“The Ukrainian trace” can be found in global cinematography, music, IT industry, sports, painting, and literature. Some celebrities were born in Ukraine and remember its language and traditions, while others only have faint memories of their ancestors’ homeland. However, Ukraine is more than just a country on the map for them.
The exact number of the Ukrainian diaspora is not firmly established, with various sources providing general figures ranging from 12 to 20 million individuals (the World Congress of Ukrainians declared the latter in 2020). But how many of them have achieved success and become true celebrities? The list of these people and their stories would stretch across several longreads.
In this article, we will introduce you to some of the most prominent personalities.
Walter Jack Palance: Ukrainian Cowboy from Hollywood
Distinguished cowboy, hero of westerns, owner of an Oscar, and a personal star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame—Ukrainian? Meet Jack Palance. More precisely, Volodymyr Palahniuk.
Volodymyr Palahniuk was born in 1919 in Latimer Mines, Pennsylvania, USA, to a family of Ukrainian immigrants. His father, Ivan Palahniuk, hailed from the Ternopil region, and his mother, Hanna Hramiak, was born in Lviv.
His father worked as a miner, and Volodymyr followed in his footsteps. However, a victory in the university’s intramural football championship opened the path to professional sports for the young man. Jack Palance’s life involved boxing, service in WWII, studying acting at Stanford University, performing on Broadway, and eventually, Hollywood.
Jack Palance earned popularity and audience love as a western hero. The actor was nominated for an Oscar in the 1950s, but he received the award only in 1992 for his comedic role in “City Slickers.” Thus, a boy from an immigrant miner’s family realized the American Dream.
Palance always clearly identified his Ukrainian heritage. In 2004, during the “Russian Nights” festival in Los Angeles, a ceremony honoring American artists and actors of Russian descent with the title of People’s Artist of Russia took place. When Jack Palance was announced as a laureate, he promptly remarked,
“I am Ukrainian, not Russian. My parents came from Ukraine, and I have nothing to do with it. It would be better if I leave.”
According to his brother Ivan’s recollections, Jack spoke Ukrainian well, knew Ukrainian traditions, loved singing folk songs, and even performed during the unveiling of the Taras Shevchenko monument in Washington. He visited Ukraine for the first time in 1996. Palance dreamt of playing the roles of Hetman Ivan Mazepa and Taras Bulba. Unfortunately, he never had the opportunity to portray any Ukrainian characters.
Charles Michael “Chuck” Palahniuk: The Enigma of “Paul + Nick”
The world knows the author of “Fight Club,” “Survivor,” “Haunted,” and other bestsellers as Chuck Palahniuk. In all official documents, his name is spelled in English as Palahniuk. However, the writer refers to himself as “Palaniuk,” a nickname he came up with in childhood.
Palahniuk was born in 1962 in Pasco, Washington, USA, into the Palahniuk family and grew up in a trailer in Burbank, Washington, with his parents, Carol and Fred Palahniuk. Despite a difficult childhood, one event unexpectedly had certain consequences.
One day, his parents took him and his sister to the cemetery to show the graves of their grandparents. Both grandparents were immigrants from Ukraine, named Pavlyna (Paula) and Mykola (Nick). To remember their names, the children started chanting, “Paula-Nick, Paula-Nick.” Years later, this memory led to the transformation of the writer’s pseudonym.
As the writer himself says, his life experience always finds reflection in his works. Chuck has not visited Ukraine yet, although his third cousin still lives there. Perhaps, someday, he will visit – and the world will get a book with a mention of Ukraine.
Stephen Gary Wozniak: “Wozniak, but not Polish”
In April 1976, a company emerged that would revolutionize the computer industry: Stephen Jobs and Stephen Wozniak became the founders of Apple Computer. While Jobs is widely known worldwide, Wozniak, who assumed the leadership role and was responsible for the scientific development and expansion of their invention, is not as popular. The later release of the Apple II completely justified the expectations placed on it and became the company’s main product, bringing in millions in revenue for several years.
What fewer people know is that Steve Wozniak is Ukrainian. He is well aware of this himself. In 2017, during a speech at the Olerom Forum 1 in Kyiv, Wozniak stated, “Many ask me, ‘Steve, are you Polish?’ because my last name is Wozniak. I answer: No, I am Ukrainian.”
Stephen Wozniak was born in 1950 in San Jose, California, USA, and his family tree includes Ukrainian, Polish, and German roots. His father, Jacob Francis Wozniak, was born in Los Angeles, USA, and his grandparents had direct Ukrainian origins, spending a significant part of their lives in Bukovyna before emigrating to the USA shortly after WWII. Steve’s mother, Margaret Elaine Kern, had German roots.
The mention of Wozniak’s Ukrainian origin first appeared in Vitaliy Ablitzov’s book “Galaxy Ukraine. Ukrainian Diaspora: Prominent Figures.” It is written there that Steve’s paternal relatives come from the village of Chervona Dibrova in Bukovyna.
Eugene Hütz: “Self-Identified Ukrainian”
Eugene Hütz is known in the West as the vocalist and founder of the American band Gogol Bordello, an actor, and a DJ who actively tours the world, collaborates with Madonna, and befriends celebrities.
Eugene was born in 1972 in Boyarka, but his family soon moved to Obolon in Kyiv – a district that the musician himself calls Kyiv’s Bronx. Eugene’s mother belongs to the Sinti (an ethnic Romani group), and his father is Ukrainian. His father, by profession a butcher and by calling a rock musician, used to be interrogated by the KGB for listening to “enemy radio stations” and being passionate about Western music.
In 1989, the family emigrated, taking with them only a few vinyl records, minimal clothing, family photos, and $400. Before reaching the USA, they traveled across Europe, living in Poland, Hungary, Austria, and Italy. Only in America did Eugene manage to seriously pursue music.
The band he created, “Gogol Bordello,” is a multinational group with musicians from Ukraine, the Czech Republic, and Israel.
In response to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, Hütz, who identifies himself as “Ukrainian by self-determination,” reacted immediately.
“During a war, there cannot be positive emotions,” he believes. “Our task now is to go on concert tours and use musical compositions to tell the story of Ukraine and the situation the country is in.”
Since February 2022, Eugene Hütz has been striving to draw the world’s attention to Ukraine and, at the same time, raise funds for humanitarian aid to Ukrainians affected by the military actions.
Andy Warhol: Pop Art Maestro in an Embroidered Shirt
Andy Warhol, the king of pop art, revolutionized the world of contemporary painting. His paintings are more expensive than works by Van Gogh and Picasso, and Queen Elizabeth II herself was among the buyers. He was an artist, producer, designer, writer, magazine publisher, and film director—a prominent figure in the history of modern art. The real name of this multifaceted artist is Andrew Warhola.
Andrew Warhola was born in 1928 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, the fourth child in a family of immigrants from Austro-Hungarian Zakarpattia: Ruthenian Uniates Andriy Warhola and Julia Justyna Zavacka. Their ancestral homeland was the village of Mykovo near Svaliava in northeastern modern Slovakia, about a hundred kilometers from Uzhhorod. Slovaks consider the artist their own, although Lemko Rusyns (Lemky) from Zakarpattia are a Ukrainian ethnic group.
His father immigrated to the USA in 1914 in search of work, and his mother later joined him. Members of the deeply religious family were parishioners of the Ruthenian Greek Catholic Church.
Andy’s interest in art was significantly influenced by his mother. When he was born, Julia Warhola was 36 years old. She did not know English, always dressed in simple peasant clothes, but had an affinity for the beautiful. Andy’s mother sold flowers, which she crafted from tin cans and corrugated paper, embroidered paintings, and painted Easter eggs before Easter. She loved her younger son and took care of him throughout her life. It is believed that she was the most influential person in Andy Warhol’s life and that she propelled the development of his talents.
Andy Warhol maintained a connection with his family until the end of his life and communicated with them in the Lemko dialect. He knew and loved folk traditions. By the way, the embroidered shirt (vyshyvanka) that Jim Morrison wore in the famous photoshoot was a gift from Warhol himself; they were friends.
Steven Allan Spielberg: Remembering Borscht
This renowned director gained worldwide popularity in the 1970s with the release of the thriller “Jaws.” Today, Steven Spielberg is a globally recognized film director, producer, and screenwriter with dozens of blockbuster films to his name. He was born in 1946 in Cincinnati, Ohio, USA, into a family of Orthodox Jews. What could possibly connect this illustrious filmmaker to Ukraine? Here’s what the director himself says about it.
“I love Ukraine very much. My maternal grandparents come from Odesa. We often cooked borscht at home. Moreover, in 2006, I was lucky to visit Kyiv, where I presented a film about the Holocaust. I remember getting off the plane and saying, ‘I’m home,'”
Steven Spielberg recounts in an interview.
The director always knew that one of his grandfathers was from Odesa, and the other was from a small Ukrainian village. Spielberg repeatedly mentioned that in his family, the lullaby “Bayushki-Bayu” was constantly heard, sung to him by his grandmother. The official version of Spielberg’s Odesa roots was confirmed by the organization “Dom Deribasa,” which searches for facts about Odesa emigrants worldwide.
The director also revealed that in Kyiv, he visited Babi Yar (Babyn Yar), the history of which inspired Spielberg to create the film “Schindler’s List.”
Wayne Douglas Gretzky: Hockey Legend with Ukrainian Roots
The weekly popular American hockey magazine “The Hockey News” recognized Wayne Gretzky as the greatest hockey player and scorer of all time. Although the legendary athlete was born in 1961 in Brantford, Ontario, Canada, Ukrainian blood runs in his veins.
The Gretzky family hails from Beresteishchyna. Wayne’s grandfather, Terenty Gretzky, emigrated from this region. His grandmother, Maria, was from Ternopil Oblast, the town of Pidhaitsi, located 58 km from the regional center. Terenty and Maria met and married in Canada, where both had emigrated. They spoke Ukrainian within the family, and their son Walter considered Ukrainian as his native language.
Walter, Wayne’s father, was an excellent hockey player. His dream was to make it to the National Hockey League (NHL), but it didn’t come true. Walter’s son, Wayne, fulfilled his father’s dream and achieved significant heights in the sport.
The relationship between young Wayne and his grandparents was always warm and trusting. This is evident in Wayne’s ability to speak Ukrainian and Belarusian to this day. According to family legend, Wayne’s grandmother Maria was the first goalkeeper he tried to score a goal on when he started playing hockey at the age of 5. Wayne has fond memories of his childhood and annual summer visits to his grandfather’s farm. Terenty Gretzky and his wife would come to watch their grandson’s practices.
As the full-scale invasion of Russian forces into Ukraine began, Wayne Gretzky immediately expressed his position.
“We all agree that this is a senseless war. This morning I spoke with a couple of guys who live in Kyiv,”
he said at the end of February 2022, and he suggested isolating Russia from world hockey.
The great wars of the 20th century forced Ukrainian families to abandon their homes and seek a better fate abroad. Today, life again compels Ukrainian women and children to seek refuge from war and Russian invaders in other countries, just as their ancestors did, fleeing from Hitler’s Nazis and Soviet communists. Perhaps, in twenty years, one of these little refugees will become a distinguished scientist, a renowned actor, an athlete, or a talented artist or writer, who will bring glory not only to the country that provided refuge in times of hardship but also to Ukraine.
Source: The Gaze