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The life of Olena Teliha  

Numerous conflicting accounts describe the day and place of Olena Teliha’s birth, as well as the date of her death. By one account, Olena Shovhenova (Teliha) was born on 21 July 1906 in the city of Ellinsk, near Moscow; by another, it was on 21 July 1907 in Saint Petersburg, where her father was stationed in service. In any case, she grew up completely in an environment of Russian language and culture. Her family moved to Kyiv in 1918.

After the occupation of Ukraine by the Soviets, Olena’s family, feeling all of the communist “joys” (hunger, grueling work for a piece of bread to eat, struggle), left Ukraine. Olena was all of 16 years old. Her father left first, as part of the evacuated target="_blank"UNR government of which he was a member.

In 1922 the Shovhenov family settled in the Czech city of Podiebrady, which became a center of cultural life for Ukrainian emigrants. Olena had not learned the Ukrainian language in russified Kyiv, so she started to pick it up here. Many people helped her in that regard, among them Mykhailo Teliha – her future husband. She became accustomed to the Ukrainian language, but with her brother Serhij she continued to speak in Russian. She also spent much time with Russian emigrants.

But one day, all of that turned around on a dime. This is how she would later relate the story to Ulias Samchuk:

“...I was in the company of some fine fellows, sitting at a table and drinking wine. I’m not sure who it was who first brought up the subject of our language... who started verbalizing those vulgar, derogatory references about a "dog's language"... Everyone laughed loudly... but I felt within myself a violent protest, a quickly growing anger and disgust. I didn’t know where those feelings came from. But I wasn’t going to take it; in an instance I rose to my feet, slammed my fist on the table and cried out indignantly, “You bastards! That dog’s language is my language! It's the language of my father and my mother! And I don’t want to know you anymore!”

“I turned on my heels and, not looking back, I walked out. I never returned to them. From that time, somewhat like Illya Muromets (who didn’t speak for thirty-three years), I started to converse solely in Ukrainian... to the great surprise of all of my friends and all of the Hospodarska Academy.”

Thus Ukraine gained a talented poetess and publicist who, unfortunately, would never come to develop but a small part of her potential and talents.

Although Olena Teliha would not live long enough to leave behind an extensive literary collection of poetry, that collection which she did leave would prove to be of such force of energy, that all but the completely indifferent would be inspired by her and driven to action. She appraised all the writings of the time from the perspective of revolutionary needs, and from the perspective of what she saw as being for the good of Ukraine in that stormy time of upheavals. She derided any whiny sentiments and all expressions of hopelessness or despair in the writings of the day. She called for authors to use words to paint bold new pictures of freedom fighters, of heroes and heroines.

She paid particular attention to the new portrayal of Ukrainian women. “The role of the Ukrainian woman,” she wrote, “is just as exceptional as is the predicament of her nation. She must be both a builder of that nation, alongside men, and at the same time must be a hospodynia in the life of men.”

      Fingers breaking – long and slender,
      To tear up habits like old cats,
      To take up weapons from your hand
      And strike hard where a hard strike is needed.
                 - O.Teliha, “Answer”

Noble, of high moral standing and principled. Olena Teliha set high standards for those around her and for herself. No matter the circumstances, she always strived to follow the moral guidelines described by what she called “civil courage”. Here she elaborates on civil courage in her writings:

“Consequently, can there be a real understanding of heroism without ordinary civil courage? No, a thousand times no.

What is it, this civil courage, which is necessary for the triumph of any ideal? What are its basic attributes?

It is foremost the ability to say “no” when things are required of you that go against your dignity and your convictions.

It is the ability to be yourself in all situations and before people of all convictions and views, to openly display and defend your own convictions and the convictions of those others whose views you share.

It is the ability to stand behind those people whom you respect, risking various forms of unpleasantness and coldness from others. And it is, in the end, knowing how to boldly proclaim the bitter truth to those who need to hear that truth, rather than just whispering it quietly in the corner only to those who share your views and congratulate you with a knowing look or handshake .”

Olena did not abandon these principles – neither when the cost of upholding them could have meant the loss of her best friend, nor when she found herself in mortal danger. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union, declaring its action as a war against bolshevism and communism, some nationalists believed that they would have the opportunity to reconstruct their country after the war. Teliha, along with other activists, moved to the east despite numerous warnings against that idea. But above all, Olena dreamed of returning to the land of her forefathers. Traveling past the turbulent waters of the Zbruch, Olena managed to return to Kyiv and there went on to head the Ukrainian Writers’ Union.

It didn’t take long for everyone to abandon any previous hopes tied to the Hitlerites and their plans. Since any rebirth of the Ukrainian nation went counter to their ideas, Olena’s activism at the head of the Writers' Union was considered a criminal act by the Germans.

Under the imminent threat of arrest, Oleh Olzhych met with Olena Teliha at a safe house. He informed her of her danger and instructed her to leave Kyiv immediately. To this Olena declared, “I won’t leave… I won’t flee in the face of danger. I won’t leave Kyiv again. I belong to it. Someone must remain who will stare death in the face and yet not retreat.”

From the accounts of others we learn that when Olena Teliha was informed about her imminent arrest and was warned not to go to the offices of the Writers’ Union, she replied, “People are waiting for me. I cannot stay away just because I’m afraid of being arrested. In the end, those people will also be arrested. I can’t run away, lest some say “when danger came she fled, yet before the danger she had preached about patriotism and about giving of oneself”. If I don’t return, do not forget me. If I should perish, then know that I performed my duty to the very end”.

Later that same day, anyone seen entering the Writers’ Union building was apprehended. Not only Olena, but also Mykhailo Teliha found themselves among those held. At some point they were told that anyone who was not a member of the Writers’ Union could leave. One member of the Union did leave, but Mykhailo and Olena remained. By some accounts it was on 21 February 1942 (by others, on the 13th of that month), that the Gestapo shot all of the arrestees at Babyn Yar. No trace remained, not even a mohyla. Only their memory, which will live long, far and wide!

She lived and perished showing us all the road that we should take – not by word, but by deed; not in fear, but in battle!

- Ludmyla Yurchenko (Kyiv)

For further reading on this topic, we recommend:

Outstanding Ukrainian Women (a CYM publication):

Photo album: Olena Teliha

Wikipedia on Olena Teliha

The Writings of Olena Teliha

Teliha: Letters and Memoires


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