COTE SAINT-LUC, Quebec — If you need proof of the Anne Frank dictum (“In spite of everything, I still believe people are really good at heart”) — if you doubt there is a poetry to paying it forward — if you wonder whether life can reveal a virtuous circle when on the cruel surface, it takes the form of a vicious circle — then linger for a moment on the story of Lucia Buchwald, who sold chickens and eggs in a tiny farm community overrun by the Nazis, and Nataliia [cq] Mariichyn, who this summer is living in an apartment here.
Lucia, her mother and her brother were hidden from the German invaders for two dangerous years in what today is Ukraine by a courageous family who, at great risk to themselves, harbored them under a black corrugated metal roof that covered a horse stable. More than three-quarters of a century later, as the Soviet storm sweeps through Ukraine, Nataliia has found refuge through the remarkable efforts of the very family her own relatives once saved.
“I knew this story as a child,” Nataliia told me the other afternoon. She is a vibrant woman, 24, a onetime law student who once sold candles in the village market. At this moment, she was underground — not in hiding, not seeking safety from the Russian missiles that hit her village in western Ukraine on the first day of combat — but sitting quietly near an exit from the Montreal subway system and beside a brilliantly lit supermarket stuffed with fresh fruit, vegetables, meats and fish. “It was a very important story for both families.”
Nataliia’s family saved three Jews — including Lucia’s mother, Bryna, and her brother, Leon — from the death camps, only to have a granddaughter flee wartime Ukraine. Thanks to the efforts of the Buchwald family it saved decades earlier, she has found safe haven in Canada, whose constitution calls for the creation of a land of “peace, order and good government.”
This also is an important story for us all, today, when the ravages of World War II are receding swiftly into a murky past, but when some legacy tactics of that most horrible of wars remain, wreaking destruction in Ukraine.
This is really two parallel stories, each remarkable, each a tale and talisman of their times.
The first is of a Jewish family in the deepest of perils, living with the knowledge that SS troops twice came to the home of Nataliia’s great-grandparents — a sure indication that someone in the village of Nyzhniv had sensed, perhaps detected, the presence of Jews there, two of them sleeping on top of straw in the barn, the third under floorboards. Many of the villagers, not immune to the virus of antisemitism, wanted them dead, but in truth, amid the privation of the time, most of them simply wanted some bread. When the Soviets pushed west, repelling the German occupiers, the Jewish family pushed east, toward the approaching front, and when the war ended, they made their way to displaced-persons camps.
The two families lost touch with each other. Neither knew whether the other survived. The years passed. Ukraine became part of the Soviet Union.
Now comes the second story, just as poignant. The Palivodas remained in the village as the Soviets enforced their iron rule over Ukraine. In the late 1950s, as the chill of the Cold War deepened, the two families reestablished contact. The refugees, now in Canada and flourishing in the classic North American way, sent peanut butter, medicine and clothing to the Palivodas, a gesture of thanks for the great gift — life, eventual prosperity — they had been given by a family that had never asked for thanks. In 2017, Lucia’s grandson, Sam Langleben, reared in the frosty Canadian air of freedom, and his mother visited Nataliia’s family in Ukraine. “My curiosity led me to them,” he said.
Then, this year, Vladimir Putin ordered his forces into Ukraine.
The Langleben family watched with horror but reacted with compassion, rallying around the idea of helping those who had helped them.
Langleben — at 35, a successful investment professional — got to work. There were obstacles, bureaucratic and practical. But he and seven other members of his family persisted, repaying a decades-old debt with interest. In April, Nataliia, 24, arrived in Montreal with schoolgirlish English, with a special visa that included a work permit, and with an apartment the Canadian family arranged for her.
“My family feels deeply indebted to her family for the immeasurable risk they took to save our relatives,” Langleben said, sitting in a pleasant suburban development where the greatest peril in this time of tumult are the bees the two of us swatted on his backyard deck. “No cost, no kind of repayment, could possibly match the gift they gave us. We wanted to do all we could in today’s terrible environment to help them out.”
Langleben and his family paid all of Nataliia’s transit expenses, including three weeks in a Paris hotel as she awaited her visa. They also have sent money to other branches of the Palivoda family. And now Nataliia, cleaning houses to earn her way in her new country, is doing the same.
“I like it here,” she said the other afternoon, “but there is much for me to learn.” Her English increasingly is serviceable and endearing. Her French — the language of Quebec — is improving. She has learned one important lesson, however: the richness of human kindness that sometimes — in her family in the 1940s, in the Langleben family in the 2020s — can sprout in ground chewed up by tanks and terror.
“Our family saved their family,” she said. “Everybody here has been wonderful. Canadians are good people. We thought we would never see war again. Putin is like Hitler.”
Lucia died in 2006, eight years after Nataliia’s family was recorded in the “righteous among the nations” database as case M.31.2/7823 in the archives of Yad Vashem, the Israel-based World Holocaust Remembrance Center. But the story of their courage, which captivated Canadians when an account of this episode appeared in the Montreal Gazette, had an unforeseen second chapter — not dead history but truly living history, taking place 4,272 miles away and 80 years later. History sometimes repeats itself, not as farce, as Karl Marx argued, but as fortune, as Nataliia Mariichyn knows.
David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.