Dr. Joseph Volodymyr Krawczeniuk, who walked out of his native Ukraine with his older brother to escape communism as a teenager, sought a better life in the United States and found it as a college professor and father in Wilkes-Barre, died Wednesday morning, April 17, 2013, of a heart attack in Wilkes-Barre General Hospital.
He was 88 years old. His wife, Oksana Kolodij Krawczeniuk, died Dec. 2, 2007.
Born Oct. 7, 1924 in Ternopol, Ukraine, Dr. Krawczeniuk was the fifth and youngest child of the late Volodymyr and Pelahia Krawczeniuk, whose first three children died before he was born. He grew up a sickly child who, he said, was not expected to live long himself.
Dr. Krawczeniuk grew up under the Communist rule, watched a cousin disappear at the hands of the Communists, then lived under the Nazis who took over his hometown temporarily during World War II. As the Communists pushed the Nazis out of Eastern Europe, Dr. Krawczeniuk and his brother, Stephan, fled. Part of a patriotic Ukrainian family that despised communism, the brothers feared its return.
With artillery exploding to the north, they plopped the belongings they could quickly gather on a horse-drawn cart and set off for anywhere but home. Only years later did they learn that a week after leaving, their father was murdered, presumably by a Communist soldier.
Over the next few months, they trudged west along muddy roads through Ukraine, Poland and Slovakia, eventually hopping a freight train with other refugees into Austria. Along the way, they relied on the kindness of strangers. They ate whatever their hosts could scrounge up, but sometimes stole apples from private orchards and, once, a pile of food ration cards to survive.
They made their way to Germany, where they lived for seven years as refugees. During that time, Dr. Krawczeniuk earned a Ph.D. in German studies from the University of Munich and a spot on an all-star Ukrainian soccer team made up of other refugees. Soccer was a lifelong love, a game his own father thought was best suited for hooligans, but one he frequently called "a beautiful game."
His love of soccer never waned, though the United States had at best an ambivalent relationship with the world's game for decades after he arrived. In a May 1973 letter published in "Sports Illustrated," he correctly foresaw that soccer's popularity here would grow once youth leagues developed. He delighted in the United States' success in recent World Cup tournaments and cried when he watched, in person, the 2010 team score a goal during an exhibition match against Turkey in Philadelphia, for this country had become his home.
With a choice of many places where he could have resettled, Dr. Krawczeniuk chose the United States for all the reasons, he believed, many Americans take for granted. Like millions of immigrants before him, he arrived by boat in 1951.
He settled in New York City, worked in factories and earned a master's degree in library science from Columbia University. Dr. Krawczeniuk married his wife on Feb. 16, 1957. They lived in Jersey City, N.J., until 1962. At his wife's urging, they left their closest childhood friends and family behind for a new adventure in Wilkes-Barre, where Dr. Krawczeniuk took a job as a professor teaching German at King's College. Though Harvard University
offered him a job shortly after that, he had already committed to King's and felt obligated to follow through. He would remain at King's until his retirement in January 2008, a month after his wife's death. He was a huge fan of the school's basketball teams, regularly taking his sons to Monarchs home games.
Through his life and travels, Dr. Krawczeniuk learned to fluently speak six languages — Ukrainian, Russian, Polish, German, English and Latin — and at least understand bits of several others. At home, he demanded his sons speak only his native tongue. He wrote extensively for Ukrainian academic journals and newspapers — a true point of pride — and authored a history of Ss. Cyril and Methodius Ukrainian Catholic Church in Olyphant. Overwhelmingly, his students loved him, for years giving him glowing evaluations, which he often privately boasted about.
"He was probably the smartest and nicest guy I've ever met in my life. I had one class with him, he gave us an assignment and then sat there with three different newspapers in three different languages," a former student said in a Facebook post upon hearing of his death.
Part of the lives of Dr. Krawczeniuk and his wife were chronicled in the WVIA television documentary, "The Extraordinary Journey," the story of the traditions followed by Eastern European immigrants and their descendants.
In short, Dr. Krawczeniuk was an amazing man — highly intelligent, articulate, talkative, funny, loving, passionate about teaching, incredibly self-disciplined, unbelievably resilient, sometimes very stubborn and always fiercely independent. He was also deeply religious, finding comfort in his Ukrainian Catholic faith and its customs. He possessed a strong singing voice and for many years sang a solo hymn at Easter morning Masses at Transfiguration of Our Lord Church in Nanticoke, where he was a member.
To his family, he was a model of excellence and persistence in the face of difficult odds. Always a loving father, he demonstrated the ability of humans to evolve and change their thinking in his final years. He learned to express his love for his family in a way that he could not earlier in life. A rock-ribbed Republican who never voted before for a Democrat for president, he voted for Barack Obama for president—twice—mainly because he thought the president had a better understanding of the world.
The siblings who preceded him in death were sisters, Orysia, who died at age 3 in 1909; and Sofia, who died at age 11 in 1920; and a brother, Yaroslav, who died at age 7 in 1919. He was also preceded in death by another son, Andrij Danylo, who died at two days old on Nov. 20, 1964.
Dr. Krawczeniuk is survived by his brother, Stephan and his wife, Daria, Jersey City, N.J.; four sons, Borys and his wife, Karen Jeremy, Scranton; Vsevolod and his wife, Lynn DeYoung, Burbank, Calif.; Bohdan and his wife, Stacey, Wilkes-Barre; and Andrij, Rochester, N.Y.; six grandchildren, Mark, Ryan, Vsevolod, Nicholas, Kuyper and Emma Krawczeniuk; nieces and many cousins.
A celebration of Joseph's life will be held Saturday, with Panahida at 9:30 a.m. at McLaughlin's — The Family Funeral Service, 142 S. Washington St., Wilkes-Barre, followed by a Funeral Liturgy at 10:30 a.m. at Transfiguration of Our Lord Ukrainian Catholic Church, Hanover section of Nanticoke. Interment will be in the parish cemetery, Nanticoke. Visitation will be held at McLaughlin's from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday, with Parastas services at 7 p.m.
Memorial donations are preferred and may be made to King's College, 133 N. River St., Wilkes-Barre, PA 18711.
Permanent messages and memories may be shared with Joseph's family at www.celebratehislife.com