Lubow Wolynetz is the curator of folk art at the Ukrainian Museum on the Lower East Side in New York City. Born in Ukraine, she spent four years in a displaced persons camp in Germany following World War II, and then immigrated to the United States with her family. She studied at Hunter College and earned a Master in Library Science from Columbia University. She organized the Ukrainian Museum and Library of Stamford and continues to teach embroidery and other traditional crafts at the museum on the Lower East Side. She was a Clara Lemlich award winner in 2017.
Interview by Larissa Ross
Some things kind of fall into your lap. I think it starts with the family. When I was growing up, we lived according to certain traditions. I was interested in the details: Why do we do this thing or that? Why in this way? What is the purpose? I wanted to know.
I was six when we had to leave Ukraine. We were fleeing the Bolsheviks in a covered wagon, bombs blazing, through war.
When we finally landed in this little town in Germany, my mother went through to see what we had and what we did not have. She saw that I had outgrown my embroidered shirt.
So, I had no embroidered shirt, and this is a big thing for Ukrainians. She had some cloth–my mother was a seamstress–and all the other women got together bits of thread and things, whatever they had, and my mother made the shirt. I remember putting it on; it was a really important moment. In the middle of everything, the fact that I had to have this piece of tradition was meaningful.
I forgot about that for a long time until this guy from our camp who lived in California wanted to put a film together about our camp. I saw myself in this embroidered shirt and it struck me. I think a lot of my love of tradition started then.
While we were in the displaced persons camp, I remember this little photo studio opened up in the German town and a lot of people went to have their picture taken. Everyone gathered together different pieces of traditional clothing for the photos, and the result was all of these pictures of people in traditional Ukrainian costume; it was as if to say, “we made it. We survived.”
While we were in the camps, the older people organized everything for us children: schools and girl groups and boy groups and choirs; we put on plays. The parents took wonderful care of us. There was a school teacher we had who loved embroidery. My mother taught me first how to embroider, and this teacher really developed it for me. She would have us do an hour of embroidery every day; even the boys had to embroider. Her most proficient students she would take to her attic room, in which she had a whole suitcase full of embroidery samples. I thought as a child how I would love to have a suitcase just like it, and now I do! She really was an inspiration to me.
I was part of this children’s choir in the camp and one day the choir director announced we were going to sing for one of the American generals. They didn’t have much American music, so we sang “America the Beautiful,” “Old MacDonald,” and “Kookaburra Sits on the Old Gum Tree,” which is an Australian song. It must have been quite funny for them, you know, to be sung an Australian song; I didn’t quite know then, but looking back, it was really funny. We had fun.
We came to the United States in 1949, sponsored by my mother’s cousins. I went to grade school, then Washington Irving High School, then Hunter College. I got my Master’s Degree in Library Science from Columbia University. I started working in the Slavic Division of the New York Public Library. The Slavic Division had a very rich collection of Ukrainian books, including ethnographic works, and it was fascinating to me. I was able to delve into the texts and it really deepened my understanding of Ukrainian traditions and art.
There was another Ukrainian woman who worked in the general collections, Ivana Rozanowsky. She was older, and a lawyer by trade, but due to differences in the legal code between the United States and Europe, she couldn’t practice here, so when she came to the United States, she got her degree in Library Science.
Ivana and I would often get lunch together, coffee together, something together. She was really a sort of guide, a sort of mentor to me. She was head of the Ukrainian National Women’s League; it was a lot of middle aged women. They knew you had to incorporate the young to make these things flourish, and they did. They were always trying to rope us into things. Ivana frequently discussed the collection of folk art the League had purchased, and when the Museum opened, we worked together. She didn’t really do research, and she knew I did.
She was very encouraging; she would say to me, “Why don’t you look up this thing or that.” She would have me write articles, explanations of pieces for the walls, everything. Even years later, the diaspora artists wanted to do an exhibit, and they only had three paintings. I was able to go through what we had here and supplement their pieces.
Meanwhile, I began to teach at the Ukrainian high school here. I taught Ukrainian language, history, geography, culture. I always tried to make it fun; those classes can be so dry. I still do a lot of lecturing and teaching, and I always try to keep it interesting. For the school concert one year, they decided they didn’t want to do the same old thing, so we decided we wanted to do a traditional Ukrainian folk wedding. I wrote the script for it, directed, worked on the costuming, made sure everything was accurate. I still see my old students every once in awhile–in their 50’s now–and they still recall the songs; they’ll still say “I remember your culture class,” and that really warms my heart.
Anyway, the Ukrainian Bishop from the seminary in Stamford, Connecticut came to see the folk wedding performance, and he loved it. Afterward, he approached me and said that he needed someone to teach language and history to the seminarians. I agreed to begin teaching and lecturing there while remaining part-time here at the museum.
When I was teaching at the seminary, the Bishop took me down into the basement, where they had all these items: documents and embroideries and pieces of artwork. He just sort of said to me, “do you think you can clean this up?” The seminarians gave me a hand, and we organized and catalogued everything, and created the Ukrainian Museum and Library of Stamford. It’s all in this great château-looking structure, and it’s still running quite well.
These days I still work at the Ukrainian Museum here in New York. I teach embroidery and it’s beautiful to see people of all different backgrounds and cultures that come in to take the classes. They’ll ask about the tradition and want to know if they can change a color here or there, always trying to be respectful. There was one woman, Sylvia Kontos; she was Jewish married to a Greek. She did many, many embroideries here in the classes. Sylvia had cancer, and before she passed she asked her daughter to donate her embroidered pieces to the museum, and she did. That really touched me.
I don’t discuss these things to talk about myself; it’s not so I can say, “look what I did,” I just love it. Some of these young people are looking for a big paycheck, and these sorts of things that I do aren’t going to make you a millionaire. At the end of the day, the money doesn’t matter; you can be very wealthy and very unhappy.
My advice to young women would be to find out what you like and see what you can do with it. When I set to work, when I’m doing what I love, everything starts falling into place. I start work on one thing, and someone will say, “did you see this here?” like a chain reaction. Even when I’m doing research, everything just seems to gel. Do what you love.
Interviewer and author Larissa Ross was enrolled in Fordham University professor Chris Rhomberg’s Fall, 2017 urban sociology class. Students profiled women honored as part of Labor Arts’ annual Clara Lemlich Awards, celebrating women in their 80s and 90s who spent a lifetime involved in social justice issues. More at laborarts.org.