Greek Catholic monastery recalls saving Jews in war

15.11.2011, 12:26
Observing a monastery nestled against a green hillside with its many pilgrims milling around, it is hard to imagine that this pristine place was the site of highly subversive activity during World War II in western Ukraine.

Observing a monastery nestled against a green hillside with its many pilgrims milling around, it is hard to imagine that this pristine place was the site of highly subversive activity during World War II in western Ukraine.    

Yet during those years when the region was occupied by Nazi Germany from 1941 to 1944, Jewish boys were hidden within the walls of this religious commune in Univ, home to a group of monks from the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

Along with the handful of holy men who were the children’s daily caretakers, three figures were instrumental in their safekeeping: Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky, the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, his brother Klymentiy, and Omelyan Kovch, a priest from the nearby town of Peremyshliany.

November is a significant month for the church as it marks the anniversaries of both the metropolitan’s death on Nov. 1 and his brother’s birth on Nov. 17.

The concealment of Jewish children marks one of the most intriguing, yet often overlooked episodes of heroism during the war. Immediately upon their arrival in 1941, the Nazis unleashed terror on western Ukraine’s Jewish population, murdering many people in the first days of their rule, frequently with the help of locals.

It was the “terrible lawlessness” of the Nazi regime that led to the effort to harbor Jews, said Ihumen Teodor, who today heads the monastery, known as the Univ Holy Dormition Lavra of the Studite Rite.

Metropolitan Sheptytsky, who had long enjoyed a friendly relationship with the region’s Jews, abhorred the slaughter and turned to the Studites for help in saving as many children as possible, said Ihumen Teodor.

The Studites were close to the metropolitan since he had fuelled the rebirth of this centuries-old religious society in western Ukraine.

Univ was particularly important because it was the main Studite monastery; with its large community of monks, younger boys would go unnoticed by authorities.

Furthermore, Sheptytsky’s ancestors had long been associated with the monastery. His brother, Klymentiy, had lived at Univ since 1919 and became its head in 1926.

Because the Nazis declared that harboring Jews was a crime punishable by death, secrecy was paramount in the effort.

“The monasteries were a place one could count on and people would not tell” that Jewish children were being hidden there, Ihumen Teodor said.

Soon after the Nazi occupation of western Ukraine, a Jewish lawyer in Peremyshliany who worked with the monastery was approached with the message that the commune could hide Jewish boys as Ukrainian orphans.
The monasteries were a place one could count on and people would not tell.

- Ihumen Teodor, head of the Univ Holy Dormition Lavra of the Studite Rite.

That lawyer turned out to be the father of Adam Rotfeld, who was Poland’s foreign minister in 2005.

Kovch, the local priest, arranged to bring Jewish boys to the monastery. They were given Ukrainian names and learned the Studite rituals. They shared the lives of monks from their daily prayers to way of life.    

Still, discovery was always a threat. For that reason “the children didn’t know who the other Jews were, and many of the monks didn’t know either,” said the Ihumen.

Because of the secrecy, the exact number of Jews harbored within Univ’s walls is not known but could number the dozens.

“We only know of separate individuals,” said Ihumen Teodor.

Sheptytsky was willing to sacrifice his church in order to save lives. “He personally came out in defense of those who were being killed. He did it with the simple motivation, to save a life,” the Ihumen said.

Not only were Jews harbored at Univ, but they were also housed in other monasteries throughout western Ukraine, as well as St. George’s cathedral in Lviv, where Sheptytsky resided.

Kurt I. Lewin, whose father was Lviv’s last rabbi and who would later become a renowned businessman, and David Kahane, later chief rabbi in the Israeli Air Force, were both harbored by Sheptytsky in Lviv.

Later in their lives, both men would write about their experiences, Lewin in “A Journey Through Illusions” and Kahane in the “Lvov Ghetto Diary.”

The Germans never discovered that Jewish boys were hidden at Univ, although many of the monasteries where youngsters were harbored were destroyed after the war.

Univ itself became a home for the mentally ill under the Soviet rule and was resurrected as a holy place in the 1980s.

Today, a small plaque placed on a courtyard wall in 2005 among centuries-old church relics commemorates Univ as a place of sanctuary during the war.

The monastery itself is a pilgrimage site for tens of thousands who drink its holy water, visit its main chapel – the interior is covered completely in frescoes – and walk around the ruins of ancient churches located on its grounds.

The monks who protected Jewish boys are buried with their brethren in simple graves with iron crosses on Chernytsia Hora, a lush hill which for centuries was the site for dwellings and military battles.

Ihuman Teodor said the fates of Kovch and the Sheptytsky brothers were tragic, but offer rays of hope for the future.

Kovch was arrested by the Gestapo in the spring of 1943 for harboring Jews.

Metropolitan Sheptytsky tried to win his release. Imprisoned initially at what is today’s Lonskoho prison in Lviv, Kovch refused saying his place was to minister to those also incarcerated. He was sent to the Majdanek concentration camp near Lublin, Poland, where he eventually died.

Beginning in 1947, Klymentiy was arrested numerous times, he died in Russia four years later. The metropolitan perished on Nov. 1, 1944.

The religious community, however, has not forgotten the men who saved Jewish children.

The Jewish Council of Ukraine awarded Kovch the title of “Ukraine’s Righteous.” He was also beautified in Lviv by Pope John Paul II in 2001. Klymentiy was also beautified by the pope and was awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations by the State of Israel for saving Jews.

For various reasons, the beautification and official recognition of his role in saving Jews of Metropolitan Sheptytsky remains complex, the Ihuman said.

Still, decades after the war, Univ remains a place of refuge.

For the last six years, the monastery has hosted conferences between young Jews, Ukrainians and Poles where they can meet to discuss history, culture and religion.

“They can talk about the past, ascertain it, and tell each other the truth,” he said.

Natalia A. Feduschak

10 November 2011 KyivPost