Jan/Feb 2023  •   Nonfiction

Displaced Person

by Mary Zelinka

Photo courtesy of NASA's image library

Photo courtesy of NASA's image library

The message in my voicemail says something about a "Konstantyn Zelinka." Wrong Zelinka I think and press delete. Mother always said, other than Father's parents, we were not related to any Zelinkas in this country. A couple of days later a FedEx mailer arrives from Kemp International Probate Research. Matthew Buell writes they are locating heirs to the estate of Konstantyn Zelinka, who they determined was my first cousin once removed, and requests I call. I still think they have the wrong Zelinka.

But then my mother's long-ago voice pops into my head: "Cousin Konnie." I call.

Mr. Buell tells me Konstantyn was my grandfather's brother's son. Born in 1923, died two months ago in October, 2014. He came to the US in 1948 after being held in a Nazi forced labor camp. Konstantyn lived at my grandfather's house in New Jersey when he arrived. Later he moved to Hollywood, Florida, not far from Miami, where I grew up. He never married.

I wonder if Matthew Buell should be talking to me. My father's will had stated, "Mary Helen Zelinka and her descendants shall not be treated as descendants of mine."

But does that mean my other relatives aren't still my relatives?

It doesn't sound like Konnie had much—a little house, and that was it. Matthew explains how the estate would be split, but I'm not really listening. I just feel sad Konnie didn't leave his belongings to people of his own choosing.

I wish I could talk to my sister Gracie, but she estranged me some 11 years ago, when our mother died. Had Gracie known about him? Why had Mother said we weren't related to any Zelinkas in this country?

During the years I was still trying to rebuild a relationship with my parents, I spent Christmases in Miami with them. While there, I recorded my mother's family memories on cassette tapes. Now I speed-listen through the tapes until the one from 1989, when I hear her say in her soft Southern accent, "I know very little about Father's family."

Tears spring to my eyes. We had done our taping in my old bedroom, me on my sister's former twin bed, Mother on mine. She had leaned back into the pillows, propped up on her left arm. Her right hand gripped the microphone as though she had missed her calling as a motivational speaker, all the bashfulness she had when we first started recording a few years before, gone.

I start the tape again.

Grandma came from a little village in the Ukraine that had changed hands many times. It no longer exists. She wouldn't talk about coming to the United States—said it wasn't interesting. She came to Ellis Island in 1916, maybe 1912, around that time. I don't know how she got the money to come. She was fourteen or fifteen. She came by herself.

Mother paused here and shook her head at Grandma's bravery. Or desperation, I remember thinking. Few people set off across an ocean or a country into the unknown unless there is nothing left for them where they are.

When she saw the Statue of Liberty, Grandma changed her clothes and threw her old ones overboard. She worked as a maid and learned English. Always she loved the American flag.

Grandpa had older brothers. There may have been a sister. His father raised money—I think $300—to send the first son to this country. As soon as this son was able, he sent money back to the Ukraine so the next brother could come. At Grandpa's funeral, his brother Tom came down from Canada and I asked him to tell me about coming to this country. 'What's to tell?' he said.

My father was the first child. Then Aunt Mary. Little Johnny, who died when he was thirteen. Grandma and Grandpa lived in Elizabeth, New Jersey among other Ukrainians.

After WWII, Europe was filled with displaced persons, called "DPs." Grandpa and Grandma started getting letters from nephews and friends back in Europe. They sent warm clothing and whatever they could.

They heard from Cousin Konnie. He was the son of the brother who stayed in the Ukraine. Konnie had worked in Germany. I guess he was maybe 20 or 21 when the war was over. Anyone coming to the US had to have a sponsor who would be responsible for their livelihood. So Grandma and Grandpa filled out the papers and signed up for Konnie and two of his friends, Bill and John. Nobody ever liked Bill. Then Bill's mother and father came. Many others.

Aunt Mary's husband, Eddie, was so good at getting them all jobs.

We hear from Konnie at Christmas. He never married. He did not want to marry a Ukrainian girl. He wanted to marry an American girl. But he was always too shy. Bill married a DP. I liked her very much, though her parents were just impossible.

Mother laughed, and the rest of the tape is filled with stories about Bill's wife and her family.

"DP" sounds derogatory somehow. I do a little research and learn after the Second World War, "Displaced Person" was an official term. It was soon shortened to "DP," which quickly turned into a slur: Dirty DP.

Sometimes I feel like I'm a displaced person. Which of course is ridiculous. I could go back to Miami any time I wanted. No one would shoot me or arrest me or lock me up in a forced labor camp. I was not exiled. I wasn't displaced. I was discarded.

Why had I forgotten about Konnie? Maybe because on the tapes Mother talked more about Bill and his wife's impossible family than she did about Konnie. Or maybe trying to forge a relationship with my parents was enough; I had nothing left to wonder about a cousin I never met.

My mother's words: "Konnie had worked in Germany." Matthew's words: "Konstantyn had been held in a Nazi forced labor camp."

When Konnie was living with my grandparents, he and my father would have seen one another regularly. My father was an airline pilot, and when he had a layover in Newark, he stayed at his parents'. Granted, Konnie was young when he came to this country, and my father was married with two little girls. Konnie may not have known much English. My father never learned Ukrainian. It's possible they didn't talk.

Maybe my parents didn't know about Konnie being held in a Nazi forced labor camp. Friends whose parents or grandparents had been in the camps have said they never wanted to talk about it. Maybe Kemp International Probate Research is exposing things Konnie spent his whole life trying to forget.

Matthew Buell said I was welcome to call if I had any questions about Konstantyn, that often in their research they discover a lot of information the surviving family never knew. I start a list:

• What was the name of the town in Ukraine he was from? Is that where my grandfather was from too?
• How many relatives do I have in Ukraine? Who are they?
• Was my family really Jewish and declared themselves Catholic to survive?
• Is Zelinka our real name?

But I don't call Matthew back. What I really want to know is why my family was so messed up. Matthew can't help me with that.

Konnie probably looked very much like my father and grandfather. White, stocky, with square sturdy hands. It's possible he sold life insurance or was an accountant, but I picture him as a carpenter. My grandfather was a carpenter, and my father made some beautiful pieces of furniture. Or maybe Konnie was a mechanic. Maybe he fixed his neighbors' cars. Maybe he shook his head feigning disappointment when they forgot to get their oil changed.

It could be that Konnie was just as cruel as my father had been. But I imagine him as a kind, quiet man.

Had Konnie's mother and father tearfully hugged him goodbye before he boarded the ship that would take him to a new life in the US? Or had they perished in a Nazi forced labor camp? Did he have brothers and sisters and cousins and friends who survived? Did he dream in Ukrainian? Did he try to replicate the meals his mother once cooked for him, only they never tasted quite the same? Did his father's voice leave a demeaning echo in his head when he made a mistake?

Had Konnie thrown his clothes overboard like Grandma had when he saw the Statue of Liberty? Did he ache for his home in Ukraine that the Nazis destroyed? When I left my violent husband, I jettisoned most of my belongings. And though I've claimed Oregon as my adopted homeland for over 40 years, in the early mornings before I am fully awake, I still hear the wind whispering through Miami's Australian pines.

We turn our memories into stories to tell ourselves and others who we are. Some of these stories can come to define us.

Because of the hours of tapes Mother and I recorded, I know more about her life than most people know about their mothers'. That when she was a girl, she and her cousins spent one night on top of the chicken coop on her father's farm. That during the Depression her parents sent her to college, something unheard of in rural Alabama. I know my father had to quit school when he was in tenth grade to help support his family. That he washed airplanes to pay for his flying lessons.

But I don't know the stories either of them might have said defined them.

Maybe Konnie told his defining story to his family, his friends. Maybe he didn't. Maybe he wanted to forget it. Maybe he was ashamed of it and wanted a different story and so told that one instead. Or maybe he told it so many times, he got tired of it.

For a long time I thought my own defining story was one of domestic violence. But I have come to believe it wasn't the violence that shaped me, it was my family's reaction to it. It was their abandonment.

I've examined that story in different ways and from different angles. I've picked it apart, trying to make sense of it. I've told it to therapists, friends, and written many essays about it. I'm not ashamed of that story. And I don't want to forget it or even wish for a different one anymore. But I'm done telling that particular story now.

What stories do we leave behind? Should our secrets die with us? Who tells our stories if we don't? If we never tell our stories, will they someday seep out when we grow too old to keep them under control?

In the first writing class I took at the junior college years ago, we were encouraged to write about the events that made us who we are. These are the stories I try to tell. I send my work out, and sometimes something is published. But even when it isn't accepted, someone read it. For just a moment, that person shared a bit of my life with me. Confirming my place in the great human collage.

Maybe Konnie would have summed up his life like this:

What's to tell? I grew up in Ukraine. After the war, I came to the United States with two friends. I learned English. I worked hard. I bought a little house. Always I loved the American flag.

I'm not ready to sum up my life just yet. But when I do, I hope it will be something like this:

I lived many different lives within this one, some tougher than others. Through them all, I tried to do more good than harm. And in the end, I loved myself and was loved and respected by those I loved and respected.

Descendants of my sister's children may someday learn of my existence. They'll say, "I didn't know we had a great (or great-great) Aunt Mary Helen." Maybe they will make up stories about me.



I wrote this essay during the Pandemic and workshopped it in my writing group on Zoom. I thought it was done.

Then Russia invaded Ukraine.

Two days into the invasion, I see via the internet President Zelenskyy speaking to his people as he walks an early morning deserted street:

So here is a thing. I'm here. We won't put down weapons, we'll protect our country. Because our weapon is our truth and it is our land, our country... That's what I wanted to tell you. Glory to Ukraine!

The news shows miles of Russian tanks, and then footage of Ukrainian citizens making Molotov cocktails in their driveways to fight back.

And though I've done nothing to earn it, I am filled with fierce pride.

I had never given a second thought to my Ukrainian heritage. My father had wanted nothing to do with it, and I only met his parents a couple of times when I was little. I didn't contact Kemp International Probate Research with my questions about Konnie when I had the chance. Now too many years have passed, and I will never know if I have cousins in Ukraine.

All my life people have mispronounced "Zelinka" as "Zelensky." It's like they see a name beginning with a "Z," and automatically add a "sky" (rhymes with "ski") on the end of it. It's annoying. Yet, when a long-time acquaintance introduces me as "Mary Zelensky" to one of her colleagues after a meeting recently, I don't correct her. Instead, I feel honored. Who knows? Maybe "Zelinka" was changed from "Zelenskyy" when my grandfather arrived in the US.

More than eight million Ukrainians have been displaced since the start of the Russian invasion. Thousands of civilians have been killed. More than 13 million are stranded within the Ukraine—unable to leave.

What will their stories be?