Christmas 1948: Lessons In Freedom, Poverty And `The Bigger World'

KALAMAZOO, USA -- In 1948, when Ben Ciuffa was a third-grader in Herkimer, N.Y., he joined his classmates in teasing and laughing at three new kids from the Ukraine, especially one named Zenon Bagan.

But over time, the taunting lessened, and during a visit to Zenon's home before the approaching Christmas holidays, Ciuffa began to appreciate the years-long journey the boy and his family had made and the few possessions they had.

``The Salvation Army gave them a Christmas tree. It was 2-foot, all twig, with an ornament, and I felt so bad'' for Zenon and his family, the 67-year-old Ciuffa, who now lives in Kalamazoo Township, said via telephone last week from his travels in El Salvador.

After seeing that tree, the younger Ciuffa told his mother, ``I don't care what I get for Christmas.''

But while young Ben was feeling sorry for the Bagans, they were apparently feeling anything but sadness -- they were finally able to put down roots after spending most of Zenon's young life living under repressive Communist rule in their native Ukraine and then trying to escape the invading Nazi army.

The Nazis had targeted Ukrainians for killing, and Zenon's father was a Cossack, a horse soldier, and would likely have been a prime target.

In a letter to the editor of the Kalamazoo Gazette that was published Dec. 17, Ciuffa wrote about how, as a result of meeting Bagan and his family, he learned that ``the world was bigger than my small town and how lucky we were to have the freedom to enjoy the magic of Christmas.''

Lasting Influence

In an interview last week, Ciuffa said that was he saw and learned about the Bagans - a Greek Orthodoc family - influences how he lives his life today and how he views Christmas.

"Absolutely - and I am not a religious person that way," Ciuffa said. "What happened was I realized that (certain Christians) are very, very joyous with Christmas. It's the joy of Christmas and not the toys."

And it was understanding what the Bagans were fleeing and their appreciation for life's smaller things that led Ciuffa to empathize with current-day El Salvadorans and the issues they face as well as the immigration issues facing many Hispanics.

Ciuffa made his first trip to El Salvador in 1999 with a group from St. Thomas More Church and is now there taking photographs to generate interest in raising funds for some of the area's young people to attend school. He also visited the country in 2003 and 2004.

Ciuffa and Bagan last saw each other about 10 years ago at the wedding of one of Bagan's daughters. They had remained good friends throughout their school years and graduated together from high school in Herkimer in 1958.

Ciuffa moved to the Kalamazoo area in 1982 after his 11-year-old son died in a bicycle accident. Bagan moved to the Detroit area and spent 35 years teaching before retiring in 1999.

A Five-Year Journey

In a phone interview last week, Bagan recounted some of his family's early struggles that made such an impression on Ciuffa.

He said that it was after about five years of crossing Europe by foot, train and horse-and-buggy that he, his two sisters and their parents finally found a safe haven in the late 1940s in Herkimer, N.Y., a city halfway between Syracuse and Albany.

Bagan said he remembers arriving with his parents and two sisters in Vienna, Austria, one Christmas , although he acknowledges his memory isn't entirely clear because of his young age at the time.

As in another well-known story, the family was not able to find a place to rest. Then a Viennese farmer offered the family a barn or cottage where animals were housed.

Bagan's sisters went door-to-door, knocking and begging for food for the family.

``(They) kept asking people for bread because we didn't have anything to eat,'' Bagan said. ``World War II was still raging, and the Allies wanted to end the war, so they bombed day and night. They didn't know who was below them, whether they were Russian, Ukrainian, Polish. ... We had no home, actually. We were just wandering around Europe.''

The family made its way to one of Europe's many displaced-persons camps, this one in Bayreuth, Bavaria, Germany, and eventually they traveled with hundreds of other Eastern European refugees aboard a U.S. military ship to the United States.

Bagan figures they were on the ship for about nine days as they crossed the Atlantic Ocean. They were expecting to go work for five years for a Pennsylvania farmer, but while disembarking from the ship at New York's Ellis Island, they were recognized by relatives already living in the United States and taken in by them.

``America to us was like a paradise,'' Bagan said. ``We couldn't believe how people lived and the rights they had and the food, my goodness.''

Touched By Friendship

Bagan said he is touched that Ciuffa remembers their 1948 Christmas and his family's struggles and that he shared the story with Gazette readers. He also said he is thankful for the friendship and understanding that Ciuffa extended to him in those early years.

``Ben was interested in people, and I felt he was interested in what I had to say and what I did.''

And, as Ciuffa recalls, the impact of what he learned from his interest in Bagan has lasted for nearly 60 years.

Source: The Kalamazoo Gazette


Ben said…
I am Ben Ciuffa

My Skype ID is BrQufa

I was interviewed while in El Salvador. The writer got me Zenon's new ph # so we've talked a few times & I send eamils..but he's not been well.

I visited Kiev & Dniperperpost in 2002.

Please visit my web site
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