Searching for Ivan

By Oksana

I never knew my grandfather, Ivan Zabolotney.

He died in 1926 or 1927 in Cuba, but I knew little else about him, his life, or his death.

Many years ago, my late mother, Anna, told me that her father, Ivan, had left his village of Potochyshche in Western Ukraine (then part of Poland) to go to Cuba, seeking work to help support his family of five. Other men from the village had gone with him to Cuba, and it was through them that the Zabolotney family learned of his accidental death there.

(Left: Anna in 1930)

My mother had kept one of his letters. He had written to the family in 1924 from Nuevitas, a coastal city in eastern Cuba, asking his wife to send him his birth certificate from the village church. He needed it in order to get into to Canada or the United States. We don’t know if the birth certificate ever arrived in Cuba, but we know that he died – and we assume was buried – in Cuba.

I have never known any close extended family: I have never met any aunts, uncles or first cousins, who all lived in Soviet-era Ukraine. I have always heard of grandparents being one of life’s treasures – a source of unconditional love, and providing a family legacy and sense of continuity – but I have lived my life without grandparents. (In fact, three of my grandparents died before my parents were even married.)

For many years I scrutinized the only picture I have of my grandfather Ivan, and read and re-read his letter – written in a beautiful and old script – perhaps looking for some of that sense of continuity, and also for further clues about his life in Cuba. Did he die in Nuevitas? Could there be any record of his life or death there? I often dreamed of travelling there and finding his grave.

Over the years, my husband John and I made some attempts at finding some helpful information. I spoke with, or wrote several people familiar with Cuba, including a trade official, and the Cuban Consul. I wrote to a business executive who not only did business in eastern Cuba, but apparently had a close relationship with the Cuban government. My grandfather was Catholic, so I thought if he did die in Nuevitas, the local Catholic church might have a death or burial record. There was only one church in the city; I wrote a letter, but heard nothing. We spoke with some people in Toronto connected with Cuban music, but none of our research provided any clues. We did not have a lot of confidence that whatever government structures did exist in 1920s Cuba, it would be unlikely that the death of a poor foreign worker would be much noticed or recorded for posterity.

Nevertheless, I finally made that trip in January of 2010, along with John, and a longtime friend, Deanna.

Not long before we left, we “met” online, a Cuban-American from Milwaukee (the sister city of Nuevitas) who had been to Nuevitas a few times. Raúl provided some information about the city, and gave us a contact in the Camaguey City Hall (the capital of Nuevitas’s province.)

Other than that, all we had to help us with our search was his photo, and a copy of that letter, with its return address of “Las Antillas, No. 1 / Nuevitas, Cuba”. Our hope of course, was to find a grave, or at least some information about his life there. If nothing else, I would be able to breathe the air he once did in Nuevitas.

Ivan’s letter

After a few days in Havana, we travelled to Camaguey. The contact Raúl had given us, along with a couple of others who might help, visited us at our casa particular (similar to a B&B.) We gave them all the information we had, they said they would investigate, but in the end, nothing concrete came of this meeting.

A few days later, we traveled toward Nuevitas. The city had little accommodation for foreign travelers, so we stayed at a nearby small resort town, Santa Lucia.

We first spent a couple of days relaxing – our only “beach” time in Cuba – and planned to rent a car, and perhaps a guide to take us to Nuevitas on the third day.

With no other information about Nuevitas or my grandfather, we thought we might be able to do nothing more than look for that address. But fate stepped in.

The day before our planned expedition, while we were sitting on the beach, a woman approached. Mistaking Deanna for someone she had met, the woman greeted her, before realizing her mistake. We started chatting with her and learned that Rachael had been coming to this same resort for 15 years. John said to her, “So, you must know something about Nuevitas.” She replied, “Why, do you have a Ukrainian grandfather who died there? 

To say we were amazed is an understatement.

She told us that she had met a Ukrainian-Canadian family a few years ago at the resort whose grandfather had died in Nuevitas, after living there for many years. Out of curiosity, I asked where the family was from. “Sudbury.” Another surprise! Sudbury is my hometown. However, I didn’t recognize the family’s names, but planned to look them up when I got home.

Rachael suggested that we see Rafael, who ran a car rental location at the adjacent resort, and who had helped that Sudbury family with their search. Rafael’s father had lived in Nuevitas all his life, and might be able to provide some information. So we walked over, met Rafael and told him our story.

John, Deanna, Oksana, Rafael

He introduced us to Juan Carlos, an eco-tourism guide in the same hotel who agreed to take us to Nuevitas us the next day. Juan Carlos had been a history and philosophy teacher; although he loved that work, he turned to a better-paying tourism job to support his family.

However, because of his history background, he took great interest in the story of my lost grandfather.

Even before Juan Carlos picked us up at our hotel the next morning, there seemed something very auspicious about the day. I had become extremely ill on our last day in Camaguey (from a chicken lunch), and was still recuperating during our first two days in Santa Lucia. But that morning, I felt fully recovered. The somewhat unsettled weather we had experienced had also passed, and we set off on a beautiful warm, sunny, and cloudless day. We were already energized by that amazing coincidence of Rachael’s information, and encouraged by Juan Carlos’s interest in our mystery. We were excited and cautiously hopeful that we might find something meaningful.

Along the bumpy road to Nuevitas, Juan Carlos told us some of the history of Nuevitas. It was once a major port, but much smaller now (population about 45,000), kept alive now by other industries. 

Then, finally, after so many years, I arrived in the town where my grandfather had died.

Our first stop was the town cemetery where the surprised, but helpful custodians showed us around. It was of course, disappointing – but not a complete surprise – that there was no grave with his name. A foreign worker, without family, and who probably had little money, might not merit such a marker. However, the custodians told us that this had always been the only cemetery in Nuevitas, and that if he had indeed died there in his situation, he would have been buried here, but likely without any identification. We were shown such a place: a concrete cylinder with no names.

We then walked to the nearby church: Iglesia Nuestra Senora de la Caridad, the same church I had written to years earlier. It is a magnificent structure, built in 1896, and standing on a grassy hill top overlooking the port. Juan Carlos hoped we could meet and speak with the priest, but the wood doors were locked, and no one answered our knocks.

From there, we visited Rafael’s father. (Rafael was the car rental agent.) When he saw my grandfather’s letter; he told us that “Las Antillas, No. 1” was not a street address. Las Antillas was in fact, the name of a large shipbuilding company that used to exist in Nuevitas. It had been nationalized after the Revolution, but had since closed. So, if that was my grandfather’s return address, it meant he had probably worked at that company.

He told us that the son of the original company owner still lived in town, so he was our next stop. The son confirmed the story of the company, and showed us a photograph of his father and mother. It dawned on me that we might be looking at a photograph of my grandfather’s boss. Suddenly, my grandfather’s Cuban life became much more tangible.

We drove to where the shipyard used to be.

Just before reaching the bay, we stopped at a railroad crossing. I looked ahead and saw a small, old wooden building. On the side was a sign reading, in large, bold painted lettering, “Numero 1

For so many years, I had speculated about, and imagined, finding the address that my grandfather had written so many decades ago, and which had been emblazoned in my mind: “Las Antillas, No. 1″ in Nuevitas. Here it was in front of me.

For a moment I had no breath, and then exhaled. Sudden tears flooded my eyes. All of us felt a tumult of emotions. Disbelief. Joy. Excitement. Sadness. Exhilaration.

We were silent. I breathed in that same salt air, on the shore of Nuevitas Bay, that my grandfather once had. As I stood where he had worked – and possibly died – I wondered what were the circumstances that had driven my grandfather Ivan so far from his small village and family?

After all these years , this was the indelible moment when I found my grandfather.

After we left the shipyard, Juan Carlos took us to the city’s registry office, hoping perhaps that there might some record of his death, but the office was closed. Finally, he took us to his home for coffee, where he introduced us to his family, including the light of his life, his two year old granddaughter.

As we were leaving Nuevitas at sunset, I pondered the many ironies of life. One moment that moved me deeply was the sight of Juan Carlos holding and kissing his granddaughter. I felt the loss of never having been held by any grandparent. Ivan Zabolotney never knew that he would have grandchildren, or that a granddaughter would one day come to search for him, almost 85 years after his death.

That night, we had dinner with Rachael. A veteran of that resort, she arranged for us to eat in a private dining room, with a better selection of food, served by her favourite waiter, Eldys. We felt that we had something very significant to celebrate, and we toasted the day – and Rachael, who had given us such an unexpected clue in my longtime search for a lost grandfather.

After our return to Canada, we did learn a bit more about the mystery of those “Ukrainian grandfathers” who died in Nuevitas. The journal, Polish American Studies, in 1989 published an article explaining just how many men like Ivan came to Cuba from Poland and some surrounding countries.

In the 1920s, almost 9,000 Poles went to Cuba, based on false promises that they could find work, and then easily immigrate to the US – their real destination. Instead, most were left for years in Cuba, barely surviving .with little money or work, and no chance of reaching the US, or even getting back home. As word of their condition got back, this wave of immigration faded away, and then ended by the coming of the Great Depression.

Since our return, I have been in touch with the Sudbury family, who was able to learn more about their grandfather’s experience. There is more to this story and it is still unfolding. We are still hoping to receive some sort of official record of the death of Ivan Zabolotney.

However, as a result of this search, my once-unknown grandfather’s life – and death – has become more tangible for me.

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