FACES AND PLACES
by Myron B. Kuropas
Musulman walking: a Holocaust remembrance
Stefan Petelycky, a Holocaust survivor (No. 154922), was what the Nazis considered "figuren," ciphers in their death camps. At times he almost became what his fellow inmates called a "musulman," a person who had lost his will to live, a disembodied soul, a dead man walking, dissipating like a shadow in the night.
Kashtan Press of Canada recently published Stefan Petelycky's memoirs titled "Into Auschwitz, for Ukraine." His story is a gripping account of how Ukrainian patriots were treated by the Nazis who considered all Ukrainians "untermenschen," subhuman figuren, to be exploited for the glory of the Third Reich. Mr. Petelycky dedicates his book "To the Millions of Ukrainian Victims of the Holocaust." The story line is enhanced by the numerous sardonic camp sketches of Petro Balij, another Ukrainian survivor of Auschwitz (No. 57321).
Like many young Ukrainians growing up in pre-World War I Poland, Mr. Petelycky was outraged by the way Ukrainians were being treated by the Polish government in eastern Galicia, a region of the recently established Polish state in which Ukrainians were in the majority. In 1937 he became an employee of the local Ukrainian cooperative, Yednist (Unity), established to compete with Polish and Jewish cooperatives and business enterprises, and to provide jobs for Ukrainians. Inspired by The Rev. Dr. Stepan Sas, his parish priest in Zolochiv who openly condemned Polish brutality towards Ukrainians, especially the destruction of Ukrainian Catholic churches in the Kholm region, he joined the youth affiliate of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), an association of freedom-fighters who were not above the use of terrorism to attain their goal of a free and independent Ukrainian state. Mr. Petelycky worked for Yednist during the day and for OUN in the evening hours, primarily as a courier.
Soon after Stalin signed his infamous pact with Hitler, the Germans invaded Poland from the west. A few weeks later, the Soviets invaded from the east, ostensibly for the purpose of "protecting the local Ukrainian and Belarusian minorities". Some Ukrainians, primarily the poor, welcomed the Soviets as did many Jews, who also had little use for Poles. "It must be said," writes Mr. Petelycky, "that some of the local Jews, people who had lived beside use for years, who knew us and who could at least guess where our sympathies lay, betrayed us to the Soviets. Whether they did so out of pro-communist convictions or in order to ingratiate themselves to their new masters, I cannot say."
Younger Jews quickly organized a local Komsomol and were initially given preferential treatment. "And since the Soviet regime eventually began taking ever more active measures to root out Ukrainian and Polish nationalists," writes Mr. Petelycky, "to do away with the priests and the intelligentsia and to liquidate the better-off classes, Jews were seen as the principal beneficiaries of the Communist regime ... When, shortly thereafter, the NKVD units began hunting down Ukrainian nationalists and Polish patriots, sometimes with Jewish collusion, the stage was set for future tragedies." It wasn't long, however, before the Jews came to realize that the Soviets were not their friends and came to despise them. Tragically, some even changed their names and left for the German-occupied region of Poland.
Soon after Germany invaded the Soviet Union, the retreating NKVD was ordered to brutally slaughter in the most inhumane manner thousands of prisoners housed in their prisons throughout western Ukraine. When the Germans arrived in Zolochiv, they opened the local prison and invited the local population to view the carnage. At first only Jewish collaborators, some of whom had joined the NKVD, were held responsible. Later, other Jews were targeted. "We buried our victims together in a mass grave on the following Sunday at the Ukrainian cemetery," continues Mr. Petelycky. "We paid no heed to the deaths of their murderers or the murder of innocent Jews who were killed alongside the quality ones. Some of them had been our neighbors, even friends. But now they were consigned to the ranks of our enemies. It was not entirely rational. It was not just or fair." Anyone, Ukrainians included, who had collaborated with the Soviets was dealt with unmercifully.
Soon after the Werhmacht moved on, the Einsatzgruppen, mobile Nazi killing squads, arrived. Their initial victims were Jews, Gypsies and Soviet commissars. Next in line were Ukrainian nationalists, especially members of the OUN. "The war brought out some of the best and worst traits in people," explains the author. "But the situation for everyone was abnormal. We had been under the Soviet commissars for nearly two years. Now we were under the Nazi jackboot. Scores were being settled. Those who had been on top suddenly found themselves fleeing for their lives ... as helpless as their victims of the previous day. Lots of innocents of all nationalities and faiths were swept up and slaughtered, often without even understanding what was happening to them."
And yet, there were acts of incredible bravery, Ukrainians hiding or aiding Jews with full knowledge that discovery meant certain death. Catholic priests associated with Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky were especially active in this regard.
Freedom for Mr. Petelycky came to an end in 1943 when he was arrested by the Gestapo after being fingered as a Ukrainian nationalist by a Pole. Beaten for days, he was finally herded into a box car and shipped to Birkenau, sometimes called Auschwitz II. On October 1, 1943, he became No. 154922. The tattoo was to define his life for the next two years. Later he was shipped to Mauthassen and still later to Ebensee in Austria, a labor and extermination camp.
After experiencing unspeakable horrors at the hands of his ruthless guards, often eating coal and bark just to have something in his stomach, he became too weak to stand. Soon he was laid in a room adjacent to the ovens of the crematorium, along with three of his friends; he watched helplessly as all three died and were slipped into the ovens. Miraculously, his turn never came. He was saved by a Polish medic who, believing Mr. Petelycky was Polish, had him moved to a barracks where he came under the Pole's personal care. It was April 1945. On May 8, he was liberated by the Americans. Today he lives in Canada.
"Into Auschwitz, For Ukraine" is a valuable addition to World War II literature and is must reading for those interested in the rest of the Holocaust story. Write to: Kashtan Press, 22 Gretna Green, Kingston, Ontario, K7M-3J2. Price: $24.95 (U.S.).
Myron Kuropas' e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org