"Our village is not treacherous"

Hall of Names - Yad Vashem, Jerusalem (Dreamstime)

Unification for the sake of salvation

Two thousand six hundred and fifty-nine people—that is the number of Ukrainian Righteous Among the Nations announced by Yad Vashem as of 1 January 2020. This figure will be updated in the next few months; at least eight new names will be added.

However, these people are little known and even ignored in the Ukrainian public space. They are mentioned exceptionally only a few times a year: on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the European Day of the Righteous, and a new commemorative date, the Day of Ukrainians Who Rescued Jews during the Second World War. The media barely write about them, and government representatives, particularly those officials who are responsible for memory policy, rarely mention them.

Who were these people? They are usually solo heroes, who singlehandedly challenged the occupying regime, social apathy, and even hostility. Even after the war, many of them continued to be humiliated and were harassed by their neighbors and the government. Jealous people often accused them of having profited from Jewish money.

The Righteous are often married couples and entire families, with several generations of a single family helping these rescue efforts. On the other hand, there were also many cases where people were forced to hide someone, where they were rescuing Jews from their loved ones, especially if the latter were collaborating with the occupying regime.

It is a little-known fact that during the Holocaust, situational unions of rescuers were occasionally formed, consisting of up to several dozen rescuers. Of course, initially, such unions were based on familial or friendly relations, and later they shared the responsibility for the lives of those to whom they gave shelter. There was also the realization of their shared fate in the event of discovery, as the occupying regime meted out the death penalty to all those who sheltered Jews. This phenomenon is poorly researched.

As many as eight inhabitants of the village of Ozhenyn in Rivne oblast have been awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations: Yevdokiia Kozel; Lukiian and Fedora Kondratiuk and their children Fedir and Nina; Kuzma and Maria Makarevych and their son, Stepan. Through their joint efforts, they rescued at least seven Jews and gave situational assistance to several others.

Yosyp is the youngest offspring of the Makarevyches. He was born after Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union, so he has barely any memories of those days. The Makarevyches lived on the outskirts of Ozhenyn, near the so-called Pansky woods, the very place where Jews hid in “shelters." The Makarevych family was comparatively well off. Yosyp's father worked at the mill, so he was able to obtain food. The older children carried food to the Jews in the forest, or the Jews themselves would come to the Makarevyches. Yosyp remembers these visits, even the way he once childishly scolded one of the Jews, whose name was Motel, when he accidentally smashed a cup: "Why did you break it? What are you going to eat out of?" He also remembers a Jewish girl named Malka, whose mother, Gitel, died of a heart attack in the hiding place in 1943. That was why Malka visited the Makarevych home more than the others. "She was at our place all the time, she simply lived in our house and that's it."

Why did they, specifically, help Jews? Historians of the Holocaust draw attention to the fact that rescuers were often members of Protestant communities. It is likely that in western Ukraine alone, they rescued several hundred Jews. Mutual trust within the Protestant milieu was a guarantee of success for a rescue operation. According to information posted on the Yad Vashem website, the Kondratiuk and Makarevych families from Ozhenyn were Evangelicals. But in connection with his family members, Yosyp categorically denies this: "We are Orthodox!"

Ozhenyn is about one kilometer away from Stadnyky, where there was a similar situation involving eight Righteous Among the Nations: Yevdokym and Maria Furmaniuk; Motrona Pavliuk and her son, Ivan; Semen Tarasov and his daughter, Sofia; Hnat Polishchuk and his sister, Nadia Tarasova. The Furmaniuks, Pavliuks, and Tarasovs saved the lives of a Jewish boy named Vasyl Valdman, his mother, Tzivlia, and his uncle, Aaron. Hnat Polishchuk and Nadia Tarasova rescued Yelyzaveta Rondel and Yoel Rubinshtein.

Tamara is the daughter and granddaughter of Righteous. She was born seventeen years after the Second World War ended. "He didn't talk much," she says about her father, Ivan Pavliuk. However, she did manage to hear some things about his experiences from him.

Her grandmother, Motrona Pavliuk, was a poor widow with many children. From a young age, Tamara's father had worked as a hired laborer for his wealthier fellow villagers. He was friends with Vasyl Valdman, who was a few years younger; his family also lived in Stadnyky. Valdman later wrote about the Pavliuks in his memoirs: "Their house was very small, old; they lived poorly." Tamara, too, remembers this small house: It was low, made of clay—it is long gone. Despite the material hardship, the Pavliuks did not refuse to offer help to their Jewish friends during the Holocaust. Many other survivors also recalled that they encountered a willingness to help precisely in the poorest homes. Were those who, through their own example, knew what trouble was more inclined to greater empathy?

According to Tamara, the Pavliuk family was connected with the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). Her father's older brother and the husbands of his sisters died fighting in its ranks. Ivan himself carried out some insurgent directives, and he told his daughter about the dangerous situations in which he had been in. But this did not last long. In the spring of 1944, he was called up to the Red Army and was wounded in the battles for Königsberg [now Kaliningrad—Ed.]. That was why Valdman, with whom he remained friends until his death, sent him greetings every year on Victory Day. They even became related when Tamara's older sister married Valdman's son. The woman assures me, saying: "They very much wanted to have close family relations."

Tamara also recounts one of the family's stories about the rescued Jew. "When he was getting married, he asked his mother, 'Well, who should be invited to the wedding?' His mother, Tzivlia, said, 'You must invite the whole village to the wedding.' She explains: 'Our village was generally friendly, you know. No one betrayed anyone. Our village is not treacherous.'" In his memoirs, Valdman expresses a similar thought: "Mama knew, she believed that our fellow villagers would take us in, give us shelter, that they would not refuse us, they would offer us warmth and food." Indeed, there were more people who had helped Jews in Stadnyky than were officially recognized as Righteous Among the Nations. For example, Valdman recalled Vasyl Muzychuk and Ulyta Nychyporuk, who helped his younger brother and his grandmother leave the ghetto (they were later killed); the Maslovsky family, in whose house he lived for one month; Ivan Yarmoliuk and Melashka Bondar, who warned him of impending danger. Of course, there were others. Hence, perhaps, the completely different attitude to their fellow villagers who were recognized as Righteous Among the Nations. Tamara recalls her father's funeral: "When he died, the entire village assembled; even the devout halted the liturgy and said: "It is necessary to come [to the funeral] of such a person."

Were these cases in Ozhenyn and Stadnyky unique? Why were the local villagers able to unite for the sake of rescuing Jews, despite the real threat to their own lives? There are no reliable answers to these questions yet, as there are none to the question of why in numerous other villages not a single Jew was rescued during the Holocaust and often their inhabitants united, not in order to help those who needed it, but the reverse: to denounce them or kill them singlehandedly. It is important not to forget such stories.

Andriy Usach
Historian, doctoral student at the Ukrainian Catholic University, and head of the civic organization Pislia tyshi (After the Silence). His research specialization is the Holocaust in Ukraine, especially the question of local collaboration. He also works in the field of oral history. This lens allows us to examine the memory of violence more closely and animate it for a deeper understanding of the motives and experiences of the various actors in those merciless wartime events.

This article was published as part of a project supported by the Canadian non-profit charitable organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian@Zaxid.net

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.

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