Bank of Portraits / Vasyl Bilyi

Vasyl Bilyi

Vasyl Bilyi was a professional photographer. He lived in the town of Olevsk, the Zhytomyr region. For many years he was friendly with a Jew Illya Fishman. In 1937 Illya Fishman was arrested as an ‘’enemy of the state’’ and a ‘’polish spy’’. He was sentenced to 10 years in Siberia. Since that moment Vasyl Bilyi was taking care of Illya’s family: his wife Liza, two sons – 9-year-old Semen and 3-year-old Arkadiy, Liza’s father Mendel, and mother Rebecca.

According to the Soviet pre-war census, there were near 3 thousand Jews in Olevsk. This number was equal to 42,2% of the town’s population. There were also near 900 Jews living in the villages of Olevsk area. After the beginning of the German-Soviet war, many Jews were evacuated and mobilized to the Red Army. According to the German census of October 1941 there were only 613 Jews in Olevsk and nearby villages.

Fishmans were not evacuated, because grandfather Mendel, who remembered German presence in Olevsk in 1918, assured everyone of their good intentions. He also considered that his profession of baker will be needed under any regime.

After the invasion of the Soviet Union Germans mostly cared about the frontline, so they used main highways. The region of Polissia was at first almost untouched by Germans. So there was a chance to create Ukrainian armed units. The headquarters of the 213th Infantry Division gave permission for the creation of ‘’Pollisian Sich’’ under the command of Taras Bulba-Borovets. There were near 1 thousand cossacks in that formation. Their main mission was to destroy the groups of soviet partisans.

From August till October of 1941 the German military administration was only formally controlling the area of Olevsk. In practice, during the second half of August units of ‘’Polissian Sich’’ forced out the groups of soviet partisans from the area of Olevsk. They also created the local civil administration and proclaimed Olevsk the capital of Olevsk Republic.

‘’Polisian Sich’’ was responsible for the law enforcement in the town. Jewish citizens were frequently robbed and brutalized. The policemen also broke into the Fishman’s yard. All members of the family were forced to go to the cellar. Then policemen threw the jar with gas inside and burn it. The family survived only because grandfather Mendel put out the fire with a wooden barrel. Their Ukrainian neighbors were permitted to take the Fishman’s property, but they respected the family, so they didn't take anything.

At the beginning of November, the personnel of the German civil administration took the town under control. Olevsk became part of the General district of Zhytomyr. Germans ordered to create a ghetto. All local Jews were forced to live in the area of two streets – Komsomolska and Zhovtneva. They were ordered to wear clothes marked with the Star of David. The area of the ghetto was extremely overpopulated, with two or three families living in one small apartment.

Vasyl Bilyi was providing Fishmans with food regularly. When Vasyl heard the rumors about the possible extermination of Jews, he proposed Fishman the shelter. It was located in one of the cellars in the central part of the town. The German headquarter and Vasyl’s photo studio was also located in the same building. The amount of money Vasyl was getting from his professional activity was enough not only for supporting Fishmans. In the same building, Vasyl Bilyi was also sheltering Reitblat sisters.

Olevsk ghetto was liquidated on 19-20 of November 1941. 7-year-old Arkadiy Fishman saw how Jews crossed the river Ubort under the convoy, to be killed later. His grandparents were among them.

Today we know, that near the village of Varvarivka, near the town of Olevsk at least 535 Jews were killed. According to the materials of the Soviet governmental commission about crimes of the Nazi regime, 585 were killed altogether in Olevsk.    

2 officers and 60 demobilized soldiers of ‘’Polisian Sich’’ were engaged in executions, however, their participation was not approved by the command of formation. Even more, the Council of Officers of ‘’Polisian Sich’’, including Taras Bulba-Borovets himself, condemned the engagement of their soldiers to the executions of Jews by local SS commanders. 

The fact of the extermination of Jews by Germans and soldiers of ‘’Sich’’ was witnessed by locals.

According to Arkadiy Fishman’s memoirs, 10-15 Jewish artisans (mostly tailors and shoemakers) were left alive to work for Germans. One of those Jews was giving them a loaf of bread weekly.

Vasyl Bilyi was supporting Fishmans till April of 1942. But then between him and his brother’s wife happened a conflict. She had relations with Germans while Vasyl’s brother was fighting Germans in the lines of the Red Army. As a result of the conflict, a woman told Germans about Jews in the cellar of Vasyl’s photo laboratory.

Vasyl managed to escape from the town before the Nazis came to the cellar. He joined the partisan unit and later he was mobilized to the Red Army. Vasyl participated in the battles in Western Ukraine and Poland. Vasyl Bilyi was also awarded a few Soviet medals for his service. But Vasyl’s parents and Reitblat sisters were caught and killed by Germans.

Liza Fishman together with the children managed to escape. She tried to guide her younger son Arkadiy to her friends in the village and ordered older son Semen to wait for her on the opposite side of the city. But Liza and Arkadiy were caught by German patrol on the street. Liza asked the policeman to let her son go home for documents. When he returned to the office of the German police, the policeman said: ‘’Go home! Your mother was a Jew and they shot her!’’ Arkadiy went to the bridge across river Ubort. He was sitting there and crying. There he was found by his older brother Semen.

Brothers didn’t look like Jews and also spoke Ukrainian fluently. They survived roaming from village to village under the fake names of Serhiy and Mykola Kovalenko. Later they went to Western Ukraine. Finally, they reached Village Bilovizh, Rivne region. Boys were working for different families. At first, brothers were hosted by a man called Katsap. He has found new families for two brothers. Semen Fishman lived on a farm Stebok, in the house of Olha Shehera. Palashka Kushnir, an old woman from the farm Kruzhok, sheltered Arkadiy. There were three children in her family – two sons and a daughter.  Boy didn’t remember their names. According to his memoirs, the first son was a person with disabilities, the second one was killed in 1948 because he was a member of the Soviet Secret Police. Farmers knew about the Jewish origin of brothers but didn’t betray them. ‘’They were good people’’, Arkadiy later said.

Once, Olha sent Semen to the town of Olevsk. He was caught there and jailed in the cellar with his mother. By that moment she wasn’t killed yet. Mother whispered to Semen: ‘’Don’t let them know that we are relatives, because they will kill both of us’’. Then Semen was forced to visit the German doctor. He said that boy wasn’t circumcised. After that, 14-year-old Semen should be deported to Germany together with other young people, but he managed to escape. Then, he returned to the village of Bilovizh.

Arkadiy Fishman also remembered another terrible event of his life. At first, he lived with local woman Nadiya. Her husband was on the frontline, and she was in contact with Soviet partisans. In one night, she was strangled in front of little Arkadiy. The boy was saved by ‘’banderivets Pavlo’’:

‘’There were different people among them… One of them saved my life. In general, they were not so bad people. They became ‘’banderivtsi’’ due to some reasons. Some of them were brutally persecuted by Soviet authorities.  Others were just deserters. There were different people among them’’, - from the memoirs of Arkadiy Fishman

After the end of the war, the brothers’ uncle Mykhailo Shapiro returned to Olevsk. He was searching for Fishman’s children. An unknown man on the city market told him about two Jewish boys in the nearby village. Mykhailo paid him, and soon man returned to Olevsk with two brothers. Arkadiy went to the second form. At first, he went to school under the fake name of Mykhailo Kovalenko. Only one year after he was studying under his real name -  Arkadiy Fishman. He finished 7 grades in school, then he was studying in a local Technical College. Arkadiy also worked on the refined sugar factory. Later he settled in Kyiv. Semen worked as an engineer in the towns of Olevsk and Korosten. In the 1990s he emigrated to Israel.

Fishman brothers were among those few Olevsk’ Jews who managed to survive the Holocaust.

‘’I lived my life as it was destined. The most important thing is that I am not disappointed in humans’’, from the interview of Arkadiy Fishman to the Institute of Visual History and Education USC Shoah Foundation in 1998.  

After the war Vasyl Bilyi lived in town Rokytne, Rivne region. He worked in school and was known as a photographer and artist. He also married and raised a daughter.

Fishmans were friendly with Vasyl Bilyi for many years. He was also visiting them frequently in Olevsk and Kyiv.

On May 6, 1996, Yad Vashem named Vasyl Bilyi the Righteous Among the Nations.  

Hanna Rafalska


National museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War

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