A Ukrainian who survived the massacre by the Nazis in World War II now fears the Russians

KOPECH, Ukraine – Feder Povkun narrowly escaped death when German soldiers massacred hundreds of people during World War II here along the border with Belarus.

Povkun was 6 years old when the Germans herded the villagers into a barn and set it on fire in retaliation for the attacks of the Ukrainian partisans. Although many of Povkun’s family perished, he and his mother raced through the flames and hid in a nearby rye field.

His wife, Maria, also survived the July 1943 massacre. However, she was only two years old, and only remembers stories of how her aunt caught her and fled into the woods.

Now, the Bovkun family fears that it will be under military attack again, this time by Russia and Wagner Group mercenaries who have moved to Belarus, whose border is less than two miles from their village. Saturday’s deadly missile attack on a theater in Chernihiv was a reminder that even relatively quiet areas along Ukraine’s northern border, and elsewhere, are vulnerable to Russian attack at any time.

“We already know the feeling of such distress,” Feder Povkun, 86, said during a lengthy interview with his wife at their home last month. “We’ve been through war, barely out of it with the clothes we’re wearing. We don’t want any of it. We’re afraid, because it’s war.”

Feder Bovkun narrowly escaped death at the hands of the Nazis during World War II, when German soldiers killed hundreds in his Ukrainian village. (Video: Friedrich Kankel | Translated by Anastasia Galushka and Sergey Mukailiants)

The Bovkuns are rare survivors, whose lives were disrupted by two brutal wars on Ukrainian soil. More than 8 million Ukrainians died in World War II, many under German occupation after Hitler unleashed his blitzkrieg against the Soviet Union in June 1941.

Since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, total military losses have reached more than 360,000, according to an assessment released by the White House in May.

The number of civilian casualties in Ukraine has exceeded 26,000, including 9,400 dead and more than 16,600 wounded, according to UN data as of July 30.

Besides living through two great wars, the Povkun family endured other hardships as well, including life on a Soviet collective farm under Stalinist rule. Maria, who was an only child during World War II, lost her younger brother in a farming accident. The Bufkon family’s only daughter died of illness.

Their two surviving sons, who immigrated to the United States years ago, urged them to leave Ukraine. But neither of them qualifies for such a journey.

The funeral of a soldier in a small Ukrainian village highlights the heavy toll of the war

Kobesh, the village where they spent most of their lives, is their home. The place is surrounded on three sides by the Belarusian border and dense forests, in an area where families from the two countries have long mixed their languages, lives and businesses.

When Russian forces poured into Ukraine on February 24, 2022, some of the village’s roughly 1,000 residents fled into the woods — just as their ancestors had done more than seven decades earlier.

On July 13, 1943, the German occupiers killed 2,887 villagers, including 1,347 children, according to the Kubisci Village History Museum’s Facebook page and other historical sources. The museum says the Germans also razed 570 homes to the ground in response to partisan attacks. On the eve of World War II, the village had a population of about 3,000.

Under German occupation, the region was teeming with partisan activity. He said two of Federer’s five brothers had fought in their ranks, including one who joined the “Banderists,” a group of far-right nationalist rebels led by Stjepan Bandera.

“The Germans were less afraid of the front lines than the partisans,” Federer said.

Federer, one of seven children, has vivid memories of the day the Germans nearly annihilated the village. Federer said that before dawn on July 13, 1943, German soldiers began rounding up the villagers, including his mother, brother, and two sisters. One of his two sisters, who had moved into her home after her husband left for military service, was taken away with her two young children.

“They rounded us up and took everyone to the barn, where there were already others,” Federer recalls. “When we got close to the barn, there was already a noise coming from inside, screaming and crying.”

Federer recalls that one of the elderly villagers, trapped inside, exclaimed, “They have to break down the doors or be burned alive.”

“They already set the barn on fire and surrounded it so no one could get out,” he said.

When the villagers managed to break down one of the doors, Fedir got out and ran. He said one of his sisters also broke free but was shot and killed less than 300 feet from the barn. Other family members trapped inside, including two of their cousins, perished in the flames.

But his mother, Pelageya, also ran away with a boy his age. They ran into the nearby rye field, running and hiding among the grains that were high enough to be harvested. Federer said they lay in the field while the Germans, some on horseback, pursued and shot other villagers who had fled. Later, he and his mother sneaked into the woods.

Ukrainian Maria Bovkun fears a military attack from Russia and the Wagner Group mercenaries who have moved to Belarus, whose borders are less than two miles away. (Video: Friedrich Kankel | Translated by Anastasia Galushka and Sergey Mukailiants)

Federer’s father also survived, in a strange twist. After that it was Feder said he was too old to serve in the Soviet army or with the partisans, and tended cows outside the village. But his father also had advance warning of the atrocities.

One of Fedir’s brothers learned from the rebels that their village and two others had been targeted for extermination. Federer said written orders were found in the bag of a dead German officer, and his brother forwarded the warning to their father. But with the village already surrounded, Fedir’s father felt it too dangerous to return, so he stayed in the woods while the village burned.

She added that Maria Bovkun’s father escaped mass reprisals because he was fighting with the revolutionaries. She is not sure how her mother survived. Maria said her mother may have survived because she was grazing cows outside the village that morning.

But only Maria is alive Maria said that a quick-thinking aunt living with her family at the time heard the arrest as it was happening. The aunt kidnapped her daughter and Maria – all barely dressed – and fled into the woods.

And with Wagner’s mercenaries in Belarus, tensions are running high along Ukraine’s northern border

After the war, Feder and Maria lived in a kolkhoz, or Soviet collective farm. The work on the farm was hard, and Soviet life in general was oppressive under Stalin and the Communist Party.

“People were as afraid of the party as they were of the war,” Federer said.

Federer, who was driving a tractor and doing other tasks, ruptured two discs in his back, which continues to cause excruciating pain. He said his daily wage was five kopecks or 200 grams of bread, and his clothes were full of stains and holes. However, no one dared to complain.

“You can never say you have a bad life the way you do – even if you don’t have any clothes or shoes – but you have to keep calm because it’s the collective farm,” Federer said.

He added that the threat of punishment was omnipresent, even for the smallest infractions. People who collected corn left in the fields after harvest for themselves risked imprisonment.

Young Ukrainian soldiers who grew up in the shadow of the Russo-Ukrainian war are now on the front lines

“It’s just an ear of corn. It fell to the ground. But you can’t stand it,” he said.

After the war, they said, Federer traveled and lived for a while in the Caucasus, but Maria never left the region. The couple married in 1961. Even just visiting their children in the States is difficult.

“You have to fly for 10 hours, then drive another 10 hours to get to their house,” Maria said. She said that it is also difficult for their children to visit, because they have large families.

However, they are concerned about a Russian attack, especially since the Wagner Group fighters led by Yevgeny Prigozhin moved to Belarus shortly after the aborted insurrection against the Russian military leadership in June. Wagner’s presence prompted Ukraine and Poland to strengthen their border defences.

“I’m afraid,” Maria said. “I’m afraid to go to sleep and think should I get up again or just lie there, because the missiles are flying and they could hit the house and you might perish.”

Anastasia Galushka in Kiev, Heidi Levine in Kopesh, and Magda Jean-Louis in Washington contributed to this report.

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