Tributes to Leeds refugee who escaped “unimaginable horrors” under Stalin and Nazi regime

Ukrainian born Valentina Cebenko, who found refuge in Horsforth after the Second World War, died on November 30 at the age of 95. Her experience through war, of enforced starvation and transportation in a cattle truck to slave camps in Germany, was later immortalised in a book entitled To Ukraine with Love.

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Ms Cebenko’s daughter Olya Martin, who authored the book under the pen name Czarina Daria, has spoken of her mother’s “loyalty and commitment”, and of how she always believed in the romance of “happily ever after”.

Tributes to Leeds refugee who escaped Vladimir Cebenko & Valentina on their wedding day 1949

“Without doubt Valentina’s life was interwoven with much tragedy and emotional despair,” said Ms Martin. “Yet she rose above it and displayed much empathy towards others less fortunate than herself.

Some of her greatest qualities were her generosity and hospitality towards others.”

Tributes to Leeds refugee who escaped Tributes to Leeds refugee who escaped

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Ms Cebenko, born Valentina Sohulakina in 1926 in a small village called Akimovka, endured intense hardship under Stalin’s “rule of terror”. Her grandmother and eight of her siblings died of starvation, with only Valentina and one elder brother Colya to survive.

Tributes to Leeds refugee who escaped Tributes to Leeds refugee who escaped Valentina Cebenko, who has died aged 95.

The pair, aged 15 and 16 when the Nazis invaded, were dragged from their mother’s arms and thrown into cattle trucks for transportation to Germany and separated for labour camps. Valentina, liberated by the Americans after the war, settled in Horsforth in 1948, marrying Polish refugee Vladimir Cebenko whom she met at the Leeds Hostel for Displaced Persons.

He was the “smartest and best dancer in town”, recalled Ms Martin, who was born two years later. “Mum said that’s why she married him, quite the romantic.” Despite the hardships she endured, said Ms Martin, her mother had found a community in Leeds, particularly among fellow refugees who formed their own social clubs.

Tributes to Leeds refugee who escaped Tributes to Leeds refugee who escaped Valentina Cebenko, pictured at the Polish social club where she made many friends.

Some 30 years later she had shown great “courage” in returning to the Ukraine to be reunited with her mother. Her brother Colya, who survived the war, had later been executed by firing squad.

Recalling stories of war In recent years Ms Cebenko’s health deteriorated, and she was diagnosed with dementia in 2010. Ms Martin, who as a child was often told her mother’s accounts of labour, bombings and beatings in Germany, is part-way through a trilogy of accounts under pen-name Czarina Daria.

The first book, To Ukraine with Love, tells Valentina’s story as Anastasia, while a second, Shadows of War, tells of the terrors she faced in Germany.

Tributes to Leeds refugee who escaped Tributes to Leeds refugee who escaped Author Olya Martin, who wrote her mother’s story To Ukraine with Love under the pen name Czarina Daria

Ms Martin said the books represent not just her mother’s life but the stories of millions of refugees: “I wanted Valentina’s legacy to live on and not be forgotten. “Her nightmares and memories of a dreadful life have gone. Although she briefly experienced moments of happiness, she never had the luxury of enjoying a ‘normal’ life.

“She was one tough lady and had a great sense of family loyalty and commitment.” Ms Cebenko is survived by a daughter Olya, grandsons Karl and Jonathan, and great-granddaughters Kiera and Mia. Her funeral will be held December 29 at 12.15pm at Lawnswood Cemetery.

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