A rare miracle

A rare miracle

A survivor travels to sites of childhood memories and horrors

Michael Kanczuker prays before a monument near his birthplace of Zbaraz, Ukraine, at the site where the Nazis murdered over 2,000 Jews; his son, Barry, takes photos.
Michael Kanczuker prays before a monument near his birthplace of Zbaraz, Ukraine, at the site where the Nazis murdered over 2,000 Jews; his son, Barry, takes photos.

My son, Barry, gave me a present: a trip back to Ukraine, where I experienced the Holocaust as a child. Barry and I flew into Lviv last Sept. 28.

When I was born in 1935, Lviv was part of Poland. It now is in Ukraine, and it looked to me like a time capsule. Before World War II, 120,000 Jews lived in Lviv. The Nazis killed nearly all of them.

Barry and I picked up a guide who was well versed in Jewish history and traveled by car to Ternopol, just 12 miles from Zbaraz, my birthplace. At our hotel, I was reunited with the two surviving sons of Marynia Petrick, a courageous Ukrainian Orthodox Christian who saved me during my eighth and ninth years. Joining us were the wife of one of those sons and the widow of a third son, as well as two of Marynia’s grandsons. One of her sons recognized me even though 65 years had passed since we last saw each other.

One of the grandsons guided us through Zbaraz, a historic town with a large castle that thwarted a Mongolian siege about 600 years ago. To celebrate that victory, the prince built three places of worship: a Catholic church, a Ukrainian Orthodox church, and a synagogue. When Nazis attacked the synagogue, their shells ricocheted off the massive walls and killed two German soldiers, so they abandoned their attempt to destroy the building.

The communists later converted the synagogue into a vodka factory, whose operators would not allow Barry and me to look inside. We learned that one of the two Jewish cemeteries in Zbaraz is now a soccer field, the other a garbage dump. Some tombstones are still visible near the dump. My grandmother’s grave marker, which my sister visited 20 years ago, was now nowhere to be found.

The Nazis shipped a great number of Zbaraz-area Jews to their deaths in the gas chambers. Others remained interned in a ghetto in Zbaraz. Later, the Nazis forced more than 2,000 remaining Jews to strip off their clothes and march to a nearby oil storage facility before shooting them and burying them in holes once occupied by oil storage tanks in an area the size of Roosevelt.

After the war, survivors erected a stone monument memorializing the victims inscribed in Russian, Ukrainian, and Hebrew. Guards would not allow Barry and me onto the site until Marynia’s grandson, a former police officer, intervened with the authorities. The area is overgrown with dense vegetation, but the monument still stands.

Miraculous survival

That my immediate family survived is miraculous. Even as small children, my sister and I knew we would have to flee the ghetto or be murdered. My sister, Nancy, then 11, was smuggled out, first to a farm about four miles outside of town owned by Marynia and her husband, Aleksei.

A week later, my mother, Miriam, dressed me as a peasant girl (authorities checked boys for circumcision), and I followed several paces behind Marynia and her sister-in-law Katerina, who led me through town. If the Nazis had discovered I was Jewish and was with the women, I would have been shot and they also most likely would have been killed.

As we passed by the house occupied by the Gestapo, one of their leaders appeared with a pistol and shot two Jewish teenagers, a brother and sister, in the street. In the commotion, I lost sight of Marynia and Katerina. Just eight years old, and not knowing for sure how to find Marynia’s place, I returned to the ghetto.

Ukrainians guarded the ghetto for the Germans. We were pushed into rooms like animals. When the Nazis began the final liquidation of the ghetto, my mother and I, along with Nusia, the 20-year-old daughter of a family friend, sneaked by night to Marynia’s farm. My sister joined us in a room, accessible by ladder, in the barn.

Meanwhile, my father, Leon, had descended into the lower level of a cellar in the ghetto and hid there with others for a few weeks. Finally, on a rainy night, he crawled like a dog out of the ghetto and through the town. When he came to the opening of our hiding place and whispered to my mother, she thought he was a ghost.

While hiding, we were constantly on the brink of starvation. Often Marynia could provide no more than half a loaf of bread a day for the five of us. Once, German soldiers, led by a Nazi who personally executed any Jews they found, searched Marynia’s farm, including the barn. They even checked Marynia’s son for circumcision, but they failed to discover our hiding place.

Russian soldiers liberated us in early spring 1944. Only my mother was strong enough to walk. The soldiers shared some of their meager food, and their doctors helped us regain our health. People in the area asked my father to refurbish and operate the local grain mill that he owned before the war.

In 1945, my family left Ukraine. We were smuggled into Czechoslovakia in 1946 by a Zionist organization. We lived for about three years in the American Zone in Bavarian Germany until we could join relatives in the United States.

My parents became garment workers and eventually owned a farm about two miles from Roosevelt. My sister Nancy, who married David Yeger and raised three children, obtained a master’s degree and is a retired social worker. I became an electrical contractor and moved to Roosevelt with my wife, Edis, in 1973. Our son, Barry, and his wife, Samantha, blessed us with two wonderful granddaughters, Mia and Ella.

So far, Marynia and Katerina have given life to 20 of my family members — my parents, their two children, four grandchildren, 10 great-grandchildren, and two great-great-grandchildren. Our companion-in-hiding, Nusia, died in her 30s after marrying and having two children, one of whom became an officer in the Israeli army.

I lost 80 relatives in the Holocaust; more died at the hands of Stalin’s minions. An area noted for religious diversity and tolerance six centuries earlier was blighted by outsiders bent on persecution, exploitation, and mass murder.

Some courageous neighbors put themselves and their own families at risk to save a lucky few. Marynia, Aleksei, and Katerina were honored as Righteous Gentiles by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Israel.

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