From the first hours of the German occupation of Lvov, mobs of local Ukrainian hoodlums, incited by German proclamations and pamphlets, rampaged through the streets and houses, murdering Jews wherever they found them, or taking them to the city's prisons, where thousands were tortured and shot. In an attempt to halt the slaughter, Yechezkel Lewin, editor-in-chief of the Jewish weekly newspaper Opinja ('Opinion'), and rabbi of the Reform Synagogue in Lvov, went, in his rabbinical robes, to see the head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, Metropolitan Sheptitsky. 'You told me once, "I am a friend of Israel",' Lewin declared. 'You have always emphasized your friendship to us, and we ask you now, at this time of terrible danger, to give proof of your friendship and to use your influence over the wild crowds rioting against us.' According to one account, Sheptitsky declined the rabbi's request to go out and ask the mobs to disperse.
Meanwhile, in the words of Philip Friedman—then a young Jewish historian in Lvov—'the mobs were on the rampage, the howls of the killers mingled with the screams of the victims, and the slaughter in the streets continued.' Sheptitsky urged Lewin to remain in the security of the Metropolitan's episcopal palace until the violence had subsided, but Lewin told him; 'My mission is completed. I have come to make a request for the community, and shall return to the congregation, where my place is.' He then left and walked back towards his home. On the way, several of his Christian friends urged him to return to Sheptitsky's palace for his own safety, but he refused to do so. On reaching his own house he was seized by Ukrainian militiamen and taken to prison. There, still in his rabbinical robes, he was beaten with the rifle butts of Ukrainian soldiers before being shot down in the prison yard. Also among the thousands of Jews murdered in these prison killings was Lewin's brother, Rabbi Aaron Lewin, a former deputy in the Polish parliament, who was the head of the rabbinical court in the Western Galician city of Rzeszow.
Metropolitan Sheptitsky arranged to find a hiding place for Rabbi Yechezkel Lewin's son Kurt and his brother, as well as for several other Jewish youngsters, including Leon Chameides—whom he placed in the Studite monastery in the town of Uhniv—Leon's brother Zwi, and a young woman, Lili Stern (later Pohlmann), who, with her mother and a Jewish couple, Jozef and Anna Podoszyn, were taken into Sheptitsky's palace in Lvov in March 1944, and kept there in safety for several months, until liberation.
Zwi Chameides (now Zwi Barnea) has recalled the many people who played their part in his rescue: first Metropolitan Sheptitsky himself, who took him to see his brother, Father Ihumen Sheptitsky; then Father Ihumen, who transferred him to a young seminarian called Ben; then Ben, who showed him how to make the sign of the cross then went with him on foot to a suburb of Lvov, to a boarding school run by the Studite monastic order. The boys were hostile to him, however, and he had to move on. He was taken to yet another person willing to help, Brother Boyarskyi, a monk who gave him shelter, taught him the basics of Christianity and improved his knowledge of the Ukrainian language, which he would need to speak well if he were to pass himself off as a Ukrainian Christian. Brother Boyarskyi then took him by train to the town of Przemyslany, from where they walked for several hours to an orphanage attached to the monastery at Uhniv. 'Late that night I fell ill. A Brother who had some medical knowledge was called and gave me a hot infusion of berries to drink. I was probably feverish and half asleep when I heard Brother Boyarskyi discuss with a priest whether I could stay in the Uhniv orphanage. The priest was explaining to Brother Boyarskyi that they could not accommodate me. First, they already had one other boy like me, and, besides, the situation was particularly dangerous because Przemyslany had just been cleared of Jews and the Germans were searching the surrounding villages for any who might have managed to escape.'
Zwi Barnea's account continued: 'At first I hoped that the priest might have changed his mind about letting me stay. The Uhniv orphanage was a very pleasant place after the ghetto and boarding-school experiences. The children were very friendly, and I now found that my Ukrainian no longer drew any attention to me. I also discovered that the orphanage had a number of books. One of these was a primer of Church Slavonic which explained to me the meaning of the many strange words in the basic prayers I had memorized. I taught myself the Church Slavonic alphabet, which is very similar to modern Cyrillic. I soon guessed which little boy was Jewish. After being allowed to rest for a few days, I was nevertheless obliged to return with Brother Boyarskyi to Lvov.'
In Lvov, Zwi was taken 'to an elderly Ukrainian woman who lived in a flat with a maid, Sofia. The woman was a widow whose husband had been a well-to-do engineer. The couple had close connections with the church. Both the woman, whose name I have unfortunately not retained, and the maid were extremely frightened to keep me and made elaborate plans of how I was to escape through the back door if the Germans should come. I stayed with them for about a week and then Ben the seminarian came to take me to an orphanage in Brzuchowice, a small town near Lvov.'
The orphanage in Brzuchowice accepted the young boy. On the first day, another boy asked him his name. 'When I told him, he said: "Oh, your brother is also here." I protested that I had no brother, only to be confronted with my brother Leon. Apparently, for the sake of good order we had both been assigned the surname Khaminskyi, and by resemblance we certainly looked like brothers. I knew it was bad for us to be associated with one another and therefore continued to maintain that my name was Khominskyi and not Khaminskyi and besides I had no brother. My brother Leon, following my lead, confirmed that he too had no brother. Fortunately, the children soon lost interest in whether we were brothers or not and the grown-ups did not even become involved in the matter.' Although all the children spoke Ukrainian, Zwi Barnea noticed that their command of the language varied considerably. 'I soon guessed that there were among the children at least two Jewish girls and another little Jewish boy, Dorko (Oded Amarant), about my brother's age.'
One of the Jewish girls was called Romka. One morning, as Zwi Barnea later recalled, a Ukrainian woman who worked in the orphanage office started questioning her about whether she was Jewish, what her Jewish name was, and whether the lady from the office was her mother. 'Romka denied the accusations and the woman became increasingly angry and started shrieking at her. Since the boys in my room crowded into the other room to see what was happening, I also went in just as the woman asked Romka to make the sign of the cross, which Romka, whom I had coached, demonstrated faultlessly. The woman became increasingly hysterical as little Romka, about eight years old, continued to deny everything with cool dignity.'
Still Zwi Barnea was not out of danger. One day a doctor arrived, accompanied by a young nurse. 'There was no advance notice and my bed being nearest the door, I was the first to be examined. The doctor looked at my chest briefly and then pulled down my pyjama trousers and then quickly pulled them up again. I could see dismay on his face and then saw him turn and scrutinize carefully the face of the accompanying nurse. The nurse's dull expression had not changed during the examination. She had apparently not seen or recognised what the doctor saw. I saw the doctor's face relax somewhat as he moved on to the next examination. I considered what had happened and concluded immediately that the doctor had no intention of reporting that I was circumcised. Nevertheless, I was, of course, extremely worried. At about nine that evening one of the nuns appeared and asked me whether the doctor had examined me. I nodded vigorously. The nun told me to dress and went off. She returned soon and when I came out she was waiting with my brother and Dorko.'
The boys walked that night to a small convent in Brzuchowice, whose nuns belonged to the Order of St Basil. They slept there that night, and the next day a nun took them back to Lvov, to the Studite monastery near the archbishop's residence. 'Here I met for the first time Father Marko (now recognised by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Gentile). Father Marko was a young, handsome priest with a smiling face and energetic manner. He laughed a great deal and when he conversed with us one felt his obvious affection. He listened attentively when I told him that there were two Jewish girls who still remained in the orphanage and then smiled and looked at me thoughtfully without replying. ('Romka' and her mother survived and sent me a message after our liberation but I did not meet them again and never got to know their names or story.) Father Marko told us that he would take my brother and Dorko to Uhniv. I was to wait for his return and in the meantime I was again placed with the engineer's widow and her maid Sofia who were now even more fearful than during my previous stay.'
Father Marko took the boy by train to Stanislawow, 'which we reached after much trouble. We stayed there overnight with Father Marko's friends who were very frightened to accommodate me. A group of Jews who were hiding nearby in a bunker they had built under a bombed-out house had just been apprehended. Father Marko tried to reassure his friends by telling them that I had family in England. I do not know how he knew this.'
From Stanislawow Father Marko took the boy on, by train, via Czortkow, to the end of the railway line. From there they continued by horse and cart to the village of Paniowce Zielone, where the River Zbrucz flows into the Dniester, which at that point marked the border between pre-war Poland and Romania. 'Father Marko brought me here to the house of his older brother, Father Stek, who was a parish priest and lived with their elderly mother who managed the household. Before leaving, Father Marko suggested that I tell his mother the day after his departure that I was Jewish. However, I was too frightened to do so and persuaded myself that this extraordinarily shrewd woman had already figured it out all by herself.'
In due course the boy was taken back once more to Lvov, to a church boarding school. The director, Father Kyprian, found out that the lad was circumcised but did nothing. When liberation came, the young man learned that his father and his grandparents had been murdered. Two months after liberation, on his way home from school, the young man encountered a funeral procession. 'I recognized immediately that it was the funeral of a very important person because of the large number of Greek Catholic bishops in full funeral vestments who followed the coffin. They were followed by a group of high-ranking officers of the Red Army. Next to me an elderly woman made the sign of the cross in the Greek Catholic manner and so I asked her in Ukrainian whose funeral it was. The Metropolitan Sheptitsky had died, she told me, wiping away her tears.
It was not only his Christian flock that mourned the Metropolitan. Those whom he helped to save were, and remain, determined to obtain recognition for the churchman whom one of them, Leon Chameides, calls 'this saintly man'.