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She faced a firing squad.

The daughter of a newly beatified martyr lives in Canada and recalls some incidents of her life.(see letter on page 5). Editor

The power of prayer

The NKVD--Soviet police--with bayonets drawn escorted a priest and two frightened young girls through the streets of the town of Peremshlyany in Western Ukraine. It was 1941, the Soviets occupied Ukraine and inhumanly persecuted the Church. But the war had turned against them. The Nazis were on the offensive and the Soviets were retreating. As the soldiers and the prisoners made their way to the court, suddenly Nazi planes appeared in the sky. Everyone fell to the ground as bombs fell. When the air raid was over, the group continued on its way. They reached a clump of trees.

"Stand there in front of that tree," the commander ordered the trio. With a sneer on his face and contempt in his voice, he glared at the priest, "Batushka, look here, we will shoot your daughters first, so you can witness it and then we will shoot you."

Lidia, the priest's youngest daughter, panic-stricken, looked at her father, "Father, are they going to shoot us?" The priest met her gaze and uttered one word, "Pray!"

Exactly at that moment the Nazi planes swooped down again. Everyone fell to the ground. Above the noise of explosions, they heard the voice of an NKVD, "Run! Flee!" In the chaotic confusion, they escaped. But Lidia and her sister Irene became separated from their father. To avoid recapture they hid in the fields and were sheltered by kind people. The army sent out search dogs but the dogs failed to find them because their scent was lost because of the bombing. Eventually, after an agonizing week of separation, the girls were reunited with their father.

The frail, but keenly alert Lidia Kovch Brygidyr trembled as she recalled this terrifying event that happened sixty years ago.

Lidia, a martyr's daughter

Lidia is the youngest daughter of Maria Dobrianska and Blessed Father Emilian Kovch, one of the twenty-seven Ukrainian martyrs who were beatified by His Holiness John Paul II during his visit to Ukraine in June, 2001.

Never had I spoken to a relative of a martyr; so when I learned that Lidia resided in St. Demetrius residence in Etobicoke, Toronto, I requested an interview. She graciously consented to see me and overwhelmed me with the memories she shared.

In the Ukrainian Catholic Byzantine rite, married men may be ordained to the priesthood. Not only was Lidia's father a priest, but so also were her grandfather and her great grandfather. When Lidia was born on March 21, 1923, her father was the pastor of St. Nicholas Church in Peremyshlyany, a town in Western Ukraine. She was the youngest of six children--Sergei, Myron, Anna, Irene, Roman, and Lidia.

Lidia remembers a kind, loving father

Lidia relaxed and smiled as she recounted happy childhood memories. "Ours was a very happy and carefree life. We never knew what it was to be unhappy. Our parents were very gentle and my father was exceptionally kind and generous.

Since she was the youngest, she was a favourite whom he affectionately called "Kopilka." She chuckled as she unashamedly admitted to taking advantage of this favouritism. Lidia remembered him always smiling. She loved to sit on his knee and return his tender caresses. He was very kind, but the children knew they had to be obedient. He exercised very good discipline but never raised his voice.

She admitted her father may not have had a good singing voice, but he was an excellent preacher, very much in demand, often invited by neighbouring parishes to preach a mission or at a praznyk (feast day of a local church). Frequently he would return with an orphan or a frail granny who was homeless. "They would remain with us until father could find them a home. Very early, I learned to share my food, my toys and even my pretty little dresses with orphans," she explained.

Many people and priests would visit their home. Peremyshlyany was a transfer point for trains and buses. Studite monks would stay overnight on their way to their monastery in Univ. Another visitor was the Archbishop of Lviv, Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky. A cherished memory is one of her sitting on the Archbishop's lap and stroking his long beard.

Because her mother was sick a great deal, she was not able to shower the children with attention. She died at the young age of 48, when Lidia was only 14. As a result, her father tried to compensate by being extra loving and caring. Lidia went to public school in Peremyshlyany and later her father registered her in Lviv, the capital of Western Ukraine, where she attended the school of the Basilian Sisters. Her education was interrupted by the Second World War.

When I asked her what kind of priest her father was, she replied, "That is difficult for me to say because as a child I did not know what kind of person a priest should be. I only knew that people loved and respected him. Children would follow him, calling, 'Father Kovch, Father Kovch!' He loved children and always took time to chat with them. To me my father was everything, he was God."

Her father's priestly life

I enquired if he served only in the parish of St. Nicholas. She replied, "I was born in Peremyshlyany, so my memory of him was there. But people recalled that as a young priest, he volunteered to go to Bosnia Herzogovina to care for Ukrainians in Yugoslavia. He always went where there was a need. Myron and Anna were born there.

"In 1919, he and his father volunteered to serve as chaplains for the Ukrainian army at war with the Bolsheviks. He was badly needed on that front to take care of the spiritual needs of the many soldiers who were dying of typhoid fever. He sent my mother and the children out of the war zone to live with our great-grandfather. My father finally returned from the war, but my grandfather did not. He died in Konstantenovi.

"On his return, my father was assigned to St. Nicholas Parish in Peremyshlyany. This was his last parish. Here he lived through the chaos of the Russian persecution, their retreat, followed by the terrors of the Nazi occupation in 1941."

Lidia is certain that it was her father's deep trust in God and the power of prayer that saved them from the Russian firing squad. Under the Nazis, some restricted freedom was granted to the Church. Father Emilian was a devout priest and as a committed patriot was involved in Ukrainian organizations. He was deeply disturbed by the Nazi determination to exterminate the Jews. When questioned about their motives, he would say, "Who of us mortal men can take upon himself to be a judge of a soul? I hear what a man says and I take it in good faith." He fully knew the dangerous risk he was taking. It is said that he issued thousands of certificates that saved Jews from certain death.

His last day in Peremyshlyany

Lidia's memory of his last day in Peremyshlyany is still very vivid: "He was in his office in the rectory. My sister Irene and I had prepared lunch and asked him to come and eat. He replied, 'I'll be there right away.' A Gestapo agent came to the house. He was very polite. He went into father's office and remained a long time. When they emerged, father said, 'I must go.' We objected that he hadn't had his lunch. He explained, 'I must go for a few minutes to the courthouse to settle some matters.' The Gestapo agent accompanied him and even supported him as he walked because it was slippery underfoot. It was December 30, 1942, and that was the last time I saw my father. People outside the courthouse saw my father whisked away in a waiting car. For a long time, we didn't know where father was. Eventually we learned that he was in jail in Loaskoho. From there, he was transferred to the dreaded Majdanek concentration death camp near the city of Lublin."

His crown of martyrdom

And so began years of hard labour, frequent interrogations, brutal beatings from which he would return with a smile, if he was conscious. When he heard that Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky was doing his utmost to rescue him, Father Kovch smuggled this message out to him: "Don't waste your efforts. I cannot leave here because I am needed. These unfortunate people, thousands of them, need me. I am their only comfort. It is my duty to remain here and I am happy...."

He consoled the prisoners, heard their confessions and prepared them for death. He wrote, "I saw peace and serenity envelop them as I spoke with them for the last time. I thank God for this kindness to me. Besides Heaven, this is the only place I would like to be. We are all equal here, Poles, Jews, Ukrainians, Russians, Lithuanians, and Estonians. I am the only priest here at present. Here I can see God--the God who is the same to us all regardless of our religious differences. When I offer Divine Liturgy, they all pray....Is this not a blessing? Is this not the greatest crown my Lord could have put on my head? It is, and I thank God a thousand times a day that he sent me here."

Father Kovch's influence in the camp was unbelievable. The prisoners worshipped this old priest who smiled through his suffering. They gained strength from him and they died smiling, even singing before their execution. According to the camp's records, Father Kovch died in the Majdanek ovens on March 25, 1944. On the eve of his death, he wrote to his family: "Yesterday, 50 prisoners were executed. If I wasn't here, who would help them endure a moment like that? What more could I ask the Lord? Do not worry about me. Rejoice with me." Father Emilian Kovch truly won his martyr's crown.

Lidia's new life

After her father's arrest, Lidia feared for her life. She followed the advice of friends and fled to Czechoslovakia, walking all the way. Here, she met a man she had known in Ukraine, Michael Brygidyr, a freedom fighter in the Ukrainian underground. In 1949, they were married. They spent several years in a displaced persons' camp in Germany. Eventually they were accepted by Canada. When they arrived in Saskatoon in 1952, with their baby son Andrew, they were welcomed by Anna, Lidia's older sister. She had earlier emigrated to Saskatoon with her husband, Teodor Baran, an iconographer.

By a strange coincidence, I met Anna and Teodor in 1954. My brother, Father Basil Dzurman, was pastor at St. Mary's Church in Sudbury, ON, and hired the young Teodor Baran to do the icons for the new iconostas in his church. The Baran family spent the summer in Sudbury where I became acquainted with them.

Lidia's dreams of a long happy marriage in a free Canada were short-lived. Her husband fell ill and doctors in Saskatoon were unable to diagnose his illness. Michael travelled to Toronto in search of a specialist who could help him. Lidia and Andrew joined him. The doctors reached a diagnosis of cancer and Michael died in 1966.

Undaunted, Lidia took a course in business college. After working with a scientific firm for five years, she obtained employment in the John Robarts Library at the University of Toronto. Here she worked with Slavic books as a technician for twenty years.

It was a happy and proud moment for her when Andrew graduated from university. He now manages his own merchandising company. Lidia resides in St. Demetrius Seniors' Residence and is a loving grandma to Andrea, whom she loves to babysit.

When I asked her to share her feelings when she learned that her father was going to be beatified, she thought for a moment and said, "It is very difficult to say. How is it that I am so fortunate? I now consider my father not only as my father but as a person with an unusually strong character, a courageous man, who persevered to the end. My wish is that my family and I inherit his character.
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Author:Yuryk, Lillian Dzurman
Publication:Catholic Insight
Geographic Code:4EXUR
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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