Petro Pyasetsky:  leaving Oscar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg in the dust

What does it take to be featured as a savior of Jews in Holocaust books, biographies, television documentaries, and even blockbuster movies?  The simplest criterion that comes to mind is that it takes the saving of a large number of Jewish lives.  Let us tentatively hypothesize that for blockbuster status, this number has to exceed one thousand.  We hypothesize, then, that the reason that Oscar Schindler rates Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List" and the Ukrainian Metropolitan Sheptytsky of Lviv rates next to nothing is that Schindler saved more than a thousand Jews and Sheptytsky saved fewer than one thousand.

But if upon adopting this tentative criterion we begin to examine some cases, we are brought to several startling conclusions.  I propose below to compare three candidates for public attention as being saviors of Jews: Oscar Schindler, Raoul Wallenberg, and Petro Pyasetsky.  You've undoubtedly heard of Schindler and Wallenberg, and are now wondering who the heck was Pyasetsky and your puzzlement is in itself surprising, as we shall presently see.

My information on Schindler and on Wallenberg is taken entirely from Martin Gilbert's "The Holocaust," in which Pyasetsky is not mentioned.  My information on Pyasetsky is taken from his own testimony.  I must explain at the outset that in no case is my purpose one of derogation; it is, rather, to make fair comparisons, and in making such fair comparisons, it must inevitably prove to be the case that the individual coming out worse in the comparison will appear to have been derogated.

Oscar Schindler

Near Plaszow was a factory which manufactured kitchen utensils, run by a German Catholic, Oscar Schindler, a man who, like all the factory managers in the neighbourhood, was allowed to employ Jewish workers.

Schindler, whose relations with the Gestapo were outwardly cordial, had always done his utmost to protect the Jews who worked in his factory.  When the Gestapo tried to transfer some of his workers to Plaszow, Schindler, by bribery and persuasion, was able to keep them.  By the summer of 1944, more than five hundred Jews were under Schindler's protection.  (Martin Gilbert, The Holocaust: The Jewish Tragedy, Fontana/Collins, 1986, p. 700)

After two days in Gross Rosen, the Plaszow evacuees were sent on to Brunnlitz, in the Sudetenland.  There, Oscar Schindler, their saviour in his factory near Plaszow, had opened a munitions factory, to which he had earlier evacuated five hundred of the Jews who had been working in his factory near Plaszow.  Now he insisted that the seven hundred other Plaszow evacuees were also badly needed, if the armaments so essential for the German war effort were to be produced.  He submitted a list of the seven hundred to the SS, noting against each name some impressive, but purely fictional, skill, describing them as engravers, locksmiths and technicians.  (Martin Gilbert, The Holocaust: The Jewish Tragedy, Fontana/Collins, 1986, pp. 754-755)

Starting with the information in the above quotes, we surmise that Schindler was a manager of slave labor within the Nazi war machine.  He profited personally from his position.  His contribution to Jews is that he took steps to keep his Jewish slave laborers from being removed from his factories, steps which one notes incidentally also may have served to keep his factories from being closed down.  That he went as far as bribery is not implausible, but we must note nevertheless that none of the Jews that were enslaved to him would likely have been witnesses to that bribery most plausibly, accounts of bribery came only from Schindler himself.  Thus, we possibly do not have strong evidence of the extremes to which Schindler was willing to go to keep the slave laborers that were working for him from being transferred.  In any case, since Schindler was an integral part of the Nazi war machine, and since acquiring and keeping scarce labor was necessary to the functioning of Schindler's role in that machine, it is not clear why he needed to bribe anybody or what it is exactly that his bribes accomplished.

The activity of trying to keep his own factory workers from being taken away does not seem to be one which is either clandestine or that would lead to Schindler being executed by the Nazis; nor did Schindler's efforts to preserve his work force expose a large number of other protectors of Jews to the possibility of execution by the Nazis.  Martin Gilbert does not mention, nor do I recall from the movie, that Schindler's efforts went much beyond conscripting Jews for slave labor in his factories specifically, I do not recall such more extreme measures as his providing Jews with false passports or allowing them to escape or being involved in sabotage or intentionally slowing production in his munitions factory that is, his efforts did not go beyond maintaining an adequate work force in his slave-labor factory, and taking steps to maximize productivity so as to maximize profits.

Furthermore, it is not obvious exactly what keeping his present workers from being transferred accomplished.  If his munitions factory, say, was not being closed and not being scaled down, then the transfer of some workers out would plausibly be accompanied by the transfer of the same number of workers in, so that losing the first set would mean saving the second; and conversely, saving the first would mean losing the second.

Did Schindler save more Jews than he was able to put to work?  Were there unproductive Jews hidden in basements or in attics?  Were food or medicine or space allocated to Jews merely to save them even if they could not contribute to the German war effort or to Schindler's profits?  Martin Gilbert does provide a statement to that effect:

The German Catholic, Oscar Schindler, who had earlier rescued several hundred Jews from Plaszow camp, was told of a locked goods wagon at the station nearest to his armament factory at Brunnlitz.  The wagon was marked "Property of the SS," and had been travelling on the railways for ten days, covered in ice.  Inside were more than a hundred Jews, starving and freezing: Jews from Birkenau who had been at the labour camp at Golleschau....

Schindler had no authority to take the wagon.  But he asked a railway official to show him the bill of lading, and when the official was momentarily distracted, wrote on it: "Final destination, Brunnlitz."  Schindler then pointed out to the official that the wagon was intended for his factory.  Schindler ordered the railway authorities to transfer the wagon to his factory siding.  There he broke open the locks.  Sixteen of the Jews had frozen to death.  The survivors, not one of whom weighed more than thirty-five kilogrammes, he fed and guarded.  Schindler was helped by his wife Emilia, who provided beds on which they could be nursed back to life.  "She took care of those Golleschau Jews," Moshe Bejski later recalled.  "She prepared food for them every day."  (Martin Gilbert, The Holocaust: The Jewish Tragedy, Fontana/Collins, 1986, p. 777)

With respect to this story, however, there are reasons for withholding total belief.  In the first place, the part about changing the bill of lading is implausible, and in any case would have been testified to by only one person the hero of the tale himself, Oscar Schindler and so might be self-serving and self-aggrandizing.  A critical reader, however, might have expected the railway official to have known the contents of the original bill of lading, to not have been so totally distractible, for Schindler's ink to have taken time to dry, and for there to have been corresponding papers testifying to the originally-intended destination.  If Schindler has duped the railway employees into believing that his receipt of Jews is legitimate, then it is unclear why he needs to break open the locks.  Furthermore, with food so scarce that only unusual efforts to procure food kept one's factory staff from starvation and in fact with everything desperately scarce, like beds or medicines it is implausible that considerable resources would be allocated to helping a large number of people who seemed beyond help 100 Jews in the wagon, 16 dead, leaves 84 Jews, all weighing under 36 kg (77 lb), none, it would seem, capable of productive labor for a long time to come.  Where does one find 84 beds, where food for 84 hungry mouths?  And hiding 84 emaciated people must have been an impossibility so how does one justify these 84 to the Gestapo?  And when the Gestapo learns of them, would it not immediately recognize Schindler as impeding the German war effort, and so wouldn't the saving of these 84 Jews, each weighing under 77 lb, have placed the much larger number of Schindler's Jewish slave laborers, and Schindler himself, in jeopardy?  Thus, at best, this particular story appears to be exaggerated, and does not pose much of a threat to the view that Schindler, though humane, was essentially a Nazi war profiteer, an employer of slave labor, an efficient cog in the German war machine.

And just how many Jews was Schindler able to put to work in his factories?

In all, between 1943 and 1945, Schindler had saved more than fifteen hundred Jews by employing them in his factory, and treating them humanely.  (Martin Gilbert, The Holocaust: The Jewish Tragedy, Fontana/Collins, 1986, p. 777)

However, to count every Jew ever employed in Schindler's factories as "saved" is arbitrary and bears further scrutiny.  A munitions factory will continue to run whether Schindler manages it or somebody else; and a new manager can't starve his slave laborers if he wants them to continue to produce munitions.  And German war production involved more factories than Schindler's, and many of these factories ran on slave labor also.  In fact, labor was in acutely short supply, as would be expected given the depletion of manpower by the war, and as evidenced by German conscription of slave labor in such places as Ukraine.  Therefore, it does not follow that Jews not working for Schindler would have been killed; or conversely that Jews working for Schindler must be considered as saved.  Thus, attributing fifteen hundred saved lives to Schindler is generous, and if a closer scrutiny of cases were possible, then Schindler's number saved might well fall below our criterion of one thousand and Schindler might well be removed from the blockbuster category.  In fact, the most cynical view of Schindler would be that he was a war profiteer, an employer of slave labor, and that no evidence exists that he saved any Jews from death.

Schindler is cited for being humane and for performing small kindnesses, such as procuring eyeglasses, and in one case procuring an abortion for a pregnant Jewess, where her pregnancy is said to have been punishable by death, although it is not mentioned whether Schindler's procuring the abortion was punishable by death, or punishable at all.  Martin Gilbert mentions that Schindler provided his workers with extra rations, but as the standard rations ("a hundred grammes of bread, a bowl of so-called soup, and two cups of ersatz coffee each day") would have at best depleted the strength of his slave laborers and at worst would have killed them, the extra rations could be viewed as no more than preserving the vitality of his work force.

Furthermore, serving as a manager in a slave-labor factory was possibly considered after the war as an indictable offense, so that in fact it might be fair to view Schindler as a war criminal.  Albert Speer, if I recall correctly, served time for his role in supervising slave labor; yet somehow for a similar activity, though at a lower level, Schindler is not jailed but honored.  Or, I notice that Time magazine reports:

DEPORTED. KONRAD KALEJS, 83, globe trotting alleged Nazi war criminal, from Canada, because of his purported role as ring-leader of a slave labor camp in Nazi-occupied Latvia....  (Time, September 1, 1997, p. 15)

Perhaps, then, were Schindler alive today and visiting Canada, he too would be deported for his role as a "ring-leader of a slave labor camp."

Raoul Wallenberg

Before beginning with Raoul Wallenberg, I must underline that my position is that Wallenberg's actions are clearly heroic, and that he clearly accomplished a great deal of good.  Despite this, my argument necessitates that I weigh and compare the heroism of several individuals, and that I measure and compare the good that each accomplished, and that this in turn puts me in the position often of demonstrating a limitation or expressing a qualification.  This is not intended in a disparaging or disrespectful sense to repeat, Raoul Wallenberg is clearly a hero and clearly a savior of a large number of Jews; but this should not prevent us from attempting to quantify those characteristics so as to determine if there are others even more heroic, or who saved even more Jews.

Raoul Wallenberg, to continue, while serving as a Swedish diplomat, issued Swedish "visas," sometimes called "protective documents," or "protection passes" to Jews in Budapest.  The mechanism of the protective pass is described below.  Note that the sole role of the protection pass seems to be to provide exemption from the shipment of 25,000 Jews to forced labor in Germany:

On October 23 [1944] the Hungarian government agreed to allow twenty-five thousand Jews to be sent to Germany for forced labour.  That same day, a poster issued in Budapest announced that all Jews with foreign passports or foreign nationality would be exempt from forced labour.  The Swiss Consul, Charles Lutz, at once began issuing documents, similar to those which he had issued in July, stating that the holder was to be regarded as a Swiss citizen, and appeared in a collective passport held at the Swiss Consulate.  The Swedish representative in Budapest, Raoul Wallenberg, likewise continued to issue protective documents, about four and a half thousand in all.  (Martin Gilbert, The Holocaust: The Jewish Tragedy, Fontana/Collins, 1986, p. 752)

An initial question that may arise in evaluating Wallenberg's heroism is the degree to which he risked his own life, or the lives of other Swedes.  From what I can see, the risk to Wallenberg was negligible.  Apparently, the Germans accorded some measure of respect to diplomatic etiquette that is, if they even sometimes respected the protection passes exempting Jews from slave labor, then they must have all the more respected the diplomatic immunity of a Swede issuing those protection passes.  There seemed, furthermore, to be no possibility that the Germans would invade either the Swedish or the Swiss embassies in order to verify whether, in fact, there did exist such a thing as a "collective passport" containing the names of those bearing protection passes.  Thus, although Wallenberg was in danger to the degree that he was dealing with a brutal and unstable force the Nazis it is far from the case that he was doing something clearly illicit, and which could have been discovered, and which if discovered would have led to his immediate execution.  One may go on to wonder whether it was not obvious to all, including the Nazis, that this concept of a "collective passport" was simply a ruse to keep the Nazis from conscripting Jews for forced labor, and obvious to all that Wallenberg was no more than handing out meaningless pieces of paper.

The next most important question, perhaps, would be that of how many Jews Wallenberg saved.  It is quite impossible to say.  Here is a number which has some bearing on the question:

The Swedish representative in Budapest, Raoul Wallenberg, likewise continued to issue protective documents, about four and a half thousand in all.  (Martin Gilbert, The Holocaust: The Jewish Tragedy, Fontana/Collins, 1986, p. 752)

But starting with the figure of 4,500, we have to perform some subtractions:

(1) It turns out that these "visas" or "protective documents" were sometimes robbed, so that Jews who initially held them were left without their protection:

But hundreds of Jews taken by the Nyilas [gangs] to the brick factory were robbed of all their valuables.  Their Swiss and Swedish documents were also taken away, as were the protective passes issued by the International Red Cross.  (Martin Gilbert, The Holocaust: The Jewish Tragedy, Fontana/Collins, 1986, p. 753)

(2) The Nazis did not always respect the protection passes, as can be seen in this personal testimony:

In spite of the fact that I was in possession of a "Schutzpass," "protection pass," the swastika-wearers took me to the brick kiln.  When I arrived there I found many detainees, including sick people, children and other people in possession of "protection passes."  Part of them, including myself, were taken to the synagogue in Tabak Street.  On the way the swastika-wearers shot and murdered the sick and weak.  (In Martin Gilbert, The Holocaust: The Jewish Tragedy, Fontana/Collins, 1986, p. 754)

(3) It also turns out that Wallenberg started issuing the protection passes at a time when the deportation of Jews from Hungary had already ended, which seems incongruous and cries out for explanation, because if deportations have ended, then it becomes unclear what the passes are accomplishing:

No longer in danger of deportation to Auschwitz, these Jews were desperate nevertheless for whatever protection they could receive.  (Martin Gilbert, The Holocaust: The Jewish Tragedy, Fontana/Collins, 1986, p. 701)

The deportations had already stopped.  The months of protection, and diplomatic rescue activity, had begun.  (Martin Gilbert, The Holocaust: The Jewish Tragedy, Fontana/Collins, 1986, p. 701)

Despite the seeming lack of ambiguity of the above statements, it would appear that some Jews were in fact being deported even following Wallenberg's arrival in Hungary:

As many as thirty thousand Jews were driven from Budapest towards the old Austrian border.  Their task, they were told, would be to construct an "East Wall" for the defense of Vienna.  At least seven thousand died, or were shot, on the march.  But several hundred were saved when Raoul Wallenberg and Charles Lutz, travelling along the line of the march, reclaimed their respective wards, and distributed Swedish and Swiss protective passes.  (Martin Gilbert, The Holocaust: The Jewish Tragedy, Fontana/Collins, 1986, p. 754)

Perhaps this seeming contradiction on the part of Martin Gilbert can be explained by supposing that it was deportations to Auschwitz that had stopped, whereas deportations for purposes of slave labor were continuing.

In the above picture of Wallenberg issuing protection passes to Jews being herded along a street, we note that (i) it appears that they are being saved from deportation to slave labor, and thus not necessarily being saved from death; (ii) the figure cited is "several hundred"; (iii) credit for the "several hundred" has to be shared between Wallenberg and the Swiss diplomat, Charles Lutz.

Martin Gilbert is also unclear as to whether Jews were being killed locally following Wallenberg's arrival, or whether protection passes designed to prevent deportation for purposes of slave labor were capable of deterring local killing.

It would appear that Wallenberg's activities went well beyond the mere issuance of protection passes to prevent deportation for purposes of slave labor:

In Budapest, as Soviet forces drew closer to the city, the deportations to the Austrian border came to an end.  But in the city, the Nyilas continued to rob and torment Jews, and to threaten them with death.  On January 6, as a result of negotiations between Raoul Wallenberg and the Hungarian authorities, it was agreed that five thousand Jews could be transferred to the "international ghetto" under Swedish protective documents.  (Martin Gilbert, The Holocaust: The Jewish Tragedy, Fontana/Collins, 1986, p. 767)

In conclusion, it would appear that although Wallenberg's activities were heroic, they did not entail the risk of death; and while many lives were probably saved, it is open to question whether as a result of his activities, as many as one thousand Jews were alive at the end of the war who otherwise would have been dead.

Petro Pyasetsky

Let us start with two quotations from Pyasetsky's own testimony:

In the years 1935 to 1944, I was living in Yaktoriv serving ... during the war as the chief forester of the Yaktoriv state division of forestry.  It was situated on the territory of the Peremyshlany and Zolochiv counties of the province of Ternopil, and on the territory of the Bibrka county of the province of Lviv.  (Petro Pyasetsky, Testimony, in Walter Dushnyck (ed.), Ukrainians and Jews, The Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, 1966, pp. 134-145)

As one of many Ukrainian chief foresters in the Western Ukrainian provinces, I was a direct witness to all these events which took place in our forests (they took place everywhere, and not only in my forestry), but also as their co-author I was partly responsible for them.  I and the whole forestry service (foresters, superintendents) were responsible to our conscience, to the people, and to the whole civilized world for the safety of all those hunted and persecuted people who in the forest looked for protection from the dangers of the savage and cruel times of the 20th century.  However, we were also accountable to the "security services" of all those horrible regimes which rolled over our lands at the time of World War II.  The forest served as a refuge not only for our revolutionaries-patriots of the UPA, but also for the fugitives from Soviet and Nazi prisoners of war camps, and all other persecuted people.  An important role was played by the Ukrainian forest as a shelter for a great number of the Jews persecuted at the time of the Nazi occupation.

The Yaktoriv state division of forestry comprised 4 forestry regions with a size of 9,000 hectares.  Its forests were situated among 36 villages and 5 townlets of the Peremyshlany, Zolochiv, and Bibrka counties.  Of 4 foresters, 3 were Ukrainians and 1 was a Pole.  All 4 forestry trainees were Ukrainians.  Out of 32 forest superintendents, there were 28 Ukrainians and 4 Poles.  The population was 70 per cent Ukrainian.  In 3 forestry regions less suitable for hiding, there were living over 200 Jews; in one with excellent conditions for hiding, some 1,500 Jews found shelter.  They all succeeded in surviving the dangerous times.  It must be added here that in the Univ Monastery of the Studite Fathers, which was situated amidst the forests of my division, an additional 150 Jews found shelter.  (Petro Pyasetsky, Testimony, in Walter Dushnyck (ed.), Ukrainians and Jews, The Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, 1966, pp. 135-136)

From the above testimony, we see that Petro Pyasetsky is at least as deserving of recognition for his heroic efforts in saving Jews as is Raoul Wallenberg, and undoubtedly more deserving than Oscar Schindler.  As Schindler is the one out of these three that Jews have chosen to honor with a blockbuster movie, an itemization of the key differences between Schindler and Pyasetsky might prove revealing.  Specifically, unlike Schindler, Pyasetsky was a forester, not a director of a Nazi munitions factory, not a war profiteer, not a manager of slave labor.  Pyasetsky exposed himself and many other Ukrainians to the risk of immediate execution, whereas Schindler at worst might have been judged by Nazi auditors as cutting corners in order to protect his work force, which may not have been a capital offense.  Pyasetsky really was saving his Jews from immediate execution, rather than from merely being reassigned to some other factory; adding together the three values cited by Pyasetsky (200, 1500, and 150) gives us 1,850, a figure that beats Schindler's 1,500 not only in magnitude, but also in its significance Pyasetsky's is the number of Jews saved from death; Schindler's is the number of Jews employed in slave labor.  Whereas many of Schindler's riskier deeds are evidenced by no more than his personal word, in Pyasetsky's case as essentially all the Ukrainians living in the area were aware of these deeds testimony from thousands of individuals would have been available, and some of it may still be available.

But Pyasetsky's testimony takes us much farther than merely the comparison of three contestants eligible for the prize of the greatest savior of Jews during World War II rather, it goes beyond that to demonstrate that when the presence of forests made the saving of Jews feasible, then Ukrainians did save Jews.  Large numbers of Ukrainians saved Jews.  Large numbers of Ukrainians saved large numbers of Jews.  Large numbers of Ukrainians unanimously saved large numbers of Jews.  When such a saving was feasible, that is what Ukrainians did:

The entire forestry personnel helped the Jewish sufferers in every possible way and in no event caused any harm to come to them.  One of the foresters, Mr. Ivan Vakhuta who is now living in New York City, supplied the group of the Jews in the bunker with food, bringing it with his own horses.  He did it disinterestedly.  In the forestry region where 1,500 Jews were hiding, the forester was a true guardian of the Jews, their father, commander, and the intermediary between them and the outside world.  In a word, this forester was for his Jews everything, and he did everything also disinterestedly.  Out of these 1,500 Jews, many were armed and even the cartridges were supplied the Jews by this Ukrainian forester.  I can give his name, but only confidentially, in case of necessity.  He is living in Ukraine.

All foresters kept the Jews informed about the movements of the Gestapo and about any imminent dangers to individual bunkers.  (Petro Pyasetsky, Testimony, in Walter Dushnyck (ed.), Ukrainians and Jews, The Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, 1966, p. 136)

It is obvious that without the protection of the foresters and of the entire people, the Jews would not have been able to keep hiding for a long time; if the attitude of the populace towards the Jews had been unfavorable or even "neutral," not one Jew could have survived in the forest.  Thus, e.g., many shepherds who pastured herds of cattle in the forest or the forestry laborers from the neighboring villages knew about each Jewish bunker in the forest.  Many brought the Jews food from the villages.  Any of them could have betrayed the Jews to the Gestapo but this, however, did not happen.

In this fact we see the best proof that the whole Ukrainian people helped the Jews to survive the disaster, directly or indirectly.  The forester was personally responsible to the Gestapo for the existence of all these bunkers and hiding places of the hunted people in the forest.  For lack of reports on the people hiding in the forest, the Polish police, the Bolshevik NKVD (1939-1941), and the Nazi Gestapo (1941-1944) threatened the foresters with death.

The Ukrainian forester had to utilize all his life experience and skill to adjust to his duties as a Ukrainian patriot and an honest man, to his duties as a "state servant," and to survive all the horrors of such an adjustment by himself.  For all the acts he performed in the name of humanity, the forester was threatened by death every day and at any hour.  Indeed, many foresters did perish by fulfilling their dangerous duties.

The Yaktoriv forestry division was one of many, which in the same way sheltered the Jews and all the persecuted people in their thickets.  The Yaktoriv forestry division was not an exception on the Ukrainian lands.  (Petro Pyasetsky, Testimony, in Walter Dushnyck (ed.), Ukrainians and Jews, The Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, 1966, p. 138)

If God has chosen Jews for a special purpose, then it may be said that in fulfilling that purpose, Jews have chosen Ukrainians for a special purpose.  That purpose is one of receiving Jewish ingratitude and hatred.  And behind that purpose, there must be a motive, and Ukrainians must ask themselves what that motive is, why they have been so chosen.  We see evidence of this special purpose of Ukrainians receiving Jewish ingratitude and hatred in the case at hand: non-Ukrainian saviors of Jewish lives are accorded high praise, even when little merited, whereas Ukrainian saviors of Jewish lives are swept under the carpet, even when gratitude and praise are richly deserved.  There is no "Pyasetsky's Forest" playing beside "Schindler's List" this is the incongruity that cries our for explanation and for correction.