Bank of Portraits / Vovk Fedir and Shkandel Yelyzaveta

Vovk Fedir and Shkandel Yelyzaveta 

This story could remain a rather "typical" case of rescue, like so many others in Ukraine during the Second World War. However, the personality of the future Righteous made it unique. Fedir Vovk was a member and even one of the leading figures of the OUN (b) [branch of the Organization of the Ukrainian Nationalists led by Stepan Bandera] and the Ukrainian Supreme Liberation Council (UHVR). His act was categorically different to the stereotypical image of the inhuman Bandera’s followers created by the Soviet propaganda.

Fedir Ivanovych Vovk or, as it is sometimes written, Ivan Fedorovych Vovchuk (the pseudonym of F. Vovk) was born in the picturesque village of Ocheretove in the Poltava region on September 18, 1903 in a poor peasant family of Ivan and Maria Vovk. The family was large. Fedir had younger brothers Pylyp, Vasyl, Andriy and sister Yevdokia.

In 1926, Fedir graduated from Kharkiv University and began working at the Kharkiv Research Institute of Plant Breeding. He later worked as the chief zootechnician of the Gigant state farm, and then as the director of one of the schools in the Kharkiv region. By this time he was already married. One year younger, Yelyzaveta Shkandel became his wife. In 1926, their son Vadym was born.

In the summer of 1936 he moved with his family to Nikopol. Fedir Vovk was appointed director of the secondary school № 9, which was located between the barracks of the 123rd Nikopol Rifle Regiment and the Savior Transfiguration Church.

After the German invasion of the Soviet Union, high school students led by Fedir Vovk were sent for a few weeks to work in the collective farm of the Nikopol district. A few days before August 17, 1941, when German troops captured the city of Nikopol, Fedir Vovk and his family were in the area of the Chkalovo village.

In mid-September 1941, the German military command in Nikopol began to form a city and district administration from among the locals. At the same time, members of the Southern marching group of the OUN (b) Mykola Klymyshyn and Ulyana Tselevych, arrived in the city. They already had information from teachers who visited Nikopol before the war that the director of the local school had pro-Ukrainian position. The members of the marching group found him and offered to head the agricultural administration in the Nikopol district.

In October 1941, Fedir Vovk participated in the establishment of the Nikopol branch of the All-Ukrainian Enlightenment Society

Named After Taras Shevchenko and its activities until the summer of 1942, when it was banned by the Nazis. At the same time, Fedir Vovk joined the Bandera wing of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists. The Nikopol district organization had the task of conducting underground agitation for the creation of the Ukrainian independent state.

Fedir Vovk was the Nikopol district leader of the OUN. Having the opportunity to visit the villages and collective farms of the Nikopol area during sowing and harvesting, Fedir Vovk attracted dozens of Nikopol residents to the OUN (b). There were up to 40 people in the district branch he headed.

In the autumn of 1941 he promoted the establishment of the Nikopol Agricultural School, where up to 300 young men studied, and organized the production of agricultural machinery for cultivating land in an industrial artel. At the same time, with the help of other people, he secretly hid part of the grain for the population. According to OUN members, Fedir Vovk was arrested by the Gestapo on suspicion of sabotage, but was released.

In October 1943, as a result of exposing the OUN cell in Nikopol by the German security service, Fedir Vovk with his family and a group of young OUN members left for Western Ukraine as refugees.

During the Nazi occupation, along with great social and political activities, Fedir Vovk did another act, perhaps inconspicuous in the wake of the turbulent events of the time, but which forever put his name on the list of the world's greatest humanists.

A few months after the occupation, on October 3 and 5, two mass executions of the Jews took place in the city. As Sara Bakst, a friend and colleague of Fedir Vovk and Yelyzaveta Shkandel, later recalled, the Nazis first registered the entire Jewish population, forcing all adults to wear armbands, dismantling ruins and arranging streets.

"Two younger sisters from my family, who lived separately with three young children (two of whom were newborns), were shot dead. Upon learning of this tragedy, our mother attempted suicide, but fortunately my husband happened to be there and saved her. Even more than a year after that event, she had a trace of a noose around her neck. My husband was Ukrainian, so he was free and was feverishly looking for a way to save his family. One day he met Fedir Vovk, whom he knew well as a fellow teacher, and told him about our terrible situation. Fedir asked where we were and promised to helpThe next evening, his wife, Yelyzaveta Shkandel, came to us to know how many people were in danger and who needed tobe rescued. Soon she came again with her colleague Oleksandra Doroshenko and handed us a small piece of paper with a plan of where to hide us. Did we agree? We read it quickly and, of course, agreed. The plan was written by Fedir Vovk. I immediately tore that plan into small pieces, and now I regret that I did not save it. According to the plan, my mother and my nephew went to the village of Varvarivka in the Sofiyivka district. Oleksandra Doroshenko gave my mother her mother's passport, she worked there all the time of the occupation as a cleaner at the school under the care of the director Volodymyr Brynza, now deceased. In the village she was known as Zinaida Petrivna. Volodymyr Brynza's lonely sister gave shelter to my nephew, and he became like her own son.

My five-year-old son and I were transferred the next evening to another school teacher, Maria Mizina, who agreed to shelter us, even though she lived in the flat herself.

Since the house where Fedir Vovk lived at the time was nearby, and the boy in the cellar, where he and I hid during the day, was ill, Viktor [Sara’s son] was taken away from me after a while and he lived in the flat of Fedir Vovk for almost three months as a family member under the name Volodymyr.

Later, my husband brought a permission of departure from Nikopol, made by the accountant of the material department of "Zagotzerno" [“Grain Procurement”] Oleksandra Znova, and told to be ready to leave for his homeland in the Kirovograd region according to the plan of Fedir Vovk.

After a while, a stocky handsome man, the driver from the land administration, came to us and drove us to Kryvyi Rih. And then I got to my destination in Dolyna district on foot, and my husband with children soon arrived there. We lived there until the day of liberation from the occupation - Viktor and I were at the abandoned farm, with the false documents, of course, and my husband and younger son were with their parents".

From the memories of Sara Bakst

Sara Bakst was soon arrested. She was married to Ukrainian Serhiy Kolos, and the couple had two small children, Viktor and Oleksandr. Miraculously, the young woman escaped execution.

"… One by one old men, women and children came out of the basement and climbed into the truck. I was standing nearby. I heard a grandfather talking softly to a teenage grandson walking by 

- Try to slip under the hanging board and run.

As he approached the car, the boy slowed down, the German paid attention to him and forced him to get into the truck. Loading was complete. The German organizing it made me sit down with a gesture of his hand. As in a dream, I slowly shook my head in denial. He waved, "Okay." The police closed the board and got into the car, it left, the guard closed the gate. Everyone left. I was standing. Time was running out…

Suddenly an interpreter hurried past me:

- What are you standing for? Get out of here now!

He said something to the guard, he opened the gate, and I went outside, halfway to nothingness”. From the memories of Sara Bakst

Concerned about Sara's fate, Fedir contacted her husband and learned from talking to him that Sarah was hiding somewhere with her mother, Yelyzaveta Bakst, and her two-year-old nephew, Volodymyr. The three were the only members of the Bakst family to survive the Nazi terror.

Fedir Vovk and his wife decided to help Sara and her relatives. At first, they hid Sara's eldest son Viktor at home, and then asked Maria Mizina, their colleague and friend, to hide Sarah in her house if necessary. She agreed. The young woman lived in the house of Maria Mizina for three months. During the day she stayed in the basement, and at night she went up to the flat, where she could always rest, warm up and wash.

Later, Fedir managed to get fake documents for Sara and helped her go to the countryside. Sara settled in a remote village, and only Fedir Vovk and his wife knew where she was hiding. When Sara settled down, Fedir took her son Viktor to her. The youngest son, Oleksandr, lived with his Ukrainian father throughout the occupation.

Fedir took false documents for Yelyzaveta Bakst and sent her to his friends who lived in the village of Varvarivka. There, until the very end of the occupation, she worked as a cleaner at the school, and no one guessed that she was Jewish. Little Volodymyr lived in the same village, and no one knew anything about their origin.

After the liberation, which took place on February 8, 1944, all members of the Bakst family returned to Nikopol.

The fate of Fedor Vovk and his family was more stormy.

During his stay in Halychyna, West Ukraine, he kept contacts with the OUN leadership as well as the command of the Ukrainian 

Insurgent Army. Fedir received the pseudonym "Ivan Fedorovych Vovchuk", which he used until the end of his life.

In July 1944, he participated in the organization and holding of the First Grand Meeting of the Ukrainian Supreme Liberation Council, which took place in the Carpathian forests near the village of Sprynya in the Lviv region. At this event, Fedir Vovk was elected the third vice-president of the Council.

In August 1944 he moved to Slovakia. From where, after the Slovak National Uprising, to the territory of Germany, where he had to live in difficult financial conditions. In February 1946, Fedir Vovk was also co-opted into the OUN (b) leadership. In 1946–1949, he remained a member of the Ukrainian Supreme Liberation Council’s foreign mission.

On the instructions of the OUN leadership, Fedir Vovchuk in 1949–1950 was the head of the Representation of Ukrainian Emigrants in West Germany, and took part in the work of the editorial board of the Munich weekly “Ukrainska Tribuna” [“Ukrainian Tribune”].

Here, in a foreign land, he searched for his son Vadym. But at the same time the family suffered grief. In 1946, Fedir’s wife, Yelyzaveta Shkandel, died. In 1950, on the instructions of the OUN leadership, Fedir Vovchuk moved to the United States, became editor of the newspaper "National Tribune" (1950-1952), and from 1953 headed the Organization for the Defense of the Four Freedoms of Ukraine as chairman of its main board. At the same time, heremained a member of the OUN (b) leadership.

Fedir Vovk also headed “The Visnyk” [“Informer”] publishing house and a magazine of the same name, through which he conducted information work among Ukrainians in the diaspora and foreign citizens about Ukraine and its struggle for independence. He was the author of many scientific and analytical articles in the Ukrainian press and contributed to the publication of many works by theorists of Ukrainian nationalism.

On May 14, 1979, after a serious illness, Fedir Vovk died and was buried in Pittsburgh (USA) in the Ukrainian Holy Trinity Cemetery. On his grave, the head of the OUN, Yaroslav Stetsko, laid a handful of soil from the town of Kaniv, from the grave of Taras Shevchenko.

Honoring Fedir Vovk as the Righteous Among the Nations happened due to activities of the two Nikopol residents, the students of Fedir Vovk and the members of the Nikopol group of OUN headed by him. In the 1990s, Petro Perepadya and Yuriy Chernyavskyi, remembering their teacher, found Sara Bakst, recorded her testimony and sent it to Israel, to Yad Vashem. A bit later, the three participants of those events - Fedir Vovk, Yelyzaveta Shkandel and Maria Mizina - were recognized as Righteous Among the Nations.

Ukrainian Insitute for Holocaust studies

Dnipro

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