It may go down as one of the longest love affairs in history. And certainly one with the most inauspicious of beginnings, starting as it did in a concentration camp more than 70 years ago in Austria.
It was there that Luigi Pedutto met Mokryna Yurzuk. He was an Italian prisoner of war, she was a Ukrainian forced laborer with a young daughter born in the Nazi camp near the town of Sankt Polten, northeastern Austria. She brought him food, he sewed hats and clothes to impress her in return. They fell in love, but when the camp was liberated in 1945, Yurzuk was sent back to Ukraine. Pedutto was not allowed to join her.
Decades passed. Pedutto worked as a financier in Italy and Yurzuk as a collective farmer in Ukraine. Both married and had children, but never forgot their wartime love.
Finally the two were reunited in 2004 thanks to a TV show in Moscow. Now the pair have their own statue in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, in a park near the so-called “lovers’ bridge,” a popular destination for people to confess their love to one another.
After unveiling the monument, Pedutto could not help crying.
“When I was nine years old, my teacher told me: Remember, for all the tough times in your life you will be rewarded some day or other,” he said.
“I feel like I’ve been rewarded for all I endured,” he added, receiving greetings and being asked by women to give them a kiss “for luck in love.”
Yurzuk was too weak to travel to Kiev for the ceremony, but her relatives at the event said she was happy that her love would become a symbol for other couples.
Yurzuk’s granddaughter, Galyna Yemeliyanova, said her grandmother often retold her love story, but never dreamt of meeting her Italian boyfriend again.
Not being able to travel to the USSR, with the country cut off by the iron curtain, Pedutto kept Yurzuk’s photograph and a small medallion with a strand of her hair.
At last he ventured to make a move and wrote a letter to the international television show Wait For Me, which helps those who have been separated to find each other. It worked.
“I sought her for 62 years, and at last I found her,” Pedutto said.
Yurzuk visited Pedutto in Italy and was even made an honorary citizen of his home town, Castel San Lorenzo in Salerno.
However, she did not accept his marriage proposal, despite both of them being widowed.
“When I proposed to her, she just laughed,” Pedutto said.
“They found each other too late,” Yemeliyanova said. “Both have their children, grandchildren and don’t want to travel to a foreign land.”
So their relationship remains at the courtship stage. Pedutto brings Yurzuk homemade olive oil and Parmesan to prepare her Italian spaghetti.
He also helps her with chores, just as he did all those years ago in Austria.
He is talkative and romantic, while she is reserved and down-to-earth. They speak in a mix of Ukrainian, Italian and Russian, but usually understand each other without words. Yurzuk is waiting for Pedutto to visit again in August, when the two plan to go to Kiev together to see the monument immortalizing their love.
He still has not given up hope of persuading her to marry, said Maria Shevchenko, the Ukrainian producer of Wait For Me, who has been following the couple’s story for years.
“And you can expect anything from this couple,” she added.