By Cathy Mogus
I feel honored to know Stefan Petelycky. The first time I saw the elderly man he was wearing a white apron. I remember thinking he looked a bit out of place as he helped set the tables for an evangelism outreach dinner. Was it because I thought he was too old—or too good?
I had heard bits of his unbelievable story. He wasn’t a big man, but there was something about the way he carried himself, the way his eyes sparkled when he spoke, that gave him stature. Maybe it was the tattoo on his left arm.
When I got to know Stefan, I asked if I could see it up close. He willingly rolled up a shirtsleeve and showed me his “souvenir” as a prisoner of the Nazi’s infamous Auschwitz concentration camp. I stared at the faded blue number 154922. How could anyone burn the flesh of another human as if he were a cow—or toss him into a fire as if he were a piece of garbage?
Stefan was not a Jew. I later read his book, Into Auschwitz, for Ukraine. Fortunately, he wrote down his experiences in 1946-47, shortly after World War II ended. He kept his notes in a “designated drawer” and did not look at them for many years. He finally forced himself to reread them.
“I did not want to forget who suffered in the Nazi death camps with me, and most especially those who had perished,” he wrote. “I have made myself remember the indignities, the pain of Gestapo imprisonment, the humiliation of being beaten and degraded to the point where one almost ceases to exist as a human being.”1
Stefan was 20 when the Nazis began arresting and executing Ukrainian nationalists. As an active member of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), he became a marked man. When he was caught, he was interrogated and beaten. He then spent time in horrific prisons before he was crammed into a train bound for Auschwitz. “I stepped out of a boxcar and into Hell,” Stefan wrote. “I was half-dead when I got there, having been held for some four months by the Gestapo, starved and tortured by my interrogators.”
Stefan spent more than 16 months in Auschwitz, and then was sent to two other camps. When he could no longer endure heavy work in the quarries or tunnels, he was assigned cleanup duties around a camp. There was virtually no food. Eventually, he and several of his dying friends were carried to a room adjacent to the crematorium’s ovens. One by one they died and were tossed into the fire.
Stefan would have been next, but a Polish medic discovered he was still alive.
“He asked me in Polish where I was from. For no reason that I have ever been able to explain I replied, in Polish, that I was from the city of Tarnów, and had lived on Sanguszka Street.” In reality, Stefan had never been to such a place. But the medic had once lived on that very street and took his “comrade” to a barracks room to recover!
A few days before the Americans arrived to liberate the prisoners, Stefan was once again thought to be dead. His body was thrown onto a pile of corpses awaiting cremation. A couple of his OUN comrades “just happened” to be looking for him and other survivors in the area. When they saw Stefan’s body twitch, they pulled him from the pile of bodies. It was the same day Ukrainians celebrated the resurrection of Christ.
Why did God allow Stefan to live while millions of others died? He said he has thought about that for his entire life.
“As a Christian, I thank God for sparing my life,” wrote Stefan, “for allowing me to know the many satisfactions that come to a man blessed with a good wife with whom I have raised a fine family. I sometimes wonder why I survived the Nazis when so many of my friends did not.”
Stefan immigrated to Canada and over the years had many opportunities to “help liberate Ukraine from a tyranny [the Soviet Union] that was no less destructive than that of the Nazis.” He was also instrumental in organizing crates with clothes, medical supplies and equipment, and other necessities for shipping from Canada to Ukraine. He often met the huge boxes upon their arrival in order to make sure the goods were dispersed properly! My husband had the privilege of traveling with him on his 48th mission. Stefan was 85.
I believe Stefan was also released to report what he personally saw and experienced during that dark time in our world’s history. No one can deny the realities of the Holocaust after reading his book! Like so many who have gone before him, he became a mouthpiece for truth.
The Bible is full of examples of men and women who were released from death to report God’s goodness.
Abraham survived the difficulties and dangers of a nomad lifestyle and lived to be 175. He never stopped reporting the goodness and faithfulness of God to his children and grandchildren—and we can still read those accounts today!
After his life was spared over and over, David told God, “I will tell of all your wonderful deeds” (Psalm 9:1). He kept his promise by writing inspirational and deeply spiritual songs that have been sung or read for thousands of years.
Daniel was rescued from being eaten alive by lions in order to let the world know that God was very much alive.
Although John suffered as a Christian, he was the only apostle who did not die a martyr. I’m sure he often wondered why he was chosen to live a long life. He certainly used those “extra” years to report all that he had seen and experienced with Jesus before and after his resurrection—and what was to come.
We can read similar stories in modern times. In a day and age when people often died much younger, John Wesley, the principal founder of the Methodist movement, lived to be 88. Although opposed and persecuted, he preached salvation through Jesus Christ right up until his death.
His brother, Charles, lived to be 81 in spite of setbacks described by one writer as being “shot at, slandered, suffering sickness, shunned.” His “report” came in the form of preaching evangelistic sermons—and composing 8,989 hymns!
Shortly after I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1999, God let me know in a variety of ways that my life would be spared. One of the verses that confirmed this was, “I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the Lord has done” (Psalm 118:17). I became fully aware of my responsibility to apply this verse to my own life. I had been released to report.
“I waited patiently for the Lord to help me, and he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the pit of despair. . . . He set my feet on solid ground and steadied me as I walked along. . . . Many will see what he has done and be amazed. They will put their trust in the Lord” (Psalm 40:1-3, New Living Translation).
1Stefan Petelyscky, Into Auschwitz, for Ukraine (The Kashtan Press: Kingston, Kyiv, 1999), Foreword.
Cathy Mogus is an author, freelance writer, and inspirational speaker living in Richmond, British Columbia, Canada.