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“Besides heaven, this is the only place where I would want to be.” The Witness of the Greek Catholic Priest-Martyr of Majdanek Blessed Omelian Kovch

11.05.2012, 15:27
Fr. Omelian Kovch died 25 March 1944, three months before the liberation of the Majdanek camp 23 July 1944. Some 80,000 people were killed in the camp over 34 months including about 59,000 Jews. Blessed Omelian Kovch was for many prisoners their pastor. Today he bears the title “Pastor of Majdanek.” 9 January 1999 The Jewish Council of Ukraine proclaimed him a “Righteous of Ukraine.”

As a church historian I have studied the persecution and underground life of the Ukrainian Greek Catholics in Soviet times. (From 1946-1989 the catacomb Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was the largest illegal church community in the world.) As a university lecturer I teach primarily courses on Christian spirituality in the context of post-modern cultural challenges. I am profoundly convinced that the neo-martyrs are an important source of guidance regarding the complex spiritual predicament of the present and proximate future. In Ukraine they overcame the greatest challenges of the twentieth century—Soviet and Nazi totalitarianism—and they can give us a key to the greatest spiritual and moral tasks of twenty-first century. The martyrs and confessors kept the faith in virtually impossible circumstances, in which giant systems with almost limitless power and control tried to negate both human dignity and the very existence of the Creator. Deprived of the most elementary legal and civil rights, stripped of the entire infrastructure of the Church, and subjected to excruciating physical and spiritual suffering the new martyrs remained strong, courageous, joyful, full of hope, humble, and in peace. They experienced and radiated the love of God. If they did so in totalitarian circumstances facing death yesterday, cannot also we do the same today and tomorrow—in Spain and in Ukraine?

Of these martyrs Blessed Omelian Koch, who was beatified by Pope John Paul II in Lviv 27 June 2001, is a particularly relevant example for priests during the Year of the Priesthood. Who was Blessed Omelian Kovch and what can his witness express to the clergy and faithful of Roman Catholic Spain? To answer these questions it is necessary to provide historical information on the martyr of a Nazi labor camp in Majdanek, near Lublin, Poland who for three decades served as a creative, indefatigable, and intrepid pastor and voluntarily—with deep conviction and joy--sacrificed his life to minister to and save Jews and to be a priest to the dying in a death camp. In the process I would like to highlight some aspects of Blessed Omelian’s priestly character and propose a few perspectives regarding his relevance for priests at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Omelian Kovch was born 20 August 1884 in the picturesque southern Galician village of Kosmach, near the town of Kosiv, 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. Omelian had one brother and three sisters, all of whom became wives of priests. Eventually two Omelian’s sons, Serhiy and Myron would become priests. Serhiy was a prist in Slovakia and Myron served for many years in Detroit Michigan. His grandson, Taras Kowcz, who studied with me in the seminary in Rome, today serves as a parish priest in Winnipeg, Canada. (Since Taras has only two daughters it seems that the priestly lineage has reached a culmination.)

After completing gymnasium studies in Lviv, the main city in western Ukraine (Galicia) 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 student of the Universita Urbaniana of the Congregation for the Propagation of Faith. In 1910 he married Maria-Anna Dobrianska who would be a model partner in his apostolate. The following year Omelian was ordained presbyter by Blessed Bishop Hryhorii Khomyshyn (1867-1945). Bishop Hryhorii himself became a martyr of the Soviet persecution. Arrested in 1945 at age of 78, after eight months of interrogation and beatings, he died in the hospital of a Soviet prison in Kyiv and was beatified together with Blessed Omelian by John Paul II.

At the time of Omelian Kovch’s childhood, seminary studies, and ordination, western Ukrainian Galician lands were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The complexities of Ukrainian history were reflected out throughout the challenging ministry of Father Omelian. Over a period of thirty years he would be a priest under successive Austrian, Ukrainian, Polish, Soviet and Nazi rule and endure the hardships of the émigré experience and two world wars. In all of these trying circumstances Blessed Omelian was a spiritual father to his Greek Catholic Ukrainian flock, which had a second class if not persecuted status throughout his entire life. At the same time he earned a reputation for being a defender of representatives of other ethnic communities, especially Roman Catholic Poles and Jews during the Holocaust, for whom he would ultimately give his life.

Soon after ordination, in 1912, Father Omelian volunteered to serve Greek Catholic immigrants who had left densely populated and economically depressed western Ukraine to settle in ethnically and confessionally diverse Yugoslavian lands. He administrated a parish in Kozarac a small town in what is today northwestern Bosnia and Herzegovina. In this mountainous region where Muslims cohabited with Catholics of Latin and Byzantine rites he traveled the hillsides to attend to the spiritual needs of a dispersed flock. Already then he came to be recognized as an effective missionary with a gift for preaching, consoling and converting souls. In 1916 he returned to Galicia where he served as an assistant pastor until 1919 when he became a chaplain in the Ukrainian Galician Army during the revolutionary events that were occurring in the wake of the collapse of both the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires. He was a diligent shepherd celebrating daily Divine Liturgies, tending to the wounded and sick in hospital, and offering pastoral care during battle. He was known as a good mediator in conflicts and supported the morale of the soldiers. Fr. Omelian was sometimes accused of “imprudence” in that he was apt to go to the front lines to be by the side of troops under fire. “I know that a soldier on the line of the front feels best if he sees there a doctor and a chaplain.” Father Omelian would joke: “You know, gentlemen, that I am ordained, and bullets don’t bite an ordained man that readily.”

Both Poles and Ukrainians had no statehood, that is, national independence throughout the nineteenth century. Ukrainian and Polish ethnographical lands were part of the Russian or Austrian Empires. (Besides Russia, and Austria, Prussia participated in the eighteenth century partitions of Poland and Lithuania.) Both peoples fought during and after World War I to establish their independence. The war between Poles and Ukrainians for Galicia (1918-1919) ended with defeat for the Ukrainian side. If Poland, Czechoslovakia, Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania would emerge as independent countries from the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Czarist Empires, Ukraine would endure many decades of brutality totalitarian rule before it would gain independence in 1991.

To understand the circumstances of the Church and neo-martyrs in Ukraine it is important to know that in the twentieth century some 17 million inhabitants of Ukraine would be killed or die an unnatural death due to the World Wars, Soviet and Nazi persecution and extermination policies, including the diabolical artificial famine Holodomor (“genocide by hunger”) orchestrated by Stalin in 1932-33 (5-7 million victims) and the Nazi Holocaust. From 1914 to 1945 every other adult male and every fourth adult female perished.[1] Ukraine was one of the main theaters of two world wars with their battle casualties and violence against civilian populations. Its people endured the Leninist revolutionary mayhem, the famine after World War I. The systematic Stalinist purges of political leaders, communist party activists, intellectuals, religious leaders, military officers, and even folk musicians beginning in the 1920s and lasting until World War II and the ethnic cleansing and the forcible deportations of the post-war years together generated a toll of death and human suffering that is simply overwhelming.

The death toll in Ukraine constitutes nearly one tenth of the approximately 180 million estimated fatalities world wide caused by war and by homicidal policies of the various totalitarian regimes in the last century.[2] The brutality and slaughter of the most modern century affected the personal history of every Ukrainian. Among European nations, no other people except the Jews suffered losses of such proportions.[3] It is these circumstances that the neo-martyrs faced and overcame.

Since, in the Soviet Union, much of the savagery, particularly the Holodomor, could not be acknowledged in public and even private discourse this drama remained unreflected, the deaths remained unmourned, the violence and offenses unpardoned, and the psychological and spiritual scars unhealed. The sociological, psychological, and spiritual implications of the historical events themselves and their reception in the Ukrainian population have yet to be fully analyzed. One thing, however, is clear a priori. A discussion of any aspect of social life in Ukraine, including post-Soviet church life, must always take into consideration the basic anthropological impact of modern totalitarian violence. More than many other factors, it helps to explain the dynamics underlying contemporary phenomena and trends in human behavior. Very importantly, it serves to explain the worldview and problems of recent immigrant to Spain.

This historical context helps us understand the heroic ministry and witness of Blessed Omelian Kovch. After the Polish-Ukrainian war ended Fr. Omelian was appointed, in 1922, to the parish of Peremyshliany, a town, like most in Galicia, composed primarily of three nationalities: Jews, Poles as well as 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. The Polish authorities, which were conducting an explicit policy of Polonizing and Latinizing the Ukrainian population of Galicia, harassed the dynamic and vocal pastor regularly. According to reports, between 1925 and 1934 the police searched his home some 40 times. On many occasions Fr. Omelian was arrested and held for questioning for longer or shorter periods. Although firm in his convictions and outspoken on behalf of his discriminated flock in the public square, Blessed Omelian was equally famous for his pastoral zeal and tact, a sensitivity to plight of the weak, and capacity as a peacemaker.

Passersby would say about the simple rectory of the pastor: “Angels hover over that house.” The Kovch family had six children of their own. Despite their modest circumstances Fr. Omelian and Maria-Anna almost continuously housed orphans and other children who were abandoned to poverty. The family was known to favor these special guests giving them better food and clothing than that enjoyed by the Kovch children. Blessed Omelian was radically attentive to the poor helping them materially and spiritually. His reputation of virtue spread.

The Greek Catholic pastor of Peremyshliany was not only a uniquely active minister. He was also a profoundly reflective one. Not a scholar by primary vocation he nonetheless was very well educated. Besides Classical languages he knew five or six European ones, and was well read. He combined practical pastoral experience with critical analysis of cultural, social, political, and economic phenomena. In a special way, he systematically and scrupulously analyzed the effectiveness of the Greek Catholic Church’s apostolate. He loved his Church and served it indefatigably. At the same time he was an open critic of many of the shortcomings in Greek Catholic liturgical life and pastoral methodology.

In 1932 he published a small book with an evocative title: “Why Do Ours Flee from Us?” Given the economic circumstances, the mere fact that a busy priest with six children of his own and a veritable orphanage in his house could write and publish a book while being under pressure from the authorities is in itself remarkable. The book was dedicated to the topic of “desertion” from the Greek Catholic Church. Fr. Omelian was realistically assessing the processes occurring under the influence of secular, communist, and atheistic trends, a gathering influence of Protestantizing “sects” as they were then called, and the active Latinization that was being promoted by the Polish secular and church authorities in contravention to explicit policies of the Holy See.

Blessed Omelian was not looking to blame an outside “enemy”. On the contrary, he focused his attention on the shortcomings of liturgical practice and priestly ministry in his own Church. He was critical but also positive, proposing, in fact insisting on, reforms that would come only 30 years later with the Second Vatican Council, for example the revisiting of certain liturgical practices and strict fasting rules. He approached the issues directly and logically responding to what he was observing as a pastor. He had a keen sense of historical development. Above all, his guiding principle was the spiritual welfare of the faithful. Thus for example, he calculated that in the Greek Catholic practice during the liturgical year there were 204 days of abstinence and fasting while in the Roman practice there were only 75. Such a burden was not realistic and he argued that it should be lightened. In a prophetic manner he also argued strongly for the general use of the vernacular as opposed to Church Slavonic in liturgical services.

The heroic quality of his virtues had already emerged in the first thirty year of Blessed Omelian’s priesthood. They would be crowned by his sacrifices during World War II. In 1939 Galicia was occupied by the Soviet Union. Immediately the Catholic Church of both rites was put under great pressure. When some of the Greek Catholic parishioners of Peremyshliany permitted themselves acts of retribution against the defeated Polish authorities, Fr. Kovch, the victim of harassment and numerous arrests at the hands of the Poles, severely reprimanded members of his flock in a sermon in church: “It seemed that I had formed you as good parishioners… before God I am ashamed of you.”

Throughout the newly occupied territory the Soviet NKVD began arresting numerous priest along with civic and cultural leaders. Most of those incarcerated during the Red Army’s occupation of western Ukraine were executed in the last days of June 1941 before the Soviet retreat in the face of the Nazi Blitzkrieg against the USSR that began June 22. It was by miracle that Fr. Omelian, who was being seized at his home along with two daughters by the NKVD, was able to escape because precisely at the very moment of the arrest the German bombing of Peremyshliany had begun. Since, the Soviets had tortured and disfigured many of the victims that had been taken into custody during the 21 months of occupation of Galicia and since the brutally murdered numbered in the tens of thousands, the German advance was considered by many as a possible liberation.

Fr. Omelian did not share these illusions. As the hell of World War II continued the depth of the moral inferno continued to emerge and his Christian witness took on ever more radical form. With the arrival of the Nazis the persecution of Jews began immediately. Fr. Omelian pleaded with his faithful, especially the youth, not to fall to anti-Semitic provocation. 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 and in perfect German and with decisive moral outrage ordered the police to desist. The Germans were so shocked by the courageous priest that they dispersed. Fr. Kovch rushed to the doors of the synagogue and immediately began pulling the terrorized Jewish congregants from the flames.

In 1942 the Germans created a ghetto for Jews in Peremyshliany, from which the Jews were deported to death camps. The Greek Catholic pastor began organizing different strategies for harboring Jews. It is unknown how many Jews Fr. Kovch was able to hide in different places or how many he may have kept alive by organizing the delivery of food to their places of hiding. 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. Even though a priest has a special obligation to dispense the Sacrament in situations were the danger of death is proximate Fr. Omelian had misgivings about baptizing under these circumstances.

Fr. Kovch sought the consultation of the head of the Greek Catholic Church, Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky (1865–1944), a great Catholic hierarch whose cause is up for beatification. Metropolitan Andrei, a life-long champion of inter-ethnic and inter-confessional reconciliation, wrote to Pope Pius XII describing the horrific atrocities being committed by the Nazis against the Jews and the local population and about the bloody conflict between Polish and Ukrainian underground military units.

In his public position regarding the murderous policies of the Germans Metropolitan Andrei demonstrated more courage and explicit clarity than most Catholic hierarchs in Nazi-occupied Europe. He wrote a fearless letter of protest to Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler himself. Himmler who, alas, was raised in a Bavarian Catholic family but developed his own neo-pagan Aryan racist belief system was responsible for the Gestapo and was the principle organizer of the Holocaust and Nazi mass murder. Metropolitan Andrei promulgated a bold pastoral encyclical entitled "Thou Shalt Not Kill" in which he threatened "with Divine punishment" anyone who "shed innocent blood" and pronounced such perpetrators excluded from the sacraments of the Church.

The metropolitan fostered a daring but risky clandestine program to save Jews and personally harbored some 21 children of the helpless Jewish community, including the son of the head rabbi of Lviv, in his metropolitan palace and cathedral. The Studite Monastery of Univ, six kilometers from Peremyshliany, where the metropolitan’s brother, the Blessed Klymentii Sheptytsky was abbot (he too was beatified together with Omelian Kovch), and other convents and monasteries under the metropolitan’s jurisdiction offered refuge to some 183 Jews. It is probable that hundreds of priest, monks, and nuns were part of or at least aware of this network and despite the danger of death none of them betrayed any of the refuges all of whom survived.

In these circumstances the pastor of Peremyshliany did not refuse the insistent request of his Jewish neighbors. There was little time and Fr. Omelian began conducting catechesis and after the candidates had learned the Creed he conducted mass baptisms of hundreds of Jews. Most of the newly baptized in the end suffered the fate of other Jews, but there were reports that some created in the ghetto a separate community that openly professed the Christian faith. The pastor of Peremyshliany knew well that his open admonishment of his faithful not to fall moral prey to the Nazi’s genocidal policies and his systematic protection of Jews could lead only to one result.

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. In prison, despite the brutalization that he endured, the priest who in 30 years had the experience of every possible type of pastoral situation became spiritual father in a new context. A veteran of many trials and witness to Christ in the face of the worst human barbarity he became a source of consolation for the younger prisoners. Metropolitan Sheptytsky, family members, and friends undertook intense efforts to free Fr. Omelian. The Nazis were ready to release him under the condition the he promise not to protect and baptize any more Jews. The priest did not equivocate: “The law left to me by my Ruler states: ‘Baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’ There is no word (of exception) regarding Jews. Whoever wants to be baptized I will baptize him in the name of this law.” Again, in radical faithfulness to the example of Christ, Omelian Kovch chose the path to his own Calvary.

The Germans sent Blessed Omelian to the concentration camp in Majdanek, near Lublin, Poland, where he had the prisoner number 2399. Majdanek was built for some 50,000 prisoners. In the approximately one hundred barracks in the camp there were between 300 and 700 prisoners in each barrack living in horrific conditions. Fr. Kovch was in Barrack 14. He was able to write a few letters from Majdanek that have been preserved. One of them bears particular attention:

“I understand that you are making efforts for my liberation. But I ask you to do nothing. Yesterday they killed 50 people. If I am not here who will help them endure these sufferings? They would go into eternity with all of their sins and in deep despair, which leads to hell. Now they go to their deaths with upraised heads leaving their sins behind. And thus they cross the bridge to eternity.

I thank God for his benevolence to me. Besides heaven, this is the only place where I would want to be. (Emph. BG) Here we are all equal: Poles, Jews, Ukrainians, Russians, Latvians, Estonians. Of those present I am the only priest. I cannot even imagine what would be here without me. Here I see God who is the same without regard to the religious difference that exist among us. Maybe our Churches are different, but in all of them the same great Almighty God rules. When I celebrate the Divine Liturgy they all pray… They die in different ways and I help them cross this bridge into eternity. Is this not a blessing? Is this not the most splendid crown that God could place on my head? Precisely so. I thank God a thousand times each day that He sent me here. I ask nothing more of Him. Do not be troubled and do not lose faith on my part. Instead rejoice with me. Pray for those who created this concentration camp and this system. They are the only ones that need prayers…May God have mercy upon them.”

With such remarkable convictions and expressions of devotion, personal freedom, and spiritual fulfillment Fr. Omelian Kovch died 25 March 1944, three months before the liberation of the Majdanek camp 23 July 1944. Some 80,000 people were killed in the camp over 34 months including about 59,000 Jews. Blessed Omelian Kovch was for many prisoners their pastor. Today he bears the title “Pastor of Majdanek.” 9 January 1999 The Jewish Council of Ukraine proclaimed him a “Righteous of Ukraine.” Until his beatification in 2001 Fr. Omelian Kovch was virtually unknown but today his example gives priests, faithful, and all persons of good will much to contemplate and pray over. On 24 April 2009 the Synod of Bishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church solemnly proclaimed Blessed Priest-martyr Omelian Kovch “Patron of Priests” of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

Abstracts of the speech given at Madrid 23 February 2010.

[1] Iaroslav Hrytsak, Narys istoriï Ukraïny. Formuvannia modernoï ukraïns’koï natsiï, XIX–XX stolittia (Kyiv: Vydavnytstvo “Geneza”, 2000), p. 102.

[2] Zbigniew Brzezinski, Out of Control: Global Turmoil on the Eve of the 21st Century (New York, 1993), chapter entitled “The Century of Megadeath,” pp. 7–18.

[3] Hrytsak, Narys istoriï Ukraïny, p.102.

Rev. Borys GUDZIAK