Nikopol, one of the largest cities in the Dnipropetrovsk region, has recently joined the JCU project “The Righteous People of My City”. There appeared a street named after Fyodor Vovk — an outstanding native of Nikopol, the Righteous Among the Nations and a member of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN). Here is his story.
Fyodor Vovk and his wife Yelizaveta Shkandel were teachers in the early 1940s. Sara Bakst, a teacher from the same school, was a friend of the family. Sara was married to a Ukrainian, the couple had two small children.
On August 17, 1941, Nikopol was occupied by the Germans, and a few months later, on October 3 and 5, a massacre of Jews took place in the city.
Concerned about the fate of Sara, Fyodor got in touch with her husband. He said that Sara, together with her mother, Yelizaveta Bakst, and her two-year-old nephew Vladimir, were in hiding. Sara’s two sisters and their children were shot during the Nazi’s punitive actions.
Meanwhile, Fyodor was appointed as chief agronomist of the land administration — the invaders needed skilled personnel and were not in a hurry to lose them. According to some data, using his position, Vovk lowered the real results of the harvest, distributing together with his colleagues the unaccounted corn among the needy city folk.
Fyodor Vovk and his wife decided to help Sara and her relatives. Vovk hid Sara’s elder son Viktor in his home, for her mother he obtained false documents and sent her to his friends in the village of Varvarovka. Until the very end of the occupation, she worked there as a cleaner at school, and no one even guessed that she was Jewish. Little Vladimir lived in the same village, nobody learned about his origin either.
Sara herself had been hiding for three months by Mariya Mizina – Fyodor’s colleague. During the day, she remained in the cellar, and at night she went up to the apartment to get warm and bathe.
Later, Fyodor managed to obtain false papers also for Sara. She went to a remote village, and only Fyodor Vovk and his wife knew where Sara was hiding. Then Fyodor brought her son Viktor to her. The younger son Aleksandr remained with his Ukrainian father throughout the years of the occupation.
In the winter of 1942/43, Fyodor Vovk was arrested by the Gestapo. Not for the salvation of a Jewish family (there would have been no chance of his survival in that case), but as a result of complaint about the falsified by the agronomist reports. A bribe settled the case and Fyodor was released.
In autumn 1943, the frontline was approaching Nikopol. Understanding that with the return of the Soviet power, the Gulag was expecting him, at best, Vovk fled to the Western Ukraine. Under the pseudonym Vovchuk, in July 1944, he became one of the founders of the “Ukrainian Supreme Liberation Council” and was elected its vice-president. In August, the same year, Fyodor escaped to Slovakia, and after the war’s end, he ended up in one of the camps for displaced people near Munich.
The Bakst family returned safely to Nikopol.
In Munich, Fyodor Vovk headed the Representative Office of the Ukrainian émigrés in the Federal Republic of Germany, and in the early 50s he moved to the United States. He worked first on a farm, then as a cleaner at a hotel. However, he did not stop his social activities — he edited the Natsional’na Trybuna (National Tribune) newspaper, for two terms he headed the political council of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America.
In the Soviet “Information on the state of the fight against members of the OUN underground as of October 1, 1953”, Fyodor Vovk was noted as “a prominent Ukrainian nationalist wanted by the law enforcement authorities”. The wanted person was running then a publishing house “Visnyk” and published a magazine under the same name in the United States.
Fyodor Vovk died in Pittsburgh in 1979. A handful of Kaniv soil was brought on his grave as a symbol of the fact that Fyodor remained forever connected with his homeland, Ukraine.
Few people knew about the heroic deed of Vovk until one of his disciples found Sara Bakst. On July 12, 1998, the Yad Vashem memorial honored Fyodor Vovk, his wife and Mariya Mizina as Righteous Among the Nations.
There should be an honorable place for a humanist and a patriot Fyodor Vovk in the history of Ukraine.
Boris Lozhkin, President of the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine