Family's adventures . . . from the misery of wartime Europe to the happiness of
a historic house in Sydney
[Mr. and Mrs. Denysenko, with their children, Anna, 4, and Hala, 5, outside their 120-year-old home. LEFT: Icon made up of the words "God is Love" in many languages.]
After escaping from the worst men could do . . .
WALK into Leonid Denysenko's West Pennant Hills home and you walk into a tiny spot of the Ukraine . . . icons, lovely icons, in every room, all draped with the traditional
And the embroidery itself, with its jewel-like colors festooning the sofa, chairs, covering the large table where we were to sit down to morning tea of ham. anchovies, and pickled cucumber.
We were there because of an icon. A most unusual work that had taken the ebullient Leonid over a year to execute. It was not painted, but fashioned from three words, "God is Love," in 47 different languages, plus shorthand, "the language of business."
The picture, a seated Christ, dominated the room. It was only a print, said Leonid. The original is in the Vatican's private art gallery. But copies had been sent to every corner of the world, even to remote missions of various Christian denominations in Africa, the Pacific,
Byzantine in form and tradition, the icon is symbolic in every part. Leonid said he had thought of "painting" it in words because he wanted it to promote a message of love throughout the world, regardless of race, religion, locality, or social status.
A deeply religious Ukrainian Orthodox, with a strong love for the culture and traditions of his homeland, he has been painting icons for many years now.
Born in 1926. he came to Australia 25 years ago with his father, Dmytro. his mother, Nina, and his brother,
His account of their life in Poland and Germany during World War ll and their subsequent journey to Australia would fill a volume. We heard only part of it
that morning, sitting quietly in the colorful little living
Opposite, behind the table sat his mother and his wife, Luba, both of whom speak little English but who nodded and smiled throughout the tale. By their side were his two daughters, Hala, five, and Anna, four, wearing colorful Ukrainian blouses. Neither can speak English. They are starting to learn it at school this year.
Even the old, weatherboard house, steeped in 120 years of Australian history — more about that later — seemed to take on a special quietness to listen to the events of another, faraway world.
'I have not thought of this part of my life for many years," said Leonid. "I wanted to forget it. But when 1 knew you were coming to see me today I sat down and
started to remember it all.
"Strange, but at the time it was just a struggle to be free. You didn't think about it. Now, with new eyes, it seems strange, interesting, a little like a thriller."
The happy days
before the war
Leonid's father, an army officer in the Ukraine, had been wounded and lost an arm during World War I. He had then gone to Warsaw to work as a civil engineer.
"We lived well in Warsaw before World War II — a luxurious home, plenty of travels abroad. My mother trained with the ballet school of Tatyana Vysocka. a pupil of Pavlova, and the school of Ukrainian folk
"When war came she was working as an assistant director and choreographic adviser at the Ortyma, a Polish children's theatre. She had also appeared in
several Polish movies.
"I was completing my graphic arts at the academy. After the Germans came it was hard. Luckily we had dedicated professors. Our classrooms in winter were unprotected and the snow would blow on to the tables freezing our fingers.
"There were no text books. We had to write
everything down as the teacher spoke. When I finished I sought the sanctuary of a theological college for two years. The Germans, who were picking up boys and girls for labor camps, did have some respect for priests.
"My father was not a popular man with the Germans. He had fought in the battle for Warsaw. One day, in the middle of lunch, we received a tip that the Gestapo were
coming for him that night. We just stood up and left the table as it was, taking only money to avoid the suspicions of our neighbors.
"My father was a good planner. He showed us a map and worked out a route for us to get to the Slovakia border and meet, I to go with him, my brother with my mother. We were lucky. We made it and a priest helped us to cross into the safety of Slovakia."'
Their safety was short-lived. The Germans broke the country's neutrality and marched in. The desperate family boarded a refugee train, their only possession a kettle. Where they were going, they didn't know, and they didn't dare ask questions.
It was a nightmare journey. They were still wearing the clothes they had left home in, now torn and shabby. And Mrs. Denysenko. who had been injured during the Warsaw fighting, was ill and weak.
"By now we were in Germany. We heard people talking and learnt that we were all to be put into forced labor camps when we reached the next town. Gods mercy was with us. There was an air raid and the train stopped a few miles out.
"Again my father organised us. It was dark and he watched the guard outside and worked out the time his back would be turned. Father told us to wait until he gave the word, then jump and run for the protecting
Story: GLORIA NEWTON
Pictures: RON BERG
'"I remember he asked another Ukrainian to join us but the man, who was quite well off, refused saying he
had too much luggage.
"Well, we jumped, we ran, and we made it. Later we saw Allied planes bomb that town and heard afterwards
that it had been wiped out."
The four Denysenkos started walking by night, sleeping by day, living on chestnuts they found in the woods, begging bread from small villages or rummaging
through garbage cans.
HE SPELLS OUT A MESSAGE OF LOVE TO THE WORLD
They came upon a friend in one town who sheltered them and helped them forge army papers for Leonid's father. The friend made the necessary rubber stamps from an old car tyre.
"The papers stated my father was an SS captain who had lost his battalion on the Eastern front and he and his family were to be given every help. They worked. We got food, clothes, rations and kept on walking.
"But the war was ending and there was confusion everywhere. We knew we had to give up the military pose and return to being refugees as it would be much better if we met Allied troops, as we hoped to do.
"A few days after we had destroyed the papers we were arrested by Germans in a village and put into prison. A couple of days later the Americans walked in
and we were set free."
Leonid worked for the American army for some time after the war until the family were reunited, when he
went back to painting.
Then the family decided to make a new life in Australia. They arrived here in 1948 and were sent to a refugee camp at Bathurst, N.S.W. They were under a five-year contract to the Government, and the two young
men learnt they were to be sent to Queensland as cane
"I was distraught. I didn't want to be split up from my parents. Luckily the camp held an arts and crafts exhibition soon after we arrived and I exhibited some of
the sketches I had made in Germany and in Italy on my
"Then I sketched cartoons of the hierarchy of the camp and of the then General (later Field-Marshal) Sir Thomas Blamey who opened the exhibition. He was very pleased with the drawing and I was bold enough to say I
didn't want to be a cane cutter.
"His reply was that my hands were too good. So I
became staff records officer of the camp, which gave me plenty of time to sketch. My mother worked in the dining room, my father, a very proud man. wanted to work, and was appointed a camp police man. My brother became assistant messing officer."
In time, the Denysenkos left the camp and Leonid completed the necessary examinations which allowed
[Leonid Denysenko and his wife, Luba, in front of his icon masterpiece. LEFT: The artist and his mother, an expert embroiderer. Leonid is holding a Ukrainian musical
instrument, the bandura.]
him to teach art in secondary and high schools. His brother studied architecture and engineering and is now working with the Commonwealth Department of Works in Sydney.
They built a house at Carlingford and stayed together until Jurij married and left. Then, one day, Dmytro Denysenko came home full of excitement. He had found a house, a fine house, one full of history. They must buy it immediately.
A good marriage
and new home
Leonid was also married by this time. Luba, who arrived here eight years ago, had lost her father during
the war. A Ukrainian schoolteacher, he had been killed by German soldiers in front of his family's eyes.
Everyone in her village had been deported and the place was burned to the ground in retaliation for the people harboring partisans.
But back to the house. They all went to see it and fell in love with it. Leonid, like his father, is passionately interested in history and he felt this house was full of it.
A long, low. colonial type, it served as a signal station more than a century ago. Ships arriving in Botany Bay flashed messages to the house which were transmitted to the Governor's house at Parramatta from a tall flag pole
on the roof.
Today Botany Bay is partly obscured by trees and the buildings that have risen around the house. But you can look down from the back veranda and see the Harbor Bridge, the Opera House, and a wide vista of the city.
"Once there was a well beside the house and the road outside was only a narrow lane made from ceramic ink bottles. There was also a shed, made from logs, where prisoners were housed overnight on their way to Parramatta gaol.
"We bought the land and house for a little over $15,000 rolled up our sleeves and started in to making it habitable. It had stood alone for a long time and people had sort of helped themselves to things inside it.
"We are happy here. But we have been told by the council that we must demolish it before next November. What I am going to do is build a new house and then try to have this moved, by truck, to some land we have down
the south coast."
Nina Denysenko, who is an expert embroiderer, was for a long time, officer in charge of culture and education for the Ukrainian Association in Sydney.
She formed her own ballet company, the Australian-Ukrainian school called "Dnipro" which comprises 120 dancers and musicians.
A tiny woman, with a sweet, slow smile, she has not gathered her ballet company together for some time now - not since her husband died three years ago.
The centuries-old art of Ukrainian embroidery. Leonid told me, was still practised extensively in the country towns of his homeland. Laborers in the fields still wore the traditional, colorful shirts. But the art is disappearing from the Ukraine's big cities.
There are no written designs for the hundreds of exquisitely fine cross stitch patterns. They are memorised and carried out by "counting the threads."
"The patterns reveal the area from which they come. The geometric designs and dark colors are from the Carpathian mountains. They represent trees, mountains. The patterns from central Ukraine are more pastel and represent flowers.
"My wife is also a good embroiderer and she will teach our children. I would like to say that I never regret the day I met Luba. One couldn't find a better wife, mother, or person anywhere in the world.
"For me a good marriage means common understanding and compromise. For example. I'm Orthodox, she's Catholic. The children are Catholic but I go to her church and she comes to mine."