk. Miss Kaptur’s grandparents were both born in Ukraine, and she worries about that nation’s future. She plans to bring some Ukrainian farmers here on a trade mission this month.
During her 30 years as the representative of Ohio’s 9th Congressional District, U.S. Rep. Marcy Kapur has carried on a love affair.
The object of her affections is Ukraine, the former Soviet socialist republic that was the land of her grandmother and grandfather’s birth.
“It has been a lifelong interest because, as our mother used to say, our children know the history of our family,” Miss Kaptur, 67, said last week of herself and her brother Stephen, 61, who lives with her in West Toledo.
As Ukraine — a giant eastern European nation famed for its fertile farmland — roils in political unrest, Miss Kaptur has been working behind the scenes to encourage democracy to flourish.
The Toledo Democrat said she has made at least a dozen trips to Ukraine over the last four decades, and she is co-chairman of the Congressional Ukrainian Caucus.
In recent months the country has exploded into demonstrations, triggered by outrage at Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to end negotiations to join the European Union and turn to Russia to help it pay off a crippling debt. Some see the revolutionary movement as a step toward true independence that started when Ukraine broke off from the Soviet Union in 1990.
Miss Kaptur was the co-sponsor of a resolution that passed Wednesday in a House committee calling the Ukraine leadership to a higher standard, and to support rights of assembly. Whether it will come up for a vote in the full House is not known.
“As the co-chair of the Ukraine caucus I have met with literally hundreds of Ukrainian leaders, existing leaders, emerging leaders, presidents, ambassadors, farmers. The Ukrainian embassy knows about our caucus,” Miss Kaptur said.
As the Ukrainian military begins making sounds about intervening in the unrest, Miss Kaptur said she hopes that if it does, it exercises restraint.
“The point is there has been a lot of interaction [with the United States], training at the highest level,” she said. “The kind of bloodshed that is historic in that region hasn’t happened and I hope it won’t.”
Miss Kaptur as an infant sits in her grandmother Teofila Swiecicki Rogowski’s lap while her mother, Anastasia Rogowski, stands. During college, the representative ‘worshipped’ her hard-working grandparents, who emigrated from Ukraine in the early 1900s.
The realignment of Miss Kaptur’s 9th Congressional District in 2012 to snake along Lake Erie all the way from Toledo to Cleveland has been widely decried as gerrymandering designed to achieve Republican goals of squeezing as many Democrats into as few districts as possible.
But one upshot has been the linkage of one of Congress’s most Eastern European-focused lawmakers with communities that have a lot of Eastern European immigrants and their descendants.
The district now contains the Cuyahoga County city of Parma, which has a large Ukrainian-American population. Miss Kaptur is also a founder and co-chairman of the Polish and Hungarian congressional caucuses.
Her mother’s family was Polish living in modern-day Ukraine.
Miss Kaptur’s grandmother Teofila Swiecicki Rogowski and grandfather John Rogowski emigrated from Ukraine early in the 1900s.
“Then it was czarist Russia. They were not allowed to graze their one cow on the open field and could not feed themselves,” Miss Kaptur said.
Over the years, as their homeland was devastated by political and military rivalries, including a famine brought on by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and invasion by the Nazis, they lost all contact with family members in Ukraine.
Her grandmother took in wash, and worked in the Commodore Perry and Willard hotels to earn money, while her grandfather, a carpenter, struggled to find work.
“When I was in college I worshipped her and her husband,” Miss Kaptur said. She wanted to take her grandmother back to Ukraine and find the town they came from, Burtyn, but her grandmother was afraid, she said. Teofila died in 1970.
In 1973, Miss Kaptur — then a planner for the city of Toledo — and her mother, the former Anastasia Rogowski, drove into Soviet Ukraine, where they found her grandmother’s brother, a former inmate of Stalin’s gulag political prison system for 20 years.
“He was not allowed to travel out of his area because he was viewed as an enemy of the state,” Miss Kaptur said. He was released from the gulag in 1952, but lost his brother to the camps. Her great-uncle’s crime: He had offered aid to a wounded Kulak, a member of the property-owning farming class that was being driven into extinction by Stalin.
They had the only car in the dusty town, and were the only guests in the hotel, which had no curtains but a listening device. They had sent word to relatives that they would be at the hotel if anyone wanted to meet them. They were on their third day with no visitors when they heard activity in the lobby.
Miss Kaptur’s great-uncle Casmierz Swiecicki was a former inmate in Joseph Stalin’s prison system for 20 years.
“We learned the desk clerk had been denying to the woman visitor that any foreigners were staying in the hotel, despite her repeated attempts to contact us,” Miss Kaptur said.
She said the moment that she finally met her grandmother’s brother, Casmierz Swiecicki, was an emotional one.
“There stood this tall man and I looked at him and gasped because he held his hands the same way that our grandmother did. He looked at my mother and said, ‘are you my sister?’ We just wept,” Miss Kaptur said. They gave him an orange. “That began the moment when we began to unlock the history of what happened,” she said. They met more family members in a return trip two years later.
Andy Fedynsky, resident scholar at the Ukrainian Museum and Archives in Cleveland, said Miss Kaptur has actively supported Ukraine since her first term in 1983. He said that year she played a leadership role in passing a bill to create a commission on the Ukraine famine, which was widely denied.
“This commission was set up and did a thorough job establishing there was a famine, it was planned, 7 million people were deliberately starved to death,” Mr. Fedynsky said. He said Miss Kaptur testified that the victims included her own family.
“She said,‘Don’t tell me this never happened. I know it happened because my ancestors endured it,’” Mr. Fedynsky said. The commission “made a huge difference in Ukraine historiography.”
Miss Kaptur and others worked to get President Obama to include a Ukraine reference in his State of the Union speech last week, which he did. The President said, “In Ukraine, we stand for the principle that all people have the right to express themselves freely and peacefully and to have a say in their country’s future.”
“I have been meeting with Ukrainians on a regular basis. We are planning a trade mission for farmers to bring them to Ohio in February,” Miss Kaptur said.
She has a picture of herself meeting a year and a half ago with one of the opposition leaders when he was in Washington.
She said she was in Ukraine in 2013 while on her way to Poland to be awarded an honorary citizenship — her father’s family was from Poland — when she feared that Ukraine was slipping backward. “I left very, very worried. I saw how much more difficult their life had become. I was deeply worried about what I saw — greater poverty among older women, farmers that I’ve known.”
Ironically to the girl whose grandmother had only wanted to raise money in order to buy a piece of land on which to graze their cow, Ukrainian farmland is being bought up by oligarchs.
“There was a real sense that democracy was slipping away. Then all of this has happened. The people of Ukraine have stood up, and we should stand with them,” Miss Kaptur said.
Contact Tom Troy at: email@example.com or 419-724-6058.