The Righteous in the Ukraine
Prior to the outbreak of World War II, one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe lived in the territory of today's Ukraine. It numbered around 2.7 million people. During the inter-War period, these areas were part of the Second Polish Republic, Romania. Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine. A significant number of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust did not consider themselves to be "Ukrainian Jews" and their tragic fate, in the years of World War II, is rather analysed as part of the histories of the countries mentioned above, but based upon their pre-War borders.
The majority of Ukrainians lived in, what is today, the Ukraine, especially in the rural areas. But Poles, Russians, Belarussians, Czechs, Slovaks, Germans, Romanians, Hungarians and Roma lived there also. Jews constituted a significant percentage of the urban population. Prior to 1939, according to available statistical data, more than 1.5 million Jews lived in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, comprising around 5% of the republic's total population. The populations of Kiev and other Ukrainian cities such as Winnica, Żytomierz and Kamieniec Podolski were one-third Jewish. Similarly, in Lwów, in the 1930's, the Jewish community numbered almost 100,000, being 30% of the city's residents. Likewise, in Czernowitz in the Bukowina region, Jews constituted 37% of the residents. In smaller towns in the Wołyn region, the percentage was even higher - for example in Równe (50%) and Włodzimierz Wołyński (39%).
Following the collapse of Czechoslovakia in 1939, Hungary occupied the Carpathian region. That area found itself within the Ukraine only after World War II. In September 1939, as the result of the division of the Second Polish Republic's territory between the Third Reich and the USSR, at least 700,000 Jews, Polish citizens living in the Wołyn region and in the eastern Małopolskie Province (Galicia), found themselves under Soviet occupation, on territory connected to the Ukrainian Republic. In 1940, northern Bukovina and southern Besarabia were removed from Romania and incorporated into the Republic of the Ukraine.
In the summer and autumn of 1941, following the Third Reich's attack on the Soviet Union, the territory of contemporary Ukraine found itself under German occupation or under the control of one of the countries allied to the Third Reich. Around 900,000 Jews managed to flee or were evacuated to the east. Those with the greatest chance of escape lived in the eastern part of the Ukraine, especially in the industrial area of Donbas. Only a few residents of the western territories - Wołyn and Podole, as well as eastern Galicia (Małopolskie) - managed to move deeper into the USSR. In the western regions of today's Ukraine, only a small percentage of the pre-War Jewish population managed to survive.
Following the German attack on the Soviet Union, the Jews experienced brutal persecution by the German occupiers, as well as bloody pogroms at the hands of the local population. Thousands of men, women and children lost their lives. A significant percentage of Jewish Holocaust victims on Ukrainian soil were murdered in mass executions conducted by the Germans, often taking place near to where the victims lived and often within the first weeks or months of occupation. In the autumn of 1941, tens of thousands of Jews living in these regions - men and, by the end of August 1941, women and children also - were shot by German mobile security police units, created to perform special tasks at the front - Einsatzgruppen C and D. To autumn 1943, Einsatzgrup units, as well as army and military police, murdered the majority of Jews in the Ukraine.
Around 230,000 Jews from western Ukraine perished in extermination camps in Bełżec and Sobibor. Jews in Carpathia found themselves under direct German occupation at the beginning of 1944 and, in May of that same year, around 62,000 Jews were deported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp.
After a short period of control exercised by the military administration, the Reichskommissariat Ukraine was created, with its capital in Równo and encompassing the Wołyń and Podole districts. The areas of eastern Ukraine remained under German military administration. The area of eastern Małopolskie (Galicia) were incorporated within the General Government, while Besarabia and Bukovina found themselves under Romanian control.
The Motivation to Help Jews
It is difficult to portray a consistent portrait of the people who attempted to help Jews from being led to their extermination by the Germans. Help was provided not only in the larger cities such as Lwów, Kiev and Czernovitz, but also in smaller towns and villages. Just as in occupied Poland, the decision to provide help brought with it the risk of repression and even death at the hand of the Germans or local collaborators. The rescuers came from all community circles. They were men and women. They were well-educated, local intellectuals. They were clergy. They were the poor and illiterate.
Widespread, Organised Help
In the eastern areas of, what was at that time, Małopolskie - mainly in Lwów - from December 1942, help was provided by the underground, acting on behalf of the Polish Government-in-Exile. The Council to Help Jews "Żegota”, as a part of the Polish State underground, operated principally in Warsaw and in Kraków. The Lwów branch was headed by Władysława Chomsowa, nicknamed the "Angel of Lwów”. Chomsowa contributed to the rescue of several dozen Jews, among them Jewish children for whom she sought shelter in Catholic orphanages. After the War, she was made an Honorary Citizen of Lwów and was awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations.
In that same area, a major role in saving Jewish children was also played by the Metropolitan Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Andrej Szeptycki (1865-1944). With his knowledge and approval, a dozen or so Jewish children were hidden in convents in Lwów and then in the provinces. Within the Second Polish Republic, Szeptycki enjoyed immense authority as one of the leaders of the Ukrainian nationalist movement. He had a close rapport with Jewish leaders and was on friendly terms with the rabbi of the progressive synagogue, Dr. Jecheskiel Lewin. Despite the fact that, during the 1930's, he gradually adopted a sympathetic position towards the Third Reich, during the War, he was actively engaged in saving Jews. He saved Kurt and Natan, Rabbi Lewin's two sons, hiding them in cloisters in Lwów and in the provinces. In the Studite monastery in Lwów, he hid Rabbi David Kahane and also found shelter for his wife and daughters. Despite his undeniable service, Szeptycki remained, however, a contrversial figure due to his position towards Ukrainian-German cooperation.
Again, in the Eastern Małopolskie area, as it was at that time, a German entrepreneur Berthold Beitz extended help on a broad scale. As the representative of Karpathen-Öl AG, he controlled refineries in Borysław. Having witnessed the deportations from a Jewish orphanage, Beitz was so moved by the cruelty that he decided to help the remaining Jews. He directly saved around two hundred individuals, protecting them from deportations. He also contributed to the survival of another eight hundred, retaining them within the city's labour camp as essential workers. He also issued them with false work certificates and passes. At the beginning of 1944, he warned the remaining Jews in the work camp of an expected deportation, thanks to which they managed to escape into the local forest. In March 1944, when his activities came to light, he was conscripted into the army. In 1973, Beitz was honoured with the title of Righteous Among the Nations.
Jews were also subjected to brutal persecution on Ukrainian territory controlled by Romanian authorities. Thousands were transported to camps in Transnistria, where large numbers of them perished due to the gruelling work and the prevailing dramatic conditions. Romanian nationalist and politician, Trajan Popovici, was mayor of Czernovitz in 1941. He endeavoured to protect the city's Jewish residents from deportations and tried to prevent a ghetto from being created. He managed to save 20,000 individuals from being deported, arguing that they were essential to the proper functioning of the city's economy. Popovici distributed documents which enabled even those without appropriate qualifications to stay in Czernovitz. Because of his activities, in the spring of 1942, he was dismissed from his position and sent to Bucharest. He died in 1946. In 1969, he was posthumously honoured with the title of Righteous Among the Nations.
However, as a rule, help was the result of individual decisions, taken on the spur of the moment, in the face a deadly threat. Many of the rescuers were, before the War, somehow connected with Jews, either privately or professionally. Help was, therefore, often extended to friends, co-workers, past clients or patients, friends from school or neighbours. More often than not, the decision to provide help was taken in secret from family and against the prevailing social opinion.
According to reports from non-Jewish families, remaining Jews could often count on help from close non-Jewish friends and could benefit from their network of contacts. In the former Soviet republics, around 17-18% of Jews lived in mixed marriages, the children of which also needed to be protected. The daughter and son of Dina Pronicheva, a Jewish actor from Kiev, were saved thanks to help from her husband and a friend. In response to a German order, dated 21st September 1941, together with her parents, sister and thousands of Kiev Jews, she was taken to Babi Yar where, during the course of two days, and with the help of Ukrainian police, the Germans shot almost 34,000 Jewish men, women and children. Dina was one of the few survivors of that massacre. Her husband saved their children, Vladimir and Luba, from death but he, himself, was arrested shortly thereafter. One of their friends then placed the children into an orphange, where Dina found them in March 1944.
As mentioned, pre-War professional and social contacts also provided the chance to survive the War. An example of this is the story of Ludviga (Nina) Pukas. In 1937, this young woman moved to Proskurów (today, the city of Chmielnicki in eastern Ukraine), where she found a job with Frima Sternik, a Jew and a local teacher. Nina ran Frima's household and looked after her children - four-year-old Eldina and one-year-old Gennady. When, in 1941, the Germans occupied the city and began registering Jews, Nina managed to register the children as her own. Shortly after, Frima was arrested and perished. Nina continued to look after the children, despite the modest conditions and the searches which carried with them mortal danger. After the War, the survivor children remained in contact with their carer and, until her passing, treated her as a mother. The Yad Vashem Institute honoured Pukas with the title of Righteous Among the Nations.
Within the borders of today's Ukraine, around 100,000 Jews survived the German occupation. According to data from Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Institute, at least 2,573 individuals extended their help within that territory. To January 2017, that is the number honoured with the title of RIghteous Among The Nations.
O. Bartov, Communal Genocide: personal accounts of the destruction of Buczacz, eastern Galicia, 1941-1944, [in:] Shatterzone of empires: coexistence and violence in the German, Habsburg, Russian, and Ottoman borderlands, ed. O. Bartov i E. D. Weitz, Bloomington, Ind., 2013.
The Diary of Samuel Goldfard and the Holocaust in Galicia, ed. W. Lower, Lanham, 2011.
P. Friedman, Roads to Extinction: Essays on the Holocaust, New York, 1980.
The Shoah in Ukraine. History, Testimony, Memorialization, rd. R. Brandon and W. Lower, Bloomington 2008.
R. Segal, Genocide in the Carpathians: War, Social Breakdown, and Mass Violence, 1914-1945, Stanford 2013.
S. Spector, The Holocaust of Volhynian Jews, 1941-1944, Jerusalem 1990.
by Dr Natalia Aleksiun
English Translation: Andrew Rajcher