"A Quiet Hero Living in Our Midst"
By Meyer Lieman
Copyright©2000 Meyer Lieman
Excerpted from an article published in
The Riverdale Press, Thursday, October 5, 2000
The Op-Ed Page
a Riverdale resident from 1958 through 1998, was honored in 1979 by Yad Vashem,
Israel's Holocaust Authority, as a "Righteous Among the Nations" for having
risked his life to save Jews during the Holocaust. . . .
It was only recently, when [his daughter] Mrs. [Sabina] Zimmer mentioned that the family was going to celebrate her father's 85th birthday in Sarasota, Florida that it became apparent that few Riverdalians knew of Walter Ukalo . . . and the risks he took to save the lives of more than 20 Jews, many from Mrs. Zimmer's family.
The criteria for being designated one of the Righteous by Yad Vashem are quite rigorous. They include the following: the rescuers were not Jewish; a Jewish individual who was likely to have been killed was saved; the rescuers knew that they were risking their own lives; and they sought and received no compensation as a condition of their rescue.
The Walter Ukalo story begins in Brody, Poland (now Ukraine), where he worked as a carpenter and became manager of a lumber mill. This small town of 7,200 Jews (two-thirds of Brody's population) and the nearby city of Lvov were occupied by the Germans in June 1941.
The Historical Atlas of the Holocaust describes conditions in the Lvov/Brody area at that time: Encouraged by German forces, Ukrainian nationalists staged a violent pogrom against the Jews . . . in July 1941, killing about 4,000 Jews. In late July, Ukrainian militants went on a rampage through the Jewish districts of Lvov . . . they took Jews to the Jewish cemetery . . . and shot them. More than 2,000 Jews were killed and thousands more were injured."
From the outset, the Ukalo family offered to help and, as necessary, to hide their neighbors, Dorothy Taub, her sister Gina and her infant daughter, Sabina, along with other family members. Sabina's father had been taken to forced labor and was shot. Her mother was later killed when she left her hiding place.
Walter Ukalo's father Gregory, suspected of helping Jews, was rounded up with a group of Jewish intellectuals. When he did not return (he had been shot in prison), Walter, then 26 years old, took responsibility for the safety of those the Ukalo family were helping. When there was danger, he moved the group to other sites or back into his home. His mother Anna, devout in her Christian faith, and his younger brother, Adam, supported his rescue activities--fully aware of the consequences to them if they were discovered or betrayed by collaborators.
From The Historical Atlas: "By August 1942, more than 65,000 Jews had been deported (to the Belzec death camp) from the Lvov ghetto and killed."
Sabina Zimmer writes: He saved many members of my family; my mother's sister Dorothy (who became my mother) and me; other aunts and uncles and . . . inlaws; and he saved many others, who had been unknown to him."
In interviews, Mr. Ukalo recalled: "I saw them shooting people . . . transport children and parents . . . knock a child against the wall . . . What the Germans did was not right, and I revolted. I tried to help everyone in whatever way I could."
In 1943, he joined Zegota, the Council for Aid to Jews, begun by the head of a conservative Catholic organization and others, which became a branch of the Polish underground. Its focus was to help and to save Jews and to hide and support Jewish children. Zegota received funds through the Polish government-in-exile in London from the Jewish organizations in the United States.
In Samaritans, Heroes of the Holocaust, Zygmunt Chotiner, a survivor from Brody, gave the following testimony: "Like all my Jewish brothers and sisters, I was deprived during the war of all human rights and reduced to anticipation of the end. At a critical moment, a certain Mr. Ukalo turned up in Brody, where our group was employed, all of us doomed to extermination. . . . He offered us aid in the form of false documents, money, etc. At first, we could hardly believe him. It all seemed too good to be true; eventually, however, he managed to convince us of the sincerity of his offer . . . We received financial aid every month. Several of us found refuge . . . in Lvov, on the Aryan side."
At the end of the war, Mr. Ukalo married Dorothy Taub, adopted Jewish tradition, and raised Sabina as his daughter. After five years in Displaced Persons Camps in Germany, they moved to the United States, lived briefly in Manhattan and then settled in Riverdale.
Copyright © 2000 M S Rosenfeld