Righteous Among the Nations. Who are they?

Volodymyr Muzychenko, a public figure, regional ethnographer, and author of the book Jewish Volodymyr, speaks about the stories of Ukrainians who rescued Jews during World War II.

Volodymyr Muzychenko heads the Jewish community of Volodymyr and teaches at a local music school. He translated from English the memoirs of a Holocaust survivor, published in book format in 2022.

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: On 14 May, Ukraine celebrated Remembrance Day for Ukrainians who rescued Jews during World War II. Introduced in 2021, this is a relatively new special day in our national calendar, while the very concept of the Righteous Among the Nations, an honor awarded to those who rescued Jews from the Holocaust, has long existed in Israel. When did it emerge, and do we know the exact number of the Righteous in Ukraine?

Volodymyr Muzychenko: This title was introduced quite a long time ago. Back in 1953, when Israel was a very young state just getting on its feet, it established a commission under the jurisdiction of its Supreme Court to award this recognition. The first awardee was, oddly enough, a German named Ludwig Wörl, who was recognized as Righteous Among the Nations on 19 March 1963.

It's hard to establish the exact number of people who have been awarded this title in Ukraine. I think this is true of other countries as well. You know what kind of time it was, and the fates of people, both the rescued and their rescuers, are very different and complicated. And it is probably harder to do this in Ukraine than anywhere else. For well-known reasons, the Soviet Union essentially blocked the identification and recognition of those who saved Jews.

How is the title of Righteous Among the Nations awarded?

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: What does the recognition procedure look like? Did Ukrainians themselves apply, or did Israel learn about them? Could the rescued persons request that this honor be conferred on their rescuers?

Volodymyr Muzychenko: This title has been awarded to people who saved Jews in World War II during the Holocaust. The main criterion is that it had to be an act of goodwill without any benefit derived. People who wanted to survive were ready to give all they had to be rescued. Many people did so and received help. But this recognition concerns an entirely different situation: when people did it voluntarily, out of human, Christian, or other motives without benefitting from their act. Only such people can be recognized as Righteous Among the Nations. The rescuers risked their lives in either case, but the honor is bestowed only on those who did it out of higher, humane motives rather than for money. Of course, evidence, proof, or testimony must be presented to show that that was the case. Of the highest importance are the applications of those who were saved.

I have my own experience with this. Our family applied to have the rescuers of my mother to be recognized as Righteous Among the Nations. There was also another situation when I initiated a similar case for another woman. The consideration of each submission is a rather complicated, lengthy process, but it's worth it.

People risked not just their well-being but their very lives. They also risked the lives of their families and children to rescue others.

It is an act worthy of the highest appreciation in society.

Illustrative photo of a ghetto from open sources.

Recognition delayed in Ukraine

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska:  Unfortunately, Ukrainians now have a similar experience when they sometimes risk their lives to rescue people from the occupation. It is a difficult moment, and I was somewhat surprised to learn that Remembrance Day was established in Ukraine as late as 2021. Why do you think it took so long, and why is it essential for us to have this special day on our national calendar?

Volodymyr Muzychenko:  I believe that the state officially recognized these people with significant delay. It was also as late as 2021 that the Cabinet of Ministers awarded stipends to Ukrainian citizens who rescued Jews on Ukraine's territory during the Holocaust. And this decision has a bitter taste. It should have been done long ago, while many of these people were still alive. In 2021, remaining [alive] there were only eighteen Righteous Among the Nations, six Righteous of Ukraine, and two Righteous of Babyn Yar. (Note the existence of these additional honors.)

Until that time, the state of Ukraine ignored this title. While more than 27,700 people were recognized as Righteous Among the Nations worldwide, this process was deliberately slowed down and ignored in the Soviet Union. There was no assistance whatsoever with this process. For example, six people were recognized as Righteous Among the Nations in the Soviet Union, on the territory of Ukraine, in 1963–82. The recognition rate grew dramatically, to 280 people per year, in 1992–2003. These figures speak for themselves and are evidence of the change since Ukraine's independence. A total of 42 countries have citizens recognized as Righteous Among the Nations.

There are nearly 28,000 Righteous Among the Nations worldwide. As of 1 January 2020, Ukraine ranked fourth after Poland, France, and the Netherlands with its 2,691 Righteous.

There are reasons for this situation. After the end of World War II, most Jews left Ukraine and went to Israel, the United States, and other countries. They were unable to contact people in Ukraine because of the Iron Curtain and strict KGB control over any contacts with foreign countries. People in the Soviet Union were afraid to contact foreigners. It was also problematic to come here to meet with someone. Therefore, it was not an easy matter to conduct any searches or exchange correspondence. The lives of those who were rescued followed different paths. Not all of them became millionaires. There were young and older people among them. Some died; some left testimonies, while others did not. So, this process is quite complicated. This is one of the reasons why not all rescuers in Ukraine have been recognized.

As I was working on my book, I talked to many people: World War II survivors in Volodymyr and the region. Many of them told me about how Jews were saved by their neighbors, friends, or family. Unfortunately, very few direct testimonies have survived. If they had been preserved and if there had been better conditions for the recognition process, I believe Ukraine would rank first among the 42 countries that have the Righteous Among the Nations. The top spot now belongs to Poland, where the situation was slightly different.

Volodymyr Muzychenko’s family history

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: You wrote a book called Jewish Volodymyr about the Jews in the town of Volodymyr. Please tell us about your family's history and your work on this book.

Volodymyr Muzychenko:  I am a regional ethnographer rather than a professional historian. The book includes all available information from the first mention of Jews in our city. A separate section is devoted to the Holocaust and the stories about the Righteous Among the Nations. The book also talks about the lives of the Jews who left for other countries because they remain our fellow countrymen. These people love our town and Ukraine to this day. Their families had varied experiences, including both cases of rescue and the involvement of people with other attitudes, such as indifference or even collaboration with the Nazis.

One case in my family history stimulated me to write this book, especially the chapter on the Righteous Among the Nations. My mother was born in the village of Rudky, Rivne region, which is near Rafalivka. My mother's entire family lived in that area, but only my mother and her father survived the Holocaust.

When the Nazis drove Jews into ghettos, they took her family to Rafalivka. One day, my mother's neighbor Feodosii Karashchuk arrived in the Rafalivka ghetto, and her stepmother asked him to take my mother Feiga with him. He would take her to the village, where she would pick some vegetables in their garden and deliver them back to the ghetto because they were starving there. Karashchuk agreed. On his next trip, he brought his daughter's Ukrainian clothes and put them on my mother. Risking his own life, he took her out of the ghetto.

When he was taking my mother across the river, there was a police post at the crossing. My mother sat on the cart, and a policeman stopped them. He asked Karashchuk: "Who are you, and who are you carrying with you?" — and kicked my mother. Karashchuk replied that it was his daughter and delivered a made-up story that someone was dying in the family, and they wanted to see that relative one last time and say goodbye. The policeman gave her a sideways look, saying, "Well, well, well, vydno pana po khaliavakh." [Figuratively, clothes make the man. — Transl.] My mother remembered this phrase for the rest of her life.

She told me this story more than once. The policeman kicked my mother again and let the neighbor pass. The policeman realized that he had been told a lie. On the one hand, it looked from the outside like he was being quite arrogant and dismissive. On the other hand, he could have reacted differently. And his reaction determined whether my mother would be able to get out. So, Karashchuk took her out of the ghetto and across the river, bringing her to his family. While my mother was with them, they found out that there was a pogrom in the ghetto. My mother's entire family — her stepmother, two sisters, and my brother, a baby at the time — were killed.

They were shot directly in the Rafalivka ghetto rather than on Bakhova Hill, where the other Jews from the ghetto were massacred.

Bakhova Hill. Photo: Rafalivka.

When my mother's stepmother realized what was happening, she grabbed her three children and tried to escape from the ghetto through the gardens. But she was spotted, and they were shot right there, where the neighbors later buried them.

Memorial plaque in Rafalivka on Bakhova Hill. Photo: Rafalivka.

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska:  What a horrific story. I realize it is difficult for you to recall and talk about it now. Thank you for finding the strength to do so. It seems that we need this Remembrance Day in order to hear and know these stories.

Volodymyr Muzychenko: I would like to emphasize the role of the Karashchuk family in my mother's rescue. And this was not the only family that helped save my mother. My maternal grandfather was at a sawmill before the pogrom. He worked there with other Jews. Someone managed to warn them, and they all fled into the forest. Then my grandfather found out where my mother was. In those dangerous circumstances, when everything was quite uncertain and difficult, he hid my mother in the hay, straw, and fields for some time. He brought her the food he received from Ukrainians in the surrounding villages, where people knew him well. Different families hid my mother, but the Karashchuk family deserves the most credit for saving her. Upon our submission, the Karashchuks were recognized as Righteous Among the Nations in 2006.

Now I know about the rescue of 120 Jews in Volodymyr. According to Yad Vashem data, 87 Righteous Among the Nations come from our town and raion. Some of them left Ukraine and the Soviet Union after World War II. Having this number of Righteous Among the Nations is quite good for such a small town as Volodymyr. However, we realize that, unfortunately, these people are a small part of the population. This number could have been higher.

This program is created with the support of Ukrainian Jewish Encounter (UJE), a Canadian charitable non-profit organization.  

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Vasyl Starko.

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