Leaving Home: The Remarkable Life of Peter Jacyk

Leaving Home: The Remarkable Life of Peter Jacyk

by John Reynolds

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Petro (Peter) Jacyk survived two of the most horrendous events of the 20th century: the Ukrainian famine of the 1930s, instigated by Stalin and responsible for the deaths of untold millions, and waves of invasion and slaughter from Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. Fleeing postwar Europe in 1949, he arrived in Canada with seven dollars in his pocket and horrific images in his memory. His adopted country would inspire a deep and lifelong love in Jacyk. Here at last, as he put it, he was “free to live and free to succeed.” Through the Toronto building and land development firm he founded, he established himself as an economic and cultural powerhouse. Exacting in his dealings with others, yet a generous mentor, he sought excellence in all of his pursuits. In time, the man who had begun as a “poor-penny immigrant” became one of the country’s most prominent philanthropists, donating substantial portions of his wealth to projects dedicated to Ukrainian history, language, and culture. Universities such as Harvard, Columbia, and the University of Toronto benefited from his largesse. Leaving Home celebrates the life of a remarkable man determined to make a positive impact on an often-hostile world.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780991858828
Publisher: Figure 1 Publishing
Publication date: 09/01/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
File size: 6 MB

About the Author

John Lawrence Reynolds, a native of Hamilton, Ontario, holds two degrees from McMaster University (English and Psychology). He began his career in advertising, becoming VP-Creative Services of a major ad agency before pursuing a career in feature writing, photography, and film/video production and direction. His travel and feature writing has appeared in periodicals including Financial Post, Toronto Life, Report On Business, Leisureways, Canadian Living, and others. He has published over 25 fiction and non-fiction books, winning various awards including two Arthur Ellis Awards and a National Business Book Award for Free Rider: How a Bay Street Whiz Kid Stole and Spent $20 Million (McArthur&Co.)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One
June 1941

I go the way Providence dictates with the assurance of a sleepwalker.
—Adolf Hitler

It had been a long, hot day in western Ukraine— a day that was about to dissolve into an evening of horror.
Two weeks earlier, nineteen-year-old Petro (Peter) Jacyk had waited for a train to carry him into the city of Stryi, where he worked as an assistant railroad engineer. Fit and energetic, Peter had earned his elevated position through a six-month training course on railroading. On this morning, he was informed, the trains were not coming from the west because the German army had bombed the railroad tracks leading to Poland. Finding other means of transportation, he managed to reach the railway yard, where he learned to his astonishment that the Soviet Union was at war with Germany.

Peter and his fellow employees were instructed to remain at the railway yard, eating and sleeping in a large communal, hall until further orders were issued. Loudspeakers installed in the hall repeatedly proclaimed that brave Soviet troops were advancing deep into German-occupied territory on their way to a glorious victory of Communism over Fascism.

No one believed it. How could they, when the sound of distant German artillery competed with the loudspeakers, and German Messerschmitt aircraft were attacking the city, unhindered by either anti-aircraft fire or Soviet planes?

For a few days, Peter managed to avoid leaving the railway centre aboard trains travelling east and west. Those sent west toward the front were loaded with troops and supplies. Trains dispatched east toward the Soviet Union conveyed bureaucrats as well as labour leaders and “higher intelligentsia” in comfortable passenger cars where they would safely escape the expected carnage. Meanwhile, following Stalin’s orders to “destroy all that cannot be evacuated,” factories and food supplies were either blown up or shipped east, along with almost half of the cattle on Ukrainian farms.

Amid this chaos and destruction, Peter was finally assigned to manoeuvre trains within the rail yard in preparation for their loading and departure. Day after day, the news from the incessantly chattering loudspeakers grew more outrageous and unbelievable. By the end of the month, the Soviet propaganda machine declared that the unvanquished Soviet army was actually approaching Berlin, even while German artillery fire crept closer by the hour.

On this day in late June, the sound of Panzer tank divisions could be heard on the city’s outskirts, announcing the advance of the German Sixth Army and the success of Operation Barbarossa, Germany’s long-planned invasion of the Soviet Union. Despite the preposterous claims of victory for the Soviet Union forces, more than 4.5 million Axis troops and 600,000 motorized vehicles were moving steadily east along a front extending from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, almost 3,000 kilometres.

The noise of war so near to the city was frightening, though perhaps not as alarming in western Ukraine as elsewhere in Europe. While the Germans were feared, the Soviets, who had occupied eastern Ukraine for almost twenty years and western Ukraine for barely two years, were hated, and almost anything or anyone who would drive off the commissars and soldiers was considered beneficial. It’s not that anyone welcomed the Germans—they were invaders, after all—but compared with the Soviets, some might hope they would be the lesser of two evils.

When German artillery began shelling the city at the end of the day, however, choosing sides took a back seat to finding means of survival. The artillery barrage began killing residents indiscriminately, and as the barrage crept closer to the rail yard, Peter and two companions decided it would be safer to spend the night in a passenger railway car rather than the massive communal building. Smaller targets, they assumed, were less likely targets.
This was not the case. Sometime after midnight, German artillery started blasting switches and roundtables in the rail yard. Would the artillery batteries target the trains themselves next, assuming passenger cars were as worthy of destroying as freight cars? Peter didn’t know but, convincing the other young men that they would be safer elsewhere, he led them away from the rail yards and toward the centre of the city.

By 3 am, what should have been a soft summer’s night had become a simulation of hell. The flash of distant guns firing toward the city, the whistle of artillery shells passing overhead, the thunderous explosions when they hit their targets, the rumble of encroaching Panzer tank divisions, and the screams of frightened residents created a nightmare experience that the young men could not imagine becoming more horrifying. But it did.

With dawn beginning to break, the three men reached a jail that had been converted to a prison operated by the nkvd (Narodnyy komissariat vnutrennikh del, or People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs), the dreaded Soviet secret police. They watched as a Soviet guard scurried down from his watchtower and ran off, leaving the prison gate unlocked behind him. Assuming the guard was the last to leave the prison, Peter and the others entered the building.
The prison entrance opened into a large courtyard, empty except for a handful of prisoners left behind who wandered around dazed, asking “Have the Russians gone?” and “How close are the Germans?”

Peter couldn’t tell them. Besides, the view through two doors, opening into what appeared to be a communal shower room, had caught his attention. Heaped against the far wall of the larger room were stacks of men’s clothing, obviously removed in haste and tossed aside. But it was the oversized drain in the centre of the tiled floor that drew Peter’s eye. The drain and much of the floor surrounding it were heavily splattered with blood. A massacre had taken place here just hours ago, Peter realized. But where were the victims? And what of the Soviet guards? Would they return if the Germans failed to enter the city immediately? The risk was too great to linger in such a dangerous place, and turning to his friends, Peter suggested they leave the jail.

The sun was up by now, and walking out of the prison, Peter noticed for the first time a concrete slab bordering the jail, measuring about four metres wide and fifty metres long. Atop the slab were two openings, each about fifty centimetres square. As he passed the slab, he saw that the cover of one of these openings appeared partially open and, curious, he lifted it to look inside. To his surprise and horror, he saw a man’s face, covered in blood and excrement, staring back at him. Even more shocking, the man appeared to recognize him. “Peter,” the man said in a voice almost too weak to utter the words, “what are you doing here?”

In amazement, Peter almost dropped the cover back into place. He recognized the man as his cousin, Adam Kamianka, from their village of Synevidsko Vyzhnie. No one in the family had heard from Adam since his arrest by the Soviets weeks earlier. Calling for help from passersby, Peter began lifting his cousin out of the concrete pit, which he realized, with revulsion, was the prison’s septic tank.

Freeing Adam through the small opening was difficult, and his cousin cried out in pain. “Please be careful,” he moaned. “I have been shot.” Once Adam was out of the tank, Peter could see he was naked except for a thin vest. Lying on the ground, waiting for someone to bring a stretcher, Adam began to describe the horror he had experienced.

He likely had never been formally charged with any offence, let alone tried for a crime. With many other prisoners, he was probably arrested on a tip, on a whim, or just as a means of terrorizing young Ukrainian men suspected of engaging in anti-Soviet activities. It didn’t matter. He had been imprisoned, questioned, and threatened with torture.

With the Germans drawing near to the city, the Soviet guards had been ordered to abandon the prison and flee east. Either fearing the prisoners would provide damning information to the Nazis or out of some purely sadistic motive, they decided to kill as many as possible before leaving.

One by one, the men had been taken from their cells, marched into the shower room, ordered to undress and lie on the tiled floor, and shot in the head. Then they were dragged to the septic tank and dumped inside. The number of prisoners in the jail who were brutally executed by the Soviets that day without a trial or, in most cases, without knowing the charges against them, has never been determined. In other cities, the numbers in each case have been estimated in the hundreds.

In addition to his head wound, Adam Kamianka had been shot in the chest before being tossed into the tank among dozens of corpses and years of accumulated human waste. Somehow he managed to make it to the small opening in the septic tank and lift it high enough to breathe fresh air, which is when Peter found him.

With the help of others, Peter carried his cousin to the nearest hospital. With no professional care or medications to treat him, Adam Kamianka lingered in agony for three days before dying.

The chaos of war and the inhumanity of his cousin’s treatment at the hands of the Soviets could not help but affect the young Peter Jacyk. Although he never forgot discovering his cousin in such appalling circumstances—how could he?—his actions from that point forward were aimed at achieving three goals.

The first was simply to survive, and in the short term, this may have been the most challenging. Depending upon the source, between 7.5 and 12 million Ukrainians perished in the period between 1939 and 1945, dying from an almost endless list of causes, including summary execution, military conflicts, government-sanctioned starvation, exposure, and disease.

His next goal was to prepare himself for whatever future extended beyond the insanity of war that surrounded him. Someday it must end, he knew, and when it did, he must be prepared to act.

His third path led to the dream of building a life not only free of the horrors and despotism that had dominated his country for decades but one that provided the means to assist his native land and its people in achieving freedom, identity, and security. The fact that Peter Jacyk made this dream a reality is a tribute to the human spirit in general and his own fortitude in particular. It’s doubtful that even he, however, could have imagined the degree of success he would achieve and the extent to which he employed it to support Ukrainian studies and culture.

More than a decade after his death, Peter Jacyk’s story continues to resonate on a number of levels. During the fifteen years from 1930 to 1945, the area of the world marked on the west by Berlin, on the east by Moscow, on the north by the Baltic Sea, and on the south by the Black Sea saw the violent deaths of an estimated 14 million people. Peter Jacyk not only survived this age of carnage, he also managed to acquire sufficient assets to aid in reminding the world of the violence and the people who suffered.

His story recounts one man’s ability to seize the advantage and overlook the challenge of arriving in a land that appeared to welcome him on one hand as a refugee from war-torn Europe and dismiss him on the other hand because he lacked British roots. It traces his financial success and the manner in which he applied these resources toward supporting and extending his heritage. And it explains the deep-seated love he felt for his adopted country of Canada.
Half a century after that June night of horror in Stryi, Peter Jacyk reflected on the resources he had accumulated that enabled him to assist Ukraine in so many ways. He took his first steps toward realizing that goal, he noted, when he set off for Canada in 1949 with $7 in his pocket, arriving alone in a land where he knew little of the language and even less of the culture.

He landed in Canada, in his words, a “poor-penny immigrant.” At the end of an eventful life filled with accomplishments, he was recognized as one of the more successful businessmen in Canada and a generous philanthropist. His generosity, much of it directed toward improving the culture and wider appreciation of his beloved Ukraine and its people, continues to yield benefits to millions.
His business achievements generated thousands of jobs in construction and in residential and industrial real estate. In the academic arena, perhaps a similar number of lecturers, researchers, and scholars were able to pursue their studies thanks to the largesse of Peter Jacyk.

How did he achieve so much against such high odds? His simplest explanation was to claim he had been “rich in spirit,” meaning he had the willpower and ambition to keep moving forward. It is an inspiring phrase but perhaps inadequate in depicting all the challenges and barriers he overcame and the number of lives enriched in so many ways.

Table of Contents

1. June 1941

2. Ukraine, 1920-1939: A Beleaguered Nation

3. Surviving the Horrors, 1939-1945

4. Escape to Canada

5. A Sometimes Hostile Land

6. Books and Beginnings

7. Prospects and Promises

8. The Realization of Dreams

9. Taking Stands

10. Setting His Own High Standards

11. The Halls of Harvard

12. The Many Schools of Jacyk Support

13. The Demjanjuk Ordeal

14. Russia Pre- and Post-Soviet

15. Ethics, Achievements, and Disappointments

16. Private Life and Public Stances

17. Looking Back With Pride

18. The Practicality of Life


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