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Father Taras Kowch

Righteous Gentiles: How A Catholic Priest Performed over 10,000 Baptisms to Save Jews During the Holocaust

By Rhonda Spivak,June 3, 2011

Father Emilian Kowcz was singlehandedly responsible for baptizing over 10,000 Jews during the Holocaust, in an attempt to enable them to escape persecution. This heroic action landed him in the the Nazi Majenek concentration camp where he died on March 25, 1944.

Father Taras Kowch, his grandson and a Winnipeg priest (the family name was changed from Kowcz to Kowch) spoke passionately of his heroic grandfather, to a near capacity audience at the Berney Theatre on May 5, 2011. 

“I have his blood in my veins and I am proud of him,” Father Taras Kowch said.

Father Emilian Kowcz was honoured  posthumously by the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg with a plaque in his honour as a Righteous Gentile at the last event of Holocaust Awareness Week put on by the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg and the Freeman Family Foundation Holocaust Education Centre. [Other righteous gentiles who were honoured will be dealt with in a later article.]

Father Emilian Kowcz was a Ukrainian Greek-Catholic priest who “loved everybody” and baptized thousands of Jews –“adults and children alike” in the Ukrainian city of Przemyslanach near Lviv.

“He issued them proper Baptismal certificates..even today these are registered in every catholic church. Each Jewish person was issued a certificate and they were sealed. These  baptismal certificates were used as passports by the Jews who received them. They were able to use them to escape Nazi persecution. He [my grandfather] could have been excommunicated had it been found out,”  said Father Taras Kowch.

No one knows how many of the Jews who received baptismal certificates were able to survive as a result—but some of them did.

Father Taras  added that his grandfather Emilian acted on the biblical teaching “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 

When a detachment of the SS drove some Jews into a local synagogue, and began throwing firebombs inside with the intention of burning them alive, Father Emilian, along with some of his parishioners, rushed to the synagogue.They blocked the doors preventing the Nazis from throwing more firebombs inside.  Father Emilian shouted at the Nazis to go away, and miracoulously they did. Father Emilian and the parishioners then went into the already burning building, and rescued as many Jews as possible.

Initially, Kowcz baptized one Jew at a time, but realizing the need was great, reports say he staged a mass baptism for up to 1,000 Jews at once.

He was never concerned with whether the Jews he baptized really wanted to become Catholics, according to his  grandson Father Taras. He believed it was not up to him to judge—as only G-d is the judge of the human soul.

As Father Taras Kowch recounted,"By continuing to help the Jewish people in his village, my grandfather put his own life at risk.”

Father Emilian even wrote a letter to Adolph Hitler denouncing the Nazi crimes.

He continued the baptisms, even though this was agaisnt Nazi law and since the Nazis could not allow this activity to go unpunished, he was arrested, imprisoned, interrogated and beaten.

During the interogation Father Emilian admitted to baptising Jews and refused to sign anything to the effect that he wouldn’t do so in the future.

An article by Steven Smith written in 2006 about  Father Emilian,  refers to the record of the Nazis' interrogation of Father Emilian which  still exists and says in part:

Officer: “Did you know that it is prohibited to baptize Jews?”
Fr. Kowcz: “I didn’t know anything.”
Officer: “Do you now know it?”
Fr. Kowcz: “Yes.”
Officer: “Will you continue to do it?”
Fr. Kowcz: “Of course.”

As a result of his refusal to stop baptizing Jews, Father Emilian was sent to Majdanek concentration camp in Lublin, Poland. Majdanek was smaller than Auschwitz, the more notorious German concentration camp inside Poland, but it was just as horrific, with gas chambers and ovens.

From the letters smuggled out of the camp and sent to his family, Father  Emilian’s existence in the camp has been pieced together.

While in Madjanek Father Emilian  continued his work as a priest, providing ministration to the spiritual needs of the Majdanek prisoners.

As Father  Taras said, “He gave comfort to his fellow prisoners,” no matter what  their faith or background.

The daily prayer services that Father Emilian conducted in the camp were posing a problem for the Nazis and after several months in the camp they offered to free him but he declined.

“He wrote to his family that he could not leave Madjenek, as he was needed there to help the prisoners get through their suffering, ” Father Taras said.

In his final letter, Father Emilian wrote, “I thank God for His goodness to me. Apart from heaven, this is the one place where I wish to remain. Here we are all equal: Poles, Jews, Ukrainians, Russians, Latvians and Estonians. Of all these here I am the only priest. I cannot even imagine how it would be here without me. Here I see God, who is the same for us all, regardless of our religious distinctions. Perhaps our churches are different, but the same great and Almighty God rules over us all. When I celebrate the Divine Liturgy, they all join in prayer. . .

"They die in different ways, and I help them to cross over this little bridge into eternity. Is this not a blessing? Isn’t this the greatest crown which God could have placed upon my head? It is indeed. I thank God a thousand times a day for sending me here. I do not ask him for anything else. Do not worry, and do not lose faith…"

"Pray for those who created this concentration camp and this system. They are the only ones who need prayers . . May God have mercy upon them.”

When Father Emilian was captured by the Nazis, his children quickly fled, said Father Kowch.  Father Emilian's son Myron,  became a priest, and now his grandson Taras is a priest.

Grandson Taras says his father Myron always remembered his father Emilian’s bravery and humanity and passed this message onto him, a message which he too will pass on to his children.

Holocaust survivor Rubin Pezim told the Winnipeg Free Press in a telephone interview from West Orange, N.J., where he lives, that when he was about nine or 10 years old, he and his mother and sister visited Father Kowcz  in the city of Przemyslany.

"We went at night. There was an agreement. He spoke a few words and gave us the documents (baptismal certificates)," said Pezim. "He was a super human being."

"The baptismal papers wouldn't get a Jew past a German border guard," he said. "But they could help where people or officials were willing to look the other way."

As the Free Press wrote, “In the case of Pezim's family, they used the papers to provide cover for gentile families who hid them. The families could then say they didn't realize they were protecting Jews.

“This was important because gentiles caught sheltering Jews in Poland and Ukraine were put to death, Pezim said. "Don't make it out that hiding Jews was a simple thing. It was a very dangerous thing to do," he said.

Several gentile families hid the Pezim family members, one for as long as two months, others for weeks. Pezim, his mother and sister Ida eventually lived in the woods 25 kilometers from Przemyslany for a year before the liberation, when the Soviet Union re-took control of Ukraine.

They were the only ones in his family who made it out alive. His father, other siblings, aunts, uncles and grandparents, all perished.

As the  Free Press wrote, “Kowcz is estimated to have baptized from 5,000 to 10,000 people. Pezim doesn't know how many may have survived, and there is no record. "I know he helped a lot of other people," he said. "Some of them survived. The majority of them were killed. The paper was not a guarantee of life."

In 2001, Father Emilian Kowcz was beatified by Pope John Paul II and named an official martyr by the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, a step to becoming a saint. On April 25, 2009  the church declared him to be a patron of pastors---an example for other clerics.

Father Taras Kowch through his work as a parish priest at the Cook’s Creek Church, 40 kilometers northeast of Winnipeg, continues this family tradition by providing spiritual guidance. He brought his children to the event at the Berney Theatre.

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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