Nash Holos: Father Omelian Kovch
March 25, 2015 marked the 71-st anniversary of the death of Father Omelian Kovch, who was known as the “Pastor of Majdanek”. Renata Hanynets reports on his courageous life. The audiofile is here.
Omelian Kovch was born 20 August 1884 in the picturesque southern Galician village of Kosmach, in the Carpathian Mountains. The family was full of priests. His father was a parish priest and his mother was the daughter of a parish priest.
After completing his studies in Lviv, he embarked on the road to priesthood. He spent six years in Rome as a seminarian in the Greek Catholic College of Saints Sergius and Bacchus and as a student at the Universita Urbaniana of the Congregation for the Propagation of Faith.
In 1922, after the Polish-Ukrainian war ended, Fr. Omelian was appointed to the parish of Peremyshliany, a town which, like most in Galicia, was composed primarily of three nationalities: Jews, Poles and Ukrainians.
Throughout the inter-war years Fr. Omelian developed a vibrant ministry that included a rich liturgical life, organized cultural activity, and multi-faceted social outreach.
With the arrival of the Nazis, the persecution of Jews began immediately. One day the Germans threw firebombs into a synagogue in Peremyshliany, closed the doors, and surrounded the building with soldiers. Representatives of the Jewish community ran to the Kovch house to seek help and find sanctuary with the Greek Catholic priest. Fr. Omelian immediately ran to the synagogue. In perfect German and with decisive moral outrage he ordered the soldiers to desist. The Germans were so shocked by the courageous priest that they dispersed. Fr. Omelian rushed to the doors of the synagogue and began pulling the terrorized Jewish congregants from the flames.
In 1942 the Germans created a ghetto for Jews in Peremyshliany. From there they were deported to death camps. The Greek Catholic pastor began organizing different strategies for harboring Jews. It is not known how many Jews Fr. Omelian hid in different places or how many he kept alive by organizing the delivery of food to their hiding places.
His reputation as a reliable defender of Jews spread rapidly. Many members of the Jewish community began turning to Fr. Omelian with a request that he baptize them in the hope that this would increase their chances for survival.
On 30 December 1942 Fr. Kovch was arrested. The Gestapo transported him to Lviv where he was held and tortured in the prison on Lonskoho Street. Despite the brutalization that he endured in prison, the priest of 30 years with experience in every possible type of pastoral situation welcomed the calling to become a spiritual father in a new context – ministering in the notorious Nazi death camp Majdanek.
With remarkable convictions and expressions of devotion, personal freedom, and spiritual fulfillment Fr. Omelian Kovch died on March 25 1944, three months before the liberation of the Majdanek camp on July 23 1944. Some 80,000 people were killed in the camp over 34 months, including about 59,000 Jews.
For many prisoners Blessed Omelian Kovch was their pastor. Today he bears the title “Pastor of Majdanek.”
On January 9th, 1999 The Jewish Council of Ukraine proclaimed him a “Righteous of Ukraine.” On April 24 2009 the Synod of Bishops of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church solemnly proclaimed Blessed Priest-martyr Omelian Kovch “Patron of Priests” of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.