NEW LONDON — For Keith Kimball, a question mark had always hovered around his maternal lineage. He knew that his great-grandfather had immigrated to the U.S. from somewhere in Eastern Europe, bringing customs that Kimball learned from his grandfather and his mother. But the family’s country of origin and ethnic background remained unknown.
“He was a mystery, always, to the family,” said Kimball of his grandfather.
The pieces of information that Kimball did have were confusing. His grandfather’s aunts would claim different things — one would say they were Polish, the other would say Ukrainian. But the family spoke an odd language that Kimball had never heard anywhere else.
The geography didn’t make sense, either. Kimball’s grandfather said the family came from a region of the Carpathian mountains near Poland, Ukraine and Austria. All of his great-grandfather’s documents, Kimball said, listed him as Austrian. But Austria doesn’t share a border with either Poland or Ukraine and is nowhere near the Carpathian mountains.
After some unsuccessful searching in the 1990s, Kimball had given up trying to figure it out. Then, war broke out in Ukraine.
Kimball, who has both Ukrainian and Russian friends, said the war’s outbreak struck him hard. On February 28th, four days after Russia invaded, Kimball posted on Facebook.
“My grandfather’s family was from some border region of the Ukraine, but we never knew his true nationality. His family walked out of the region and eventually immigrated to the US in the early 20th century. He spoke 5 languages including either Ukrainian or Russian … So, I admit to a bias when I see Ukrainian civilians threatened by miserable Russian soldiers who never wanted this war.”
After publishing his post, Kimball received a call from his mother, now in her 70s. She wanted to talk about her family’s history. She gave him a few details he hadn’t had before.
“She … told me that [my great-grandfather] was born near a mountain pass where four countries came together,” said Kimball.
Kimball decided to give his search another try. It helped that, this time, he had an advantage that hadn’t existed in the ‘90s — modern technology.
“I’ve got Google maps, I’ve got Wikipedia, I’ve got genealogy.com and stuff like that. I can really take a stab at this with the information tools available today.”
Kimball then had a realization that felt like a missing puzzle piece falling into place. His great-grandfather was born in 1896, in a time when the Austro-Hungarian Empire still existed. If his grandfather had been living in what was, at the time, Eastern Hungary, he could have been near both Ukraine and Poland.
After doing some research, Kimball located the village where he believed his great-grandfather had come from — a place called Biala Woda, which means “white water” in Polish. He said he’d located maps from the 19th century that placed the village in the valley of a mountain pass in Southern Poland close to the Slovakian and Ukrainian borders.
But that still didn’t explain the unknown language — not Ukrainian, not Russian, not Polish.
He looked up people who lived in the region where the mountain pass was located, and discovered that there existed a group called the Lemkos, an ethnic minority with roots in Poland, the Ukraine and Russia.
According to Kimball, there are approximately 2 million Lemkos alive today, and 300,000 Lemko descendants living in the US. Many of them speak a language called Rusyn, which some scholars consider an independent language, while others consider it a dialect of Ukraine.
For Kimball, everything started to make sense.
“I saw pictures of the people in the region. I recognized [my grandfather’s] features and his mannerisms,” said Kimball.
It also explained the medley of traditions that Kimball remembers as being so important to his grandfather — and now, to him. On Easter, they ate kielbasa and eggs – Polish foods — and his grandfather would go to his neighbor’s houses and say “Christ is risen!” — a tradition common in the Byzantine Catholic and Greek Orthodox traditions.
Kimball got his confirmation after speaking to his younger brother, who had gotten a genetic profile done through the company 23 and Me. The profile came back as over 20 percent “Rusyn” – another name for Lemko.
Learning about his history, Kimball said, has intensified his feelings about the war.
“It’s heartbreaking from a contemporary sense,” he said. Because, like I said, I’m very familiar with the people. But now that I know that there could be people related to me in peril, it definitely makes it more palpable for me.”
Once it becomes safe to go to Ukraine, he said, he hopes to go visit. He said he’s done a genetic test, and he’s trying to figure out if he has distant relatives in the area.
Learning about his heritage, he said, made him wonder about genetics, and exactly how much a person’s biological make-up influences one’s life. He recalled opening up a website about traditional Lemko folk music and seeing a recorder — an instrument that Kimball had, in high school, decided to take up on a whim. Even if it’s coincidence, it’s taken on new significance in the context of what he knows about his culture.
It has also inspired him to continue passing on the traditions to his nine-year-old daughter, Pixel. He is teaching her to color Easter eggs using wax, the way his grandfather did. The family celebrates the Epiphany with the same fanfare as Christmas. And this year, for Easter, they are having kielbasa and eggs.
“I feel like I have this whole dark vague spot that’s just sharply come into focus,” he said. “And now I just want to learn everything I possibly can.
Banner photo: Thomas Timothy Cornick, son of “Warren” James Cornick, son of Timod Kornaj (changed to Timothy Cornick) born. 1854 around Baila Woda, Poland (then Austria).