Memorable Manitobans: Irena Knysh (1909-2006)
Community activist, author.
Born on 20 April 1909 at Lviv (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now Ukraine), she was the only child of Dmytro and Anastasia Shkwarok, descendants of a Cossack family that had arrived in Galicia from Eastern Ukraine in the 18th century. She and her parents temporarily left Lviv in the summer of 1914 to escape Russian occupation, and lived in Krakow, Poland until 1919, when they returned to Lviv. She was educated by the Basilian Sisters, and eventually at the University of Lviv, where she obtained her Master’s degree in philology in 1933. She was proficient in languages, and spoke fluent Polish, French, German, and English, as well as her native Ukrainian. She also had a good reading knowledge of Latin and Greek. In her youth, she enjoyed stage acting.
After her graduation, she became a Professor of Linguistics at various educational establishments, including two years at the Peremyshl’ Institute for Girls (1938-1939). In the 1930s, she collaborated with patriotic Ukrainian organizations like the Ukrainian Military Organization (UVO) and the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), and in September 1939 she married Zynowy Knysh, a hero of the Ukrainian resistance. During the Second World War, she resided at Krakow, Lviv, and Melk on the Danube, many times outwitting the Gestapo, which had a particular interest in her husband, and saving the life of a Jewish friend by helping her to escape from the Lviv ghetto in 1941.
In 1946 she emigrated to Paris, France, where she became the Head of the Ukrainian Women’s Alliance. She moved to Winnipeg in 1950, and became a Canadian citizen five years later. She continued to be active in various causes connected to the Ukrainian women’s movement. A prolific author and incisive journalist, she was the editor of the women’s section of The Canadian Farmer for nearly twenty years, and a frequent contributor to Ukrainian-language journals and newspapers in North America and Western Europe. Her books were popular both in Canada and overseas. Some became minor classics in the genre of feminine biography, among them A Torch in the Darkness (on political activist and writer Nataliya Kobrynska), Ivan Franko and Equal Rights for Women, The Patriotism of Anna Jonker, Unforgettable Olha Basarab, and Three Contemporaries, which contains a notably comprehensive short biography of the famous painter Maria Bashkirtseff. Knysh also wrote many highly regarded articles on general aspects of Ukrainian history. Her study on Cyril and Methodius, written at Miami Beach, where she spent many winters in her later life, and published in 1985, became instrumental in the creation of a plaque honouring these Saints from a Ukrainian perspective in the Basilica of St. Clement’s in Rome. She was the first Ukrainian woman in the diaspora to be honoured by inclusion in the Ukrainian Literary Encyclopaedia (Kyiv, 1990).
She visited the Old Country a number of times after its declaration of independence in 1991. She was elected a member of the Ukrainian Women’s Alliance in her native city of Lviv in 2005, and a scientific conference honouring her life and work was held there in June of that same year. With her husband Zynowy Knysh she had one son, George Dmytro Knysh, who went on to become a Professor of Political Studies at the University of Manitoba, carrying on his parents’ legacy of advocacy for Ukrainian culture and identity.
Irena Knysh died at Winnipeg on 11 May 2006 and was buried at Lviv, in the same cemetery as her parents.
Obituary, Winnipeg Free Press, 13 May 2006.
“Knysh, Irena,” University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections.
This page was prepared by Lois Braun.
Page revised: 27 February 2023