Minister Anthony Anderson, a character in playwright George Bernard Shaw’s work, “The Devil’s Disciple,” declares in Act II of the play: “The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them: that’s the essence of inhumanity.”
Since Feb. 24, when Russian president Vladimir Putin unleashed his invasion on Ukraine, the world has seen the inhumanity of Putin’s indifference. But members of St. George Ukrainian Orthodox Church on Yardville-Allentown Road say Putin’s inhumanity has been met locally with a humanitarian outpouring of support for them, and for Ukraine, from the Hamilton community.
Olga Zeleznock, president of the St. August Sisterhood at the church spoke of the pain church members wrestle with daily. “The suffering and devastation in the Ukraine right now is just unimaginable,” she said. “Members of the parish were deeply shocked by the horrific and inhuman attack.”
Many of the newer members of the church still have family members in Ukraine. Marena Skutar, vice president of the Sisterhood, is one of those members. Her family lives in Western Ukraine, close to Poland. She said people there are making food for Ukrainian soldiers which is then driven to special sites near the conflict in Eastern Ukraine.
For Zeleznock, and other longtime members of the church, the pain comes from the present and the past. “We’re remembering the stories our parents told us about Stalin,” she said in an interview.
In 1932 Josef Stalin killed nearly 4 million Ukrainians during what came to be known as the Holodomor. The word itself is Ukrainian and means to exterminate from hunger. Ukrainians starved to death after Stalin’s troops seized land and food from Ukrainian peasants.
The history of that time has been documented by journalist-historian Anne Applebaum in her book, Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine.
The rise of Ukrainian communities in and around Hamilton, due to the Ukrainian diaspora (meaning the dispersion of people from their homeland), can be traced through local churches. Zeleznock’s parents fled the Ukraine for Austria during Stalin’s reign of terror. They eventually immigrated to Brazil where Zeleznock was born, and arrived in the United States in 1962. Her parents were instrumental in leading the building of St. George Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
A 1994 report to the United Nations titled, “Ukrainian Immigration: A Study in Ethnic Survival” details the importance of Ukrainian churches for those who were forced to flee Ukraine. The paper’s author, Ann Lencyk Pawliczko, wrote, “The Ukrainian church played a significant role in the preservation of ethnic identity, for the parish was not only the center of faith and spiritual life but of community life as well. In the first few years of settlement, Ukrainian priests were instrumental not only in providing moral support during difficult times, but also, more importantly, in helping to preserve the Ukrainian language, culture, and customs. Indeed, the social and cultural life of the Ukrainians concentrated around the church.”
One of the oldest Ukrainian churches in the area, The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the U.S.A., was established in 1919 and is located at 824 Adeline St. in Trenton. In addition to St. George Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which began on Center St. in Trenton in 1954, Hamilton is also home to St. Josaphat’s Ukrainian Catholic Church on Deutz Avenue. Saint Josaphat’s held a Ukrainian food sale at the end of March to raise funds for humanitarian aid for Ukraine.
The Ukrainian National Home and Cultural Center on Jeremiah Avenue in Hamilton was purchased in 1968. The house, once known as the Bow Hill mansion, originally belonged to William Trent, the founder of Trenton. The Ukrainian National Home has created a donation site for the Ukrainian Army on Amazon.
While the Ukrainian communities in the area are tight-knit, they are not invisible. “People love our food,” Zeleznock said. Saint George’s spiritual leader, Reverend Peter Levko, noted the building of the church happened between 1972-1976, and was financed, in part, with money raised through the sale of pierogies and other Ukrainian food. He takes out a photo of the church’s last food sale–a drive through–where the line of cars extended so far down Yardville-Allentown road, someone called the Hamilton Police.
Reverend Levko, and his wife Maria, were born in the Ukraine, arriving in the United States in 1998. Reverend Levko has led the St. George parish since November of 2001.
But food wasn’t on the menu of ideas for Rev. Levko after Putin’s invasion. Instead, he wanted prayers from the Hamilton community. Reverend Levko asked for those prayers by having a large banner placed in front of the church reading: “Pray For Ukraine’’. But behind the scenes, church members were quietly gathering humanitarian supplies for shipping.
It was then that Hamilton Mayor Jeff Martin’s administration reached out to the church asking if it needed assistance, a gesture the church deeply appreciated, Rev. Levko said.
Hamilton residents receiving the Township Update’ email on March 3 were asked to donate 17 items, including first aid kits. The list was shared widely on social media. Rev. Levko and Zeleznock said their Ukrainian community was surprised, yet comforted, by the response from Hamilton residents.
“There was a tremendous outpouring of kindness and generosity,” Zeleznock said. Many Hamilton residents brought items. Some people wrote checks to help defray the cost of shipping.
At first, humanitarian aid shipping was free; now there is a hefty price tag. The church found a company willing to ship for 50 cents a pound; but still, the cost adds up quickly. Recently, a couple dropped off fifty boxes of items.
Those boxes joined a growing collection inside the church’s school auditorium. People have dropped off walkers, crutches, even a wheelchair. Zeleznock said she’s still not sure how the church will ship everything to Ukraine.
One Saturday evening, Hamilton resident Eileen Barclay arrived bringing canned goods, plastic utensils and can openers. Barclay said she was moved when she and her husband drove by the banner.
“I told my husband we have to do something,” Barclay said. “I put myself in their shoes,” Barclay added. “How do you just walk away from your home with a child in one hand and a bag in another? That’s their life right now.”
Barclay knows a bit about losing a home. She recounted a time while alone, a fire broke out in her house. A faulty CD player exploded, starting the fire. She lost the contents of her home. Barclay said she continually asks herself, “What more can I do for Ukrainians?” When she found out about the shipping costs during an interview, she wrote out a check.
Barclay also told Zeleznock she had traveled to Kempton Flag in Wall Township to buy a Ukrainian flag to fly in front of her house. Owner Shawn Kempton wrote in a March 20 email, “We have sold approximately 250 Ukraine flags to date. The support for the Ukrainian people has been FANTASTIC!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
Zeleznock said even the visual support has been uplifting for the congregation. Traveling through the township and seeing flags, or even the colors of the Ukrainian flag, she said, speaks to the generosity of spirit from the community. Members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Monsignor Crean Division No. 1 of Trenton carried the Ukrainian flag alongside the Irish flag during the March 19 parade in Hamilton. At least two floats flew Ukrainian flags, and Mercer County Commission Chair Nina Melker carried the Ukrainian flag as she walked the parade route.
As the conflict continues, Zeleznock believes Putin never thought the Ukrainians would unite against him. Princeton University scholar Stephen Kotkin agrees. In a New Yorker interview, Kotkin said, “It turned out that the Ukrainian people are brave; they are willing to resist and die for their country. Evidently, Putin didn’t believe that. But it turned out that ‘the television President,’ Zelensky, who had a 25% approval rating before the war—which was fully deserved, because he couldn’t govern—now it turns out that he has a 91% approval rating. He’s unbelievably brave.”
Despite the show of Ukrainian bravery, and the overwhelming support from all corners of the Hamilton community and beyond, Zeleznock still fears the worst is yet to happen.
“I understand that we’re afraid of that nuclear button, but it bothers me that we can’t do more,’’ Zeleznock said. “It will be a miracle if Ukraine gets out of this. We have decided as a church community that at the moment, all we can do is send humanitarian aid and pray.”