When I arrived at Dnipro Ukrainian Center at 562 Genesee Street, Emil Bandriwsky met me at the door. Before we went inside, he pointed to the lower corner of the building’s exterior to a year that had been etched into the stone. 1914. “The building was built 100 years ago by the Germans,” he said. “It was seized by the U.S. government during WWII, changed hands and we bought it from the City of Buffalo foreclosure auction in 1955.” Before I even entered the building, my history lesson had begun.
Walking into Dnipro is like entering another country’s borders, tucked away on the East Side of Buffalo. The building is named after the largest river in Ukraine, resting here on Genesee Street, not far from our own “beau fleuve.”
“The big immigration of Ukrainians was between 1945 and 1955,” Emil said. “A lot of those Ukes were nationally conscious, some of them fought actively for independent Ukraine, some of them spent time in Soviet or Nazi concentration camps, and they ended up coming to the United States. So there was a huge surge in that period of time and a lot of them settled in Buffalo’s East Side. The heart of the Ukrainian neighborhood at that time was around Fillmore and Oneida where St. Nicholas Ukrainian Church still is to this day.”
No time was wasted as Emil introduced me to Yuri Hreshchyshyn, my second tour guide, and they started pointing out portraits of Ukrainian historical figures on the walls and reciting names that I couldn’t even begin to spell. For every face, they know the story.
Our tour began at the Ukrainian Federal Credit Union housed near the entryway of Dnipro, which has been established for over 50 years. Emil is handing me brochures and copies of their annual report, all printed bilingually. “You see that? Half Uke, half English,” he said. “What? You can’t read this?” he laughed. “Ok, so we go.”
We paused to look at the Ukrainian flag and he tells me “the colors represent the Ukrainian Steppes, it’s a huge wheat field. So when you look out over the Ukrainian Steppes, you see the sky and you see the wheat. Very symbolic.”
Emil is like a walking history book, sharing story after story as we moved from room to room. We passed posters and information boards with the latest updates on the crisis in Ukraine, paying respect and pledging solidarity to their families and comrades back home. The center is like a home away from the motherland for Buffalo’s Ukrainian-American community – a beloved space for gatherings, events and education.
“As you go through this building you’ll see that generation that came here after the War, they expanded the churches, they founded credit unions, they built non-profit insurance companies, they founded all sorts of organizations because they were preparing for the day when they would have to fight for the liberation of the homeland from communist expansion,” Emil said. “They were also fighting a war against ignorance and being submerged.”
As we approach the next room, you hear children shrieking with laughter and chattering away in Ukrainian. Every Saturday morning for the last 50 years, Buffalo’s Ukrainian-American children have been meeting for Ukrainian school, though they just moved the program into Dnipro this past year. The nationally sanctioned school serves students from first grade all the way through high school, and each graduate receives a diploma and can take the New York State Ukrainian Regents exam.
In this same room where the school is held, you’ll find a series of plaques portraying the history of the Ukraine during the 20th Century. “If you’d notice, you’ll see a lot of things about famine, barbed wire, assassinations, repressions,” Emil pointed out. “We’ve got a map of all the prison camps in the Soviet Union and the Ukrainians were very well represented in those prison camps. They have the whole nine yards here for the last 100 years, so the 20th century was not too kind to the Ukrainians.”
“They thought in 1991 when the Soviet Union fell apart and they had independence that things would get better,” he continued. “Certainly independence is something that they’ve been fighting for a few hundred years and now they’re going through a situation where they’re trying to assert their internal politics. Unfortunately they’re not allowed to do it on their own because they always have interference from the outside. The Ukraine is diverse religiously and ethnically, and they could certainly resolve their own issues if they were allowed to do it in peace, but they’re not, you know?”
While the scripts on the wall provide plenty to keep the eye occupied, the far superior way to get a comprehensive – and much more entertaining – Ukrainian history lesson is to pull up a stool at the bar, ask for Emil’s favorite beer, and let him and Yuri tell the stories. They took me all the way back to the 14th century and forward to what had happened in the last hour. As I sipped my cold bottle of Obolon beer, I realized how many good conversations must have taken place exactly where we’re sitting, over many years.
Emil is a native Buffalonian, born to Ukrainian parents who were dislocated by WWII and ended up setting on Buffalo’s West Side. His father was a small-time landlord and his mother ran a hotel. “They brought us here to Dnipro for cultural events and youth meetings,” he recalls. “So I remember coming here when I was eight years old on a Friday night when we had our scout meeting, the bar would be packed from one end to the other like four or five people deep. Guys would be sitting in the back playing chess or cards. That was what I call ‘the Golden Area of Ukrainianism’ in Buffalo in 1950-1970.”
Now Emil serves as the treasurer of Dnipro and brings his own family here. Twenty years ago he met a Ukrainian woman who became his wife. “We have two kids who speak, read and write Ukrainian because from the time they were born, their grandmother lived with us and she only speaks the mother tongue. My kids go to Ukrainian Saturday school and Ukrainian scouts on Friday night.”
Yuri is a committed community activist who was also born to Ukrainian parents. “I grew up in a similar fashion to Emil in the Ukrainian ghetto and I spoke Ukrainian at home and celebrated many of those traditions. I went to Saturday school and some years later I was asked to teach. I spent a summer session at the Harvard Ukrainian institute taking advanced Ukrainian.” He eventually became the director of Dnipro’s school and now serves with the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America.
As the latest news banner runs across the television screen behind the bar, Yuri provides the context for the crisis that’s unraveling. “See Ukraine has the good fortune of having about 40 or 50 percent of the best agricultural land on earth, but they have the misfortune of being surrounded the last 1000 years by warlike neighbors, primarily Russia,” he says. “Crimea, this contentious land, originally if you go way back in history was Tatar territory. The Kazakhs and the Tatars had this constant back and forth conflict. So the Kazakhs occasionally invaded Crimea and beat up on the Tatars, and the Tatars in their times of strength would come in and raid Ukraine. It was this constant time of tension in the 1300 and 1400s and into the 1500s.”
“So Catherine I of Russia came in and gave it to the Tatars and took over Crimea – that was the first Russian incursion into the Crimean peninsula,” Yuri continues. “They kind of held their own until 1944 when Stalin came in and killed or deported them all into various eastern portions of Russia and the Soviet republics. Exactly 10 years later, Khrushchev decided to let some of these Tatars back and moved the Crimean peninsula out of the Russian federation of the Soviet Union and into the Ukrainian republic of the Soviet Union. In 1991 when Ukraine went independent, that territory remained within the boundaries of Ukraine.”
“I’m very closely following the events that are happening in Ukraine,” Emil said. “I still have relatives there and I personally feel that I was born in this era of time to witness the culmination of a 350 year struggle for independence. I feel not only a personal tie, but a certain responsibility to testify to the truth and to bear witness to the fact that Ukraine wants to be independent and democratic and deserves to join a civilized family of nations.”
Yuri has been to the Ukraine several times to serve as an election observer and will be returning to observe the presidential elections that have been scheduled for May 25, 2014 with a group of volunteers. As part of multi-lateral agreements, international observers are needed to take part in this election. Unfortunately, they have to fund this trip out of their own pockets and will be hosting a “Euro Block Party” fundraiser on Friday, May 2 at 7 p.m. at Dnipro to raise funds to get there. General admission to the fundraiser will be $15.
The event will feature live music on two stages by Those Idiots, Klooch “Unplugged”, The Gallow Walkers, Tom Stahl & The Dangerfields, Dee Adams, Geno McManus, The Brud “Unplugged” and DJ Konrad. Betty Crockski and Franks Gourmet Hot Dogs will provide the food. A VIP fundraiser will start at 6 p.m. with food and open bar in the Dnipro members lounge. Tickets are $50 and can be reserved via phone at (716) 656-1874. All proceeds will go to support the election observation trip to Ukraine.
Friday’s fundraiser will give you a taste of what Dnipro has to offer. Paying $35 will get you a membership to the club and some quality time with the regulars at the bar. You’ll likely find yourself lost in conversation for hours, and you’ll leave with a better understanding of this building’s significance and how strong the Ukrainian presence is here in Buffalo.
“I feel like people need to feel they’re tied to something larger than themselves,” Emil said. “Not just as a Ukrainian thing. I think this is a human thing. That’s why people join clubs and organizations and they believe in movements. People have to be connected with something greater than their own skin, their own little container.”