The Family Zahajkewycz
As with any photograph, a simple glance at the picture of Orest Zahajkewycz and Helena Melnyczuk, taken in New Jersey in 1986, does not do its subjects justice. It is notable, though, that the two siblings, crowned by a picture of the Virgin Mary, seem to portray a sense of humility and kindness. Their values, however, which compelled them to perform selfless, courageous acts during one of man’s most trying times, are not as easily perceived.
Helena and Orest Zahajkewycz were born to their Greek Catholic parents in Peremyshl, Ukraine, in 1921 and 1925, respectively. Their father, Bohdan, taught Ukrainian and Polish literature at a local high school and their mother, formerly a teacher, stayed at home to raise the four children. She gladly took on the responsibility of caring for an additional charge as well. ”Our brother had a friend who had a miserable stepmother, and Mother asked him to stay with us,” Helena says. The boy, who stayed with the family ”for some time before the war, and all through the war, too,” was not the only houseguest the family would have.
In 1941, Orest says, he ”started working in a German military supply factory which was filled with Jewish workers they brought in from the ghetto,” and became friends with a Jewish doctor, Kuba Reinbach. Reinbach, wanting to escape to Warsaw, asked Orest ”to make contact for him with the underground,” and for three weeks, while plans were underway, Reinbach lived with the Zahajkewycz family. At the time, Orest did not fully appreciate the grave consequences his friend may have faced had this proposal not been accepted. With Reinbach at his house, Orest says, he ”began to find out what was happening. Clothing sent for the Germans in the factory had a hole and a hard spot in it, so I knew people were being shot.” Another friend of Orest’s from the factory admitted that he thought Germans were killing Jews.
Their ever-increasing knowledge of the Jewish holocaust only served to strengthen the Zahajkewycz’s resolve in giving shelter to Dr. Koestler (a former pupil of Bohdan’s) and his wife, when they arrived one night at the Zahajkewycz house. Helena relates how she awoke to the sight of two people sitting next to her father’s bed. ”I clearly, vividly remember how this man said in Polish, ‘Professor, I went to every friend’s house, I knocked on every door, and asked them to take me and my wife in to hide for a few days. Everybody closed the door and refused. I didn’t want to come to your house. I know you have…children, but you were our last hope.’” Helena also remembers her father’s reply: ”Of course, you can stay.” Dr. and Mrs. Koestler stayed with the Zahajkewycz family only until they could board a train to Warsaw (with tickets the Zahajkewyczes had purchased for them), and where they would, like Reinbach before them, survive.
There was a reason the Koestler’s – like all Jews – were not eagerly welcomed into homes, and this fact was not lost on the Zahajkewyczes. ”What we were doing was very dangerous,” Helena relates. ”People do not image how dangerous it was. If we had been caught hiding those people, we would have been shot.” Orest, too, recalls coming home one day to news that a family down the street had been caught hiding Jews and were turned into the German police. ”As we were coming by,” Orest remembers, ”they were all lined up against the wall of that building: the Jews and the family that was hiding them. Then they were all taken away. And we knew there was only one way for them. They would be shot in the woods.” This sobering reminder, nonetheless, did not dissuade the family from again opening their doors to a needy couple one night in September 1943.
The Sheflers were a Jewish family who had once lived in the same apartment building as the Zahajkewyczes. Helena describes Mrs. Shefler as ”a typical Jewish mother,” whose four children, all boys, were extremely obedient to her and who was good friends with her own mother, who died in 1942. Bohdan, too, was familiar with the Shefler boys because they had attended the Ukrainian high school where he worked. So when Edek, the youngest of the Shefler sons, with his wife, Ada, appeared at their door that night in 1943, the Zahajkewyczes knew him well. Edek asked Helena, who answered the door, for the keys to the cellar and Orest escorted them down. ”Since we had rabbits there,” he explains, ”it looked okay to take food down and bring buckets up.” After making their way to the cellar, the couple shared the story of how they came to arrive at the Zahajkewycz house. Orest recounts the tale: ”The Nazis were beginning to liquidate the ghetto. They were killing people and throwing their bodies onto trucks and, at night, they took them to the cemetery. The Sheflers had slipped into the truck with the corpses just after dark and escaped when they dumped the bodies. They had cleaned themselves up as well as they could and then came to our house.”
The Zahajkewyczes soon built the Sheflers a hiding place in their pantry where they slept at night but, during the day, the couple made themselves at home in the Zahajkewycz house. In the evenings, Helena remembers, both families would gather to dance and play cards. Because their house sat across the street from the Ukrainian police station, though, they were one day prompted to be more careful in concealing their lively activities. Luckily, says Orest, ”the chief of police happened to be Edek’s school friend and, of course, also a former student of Father’s. One day he said to Father, ‘What’s going on in your house? You’d better tell the kids to pull the shades down.” Both families were more careful afterward, and the Sheflers lived safely with their friends until July 1944.
When ”the Russians came,” says Helena, ”we had to leave right away,” and the family journeyed to Cracow, Prague, Vienna and, finally, in 1950, to a displaced persons’ (DP) camp in Germany. The Sheflers stayed in the Zahajkewycz’s house for a few days after they left (the family had arranged for a priest they knew to bring the couple food), then they, too, left, moving to Budapest and then reuniting with the Zahajkewyczes in the DP camp in Germany. Edek and Ada had a baby, Anna, in the camp, and then moved to Israel. They invited the Zahajkewyczes to move with them, but Helena, who met her husband (a friend of Orest’s) during the war, was married in the camp, ”and we all decided we wanted to come to the United States, including Father,” she says. The family made their way to New Jersey in 1950 and is appreciative of the life they found in America. Orest went on to have four children and Helena, two. In 1986 they were honored by Yad Vashem.
Looking again at the picture of Orest and Helena, the qualities of gentility and sweetness still immediately resonate but, like the traits of the Blessed Mother above them, now so does a firm impression of bravery and confidence. ”Our father somehow thought we would make it through. He believed in people,” Orest says. ”Most of what we learned,” Helena agrees, ”we learned by just watching our parents and how they were… [Father] was always trying to help somebody.” Now their father’s picture does not look quite the same either.
- Block, Gay, Malka Drucker, and Cynthia Ozick. Rescuers: Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1992.
- Florida Holocaust Museum
- Museum of Tolerance
- GORMAN, CHRISTINE. Time Magazine. ”A Conspiracy of Goodness.” Monday, Mar. 16, 1992
- Land-Weber, Ellen. TO SAVE A LIFE: STORIES OF HOLOCAUST RESCUE.