Pysanky: A Symbol of Life

Journalist Marvin Anderson discovers a piece of his own heritage in pysanky.

Journalist Marvin Anderson reports for the New York Times. His article on the Eastern European tradition of decorating eggs appears in the March issue of ONE magazine.

I’ve made numerous attempts to retrace my family’s lineage.

I’ve used library records, online search services and followed multiple leads of information my family offered in futile efforts to stretch our history beyond the last 100 years. So while reporting this assignment, I couldn’t help but marvel — with a bit of envy — at the rich Ukrainian Easter traditions.

I’m still in disbelief that eggs could be so fascinating.

I met with artist Sofika Zielyk in her Lower East Side apartment, in the part of Manhattan known as Little Ukraine, where she explained how the elaborate pagan and Christian symbols on these eggs were more like genetic imprints. Each egg tells a story, she said, and every family would use a particular pattern, depending sometimes on details like a family’s occupation and the region in which they lived in Ukraine. It’s a continuing work of art, like a hereditary poem that stretches back to the beginning of time, for which each generation has the opportunity to write a stanza. Zielyk’s stories were music to my ears, having longed to hear something — anything — about my own heritage.

The eggs are a symbol of life, and written on them are the lives of individuals. Their prayers for a bounty of harvest, wishes for love and entertainment are all inscribed in symbols. When truly deciphering an individual’s egg, it’s as if one is given an opportunity to read a page from its artist’s private journal, written decades ago.

I later spoke with Natalia Honcharenko, the museum director at the Ukrainian Historical and Educational Center of New Jersey, from whom I learned of pysanky’s role in the future and even more of its past. I’ve never had the opportunity to visit Ukraine, considered the bread basket of Europe, and an extensive lesson on culture is difficult without a visit. “The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it,” Rudyard Kipling wrote. But inside the storage rooms Honcharenko uses to maintain century-old artifacts, I felt as if I had a brief momentary aroma from the old country. It was filled with the songs of revolution against the oppressive Soviet Union, stories of escaping World War II and how the pysanky is a testament to how the Ukrainians survived it all with their culture intact.

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