“She Paid the Ultimate Price”

The New Pathway’s John Pidkowich interviewed Iryna Korpan, host and reporter of OMNI TV’s Ukrainian program “Svitohliad”. She spoke about family recollections of her maternal Grandmother Kateryna Sikorska and the Holocaust. Ms. Korpan is producing a documentary film on this personal human interest story.(L. to R.): Lida Klar, Iryna Korpan and her mother Khrystyna Korpan in Yad Vashem near Wall of Honor for the Righteous Among The Nations

John Pidkowich: What is your family’s heroic yet tragic story?

Iryna Korpan: The great tragedy of the Jewish people – the Holocaust – also appeared as a terrible scar in our family, particularly on my Mother’s side. My Grandmother, Kateryna Sikorska, at age 36 and a widow, hid three Jewish people in her home under the kitchen floor during the Holocaust in Pidhaitsi, Western Ukraine. She paid for this with her life.

JP: Please explain the circumstances at the time and how did this happen?

IK: Pidhaitsi is a small town in Halychyna (Galicia), now Ternopil oblast, 70 km from Ternopil and about 120 km from Lviv. In the late 1930s, Pidhaitsi had a population of 6,000 inhabitants, 3,500 of whom were Jewish. Today, not one single Jew lives there. Once the activities of the Holocaust began, the situation became grave and spelled impending death for the Jews in Pidhaitsi. Mikhail Klar, the town’s well-known and only photographer, first came to my Grandmother seeking help.  In 1939, upon the arrival of the Russians [Soviets], it was known that the Jewish population was abused, their property nationalized, businesses taken away, and given the status “bourgeois element”.

Then, Klar saw danger not only in the material confiscation of Jewish wealth, but also in blatant life-threatening attacks [under the Nazis], witnessed openly in the streets. Klar told my Grandmother that he had come across a southern Russian military man, an artist who remained in the neighbouring village of Werbiw [after the Soviet retreat in 1941]. My Grandmother, along with her brother Ivan, agreed to bring documents to this Russian who could make Aryan identity papers. Thus, Mikhail Klar was able to create a passport – an Aryan identity for his son Leonid under the name “Bohdan Tovpash”. In this way, his son was able to escape from Pidhaitsi.

IKateryna Sikorskan 1942, Jews were rounded up into a ghetto. Half of them were transported to Belzec concentration camp where they either died from exhaustion or were exterminated. Mikhail Klar realized that certain death was at hand. He came again to my Grandmother, this time asking her to hide him. They started digging at night under her kitchen floor, at first to hide Klar alone, then to include the two Kressel brothers, Dolyk and Leonid. 

JP: How did this woman, a widow with three children, function under such severe circumstances?

IK: Only through mercy, sympathy and good-heartedness. Truly, she wanted to save these people, confined to this hiding spot for 9 months. Imagine sitting crouched all day, afraid to come out during the day and coming out only at night to stretch their legs. My grandmother’s children – Iryna, 13, being the oldest, my Mother Khrystyna, 10, and the youngest being Maria, age 6 – were instructed not to say anything to anyone about their great secret, even to their closest schoolmates.

JP: When and how were the Jews discovered, whom your Grandmother was hiding?

IK: Wilhelm Herman, an officer of the Gestapo, was responsible for the extermination of Jews in Berezhany district. Just before Easter in late March 1943, after nine months had elapsed, Herman came to the house. My Grandmother, in preparation for the holidays, had just white-washed the house exterior and was cleaning the paintbrush across the road. Herman and the police entered the house asking where was the photographer Klar? Hearing this, my Mother quickly ran outside and told her mother that the Germans were inside the house. Instead of returning to their house, they ran to the Ukrainian priest’s house across the road. Father Haidukevych let them in, and from there through a window they observed what was happening.

It’s possible that what brought the Germans to my Grandmother’s place was that someone with forged Aryan papers had been apprehended and had turned in Mikhail Klar. They did not know about the Kressel brothers.

The Germans began walking around and started stomping on the floorboards, listening for a hollow sound coming from the ground. Once this spot was located, imagine how these people underground, with all their might, held down the floor trapdoor, to prevent it from being opened. This went on for a while. Finally, Herman started beating my Aunt Iryna severely across the face. A neighbour was ordered to come and with heavy axe blows, broke through the trapdoor and pulled out the three Jews from their hiding spot. Grandmother watched from the priest’s house how they were taken away. She knew that she would not meet them any more …

JP: Now that the three Jews in hiding were discovered, how did your grandmother try to save herself and her children?

IK: My Grandmother at that point did not want to return to her home, but went instead to her sister’s in a neighbouring village and remained there until nightfall. Then, grandmother turned to her children and explained that she would need to return home to collect a few essential items in order to run away somewhere. However, my Mother insisted on going with her and no sooner had they returned and entered the house, the police and the Gestapo appeared. They took my Grandmother to Pidhaitsi jail where she was kept for two days. Then she was taken to Berezhany, where she was imprisoned for almost 9 months.

The next moment in the story I find extremely emotional because when Easter came these children were anticipating holiday joy and merriment. They undertook of their own accord to bake a paska and to place eggs on the table. The three of them sat around the table, at first in silence, and then started to cry with the realization that their mother would never return. But they were determined to visit their mother in prison. Whatever they could muster up – some salo, a piece of bread – these children carried 30 km through rain and freezing weather, to visit their mother and bring her a small care package, not knowing whether the prison guard would even deliver it to her. They were never able to see their mother close up, face-to-face, but only through bars from a distance were they able to speak to her.

In 1943, after almost nine months’ incarceration, their mother was taken to Ternopil where she was tried and sentenced to death.

JP: Before the death sentence was carried out, were any appeals for clemency made on behalf of your grandmother?

IK: Some have alleged that Ukrainians who saved Jews, did so for some monetary gain. I want to say to everyone that there was nothing whatsoever for her to gain!  Rumour had it that Ukrainians were paid in gold; Jews paid money to be kept in hiding. If this were so, my Grandmother could have bought her release. The prosecutor told her that if she came up with 20,000 zloty, she would be pardoned. Who had this kind of money?

JP: Please describe your experience visiting Israel and the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem to capture the legacy of your grandmother and your family story in your upcoming documentary film.

IK: The son of photographer Mikhail Klar, Leonid Klar, who had initially been saved by his Aryan identity papers, was eventually sent to Auschwitz but nonetheless was able to save himself – it’s a miracle! I filmed him recently when we went to Jerusalem to meet him and other Holocaust survivors. Our friendship with these people is like that of family. Together we cried, we sang Ukrainian songs, which I recorded, and they told me all that they could remember. I wanted us to establish such personal contact with each other. Really, there is a lot that we have in common.

When I went to Yad Vashem, I looked at the wall honouring “the Righteous Ukrainians”, where my Grandmother and Aunt Iryna (Sikorska) Gutor are named, having been given the honorific title “Righteous Among the Nations”. I was also searching for various other names and found that of Klement Sheptysky. Then I thought to myself, with everything I have read about Metropolitan Andrey Sheptysky, why is he not also listed here on the wall? The Jews themselves have written so much about him and how he saved many of them. Why, their Rabbis were saved by him. I contacted one Jew whom he saved, Kurt Lewin, a well-known political scientist living in New York. In our correspondence, he explained that he has been searching all avenues, during his entire life, to have Metropolitan Sheptysky named “Righteous Among the Nations”. What is really being called into question here is why does Yad Vashem continue to be influenced by those inaccurate and false KGB documents with respect to Metropolitan Andrey? It seems to me that for us, there would be great pride if we were to direct all our efforts toward securing the addition of Metropolitan Sheptysky’s name on this wall honouring him among the righteous Ukrainians.

Iryna Korpan gives special recognition to James Temerty who sponsored her travel to Israel and Ukraine to film the main segments for her documentary. Also, appreciation  goes to Hon. Consul Erast Huculak and Ania Kisil for their generous financial support.


1 -  (L. to R.): Lida Klar, Iryna Korpan and her mother Khrystyna Korpan in Yad Vashem near Wall of Honor for the Righteous Among The Nations

2 - Kateryna Sikorska