I ask the reader before they begin this piece, to prepare themselves a cup of coffee or tea, and give themselves a quiet space in which to read uninterrupted. I would also ask, that if you have a child or grandchild who loses their temper, or acts disrespectfully because they have a problem with Wi-Fi connectivity in their home, and cannot play their computer games, to read this article to them. Finally please resist the temptation to adapt the location of the following events, and do not change the names and the cultural identity of the main characters, when recounting the story. The individuals in this recount deserve the respect to be remembered for who they were. I have written this piece so that the lives of these three boys, and two in particular, will not be forgotten and desecrated, as Evil wished it to happen. Finally, I dedicate this article to the memory of all those millions of innocents who fell victim to the evil of genocide during the 20th Century, of which the Ukrainian and the Jewish peoples suffered so horrifically, in the Holodomor and the Shoah. ATK.
- Dr.Kania: Church and Life – Part Two: (a) The Boy Cantor Cf. Psalm 150: 6
- Dr. Kania. Church and Life: Part one (cf. Daniel 13: 42 – 52; psalm 124: 1 – 8) (c) Jan Kania – the soldier
- Dr. Kania: Church and Life. Part one (a) shared story
The second time I saw my father cry, was when I asked him to address a class at John XXIII College in Mt. Claremont, Western Australia, where I was then working. He delivered the story that I shall share with you now. That day, I heard his voice crack, and turned to him. He stopped speaking, looked to the floor. I could see him crying. I felt so ashamed that I had put my father in this situation. I put my arm around him. The entire class fell into a deathly silence. My father continued on, his voice shaking: “They were my friends.” The students filed out, and each one quietly said to my father: “Thank you Mr. Kania.” There was no need for questions to be asked. It was only then that I understood – that this was not a story, it was a recollection of human suffering and horrific loss. I could see in my father’s eyes part of the visions he was recollecting. His breathing had changed. Grief was on his face. I vowed that I would never put my father in that situation again; that is why I write this now after his death.
The English author, George Eliot, once wrote that there is no private life that does not have a public context. My father’s recollections, are part of collective history – they provide an eye witness account from a particular perspective. All the private lives in the city of Jarosław, built together, brick on brick, ethnicity by ethnicity could have in today’s world have formed one of the richest cultural cities of Europe; if, that is, the city had been allowed to grow in harmony. By the end of the fifth decade of the 20th Century, Jarosław was a burial place for broken dreams. You could walk the streets that once heard the Ukrainian and Yiddish languages spoken, to now only have heard these languages spoken by whispered echoes of ghosts. The Ukrainian Pro-Cathedral had been desecrated and was now shut – the parishioners arrested, deported, or having fled. The Synagogue had been torn and torched. The stones beneath your feet, in the town’s square, would bleed under foot, if they came to life. Racial tensions of course had always existed in Jarosław – but the tinder was lit by the Soviets and NAZI Germany.
If a family lives within a certain area for three hundred years, and the inhabitants of the city in which they have resided are split in ethnicity in near equal proportions between: Poles, Jews and Ukrainians, then it is but common sense to assume that over this period of time, there would be an interaction between these three ethnic communities, with close warm connections being built up as well as cold social walls created. One shouldn’t be surprised that my father had at school, Polish and Ukrainian friends – as well as Jewish friends. Yet the only two boyhood friends that my father ever spoke to me about, by name, were Zigaly and Bunjaly Fenakel. Their first names were pet names, used by their family and friends.
As I began writing this piece, I spoke to a number of people who could help verify first that the nicknames that these two boys went by, and which my father always used for Bunjaly and Zigaly, had no off-hand connotation. I spoke to a Polish Friar, Fr. Tomasz, and a Jewish friend, Sharon; both told me that the names Zigaly and Bunjaly have no meaning in either Polish or in Yiddish, although the Friar did tell me that Zigaly could perhaps have derived from Zigismund. What was discovered through my Jewish friend, Sharon, would bring my father’s memories to a shocking new light. From starting at a bare point, with two nicknames, and a surname that sounded like ‘Fenkel’, Sharon’s support and research, brought shattering closure for me, it made this story all the more poignant. Their surname, I discovered was Fenakel – I had misheard my father.
The Fenakel brothers and my father were the firmest of friends. I would describe Bunjaly the youngest of the trio, to be the Tom Sawyer of the group – he did not mind antics and adventure, but he apparently was more aware of the dangers for something going wrong. In 1939, Bunjaly was ten years old. My father, Vladimir was eleven. Zigaly was the eldest of the group, twelve years old. Both my father and Zigaly were Huck Finn boys. They had a sense of cheekiness, and an attitude of what can we get up to today? Bunjaly would be there always warning them. When the trio’s homemade cannon exploded in early 1939 – they were lucky that they were not all killed, and that only my father required hospitalization for a serious shrapnel wound. From the tenor of my father’s stories, I would suggest that this incident made the trio settle down and think about life seriously for at least a week – and then they were at it again. The three were inseparable.
The Jews of Jarosław in time got to know my father, who visited the Fenakel home frequently, and carried out the regular service for the Fenakels on the Jewish Shabbat of cutting wood for them, and lighting the fire in their oven, as the Fenakels could not do this for themselves because of the prohibition of work on the Shabbat. The Fenakels paid my father very well, as did the other families, who were on the little entrepreneur’s roster for the Shabbat.
From the stories that my father told me about his boyhood, he must have carried out this duty from about the age of eight. My father knew the Jewish religious calendar and Jewish traditions; you learn a lot by way of cultural osmosis, living in a community of strong cultural diversity. As they were always in each other’s company, it should not come as a shock for my father to eventually join with the Fenakel brothers in their Hebrew and Yiddish class once a week. My Grandfather agreed to this request. Jan Kania had Jewish friends, and I believe he had the foresight to see that in learning the languages of the Jewish people, that his son would be able to pick up a skill, that would become very useful in a town such as Jarosław. From my father’s point of view – he loved God, languages – and his friends. He would have spoken to the older Jews of Jarosław in Yiddish. In time, because of my father’s linguistic abilities, he was at the top of the Hebrew and Yiddish classes. His academic progress was so good, that the Jewish boys of the class remarked that it was strange that a Ukrainian Catholic was beating them in their tests. One day Bunjaly came home crying to his mother that the Rabbi had responded to this anomaly by saying that Vladimir being a non-Jew may have the academic results, but he would not be in Paradise in the next world, because he wasn’t a Jew. That afternoon, Mrs. Fenakel had a tearful son come home to her after class, pulling at her dress. Bunjaly was pleading with his mother, in desperation: “Włado, won’t go to Hell will he mother? Please tell me he won’t go to Hell!” Mrs Fenakel told young Bunjaly: “Don’t worry about what the Rabbi says Bunjaly – of course Włado, will be in Paradise – the Rabbi doesn’t know what he is talking about!” That afternoon, Bunjaly ran through the streets of Jarosław, arrived at the Kania Family home, knocked on the door, and asked Babcia whether Vladimir was home, and then beaming excitedly told my father the good news, when he came to the door: “Włado! My mother says that the Rabbi doesn’t know what he is talking about – you will be in Paradise with us”. My father was quite naturally also excited – and all was good again. After this, my father still kept getting the highest results in Hebrew and Yiddish – but now he was going to Paradise with his friends; a real bonus. Babcia had no idea what the commotion was all about; she probably just thought it was another one of their childish games.
What no one then could have known was that, Zigaly and Bunjaly would soon see Paradise.
On Easter Saturday 1939, the 8th of April (according to the Roman Rite Calendar), my Grandfather Jan, upset Babcia when she returned from grocery shopping to find in the family home, her husband sitting in the lounge room in conversation with one of his Jewish friends. Babcia was so upset that she called Jan into the next room: “Janek – what are you doing? It is Easter Saturday, how can you invite this friend of yours into our house, on this particular day? His people killed Christ!”. My grandfather responded by saying: “We are all God’s children. Don’t you think on a day like today, we should remember this even more?” I don’t believe that Babcia was pacified. That these words are true; is distinct from whether Babcia wanted to hear them or not. My father overheard this conversation being spoken between his parents. I suppose Babcia’s comment was standard thought for many Christians toward the Jews at that time; especially at Easter. But with my grandfather, I suspect it was that the Jewish community of Jarosław, being so large a part of the population, meant that he must have had his own group of boyhood friends, some who were Jews. Babcia was not from Jarosław, maybe her hometown had a smaller Jewish population, that limited the extent of her relationship with the Jewish people. Every interaction that Babcia had with Mrs. Fenakel was polite, but formal – never on a first name basis. Mrs. Fenakel, on her part, used to feed my father when he came over, and addressed Babcia, as Mrs. Kania. Babcia reciprocated for Bunjaly and Zigaly.
My father’s stories about the Fenakel home, were usually set in their kitchen. If he were alive still, I would ask him so many questions about the domestic life of the Fenakels, and the Jewish homes that he would visit. It would be a fascinating insight, into the culture of the time. Laughter and joy were always at the core of the relationship of this trio. Life for these boys was fun, and fun, at break-neck speed. But time was against them.
Early on in the relationship with the Fenakels, my father got into serious trouble, both with the Fenakels and with his parents. As was mentioned earlier, Mrs. Fenakel had offered him the job to create and light the fire in their family home for the Shabbat. The only problem was that young Vlad was also extremely inquisitive and wanted to see what Zigaly and Bunjaly were doing during the ‘secret’ Shabbat meal. So Vladimir decided as the windows were shut of the home, and curtains drawn, that he would climb on top of the roof of the Fenakel home to see if there was a gap in the roof. He heard voices in the dining room and crawled to where the sound was. Lifting up a part of the roof that was loose he gazed in; but the movement of the roof, exposed more than a view for him below. The roof caved in over the dining room – and my eight year old father, fell through on to the table below. Mr. Fenakel was furious; Mrs. Fenakel was absolutely shocked and stunned; Zigaly and Bunjaly, were excited to see their friend, miraculously appear from the sky above, falling from Heaven. Mr. Fenakel marched my father home. When Mr. Fenakel arrived at the family home, Babcia yelled at her son. But worse was to happen to young Vlad. Grandfather promised to have the damage repaired, with Vladimir’s help. But then my father received a beating from his father. Jan had a temper, especially on matters of right and wrong. I have no doubt that the Fenakel parents both clearly understood the seriousness of the consequences for Vladimir; and for many years afterwards, up until their deaths my father looked after the requirements for their Shabbat, and also for their neighbours, without fail. They paid my father in ‘groschen’. Vladimir learnt, a very hard lesson that night – a lesson he never forgot. Always give absolute respect for matters of Faith, even if the Faith is not your particular tradition. Years later, my grandfather would hammer this example home, by risking his own life on a matter of faith, in front of his son.
In September 1939, Poland was invaded, World War II began. Events had been threatening for a long while – and now Hell erupted. Although the Polish army tried valiantly to hold off the Germans; in two days Jarosław was in the hands of the Germans. It was the 10th of September. Punitive laws began to be enforced on the Jewish population by the 12th of September. Initially, the Germans arrested some prominent Jews of the city – to frighten the Jewish populace.
My father told me the following story, hundreds of times. It continues to deeply distress me; but I share it with you now. I would ask any Jewish reader or researcher of the Shoah, to use this account to piece together a lost period of time. I believe it to be a valuable insight.
Even after the War began, and NAZI occupation, my father still presented himself at the Jewish language class. (I assume it was the Language Class, because of the surprise of the German soldiers, of a Christian boy being present among the group they arrested). That the class was being run indicates that the Jews of the city were utterly unaware of what the German plan was for them. In addition, if my Grandfather and Babcia had had any inkling, they would not have let their son go to the Jewish language school. The concept of what would become the Shoah, must have been foreign for the people of the city. Remember reader, this is the very beginning of World War II. At the Language School, the class was progressing as per normal, otherwise there would have been panic – my father never recounted anything untoward about the nature of that class on that day, as it commenced. Suddenly the classroom door burst open, and a group of armed German soldiers – entered the room. They ordered everyone immediately outside. The students – all males, were then lined up against the outside wall of the school, including my father. The rifles were then pointed at the children; and they all had their hands up high. An adult in the crowd screamed out: “There is a Catholic boy in this group”. The German soldier gave the order to the boys: “All of you drop your trousers and underwear!” In front of a growing crowd, all the students stood naked, from the waist down – my father was the only boy in the line-up, who was not circumcised. One of the soldiers walked up to him, and cracked the rifle butt across my father’s head a number of times. He remembered the voice of the soldier – “Don’t you ever befriend people like this.” My father’s vision was blurred, and blood was issuing from his ears. He was lying on the ground. One of the crowd, tried to raise him from the ground – but he was a dead weight. He tried to raise his head up, and as he did, recalled seeing Zigaly and Bunjaly being led away. They turned around to look at him. My father was bleeding from the mouth. Aunt Jana, my father’s eldest sister, who was seven years older than my father, was working in an office nearby. She heard the commotion, saw what was happening and came running into the street. When she came to my father she helped him put his clothes on; and people who knew him, helped bring him to the family home. He had people holding him by both arms. Aunt Jana then turned back to see where Zigaly and Bunjaly had been taken, as she knew they were close friends with her little brother. From a distance she saw the Fenakel brothers. They were with other Jewish boys lined up against the wall of a monastery. She later told me that they were both shot dead, by the walls of this monastery. Aunt Jana then came home, by now my father was lying in bed. She told him that Zigaly and Bunjaly had been taken across the River San into Ukraine. She did not want to upset him further, so she lied. I am certain in his heart, that my father knew what had happened; even though to his last days – he spoke of them as if they had made it out alive. I suppose the trio had always survived their adventures and dangers. (Aunt Jana’s recount was given to me in early November, 1987 – with my father out of earshot. A few weeks later she died of heart disease.)
The Synagogue was then set alight. The evening of the Synagogue’s torching, my grandfather walked into the streets, and picked off the streets, Hebrew Scrolls from the Synagogue that had been thrown into the streets. Babcia protested vociferously, exhorting her husband not to go out and bring the Scrolls into their home. She was very much aware of the danger that Jan’s actions could bring on the family. Nevertheless Jan brought the scrolls in, and addressed the family with the words: “I do not know what is written on these scrolls – as I do not read Hebrew, but I do know that what is written on them is the Word of God, and I refuse to have these scrolls trodden on and defiled.” Pulling a chair close to the family hearth, Jan said a prayer and placed the scrolls into the fire – continuing to pray all the while. He waited until every piece of the Scrolls had disintegrated into ash. The Germans did arrest and later gaol Jan; whether it was because he had been reported for showing mercy to the Jews, or whether it was because of answering when they interviewed him, that he would never fight for a peasant, I do not have the answer. But he was gaoled, and physically broken. Why my Grandfather walked into the streets that day to pick up the Scrolls from the Synagogue, I don’t know, I never had the opportunity to speak with him. I do know that this is the same man who refused to fire on a crowd of unarmed civilians in Vilnius when ordered. Maybe it was the he believed there was honour in being a soldier, a code of bravery. I strongly believe that this would have been on his mind. Perhaps he was angered for the mistreatment by the Germans of his son, by the murder of his son’s friends; by the persecution of his friends because of their race, or maybe because he abhorred the thought of a peasant in charge of his homeland. I believe all these factors were on his mind – but also that he was a man who had been brought up well by his parents and his Church, and no one should tread on the Word of God – nor those made in his Image. Again, Church and Life. It could also be as the 19th Century American philosopher William James once wrote: “If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals from which one may withdraw at will. But it feels like a real fight – as if there were something really wild in the universe which we, with all our idealities and faithfulnesses, are needed to redeem.” Somebody needed to stand, and risk their life for those they loved, and Principles that they shared a belief in. We are all called to do so.
By September the 29th, 1939 the Jewish population had been cleared from the city, the majority being exiled across the River San into Ukraine. An estimated 7,000 to 10,000 in number suffered this fate. They had been forced to give all their belongings to the German administration. The Jewish people and their culture immediately ceased to exist in the city. Hitler arrived at the city, sometime later. The populace were all ordered to stay locked in their homes. If they came out, they would be shot. My father recollected seeing Hitler through the keyhole of the family’s front door, Hitler was riding in an open car. The Germans had probably ‘cleansed’ the city of Jews in preparation for Hitler’s visit, so he wouldn’t be ‘offended’. Hostages, comprising prominent Jews, Poles and Ukrainians were taken – including the Parish Priest for Ukrainian Catholics at the Pro-Cathedral, Fr. Cyprian Chotyniecki, the priest who had baptized my father. Another hostage was Wiktor Brilliant, the European-renowned Jewish pharmacist, who knew my family, and of whom my Aunt once said: “Was a very kind man – a real gentleman.”
My father physically recovered from his beating at the hands of the German soldiers on the day he last saw Zigaly and Bunjaly. Emotionally the scar never healed.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, clearly states: Par. 2313, “…Actions deliberately contrary to the law of nations and to its universal principles are crimes, as are the orders that command such actions. Blind obedience does not suffice to excuse those who carry them out. Thus the extermination of a people, nation, or ethnic minority must be condemned as a mortal sin. One is morally bound to resist orders that command genocide.” In both the Holodomor and Shoah, the world needs to take shame, and never forget.
By the side of a monastery wall – two boys, two brothers, stood, frightened. Little boys – without their parents; without their best friend. The brothers had each other, in those final moments, they had their God. As they stared in disbelief, at grown men, pointing rifles, at them, I don’t know whether they cried, all I was told, by my Aunt, was that they were murdered, and in my father’s memory were never forgotten. This piece was written to help ensure that two brothers, who never reached adulthood, may be remembered for the love and honest friendship they gave to a little Ukrainian Catholic boy, so very long ago. Three innocents who knew that there are differences in the world of peoples, but rejoiced in their common humanity.
Postscript: My friend Sharon, sent me a link to the Vad Yashem project from Jerusalem. I typed in the surname, Fenkel, and no family name came up from Jarosław, but then the search offered the Fenakel family as a suggestion; the family list included: Bunia – murdered in Jarosław, and Zigmund – murdered in Jarosław. Evidently, this was Bunjaly and Zigaly; their nicknames make perfect sense now. As I close this chapter, I believe with all my heart, that Włado, as they called my father, and, Zigaly and Bunjaly, as he called them, are sharing more than a tale or two in that Paradise that Mrs. Fenakel assured them that they would all see and enjoy one day together. The trio, once again together, are now far away from any harm.
Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania
This article was published in The Church and Life Newspaper
This post is also available in: English