The Art of an Easter Tradition a Ukrainian Orphan Learned the Customs of Her Homeland When She Came to Carnegie

By Crompton, Janice | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), April 20, 2014 | Go to article overview

The Art of an Easter Tradition a Ukrainian Orphan Learned the Customs of Her Homeland When She Came to Carnegie


Crompton, Janice, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


For Eryna Honchar, learning the ancient Ukrainian tradition of pysanky was about more than coloring Easter eggs.

It has become a symbol of freedom, of America, to the young Ukrainian orphan who found a loving family and acceptance in Carnegie.

"I didn't learn this in Ukraine. I learned it here," Eryna said as she and other young women worked to finish 400 eggs on a recent Sunday afternoon at St. Peter & St. Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Carnegie.

The 24-year-old woman delicately turned an egg over a candle's flame, melting the wax art she had drawn minutes earlier with a wooden stylus called a kistka. Pysanky (pronounced pih-sun-KEY) is now associated with Easter, but its roots and symbolism go back further, to pagan times.

Sitting in the church's basement social hall, with the aroma of crockpots full of Ukrainian foods to nourish her, Eryna reflected on the life that brought her here.

"I didn't learn much about the Ukrainian culture until I was already here," she said.

Located in eastern Ukraine, in a province near the Black Sea called Donetsk, the orphanage was in a heavily Russian area where few Ukrainian traditions were practiced. Still, children at the orphanage were taught to speak Ukrainian in an effort to help them hold on to some of their roots. Eryna was 9 when George and Angela Honchar adopted her and brought her to live with them in Carnegie.

Today, her hometown is ground zero for the separatist violence that is splashed across news headlines every day. She longs to know what has happened to the children left behind in the building that had little or no heating and a hole in the floor that served as a bathroom. According to a diary kept by her adoptive father, children in the orphanage got one orange per year -- on Christmas Day. Eryna once ate an egg, when she was 7.

As a child, Eryna dreamed of coming to the United States, of finding a loving home in this land of opportunity. An administrator at the orphanage sent a letter that found its way to Josephine Repa, a Carnegie woman who would later become Eryna's patroness and connect her to the Honchars. The letter contained Eryna's palm print.

"That's the reason I was adopted," she said. "I wanted to come to the United States. Everybody wanted to go to the U.S."

Mr. Honchar spent a month in Ukraine, trying to convince officials that he genuinely wanted to adopt Eryna. Eventually, his wife had to make the trip with a copy of their marriage certificate and photos of their two older biological sons to prove they were a family. At the time, there were rumors that foreigners wanted to adopt children to harvest their organs.

"Adoption is a very difficult process in Ukraine," Eryna said.

Mr. Honchar said the fact that he was a Ukrainian-American and spoke the language helped cut through the red tape. When he took the 18-hour train trip from Kiev to the village of Artemivsk in the Donetsk Oblast and saw the conditions at the orphanage, he had no doubt that he and his wife could offer Eryna a better life.

"It was just such a tough life over there," he said. "She has been a blessing to us and she has been a blessing to the community," where she volunteers as a church camp counselor, Sunday school teacher and dance instructor. …

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