Ukrainian Jewish Heritage: Ukrainian village Univ offers sanctuary and salvation during the Holocaust

Written and narrated by Peter Bejger

A quiet village set amidst rolling hills, forests, and ravines.

A revered monastery.

And four stories of salvation.

A compelling article by Oksana Sikorska in the Ukrainian journal Zbruch outlines the remarkable role of the small western Ukraine village of Univ during the horrors of the Second World War and the Holocaust.

These are stories of resilience and triumph in the face of daunting odds and incredible danger.

In the 1930s Univ had a little over a thousand souls and a village school. And by the time of the German occupation in 1943, a little boy was peering out a window from the attic of the schoolhouse onto the world outside. To leave the attic was to invite disaster. Most of the local Jewish population had already been deported and/or killed. Public signs posted everywhere warned that anyone assisting Jews would be executed.

This boy, Roald Hoffman, who was to become the Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, found shelter in the one room schoolhouse, which was also the home of the village schoolteacher Mykola Dyuk and his wife Maria.

What is even more astounding is that Roald’s mother, two uncles, and an aunt were also in hiding at the same location. The group of five remained together there for eighteen months until the end of the German occupation. Mykola and Maria Dyuk were conferred the title of Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem in Israel.

The lonely boy Roald gazed upon the forbidden world outside as his mother lifted his spirits with fantastic stories of overseas adventures. And down the road from the schoolhouse a group of other boys he would never get to meet played freely outside.

The boys were from the orphanage of the Holy Dormition Lavra, the mother monastery of the Studite Order of Monks of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. Historic documents date the Lavra to the fourteenth century. It became a renowned religious publishing and printing center in the seventeenth century.

The Studite monks were—and are—a working and praying order with doors open to everyone. They were self-supporting, lived simply on the verge of poverty, and ran orphanages and workshops where they trained young peasant boys in crafts. Their dynamic leader, the Archimandrite Clement, was the brother of the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church Andrei Shteptytsky.

Kurt Lewin, the son of a rabbi in Lviv, lived in hiding among the Studites in a number of locations for most the war thanks to the effort of the Sheptytsky brothers. He left a vivid account of their daily lives. He wrote, “At six o’clock the working day was over, with the monks changing into habits and assembling for the evensong. A simple meal in the refectory was followed by the Povecheria, a short night service, consisting of reading psalms…one that I always found especially moving. It beseeched the Lord to take care of travelers on sea or land, to heal the sick, to console the dying in their hour of agony, to protect the oppressed and imprisoned, the soldiers on the battlefield, all people suffering and in mourning, to protect everyone everywhere. The priest pronounced the pleading sentences of the litany and the community answered “Hospody podaj I pomyluj” (O Lord, grant it and have mercy on all). Then the monks approached the superior one by one to be blessed. Each monk approached him, kissed an extended hand and left in silence for the monastery and his cell.”

Among the orphans cared for by the Studites at Univ were several Jewish boys. They included the former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Poland Adam Daniel Rotfeld, now professor of Warsaw University. There was also Dr. Leon Chameides, also a rabbi’s son, who became Director of Pediatric Cardiology at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center and Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine.

During the war the dense forests surrounding the Univ monastery were the scenes of fierce battles. In a gripping account told in his interview with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Dr. Chaimedes recounted, “We had one healer, I don’t know whether he was a physician but I managed to become his helper at the ripe age of nine and we set up a hospital in the church and we brought in the wounded…one of my jobs was after the battles, to run into the forest and to rummage around, find dead soldiers, particularly if they were German, because they would usually have bandages and first aid material on them, and get as much of that material as possible. I would take the bandages off and then run back and wash them, so we could use them—on the Ukrainians.”

After the war the hidden Jewish boys of Univ left a shattered Ukraine to fulfill their destinies in the outside world. The Studite Order was suppressed by the Soviets, the Univ Lavra closed, and the monks went underground to secretly serve the church. Clement Sheptytsky was arrested and died in the Gulag in 1951.

When the Soviet Union collapsed the Studites returned and the Univ Lavra was reopened. Clement Sheptytsky was recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem and was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2001.

Kurt Lewin recalls the timeless nature of the refuge offered in Univ and elsewhere by the Studites. He wrote, “…the incense, the chant of the monks, and the dimly lit icons created an atmosphere of peace and serenity, conducive to meditation and prayer. It was a deeply spiritual experience that at the time appealed to one’s senses… [it] was like stepping into a different world, leaving horror and fear behind. This indeed was the Lord’s sanctuary.”

This has been Ukrainian Jewish Heritage on Nash Holos Ukrainian Roots Radio. From San Francisco, I’m Peter Bejger. Until next time, shalom!

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