Hromadske Radio: “There were Ukrainians who saved Jews.” – Professor Shimon Redlich
Welcome to all our listeners of Hromadske Radio. I am Vakhtang Kipiani and the show “Encounters” is on the air. Our goal is to explore Ukrainian-Jewish relations from ancient times to the present. Our guest today is a person with an extraordinary destiny, a professor of Ben-Gurion University, the historian Shimon Redlich. The project “Encounters” is supported by the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.
He was a Jewish boy from the city of Berezhany in the Ternopil region, where Jews, Poles, and Ukrainians lived together and apart before the Second World War. The boy, along with his entire family, survived the Holocaust, and that was very rare for his compatriots at that time. He was then repatriated via Poland to Israel and finally became the world-renowned Professor Shimon Redlich. He is a history professor from Ben-Gurion University, and today we are going to talk about his personal Jewish story in the Ukrainian context and about the role of Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky.
The first question professor. Why do we need many decades after the war a discussion about the Righteous, about people who were saviors? It seems like it was clear long ago who was right and who was wrong…
Images of the past influence people today. The image of the Pole and the Ukrainian in the Jewish community is mostly negative, for various reasons. It also seems to me that the topic of the Righteous of the world, whether Poles and Ukrainians, is very important and people should know that among Ukrainians who were killing or denouncing people to the Germans, there were also those who were saving lives.
And the voice of those who were saved, those whose biography is very similar to yours, is it possible to hear that voice in the Jewish community?
It is heard, of course, but not that often.
But why? There is a stereotype that Jews are a nation that remembers their past and builds the present on its basis…
Every nation builds its future on what is the most convenient for them. It is not always the historical truth.
Those Ukrainians and Poles who you remember from your childhood, how did they treat you as a Jewish child?
I have only good childhood memories. We were neighbors with the Poles, and my nurse was a Ukrainian woman. I even remember a children’s poem that she taught me in the Ukrainian language. Our family also had a large shop in the market of Berezhany, in Western Ukraine, in prewar Polish Galicia, and a lot of people from the villages visited almost every day to buy fabric. They were our customers. As I wrote in my book about Berezhany, we lived together and apart. On one hand we had connections, and on the other hand we lived separately.
And the separation? Was that tied with religion?
Religion, language, and traditions. Various things. We were together economically. There was our store, and Polish and Ukrainian peasants came there from the villages. And if there were friendly relations, it was more with Poles than with the Ukrainians.
Because Jews and Poles were the majority of the city and they were culturally closer to each other. A majority of Ukrainians did not live in the cities, but in the villages, and there were not many Jews there. The very physical fact was that they lived in separate places. Is it true that in prewar Galicia the cultured people—entrepreneurs, teachers, priests, and many others, knew the language of Jews? If he was a competent priest, he could talk to the rabbi, and if there was a competent businessman, he could negotiate with the seller? I am sure that some of them knew the language. To say that all of them knew…it would not be correct to say that all of them knew. If Poles and Jews were close neighbors, the Jewish children sometimes knew Polish and Polish children sometimes knew Yiddish. It also depended on your economic level. Poor Jewish people did not know Polish very well. They understood it, but did not speak it. The same with Ukrainian. They spoke in Yiddish. The middle class or more bourgeois Jewish families in Galicia spoke Polish and the Polish language was spoken to their children who were born in the 1930s before the Second World War. My native language is Polish, and only then Yiddish. To this very day I speak Polish without any accent.
Was it because of your school education or because of the family?
It was because of the family of course. When I was two years old, I already spoke Polish and did not speak Yiddish. I did not go to the school because of the war and the Holocaust.
Please, tell us more about the story of your family. Why did God give you life at the time when He was removing the lives of millions of Jews in Eastern Europe?
I would say there were two reasons. One of them is pure luck. That was one element. The second one is people who helped and were saving others. We were lucky to have connections with people who were not Jews, and who helped us.
Who were these people?
I will tell you. One family was Polish. My grandfather Fishl, my beloved grandfather with whom I spent a lot of time, in the ghetto and afterwards, had a Polish friend. He was a blacksmith. Yes, it was possible for a religious Jew to be friends with a Polish blacksmith. They were friends for years. When we were hiding in Berezhany after the ghetto was liquidated and needed food my grandfather approached that friend. For six months he was getting food to us when we were in bunkers. Secondly, there was another unusual story with a Ukrainian family whom we did not even know before the war. My uncle was an attractive man and a Ukrainian woman with two children fell in love with him. Her husband had been taken to work in Germany. This woman saved my uncle, his Jewish wife, and my mother and me. She also wanted to take my grandfather Fishl with two other older people, but they were caught on the way and they never reached us. I always say every story of rescue is a complicated story. Tanka Kontsevyh, who saved me, could have told my Uncle Vovo, “I love you. I will save you, but your wife and the other Jews I will not save.” But she didn’t say that. She took all of us into her home in the village of Rai.
This was in the Berezhany area?
Three kilometers from Berezhany. For six months I was in a bunker after the liquidation of the ghetto, and later another six months, a half year, with Tanka Konstsevych in Rai until the summer of 1944 when the Red Army arrived.
They say that children grow up fast during war. You were also very grown up already. How did you see that changed world, where you did not see your neighbors, where Jewish Galicia disappeared?
I do not remember I was thinking much about that. There were just a few children who survived. From hundreds of children from Berezhany, maybe just ten survived. I was nine years old at the time. We had our games; we were running around on the streets. I do not remember those times as some awful times after the war. I think it was because of the psychology of children. They are always doing their childish things. I was lucky I was always with my family. For those children who were alone, without parents, it was different. I was lucky to be always with my mother during the entire time of the occupation and the Holocaust.
And what happened later in your family’s history?
Later we lived in Berezhany for one year until 1945. In the summer of 1945 all former Polish citizens were repatriated to Poland. We then moved to the large city of Lodz and lived there for another five years in post-war Poland. We emigrated to Israel, now the state of Israel, only at the beginning of the 1950s.
When you moved to Israel, at that time the country consisted mainly of immigrants from all over the world. How did you feel there and how did you start to notice all those people?
It was a very interesting and complicated process. First I was in a kibbutz for a year and a half. In that year and a half I became an Israeli citizen, but only outwardly. This is a very complicated topic. I now want to write a book about my first years in Israel. It is very interesting and complicated. But I knew Hebrew even before coming to Israel. In those four and half years in Poland I studied in a Jewish Zionist school in Lodz where I was taught in Hebrew. I was also a member of a young Zionist organization. Therefore, I had an understanding of my identity long before.
Israel had a complicated history of relations with the Soviet Union. When was the first time after the immigration that you were first interested in your Motherland?
This was also a process that took years. Until the 1960s and 1970s I was not interested in that at all. When you grow older there is a normal psychological process to reflect on the past. One time my mother asked why we didn’t have any contact with those good people who saved us during the war. I started to be interested. There were no ties because of the East-West divide and the Cold War. I started to research my personal history. Thus, in the 1980s I found both families, the Polish and the Ukrainian family in Berezhany and Rai who helped us. I had a meeting with Tanka. It was a very dramatic and emotional meeting. She was always calling me “hlopchyk” (“a boy” in Ukrainian). We were hugging each other and crying. It was in 1991. I send money to her family every other month. I am not rich, but if I can help I help them. We are in contact and I have visited Berezhany a number of times.
Is this family eligible for status as the Righteous Among the Nations?
Yes. I arranged for them to be named Righteous Among the Nations. First, Tanka Kontsevych, the Ukrainian I talked about, and her daughter Ania, who is now around eighty years old. I also arranged it for two people from the Polish family, the blacksmith Stanislaw Codogni and his son Karol. I enlisted four people into the Righteous. I am fighting also for one more person but have not yet succeeded. This is a man I did not know. He did not know me, and he never saved me. But I am a historian and as a matter of honor I am referring to Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky.
I have read your articles. And why is there no success? A person who saved hundreds of Jewish souls…
Not hundreds. He saved around 150 people. And that is enough…
Please explain to us Professor, why does the Jewish community—the Israeli government, Yad Vashem, religious circles…
Well, there are two reasons for that. One is the negative approach to Ukrainians. The other is that he was blamed for his collaboration with Hitler, Nazism, and Fascists. I would not say that there were no relations between the Metropolitan and German government. But there were many, many more other things that are not seen and are not talked about. They do not see this complex picture. People are looking at this issue in a very black-and-white manner.
What if we try to foresee the future? I would very much like for you to see Andrei Sheptytsky among the Righteous. Many of our listeners are trying to understand this. Is there a hope that the Jewish community will come to understand that Ukrainians already for a long time think of Sheptytsky as some kind of a saint, but it is the Jewish community that does not recognize him…
Even in Ukraine it is not a straightforward matter. I am sure that many people in the east of the country did not know and do not know about Sheptytsky. Even after the end of communism there was not enough discussion about the Metropolitan. Perhaps just in Lviv they were talking about him. Now there is hope I believe. The new Ukrainian parliament and government has decided to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Sheptytsky’s birth. I think that now the attitude towards the Metropolitan is starting to change for the better. If it continues along this path, I think that Ukraine will influence Israel. I would very much hope it will happen sooner or later, but there is very hard work to do. Thank you Professor. We were talking with the historian Shimon Redlich, who managed to survive the Holocaust during World War II along with his family. He survived because of Polish and Ukrainian families. Because of Shimon Redlich they were recognized as Righteous Among the Nations and inscribed on the list of those thousands who saved at least one soul during that universal catastrophe that was the Second World War.
We would like to remind you the project “Encounters” is supported by the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter. With best wishes. Listen to “Hromadske Radio.” Vakhtang Kipiani was at the microphone.
Originally appeared in: http://hromadskeradio.org/programs/zustrichi/byly-ukrayncy-kotorye-spasaly-evreev-profesor-shymon-redlih
Translated by: Olesya Kravchuk, journalist, interpreter.
Additional translation and editing by Peter Bejger.