Violetta Danyliuk still has vivid memories of the violence and destruction that plagued her home city of Odessa during the second World War.
The 86-year-old Ukrainian refugee was aged six when her own grandmother was killed in the family’s backyard during a bombardment. The stump of the tree the family used as a shield during bombings is still in that garden, Kseniya, Violetta’s 39-year-old granddaughter explains. She interprets for her family who are speaking to me from the Burren Atlantic Hotel in the village Ballyvaughan, Co Clare, where they have spend the past two months.
“My grandmother’s life started with a war and now is ending with a war,” Kseniya privately told me over the phone, two weeks before we set up this family Zoom. “This is something so many people never could have imagined would happen.”
Violetta is struggling with the early stages of dementia and apologises that she finds it difficult to recall details about her past. “I really have to dig deep into my brain to remember,” she says in Russian, her granddaughter relaying these details on to me in English.
“Our family had a cow at that time, and it was our biggest treasure, it provided food and was a means of survival,” she continues. “The cow was all they had, so when the bombing started her grandma ran out side to save it. The cow was saved but Grandma was killed.”
Even though eight decades have passed since that fateful day, Violetta still remembers how her mother shielded her under a table in the kitchen. “She was so scared, she had me tied to her. I remember telling her, ‘Mum if I don’t die from the bombs I’ll die from you suffocating me’.”
There are other details from that period of her childhood that stick out. “When my grandma was carried away on the stretcher by soldiers, that’s so vivid. I used to go into the backyard after that, to find where she was buried, I thought she was there.
“I also remember how my mother received a death notice for my father three times. She was crying so hard she almost got scars on her face. And then he ended up coming home. But the condition he was in, we were speechless. He was entirely broken, he had so many illnesses. It’s a miracle he survived.”
Violetta spent the next 80 years of her life in that house on the outskirts of Odesa, bringing up her son, Oleksandr, under the same roof. She dreamed of becoming a doctor but was unable to afford the fees so instead went into science.
“Being a doctor was almost impossible for women back then. I wanted to choose something that was close to medicine so I leaned towards biology and physiology. I always wanted to work with people and felt if I couldn’t be a doctor, at least I could do research on how to make medicines and cure diseases.”
She went on to do a PhD in the early 1960s, researching brainwaves and the effects of sleep deprivation on the brain. In this role, she worked alongside the internationally renowned neurology professor Marx Borisovich Sjtark. While explaining these details, her son Oleksandr briefly interjects, adding that his mother’s work influenced him to study medicine and become a doctor.
“She was working with all this brand new equipment for brain scans, and this prompted me to study ultrasounds,” he tells me. “I ended up in charge of the biggest lab doing ultrasounds in Odessa.”
Despite this professional success, life was not easy for Violetta, who as a single mother raised her son. “I had a pretty difficult life,” she says. “Life in that part of the world was not like western countries; it was tough. Even though I had a PhD, I had to work three jobs to make ends meet and give my son a good education.”
“My grandmother was always very career-orientated but she carried a lot of weight on her shoulders,” her granddaughter adds. “I just regret not asking her all these detailed questions about her life before. We talked when I was younger back home but now I’m thinking, why didn’t I ask more specific questions?”
Violetta finally retired in her early 70s and then dedicated her time to taking care of the family home and tending to the fruit trees and vegetables in the garden. She maintained a strong bond with her high school friends, who continued to meet up throughout her life.
“She was always extremely active. My parents would joke that she never sat still,” says Kseniya. “She loved her home so much. But things have changed a lot in terms of her health and capabilities. Even four years ago she was in a completely different place. A lot changed in the last year.”
Violetta arrived in Ireland in mid-March with her son Oleksandr, a general practitioner in his 60s, and his wife Veronika, an architecture historian. The family's journey from Ukraine via Moldova was traumatic, particularly when Violetta had to leave her beloved dog Tasha behind.
“They spent the first 12 hours waiting in the rain and snow for a bus, and there was nowhere for Grandma to sit down,” says Kseniya. “When they finally made it to Moldova, they were dropped off in a field and had to walk for hours until they made it to a train station.”
Violetta’s expired passport led to further delays but the family finally made it into the European Union and, with support from a contact in Ireland, flew to Dublin. Shortly after their arrival, Violetta suffered a stroke and spent a week in hospital in Galway. She was reunited with her Labrador, Tasha, who made it to Ireland thanks to the efforts of the same Irish contact, when she was discharged from hospital.
The family are now staying in a cottage on the grounds of the Burren Atlantic Hotel where about 250 other Ukrainians have been given accommodation. Kseniya came over from her home in California when her family first arrived in Ireland to help them settle, but needed to get back to her children after a few weeks. She's returned for another visit because she's concerned about her grandmother's health and her family's wellbeing.
“The doctors went above and beyond to help her. We’re extremely grateful for that. But I want to make sure she’s getting the services she needs, because they live so far away from the city. These things are crucial – her quality of life depends on it.”
Kseniya had originally hoped to bring them back to the United States, but says her grandmother’s condition means that probably won’t happen.
“She’s very fragile. She’s saying the people here are extremely friendly and kind but then she says, ‘I miss home very much, I want to go home’. She’s trying to find that balance between letting people know she’s grateful but also that she feels sad leaving her life. I think she’s scared to ask the question, ‘do you think I’ll ever go back?’”