The war raging in Ukraine today is but the latest episode in the region’s centuries-long strife.
On Sunday, two people with deep ancestral roots in the same region of Ukraine — one, the American-born daughter of a Jewish survivor of Nazi genocide and the other, a Ukrainian immigrant and Catholic priest — came together in a Riverhead synagogue to share their perspectives on evil, persecution, senseless violence, survival and resilience.
“Evil will not prevail,” declared Father Bohdan Hedz, standing at the front of the sanctuary in Temple Israel of Riverhead Sunday afternoon.
Hedz, the pastor at St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church in Riverhead, spoke passionately about the plight of his native country during the most recent Russian onslaught that began in February.
“God knows, we didn’t call the Russians to attack us. We didn’t attack first. We wanted to live our own lives — the way we wanted to,” Hedz said. “And now, we are fighting for survival. We are fighting for our families. We are fighting for our future. We are fighting for existence. And as you know, the people that fight for those things will win.”
Hedz thanked Temple Israel for inviting him to its Holocaust Remembrance Ceremony Sunday.
“My heart goes out to the Jewish community,” he said.
Hedz recalled how, as a youth, he and other high school students tended the Jewish cemetery in his hometown near Lviv in western Ukraine. “The Jewish population was destroyed in our town and there was nobody to take care of the graves. And we did, as high school students. People that I didn’t know. But those stones really screamed at me of the injustices,” he said.
The Catholic priest said all people must stand up to the evil in the world and must teach their children what evil is capable of, so future generations will not make the same mistakes as those past.
Felice Katz, whose family was murdered by Nazis in the same region of western Ukraine during World War II, took up the mantle of her mother’s mission to educate younger generations about the genocide of European Jews.
Her mother, Etunia Bauer Katz, a native of Buczacz, a city about 135 miles southeast of Lviv, was the sole survivor in her family of seven: parents, Anschel and Frieda Bauer, and their five children, Bronia, the eldest, and two sets of twins, Etunia and Markus, and Roman and Molus.
Etunia chronicled their lives and deaths — and her own unlikely survival — in a memoir, “Our Tomorrows Never Came,” published in 2000 by Fordham University Press. She also dedicated herself to telling their stories until she was too old and frail to speak, when she asked her daughter Felice to speak for her.
“I’m not here to tell a story about 6 million people,” Katz told a rapt audience Sunday. “I’m here to tell you a story about six people.”
Etunia’s mother died in 1938 of “aggressive neglect” at the hands of anti-Semitic health care workers in a regional hospital, where nurses greeted her in the morning with, “Still alive, you old cow, mangy Jewess. You didn’t die yet?” She eventually indeed died in the hospital “inhaling the venomous air of anti-Semitism during her last days,” Etunia wrote.
The rest of her family soon suffered deprivation and harassment because they were Jews — first, under Soviet occupation and then, after the Nazi invasion in July 1941. The repression escalated, and then the atrocities began.
Her twin brother was murdered at age 19, one of 450 men gunned down by the Gestapo in a mass execution on a hill on the outskirts of the city. All Jewish men ages 18-50 had been ordered — under penalty of death — to report to the police station to “register.” He dutifully complied. His family never saw him again. At 3 in the morning of Aug. 26, 1941, the sound of machine gun fire pierced the night air and echoed in the city. It continued for hours, as the men were lined up in groups of 20 for execution.
“I still hear that terrible sound of chilling thunder,” Etunia wrote. “I will not, I cannot ever forget it. Each volley of shots from the hill bombarded our hearts and set our every muscle vibrating with pain.” Her father, “ashen, clutching his heart,” slid to the floor, and “brought out his sorrow in rending, sobbing moans.”
Etunia’s is a gripping story of survival against all odds — first with her father and siblings, on the run and in hiding to escape the Nazi soldiers and Ukrainian police, and then, after witnessing her entire family murdered in cold blood, by herself in a tiny crawl space in an attic. She survived there for four months on crumbs of bread, managing to stay out of sight even as some three dozen German soldiers took up residence in the floors below. All the while, Nazis marched thousands of Jewish residents of the city to their death by firing squad.
“Who will tell our story?” Etunia’s father had asked not long before he was murdered. Etunia promised him she would.
“And I’m telling it for her now,” Katz said.
At the start of World War II, Buczacz was a city of 23,000 people, located in a region that was then part of Poland and is now in Ukraine. A little more than half of the residents — 12,000 people — were Jews. When the war was over, 50 Jews had survived, including her mother.
“They all left,” Katz said. “There are no Jews in Buczacz today.”
At the train station, while waiting for a train to take them out of their hometown forever, Etunia was struggling to tie her cardboard suitcase together. A man saw her and went over to offer his help.
“And three years later, I was born,” Katz said, smiling brightly for a moment.
“My mother’s and father’s nightmares never ended for the rest of their lives,” she said.
“When you think of the 6 million,” Katz said, “think of the six — think of the lost opportunities, all that was lost, all that might have been.”
The survival of local journalism depends on your support.
We are a small family-owned operation. You rely on us to stay informed, and we depend on you to make our work possible. Just a few dollars can help us continue to bring this important service to our community.
Support RiverheadLOCAL today.