A Debt Repaid

Three Ukrainian women whose family saved Jews during the Holocaust are living and working in Israel. Although they were recognized as Righteous Among the Nations, they fear deportation

Three Ukrainian women whose family history is inextricably bound up with the darkest hour of Jewish history have lived in Tel Aviv for more than five years. They wear tasteful, understated makeup, go disco dancing once a week in Russian clubs in the south of the city, and in the summer, when the humidity is overpowering, they walk to the nearby beach and refresh themselves in the sea. In between, they clean homes and offices, as full-fledged labor migrants whose hearts skip a beat or two at the sight of uniformed authority - police or soldiers - on the street corner. In fact, their visas ran out last October, and since then they have lived in fear of arrest and deportation.

They room together in a small basement apartment, filled with cartons in which they pack clothing, bedding and food conserves. Every few months they send the packages to the Ukrainian village of Siolo Rublino, near the city of Buczacz, from which they came to Israel five years ago. The parcels, they say, keep their families from going hungry.

They would like a more spacious apartment, with big windows to usher in an evening breeze to air out the premises. But the housing market in Tel Aviv is as cruel to them as it is to others, and they prefer to use their money for existential purposes, for their families. The windows in their basement flat are small and close to the ceiling. There are three beds, a fan, the basics. There is no place for luxuries, but there are no complaints. On the contrary, their only wish is for the present situation to continue, because the alternative is a return to a subsistence-level existence in Ukraine.

An amazing sequence of events brought these women to Israel, where they are reaping the fruit of an extraordinary humanitarian gesture by their parents and grandparents during the Holocaust, when they rescued 15 Jews from death at the hands of the Nazis. The three women - Tayisa Dzhyvulska, 55, Olga Romanyuk, 52, and Iryna Barsen, 32 - are the granddaughters of Vasili and Marina Dzhyvulski, hardscrabble farmers who were recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, in 1974. The couple's daughters - Anastasia, Paulina and Yekaterina - were similarly recognized, in 2001. The recognition was conferred thanks to the efforts of Zipora Stavi, from Tel Aviv, who felt that she owed the Ukrainian family her life.

Now the wheel has come full circle. One of those who survived thanks to the Dzhyvulski family has become the rescuer of her rescuers. Stavi brought the Dzhyvulskis' granddaughters to Israel so they could work and send back money and goods to help provide for their families in Ukraine. She arranged for them to receive entry visas to Israel and found them work with families who were looking for good and reliable house cleaners. In the first months, she says, she overcame the language barrier by means of an interpreter whose services she paid for. Stavi opens the windows in the living room of her home in the fashionable Neve Avivim neighborhood of Tel Aviv, allowing the breeze to enter and revealing a neat residential cityscape.

"You probably know that when people are in distress they promise many things, if only to escape the danger," she says. "A drowning person will be ready to make every possible vow and promise to his rescuer, to swear that he will devote the rest of his life to the person who saves him. The problem is that after the people are rescued, catch their breath and receive their life as a gift, the vows, promises and commitments evaporate. That seems to be human nature."

Still, she acted. "As a human being I feel obliged, morally obliged," she explains. "Their family saved me and my family from certain murder, and now I am saving them from poverty and distress. It's mutuality."

Under the pigsty

Stavi did not know about the circumstances of her family's rescue until her adolescence. During the war years she was a toddler, too young to understand. Inwardly, she is grateful for her benign fate, which made it possible for her life to continue, despite the disaster that destroyed her childhood. A fine-looking, well-dressed woman who refuses to divulge her age, she is involved in real estate projects and likes the good life. She collects art, often travels abroad, frequents the opera, the theater and concerts and is a member of the friends organizations of the Weizmann Institute of Science, Gesher Theater and Beilinson Hospital.

She guards her privacy zealously and does not reveal many details about herself. Even after many hours of conversation, she chooses her words carefully, wary of the possible consequences of a slip of the tongue. Her self-image is important to her: when she feels, in the heat of the conversation, that she is being pushed into narrow, confining corners she backs off, complaining in a scolding tone when she is asked to describe some periods in her life, and preferring to leave black holes.

Between the world wars the Buczacz region was part of Poland. Stavi's parents, Ita and Yisrael (Srul ) Ehrlich, lived in the neighboring village of Potok Zloty, home to a thriving Zionist Jewish community of about a thousand souls. The Ehrlichs were part of an affluent family that owned land and traded in basic commodities and agricultural products.

In 1939, following the German invasion of Poland, the Soviet Union took over the region, under an agreement between the two countries. Two years later, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, the Jews in the area became the targets of vicious attacks by anti-Semitic Ukrainians, who murdered them at will and plundered and torched their homes.

The Ehrlich family decided to look for a place to hide. Yisrael Ehrlich remembered the farmer Vasili Dzhyvulski, who worked in the family's fields and lived in the village of Siolo Rublino in an isolated house deep in the forest next to a stream. He and his wife, Marina, who had five daughters, were pious Catholics who barely eked out a living. Stavi's late mother, Ita, described the events that followed the German occupation in testimony she gave to Yad Vashem: "The Germans entered the city we lived in and we escaped - me, my daughter Zipora and other relatives - to the forest and hid there. We stayed there for a few weeks, living from what we could find in the woods and from potatoes that we stole from nearby fields. Ukrainian children who spotted us said they would report us to the Gestapo, because in return for the information they would get sugar or items of food they were lacking. That night we all escaped from the forest to the meager home of the farmer Dzhyvulski and begged for our lives."

Although knowing the price he and his family would pay if the Germans found them sheltering Jews, Dzhyvulski hid the Jews in the attic of his house. During the day they kept silent, their hearts racing when they heard footsteps approaching, knowing the bitter fate that would befall them and their rescuers. At night, and only at night, they emerged from their place of hiding and engaged in the back-breaking work of preparing a refuge for the long term.

"Every night we went to the pigsty of the Dzhyvulski family and under it dug a pit that would become our permanent living quarters," Ita Ehrlich stated. "We took the earth that we dug up to the nearby river and scattered it in the water, so it would not pile up, as this might give away our activity and the hiding place we were making."

The excavation work lasted a month. With branches of trees from the forest they improvised five bunk beds, in each of which two or three people slept at a time. "Besides the beds, there was nothing in the dugout. There was no running water, still less a toilet. All we could do was wait there in fear and uncertainty. Every evening our rescuers gave us soup and about 100 grams of bread, so that we would not starve, and a little water to quench our thirst. As a devout Christian, Dzhyvulski believed that the mercy he showed us would grant him God's blessing and that he would be rewarded by Him according to his good deeds. Never did he receive or ask for anything in return, even though what he did exposed him to the danger of being betrayed to the Gestapo by local informers for the crime of hiding Jews. That is what happened to his neighbors: Ukrainian vandals found out what they were doing, turned them over to the Gestapo and burned down their home."

Concerned that her infant daughter's crying would give them away, Ehrlich placed Zipora in the care of the Dzhyvulskis. "They decided to keep her in the house, as though she was their biological daughter. I must say to their credit that they treated her like their little girl in every respect and immediately gave her the name Marusia," Ehrlich said in her testimony.

By the end of the war, little Marusia felt like the daughter of the Catholic couple. "There were images of Jesus and Mary in the house, and I would cross myself in front of them, like everyone else in the family," Zipora says. "I would go with my gentile mother, Marina, to the cow shed in order to milk the cow and the goat. Under the sty I always heard whispering voices and often said to my mother that there was someone there, that there were people talking but I couldn't understand how, because I didn't see them. She tried to reassure me by saying, 'Those are the pigs - they are talking to the cow and the goat.' I insisted, though, and said that animals could not talk because they are not people."

Her family hid in the narrow, stifling dugout until the Red Army liberated the area in the summer of 1944. Until then, Zipora/Marusia never suspected that her true parents were two meters below her. After the liberation, the Jews who had survived emerged from their places of hiding and gathered in Buczacz. But postwar Buczacz was no longer the same city in which S.Y. Agnon and Simon Wiesenthal had grown up.

"Buczacz was in ruins. Big buildings were now heaps of rubble," Stavi says. "From a community of thousands of Jews only a few dozen remained, among them the 14 members of my family who survived thanks to Dzhyvulski."

But the danger had not passed. Anti-Semitic Ukrainians massacred many of the survivors. In one such pogrom, Stavi's father, Yisrael Ehrlich, was murdered, and an uncle was brutally drowned in the river. In the meantime, the Dzhyvulski family refused Ita Ehrlich's request for the return of her daughter, whom they now regarded as one of the family, a sister to their five biological daughters.

"Vasili Dzhyvulski insisted that I stay with them, but my family would not hear of it," Stavi says. "The crisis ended when one of my uncles, Strauber, went to the farm with a horse and cart, didn't ask too many questions, walked in, took me out and brought me to my mother. So I returned to my biological mother. I am told that I never stopped crying and longing for the loving and protecting family I had known."

When the Dzhyvulskis' deed became known in the area after the liberation, the local anti-Semites were enraged at them. For an unknown reason, the Soviet government also decided to punish them. Vasili, Marina and their five daughters were exiled to Siberia, where one of the girls died of an illness. Only years later were they allowed to return to their small wooden home.

An arduous journey

Afterward, the refugees found themselves wandering among the displaced persons camps throughout Europe. "We went by train through Romania and Hungary and then arrived in Austria," Stavi relates. "I saw Vienna in ruins. We were a large group of Jews who were still struggling for our lives. I remember how we embarked on the famous March of the Alps, moving by night, trying to get to Italy. We walked in the snow that covered the Alps. It was deep and soft and reached to our knees. We walked through the snow for hours.

"There were few children in the group, because most of the children did not survive the war. The group consisted mostly of young people in their twenties or thirties. They helped me, passed me from hand to hand, carried me on their shoulders on the long treks through the snow. So we finally reached southern Italy, where there was a transit camp for Jews set up by envoys of the Haganah [the official Jewish defense force in Palestine] next to the city of Bari.

"The situation was reversed," Stavi continues. "Now the Jews had food, and plenty of it, thanks to the aid packages we received from the Joint [Distribution Committee] and the Red Cross - including lots of chocolate. We also had warm clothes, whereas the Italian children begged and pleaded for bread. We gave it to them because we knew what it was to be hungry."

In June 1947, Stavi reached Palestine via an illegal immigrant ship and a few months in a British internment camp in Cyprus. "I was in Tel Aviv from the age of 16. I lived with my uncle, my mother's brother, Eliezer Strauber," she says. "He raised me like his daughter, and I thank him for it every day of my life. I went to the Seminar Hakibbutzim Teachers College and I started to live my life. I married Zvi Stavi, who fought in the Givati Brigade and had a textile factory. We have two children, a son who is an employee of the Dan public transportation company and a daughter who is a lawyer. They gave us five grandchildren." After her husband died, Stavi married Aviezer Chelouche, a lawyer and a diplomat. Their 20-year marriage ended in divorce. The sign that welcomes visitors to her apartment bears both names: Stavi-Chelouche.

From the beginning of the 1950s, when she felt she was on relatively solid ground in Israel, Ita ceaselessly sought to contact her rescuers in Ukraine. She finally tracked them down via the Buczacz Municipality. They corresponded by post, in letters filled with words of mutual reinforcement, regards, gratitude and a sincere interest in how everyone was doing. "We were the only ones from the extended family who were rescued by these gentiles who stayed in close touch with them. Over the years, when we realized how severe their plight was, we started to send them warm clothes and money. We could not forget how they rescued us," Stavi says. After the parents died, of natural causes, Marina at 74 and Vasili at 84, the connection was retained with three of the daughters, who continued to live in Siolo Rublino.

In the mid-1970s, Stavi and her mother told their story to Yad Vashem. In the wake of this, the Holocaust memorial decided to recognize Vasili and Marina Dzhyvulski posthumously as Righteous Among the Nations for "risking their lives to rescue persecuted Jews during the Holocaust." In addition to being awarded a medal, a tree in their name was planted on the Mount of Remembrance at Yad Vashem. In 2001, three of the daughters received the same honor, and their names were engraved on a wall in the Garden of the Righteous (a commemorative act which has replaced tree planting ).

Stavi's mother, Ita (Ehrlich) Kirshenbaum, died two years ago at the age of 94.

Closing the circle

Feeling strong and well prepared, Stavi decided 10 years ago to close the circle that had opened with the dugout under the sty in a Ukrainian forest. She went to Ukraine to see with an adult's eyes what she had not been aware of as a little girl. "I decided that I would see the dugout, come what may," she relates. "I made a round of phone calls in the family and asked people to go with me, because I didn't want to make the trip alone. They all refused. My uncle, Moshe Ehrlich, was afraid of a catastrophe. He warned me in Yiddish: 'Don't go there, the soil is soaked with Jewish blood. The local bandits will kill you and chop off your head.' I took a calculated risk, took my life in my hands, and went."

When she arrived, with the aid of a driver and an interpreter she had hired in advance, she was surprised by the warm welcome she received. "The gentiles flooded me with love, they even wore festive clothes in my honor," she says. "I visited the homes of the Dzhyvulskis' offspring. All of them piled the tables high with refreshments, pastries, loaves of bread weighing five kilos each. I was overwrought when the village elders, who were witnesses to the massacre of the Jews, came to me. One of them offered a graphic and harrowing account of how Ukrainian nationalists drowned my uncle in the river, pushing his head under the water over and over until he died.

"It was a tremendous whirlwind of emotions," she continues. "I felt that I was walking on ground saturated with Jewish blood that was crying out from the earth. I walked around for hours, looking for a remnant, a vestige of the large Jewish community that existed there before the war. In vain. I did not find any trace of the life that was lost. While walking on that accursed soil I prayed to the Lord of the universe that the resurrection of the dead should occur now, as in the Vision of the Dry Bones in Ezekiel."

All the mental preparations she had made turned out to be insufficient for her to cope with the moment when she arrived, legs trembling and red-eyed, at the home of the Dzhyvulski couple. Time, she felt, had stood still: the same old house, neglected, isolated, surrounded by a natural forest with trees soaring to tremendous heights, and still, from within, the sounds of life. The meager home was occupied by Yekaterina, the Dzhyvulskis' daughter, and her daughter Tayisa with her six children. "Very quickly I found what I was looking for most, the dugout," she relates. "But I couldn't bring myself to enter it. I stood there for a long time, shaking. I peeked in: it was abandoned, damp, black and narrow, filled with mice, rats and other creatures. This was the place from which 14 Jews emerged alive. I mustered all my mental powers, drummed up my courage and went in, and when I came out my face fell at the scale of the horror."

Stavi returned to Israel broken but not shattered, determined to fulfill a vow she had made to the Dzhyvulskis' descendants. "I promised them one clear thing: 'My dear sisters, as your parents saved me and my whole family in the Holocaust, so I will save you from poverty. I will devote all my efforts and connections to ensure that you will live in dignity, as befits human beings.'"

Light in the darkness

They arrived in Israel in October 2004, the three of them: Tayisa, Olga and Iryna, the daughters and granddaughters of those honored as Righteous Among the Nations. Stavi looked after them, hiring the services of an interpreter for months in order to cope with the language barrier. Until she became an adult, Iryna Barsen was not aware of the deed for which her mother and her grandparents were honored by Yad Vashem. She knew little about Vasili and Marina, only that they were pious Catholics, simple folk who worked the land and were dirt-poor.

"Only after I heard the story from my mother did I understand that they were very good people, who risked their lives for the Jews, for Zipora's uncles and parents," she says. "Mother told me that Grandfather Vasili received a gold coin from the Jews in order to buy food. He had to exchange it for regular coins but was afraid to do this in the nearby town, where everyone knew him as being very poor and would certainly ask where he had got the coin and would suspect that he was collaborating with the Jews. He was smart and went to a more distant town, where no one knew him, got the coin changed and bought food for the Jews in the dugout. Mother said that during the war no one understood why there was so much laundry to do and why so many clothes had to be dried in the sun every day." The three are industrious, thorough and reliable house cleanerss, and satisfied employers have passed on their names to others. Iryna Barsen is still moved when she recalls the first salary she received for cleaning in Israel. The very touch of the many bills that were stuffed into her hand brought tears to her eyes. "I never held so much money before and it thrilled me very much," she recalls. Since then she has got used to it. Moreover, she says, despite the crowded living conditions in the basement apartment, she is satisfied: with life, with Israel, with her wages, with the enthusiastic responses from relatives in Ukraine when she sends them clothing, food or cash. "Before we came here, we had no money for food and times were bad," she says. "The children were sick and there was no money to buy them medicines. We did not have new clothes for a long time, either."

Barsen is the youngest and liveliest of the Dzhyvulskis' granddaughters. She is also the one who infected her two companions with a love of the discotheques of the labor migrants in south Tel Aviv, the cafes of Dizengoff Center and the sea, "which is a three-minute walk from where we live." They are fond of the Carmel market, too, where they buy fruits, vegetables and meat.

"We really do have it good here," says Tayisa Dzhyvulska. "We work hard but there is nothing to complain about. In Ukraine we worked a lot harder for nothing. At first there was a problem with the language, but that passed, because everyone here speaks Russian. There is a Russian-speaking clerk in the bank branch who knows us. When we send packages to the family in Ukraine, the clerks in the post office help us and treat us nicely.

"The Israelis are good people, but we are very afraid of the police here. We don't want them to deport us. If I see a policeman or a soldier in the street, I am afraid. Three years ago, when I was waiting for a bus on the way to work, a policeman came and looked at my passport for a long time. He asked questions, and I had a hard time answering in my broken Hebrew. He was all right and he didn't do anything bad to me, because I had all the permits, but it was scary."

They entered Israel with legal work and residence permits, which state that they are the daughters of Righteous Among the Nations. Their visas expired in October 2009, after five years. They want to stay and say that without the money they earn here it will be hard for them to subsist. "There is no work there, food is in short supply and there are no medicines," Tayisa Dzhyvulska says. "The three of us raised the children alone, our husbands died or left. We love Israel and we want to stay here, next to good people like Stavi. She is our mother and we call her Marusia."

They also have to cope with longings. They have not been to visit their loved ones for two years, including their old and ailing mothers whose names are engraved at Yad Vashem.

"They understand that if they leave the country for a two-week visit there, they will have no way to get back in, because they don't have visas," Stavi says. She shows a series of applications she made to the Interior Ministry, which have been awaiting a reply for months. An impressive letter signed by the director of the department for the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem, Irina Steinfeld, was of no help.

"The State of Israel works to commemorate Righteous Among the Nations and to educate the coming generations in light of their deeds," Steinfeld wrote. "I have no doubt that the Interior Ministry is aware of this subject and sensitive to this humanitarian issue. I request that you approve their request and assist a family to which we owe a great moral debt."

The Interior Ministry, though, was in no hurry. "How do you explain the fact that they are not doing anything in the Interior Ministry?" Stavi asks. "Why do women like this have to feel persecuted here, of all places, in the Jewish state, in the Land of Israel? It's absolutely unconscionable."

She has, she says, invested great resources, material and psychological, for the sake of the three granddaughters, and has learned in her special way that there are vows whose fulfillment entails vast effort. She herself has borne the financial burden of what she calls "the project".

"No establishment body helped me. I prepared them a full-fledged 'absorption basket' of my own and I am the one they turn to with every problem and question. And their first period here was very hard - language difficulties and cultural differences. From my point of view, it's a rescue story in every respect.

"A few times a week I write or call the Claims Conference in New York, which is sitting on billions of shekels and dollars. I explain the situation and ask for help, but I am given the boot. How many Righteous Among the Nations are left and will be left within a few years? Is it impossible to remember historical mercy?

"In the face of the hell of the Holocaust, the Righteous Among the Nations are total tzadikim" - just or saintly people - "who risked their lives and saved 14 Jews in a dugout that was built under their cowshed and also saved Marusia, whom they adopted as one of their own. That is the light that shone from the darkness. I am grateful to my destiny for giving me the opportunity to thank my rescuers while they are still alive. I hope that the Interior Ministry understands the greatness of the mercy."

The righteous

More than 23,000 people have been recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations for rescuing Jews in the Second World War. One of them, Wladyslaw Bonkowski, hid 16 Jews in the attic of the train station in Sambor, Ukraine, a short distance from the cattle cars that transported masses of Jews to death. According to the testimonies given to Yad Vashem, Bonkowski provided the group with their basic needs for 14 months.

About 20 people who have been recognized as Righteous Among the Nations live in Israel, and their number is shrinking as time passes. Four months ago, Ivan Vranetic, born in Yugoslavia, died here at the age of 83. Jews who fled from the murderous Ustasha, the ruling party in Croatia, and reached his village of Topusko met “Ivica,” as they called him, when he was just 17. He helped them reach places of refuge, carrying children and the elderly who had difficulty walking on his shoulders.

One of those refugees was Arna Montilio, whose husband was murdered in the Jasenovac camp. “I could never have survived with my aged mother and my infant daughter without Ivica’s help,” she told Yad Vashem years later. In 1970, Vranetic was recognized as Righteous Among the Nations. He maintained a steady correspondence with Montilio, who in the meantime immigrated to Israel, rehabilitated her life and remarried.

Twenty years later, she was divorced and informed her rescuer about the development. In the wake of this, he came to Israel and they were married. ‏(Montilio died 12 years ago.‏) In 1986 he was granted honorary citizenship and became chairman of the Organization of Righteous Among the Nations living in Israel. A year ago, during the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Israel, Ivica, a Catholic, greeted him at Yad Vashem on behalf of the Righteous Among the Nations.


Approval granted

After more than half a year without a visa, when the three Ukrainian women feared for their status in Israel, the Interior Ministry has good news for them. A spokeswoman for the ministry’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority, Sabine Haddad, stated in response to a query from Haaretz, “After examining the requests and in light of the fact that they are the granddaughters and daughters of Righteous Among the Nations, we have decided to issue them a one-year residence and work permit.”

The Claims Conference was asked to explain why it declined to assist the Dzhyvulski family members, but offered only a general reply: “The Claims Conference was established in order to ensure compensation and the return of property to Holocaust survivors and the heirs of Holocaust victims, and has been doing so for 60 years. The Conference considers it a great privilege to be able to assist also those few who risked their lives in order to help Jews escape the clutches of the Nazi regime. Since 1963, the Claims Conference has been operating an aid program for needy Righteous Among the Nations. The program operates everywhere except in Israel, in which by law rights are granted to those who have been recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations and to their families. As of now, the Claims Conference has supported about 800 Righteous Among the Nations.”