|Discovering Your Ukrainian Roots
UNDER THE AUSPICES OF UN VETERANS ORGANIZATION
|One Man’s Search for his Ancestral Roots
by Geoffrey Gese, PCV, Group 32
I will begin with a little history of my family, Germans who immigrated to Ukraine in the
1850s. My great-great grandparents settled within the Odessa region of Ukraine, and
later immigrated to America in 1900. My grandfather, Joseph Gese, was five years
old, born in 1895. On the same vessel was my grandmother’s family, Elizabeth
Hartman, who was the age of three years old.
So, when I arrived in Ukraine in March 2007 and trained as a Peace Corps Volunteer,
it seemed a perfect opportunity to explore my ancestral roots in the Odessa region
near the Black Sea.
My guide was a man named Sergei, who the German Russian Society of America
uses when they come to Ukraine to trace family roots. Sergei hired a driver and
translated for me. He had also researched some information about my grandmother’s
family. BTW I came to Ukraine with information from my father, Leo Gese, the son of
Joseph Gese. My father knew his grandmother’s maiden name and her mother’s
maiden name along with my grandfather’s mother’s maiden name. Sergei’s fee was
$15 per hour and the driver charged 80 cents per kilometer. The total cost of the tour
was $500, well earned by Sergei. He was an excellent guide, taking me to the towns
were that I wanted to visit and already had some information about my family. His
driver was courteous and patient with me.
NOTE: Any information that you have before you come on your ancestral research
will enable the guide to do some research before the journey.
I arrived by train in Odessa from Chernormorckoe in Crimea, where I was serving as a
US Peace Corps Volunteer. I had contacted Sergey by e-mail, so he knew the day of
my arrival. He picked me up in a nice SUV and we began the trip to Wokolow,
Ukraine about 200 kilometers north of Odessa. Wokolow is spelled “Bokolow” which
means wolf in Russian. Shortly before we entered Bokolow, I visited the town just
north of it and went to the only school that serves the area, where I met with some
students from Bokolow. It was the first time that they had ever met an American
whose family was from their town, so they were excited and asked a lot of questions.
Upon leaving the classroom, they asked for my autograph of which I obliged.
Next, I met with the school director and history teacher in the director’s office for some
cheese, kolbasa sausage and vodka. This is a traditional way of being accepted in
When we finally drove into Bokolow, the first stop was the cemetery where I noticed
the only readable headstone of Joe Wolf, the founder of Bokolow. The cemetery was
marked with an old rusty metal cross that had been neglected and was laying on the
ground. No other readable headstones existed. I could see the town from the
Bokolow’s population is currently 82. Last year it was 100 and the village has no
school or post office—or even a shop to buy things. It consists of about 12 houses
built in the old German style, long and narrow. Ukrainian families still live in these
houses. I was unable to find the exact home where my grandfather lived.
Gross & Kleine Libenthal, Ukraine
My grandmother Elizabeth Gese’s maiden name was Hartman and her mother’s
maiden name was Yokum (spelled Jochim in Russian). The Hartman family settled
just south of Odessa in an area known as Kleine Libenthal, which is now the second
largest port city in Ukraine. The town of Kleine Libenthal no longer exists; it is full of
cargo trailers from the local harbor. The cement wall that surrounded the city remains
and one old house is used as a storage office for these cargo trailers. It is the only
one that still exists, although the old church still remains. I did see the old Catholic
church, which still stands as a privately owned building. The old cemetery (still used
by Ukrainians) is overgrown and no old headstones remain of the German Russians
who established the town and built the church.
The next visit was to Gross Libenthal next to Kleine Libenthal. A few of the old
German houses still remain and the old church there has been newly remodeled after
being set on fire. It was used as a small shop during the Soviet era. The cemetery
there is also overgrown and no headstones remain intact. I was hoping to see some
headstones with my family’s names. I visited the inside of that church and noticed it
was nicely kept. No trace of my family remained in the Libenthal area of Ukraine.
The Next Stop
Kendall, Ukraine is the town where the Yokum family lived and is very close to the
Moldovan border. The population is 1,100. Upon entering Kendall, I noticed the old
Catholic church build by the German Russians. With no roof, I could tell that it was
once like a cathedral. Next to this church is a school that was built in the late 1850s,
still used by the local population.
Nothing of the cemetery exists. We met a local man who explained to me that the
local citizens pulled up the old headstones and used them to build their homes. All I
could see were small little humps that are the remains of the graves.
My guide, Sergei, did have some information about the Yokum family and I was able
to see the homes that my great-great grandmother Yokum’s family lived in. The home
of Joseph Yokum and Vogel Yokum still stand and Ukrainian families still live in them.
I was happy to be able to take pictures of these homes, and with the map Sergei
provided, I wrote down the addresses of the very homes that members of my family
lived in. I felt like I belonged there and was happy to finally see where my family’s
roots are—the very church is where they went to church and the very school is where
they went to school. I stayed in Kendall for a few hours and walked around the area. I
stood in the church’s doorways and had my picture taken. It felt good to be the first
member of my family to return in over 109 years.
Contact information for Sergey is his email address
Contact him at least a month before you want to tour with him so that he can plan his
schedule and more importantly seek any information about your family that he can
use during your tour.
Good luck and if you have any questions you can e-mail me at:
son of Leo Gese
son of Joseph Gese
son of Lawrence Gese
Joseph was married to Elizabeth Hartman and had five children:
This cross marked the cemetery
Wokolow community center
In the classroom
Road to Wokolow