THE RIGHTEOUS ARE AMONG US... - Prof. Adam Daniel Rotfeld

Sartre once wrote that hell is other people. He was probably right. However, this popular post-war intellectual, philosopher, existentialist, should also have added: paradise and happiness on earth are also other people. My own existence attests to this.

I was lucky. During my childhood I met many good people, who were noble and selflessly kind.  Unfortunately, I do not know all their names.  For myself and for those closest to me – my parents and grandparents, my sisters and uncles, my aunts and cousins, for all the people of the city of Przemyślan, in which I was born – a city located to the southeast of Lwow – hell began in the summer of 1941.  After the German army marched into Eastern Galicia.  I was three years old then.  From this period of time I remember a general mood, and also a few instances – the actions of the German police, roundups, escapes.

In the late autumn of 1941 a horse drawn carriage drove into the yard of our house, and a monk in robes got out.  His name was Daniił. In Polish – Daniel.  The carriage driver spoke to the monk  in Ukrainian.  (I mention the carriage driver because on May 3, 2008, at the occasion of celebrations organized in Uniów to commemorate the actions of Archimandrite Klemens, an older gentleman approached me and introduced himself: “I was the carriage driver and I seated you in the carriage at the request of Brother Daniel…”)  Father Daniel told my parents that he had brought back my cousins from the monastery in Uniów because they wished to return to their families in Przemyślan.  Before saying goodbye he stopped in the doorway and turned to my father: “Doctor, perhaps you would like to send your son to us?”  All the adults in the room turned to look at me.  They started dressing me in a hurry.  Hugging me, kissing me.  They put me in the carraige.  That was the last time I saw my parents.  

It is in this way that I ended up at the Studite  monastery, whose Prior was Klemens Szeptycki, the brother of the metropolitan in Lwow, Andrzej Szeptycki.  Father Klemens was a tall man, he had noble, elongated facial features, good, kind eyes.  He emanated peacefulness.  He was serious, thoughtful, he spoke quietly in a clear way, with good diction.  He became my confessor. 

After arriving in Uniów I saw a dozen other boys in the dorm room.  After a time there, I realized that three among them were children from Jewish families living in Uniów under assumed names.

My parents gave me two names – Adam Daniel.  I was called – Adaś.  After the baptism ceremony I was registered as Daniel Czerwiński.  Many years later I found out that I had received shelter at the monastery because of the good will of the metropolitan of Lwow, the Archbishop Andrzej Szeptycki.  Based on the recommendation of this metropolitan, during the war, all Greek Catholic monasteries and convents granted assistance and hid Jews and Poles who were being persecuted in those parts of eastern Galicia.  In this way, they saved the lives of at least 150 people, mostly children.  I have met a few of them personally.  

One day, after the Germans had already retreated from Podole – it was the summer of 1944 – one of the boys from the monastery, Łewko Chamiński, disappeared.  I met him 50 years later in Newport (in the state of Rhode Island).  He had returned to his ancestral last name – Dr. Leon Chameides, he became a distinguished American pediatrician-cardio surgeon.  His brother has gained world renown for his studies in the area of new information technologies at a university in Australia.  I met Leon by accident.  We recognized each other thanks to a photograph.  It was taken in 1943.  It was the only group photograph which the children had ever received during their stay at the monastery.  I gave a copy of this picture to the monastery in Uniów in 2005, after the unveiling of a plaque on which the brass words read: „In homage to the metropolitan Andrzej Szeptycki and the Archminandate Klemens Szeptycki – for saving the lives of Polish, Ukrainian, and Jewish children during World War II.”  Today, the photograph hangs in one of the rooms in the of the Uniów monastery to remind future generations of the extraordinary role which the Studite Order played during the war, providing shelter and aid to the defenseless and the persecuted.  I have also seen this photograph at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., a copy presented to them by Leon Chameides.  Directly after the war, the role of the metropolitan Andrzej Szeptycki and the whole brotherhood of the monastery of the Studite , was described by Kurt Lewin.  His book, entitled, “I Survived. The Sage of St. Jura written down in the Year 1946”.  (pub. Zeszyty Literackie, Warszawa 2006), is not only a beautiful literary report of the dangers and bravery, sacrifice and risk, which all the monks took, but it also makes one aware that in order to save one life, often a whole chain of people of good will is needed.  On the other hand, one report to the police, Gestapo, or SS bureau was enough to make hundreds of people lose their lives, end up in concentration camps or death camps.  The fate of Omelan Kowcz, the rector of the parish of St. Nicholas in Przemyślan,  confirms this.  This Ukrainian priest gave aid to Poles whose lives were threatened by their Ukrainian neighbors.  He attempted to save Jews in many different ways – by providing false baptism certificates and other documents which might enable their survival.  Based on a report someone had slipped to the authorities, he was arrested by the Germans.  He lost his life in the concentration camp in Majdanek.  Pope John Paul II beatified Father Omelan Kowcz.  I took part in the service consecrating a church built in his name in Przemyślan.  In Lublin and Majdanek I participated in a ceremony which named one of the round-abouts in Lublin after the Blessed Omelan Kowcz. Today, the people of Przemyślan are proud of their citizen.  However, during the war he was alone in his actions…

A few days after the ceremony unveiling the commemorative plaque on the walls of the monastery in Uniów, I received a letter by fax from Professor Roald Hoffman, of Cornell University.  The professor is a recipient of the Nobel Prize in chemistry, and at the same time he is also a poet, essayist, and dramatist.  His plays are successfully put on in theaters on Broadway.  From his letter, I found out that he was born in Złoczowie close to Przemyślan, and that he hid in the village school in Uniów, where I began my education.  Roald, his mother, and part of his family was saved by hiding out in the attic of the four-classroom primary school in Uniów with the help of a teacher named Diuk.  I met Roald and his – at that time still living mother – in New York in the fall of 2005, at the occasion of his participation in the 60th anniversary meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations.  In the book of poems which Roald gave to me as a gift then, is the poem “Fields of Vision”, which begins with the words:

„From the attic the boy

Watched children playing,

But they were always running

Out of the window frame”.

The boy who, for two years, could watch the world only through a crack in the attic floor was Roald, while I was among those children playing next to the school…

In another poem, “Game In the Attic 1943”, the imagination of the child dictates such dreams for the author:

„To get from Uniów to San Francisco,

This is what you do, mammi; first

You walk out to the dusty road,

Near the church, you wait a while

for a peasant to give you a ride

to the main road…”

I recall here the memory of these few, loosely related to one another, people and facts, to show that out of the catastrophe which was the Shoah only a handful survived.  Today, like paleontologists, from the small bone fragments of animals who inhabited the planet millions of years ago, or like archeologists, from the remaining pieces of clay pots and decorative vases, we attempt to recreate what life looked like before the Catastrophe.  We are forced to rely on the accounts of the few, who survived.  The stories of those whose lives were saved will not bring back the dead.  But they will bring back the memory of those Righteous ones who saved the honor of villages and cities – the honor of the whole nation.  After all, there were hundreds and thousands of little villages like Uniów and cities like Przemyślan within the borders of the Second Republic of Poland.

Nearly 50 years after having left the Studite  monastery in Uniów, Dr. Leon Chameides wrote me a letter from West Hartford, Connecticut, with a sentence worth noting: „How strange and mysterious the World is! As I see all those of us contributing to our Families, society and the World, I cannot help but wonder how much of a contribution could have been made by all those children who did not survive”.

Leon is right.  Out of a small and random group of children, many became world renowned scholars, writers, doctors.  During my school years I was mostly surrounded by war orphans.  I often reflected on the following thought:  what luck that during the war these children ended up with people who were decent, noble, and brave.  Uniów is after all a typical, poor Galician village in the Podkarpacie region, lost in the forests, far from the main routes of transportation.  There was the teacher Diuk, who risking his own life and the life of his family, saved and gave the world a future Nobel Prize recipient.  There was also the monastery, whose monks were the sons of simple Ukrainian farmers.  The Studite monastery (along with a number of other monasteries and convents) deserves admiration and the highest acknowledgment because it was brave enough to stand up against evil.  This was possible because of the spiritual leaders of this community, pastors of such measure as the metropolitan Andrzej Szeptycj and his brother Klemens Szeptycki.  They were aristocrats not only by birth.  They were true aristocrats of the soul.  The Vatican acknowledged the great moral and spiritual leadership of the Szeptycki brothers.  During his memorable pilgrimage to Lwow in the year 2001, Pope John Paul II brought to the alter the Archimandrate of the Order of the Studite  of Klemens, while the process of beatifying Andrzej Szeptycki is close to being completed.  In Ukraine, the Szeptycki family is surrounded by a cult of the faithful of the Greek Catholic Church. 

The metropolitan Andrzej Szeptycki also deserves to have his name cleared outside of Ukraine.  The NKWD and the KGB – security forces which both oppose the Ukrainian nation – consciously defiled his name.  In a letter from November 24, 2007 addressed to the chairman of Yad Vashem, Kurt Lewin wrote that those who survived, “and among them, my brother Nathan Lewin, the sons of Rabbi Chameises – Prof. Leon Chameides and Prof. Zvi Barnea – as well as Prof. Adam Daniel Rotfeld, Dr. Oded Amarant, Ms. Lili Pohlmann, the deceased Prof. Podoshyn, have all made renewed attempts to ensure that the metropolita Andrzej Szeptycji be recognized by Yad Vashem.”  In the next letter, dated January 6, 2008, addressed to the chairman of Yad Vashem, Kurt Lewin added:  „The Szeptycki brothers probably were the only ones who showed compassion to the condemned to death community waiting in the ghettoes for deportation to Bełżec, or similar installations. (…) They inspired and motivated others to participate in this dangerous activity. The sons of Rabbi Dr. Chameides, and my brother were for a while sheltered in the convents of the Basilian Order. Prof. A. D. Rotfeld was sheltered in a Studite orphanage in Uniw. Mrs. L. Pohlmann and her mother were sheltered by Studite nuns. Pregnant wife of Rabbi Dr. David Kahane was placed in a convent of Studite nuns, was eventually moved to a hospital named after Metropolitan Andrew as a practical nurse, and after giving birth was moved to the Basilian nuns foundling home as a nurse”.  I will also add that Andrzej Szeptycki does not need any formal document from any institution acknowledging his actions.  Those seeking such a recognition, are all those who have him to thank for saving their lives.  Resurrecting these memories is also something which is needed for new generations, for whom the memory of the lives and deeds of the Righteous should be a part of their spiritual identities.

The names of the Righteous are like road signs or lighthouses.  They show the way and also confirm that respect for human dignity was possible even during the most difficult of times, when life on earth was hell…

From the Album “Poles who rescued Jews during the Holocaust – Recalling Forgotten History”, Warsaw 2008