THE YAD VASHEM monument to Righteous Among the Nations.
Time to reject the myths of Andrei Sheptytsky
Metropolitan Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church Andrei Sheptytsky, together with Ukrainian Greek Catholic clergy, saved nearly 150 Jews in Western Ukraine during the Holocaust. On Sheptytsky’s orders, these people were provided with false documents identifying them as Greek Catholics – as well as shelter.
At Sheptytsky’s request, many Jewish children were hidden away in various monasteries. Hiding people in the metropolitan’s palaces or monasteries put the lives of all those residents at risk. In this part of Europe, anyone who rescued Jews was executed on the spot.
Metropolitan Sheptytsky promised Rabbi Ezekiel Lewin that the Jewish children who were to be transferred to his care would not be baptized and not become Christians. To this end, he supplied the Church’s funds as well as his own. The metropolitan insisted that the children sheltered in monasteries would eventually return to their families or Jewish relief organizations. In other words, there was no question of any soul-snatching in these hard times.
In 1991, the Yad Vashem Commission for the Designation of the Righteous Among the Nations, which examined the Sheptytsky case in the 1970s and 1980s, handed down a negative decision. The most important objections were charges of collaboration with the Nazi occupying regime and the “blessing” given to the Galician Division of the Waffen SS.
According to other accusations, Sheptytsky was the undisputed political leader of the Ukrainian community, and therefore was responsible for the behavior of Ukrainians in general. It was also claimed that Sheptytsky never made any public statements about the extermination of the Jewish people and failed to stop Ukrainians from taking part in the anti-Jewish pogroms of early July 1941. Among the Yad Vashem Commission’s charges precluding recognition of Sheptytsky as a Righteous are those that apply more to politicians rather than clerics. Was Sheptytsky such an influential figure that he wielded enough levers of influence and power to direct the actions of most of Ukrainian society? Could he, as a pastor, have issued an order that would have been binding for all Ukrainians? Ukrainian society had long ago stopped being so traditional that a priest’s word weighed more than the orders or appeals of political leaders.
Sheptytsky’s actions should be examined from the standpoint of his spiritual position. Above all, he felt responsible for his flock and the Church as an institution, both of which he sought to protect and safeguard. Thus, contact with representatives of the Stalinist and Nazi regimes were, in his understanding, necessary for survival.
As a pastor, he appealed to those who were ready to hear him with the aid of his pastoral letters. Can we explain why his pastoral letters and directives concerning the withholding of absolution from murderers had no impact on a considerable segment of Ukrainian Greek Catholics?
For a long period of time, the investigation into the case of Metropolitan Sheptytsky was supported and advanced through the lobbying efforts of the people whom the metropolitan had saved: Kurt Lewin, David Kahane, Oded Amarant, Adam Daniel Rotfeld, Lili Stern-Polman and a small circle of like-minded individuals, including Prof. Shimon Redlich.
For the past several years, the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter, an organization founded in Canada in 2008, has been making efforts to presenting the activities of Metropolitan Sheptytsky as a Righteous Among the Nations.
On January 21, 2020, on the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Moshe Reuven Azman, the chief rabbi of Ukraine, sent a letter to Shalev requesting that Andrei Sheptytsky be awarded the honorary title of Righteous Among the Nations. A few days later, the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, supported this initiative “for the sake of establishing historical justice.” However, it is crucial to present new historical documents and materials that could refute the charges of collaboration with Nazism against the metropolitan.
DURING THE previous hearings of the case many historical documents were not submitted for a variety of objective and subjective reasons. Vatican archives on the Second World War will be opened this year. The latter contain fascinating and important letters that Sheptytsky wrote to various individuals and to the Roman Curia, which shed light on his attitude toward the Nazi occupying regime.
The Yad Vashem Commission was never provided with the texts of Metropolitan Sheptytsky’s important pastoral letters “On Christian Mercy” (June 1942) and “The Ideal of Our National Life” (December 1941). Sheptytsky’s invaluable thoughts concern the broadest possible understanding of the concept of “neighbor.” His letters also feature а very important thesis about the unity of humankind, which contradicted Nazi racial theories.
In order to grasp what Sheptytsky thought and what he told the priests of the Lviv archeparchy during meetings of the councils, it is important to submit the minutes of these councils. This is only a shortlist of the documents that have never been sent to Yad Vashem for its consideration.
Some of the documents that were circulated earlier require detailed study in view of their possible falsification. While studying the metropolitan’s documents in the archive of Vatican, I discovered a photocopy of the original collective letter to Adolf Hitler dated January 14, 1942. This document does not bear the signature of the 77-year-old metropolitan, who was gravely ill for a long time and therefore was unable to sign clearly.
During the Second World War, documents circulated in the name of the metropolitan, but they were neither written nor signed by him. For example, as I was able to ascertain, the newspapers Krakivs’ki Visti and Ukrans’ki Shchodenni Visti, published two falsified documents purporting to be letters written by Metropolitan Sheptytsky.
The inclusion of historical documents and specialized historical studies can refute the charges of collaboration against the metropolitan. The charge of “blessing” the Galician Division of the Waffen SS in the summer of 1943 requires scrupulous study of various documents. It is crucial to explicate the contextual points in this instance.
Sheptytsky was the person who spearheaded and coordinated the efforts to save Jews. Several representatives of the Greek Catholic clergy who rescued Jews at the metropolitan’s request and under his leadership have already been awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations. Foremost among them is the metropolitan’s own brother, Protohegumen Klymentii Sheptytsky, as well as Rev. Marko Stek, Prioress Osypa Viter and Rev. Danyil Tymchyna.
Prejudices stemming from the mythologems of Soviet propaganda may be playing a certain role in the attitude toward the Sheptytsky case. Chief Rabbi Azman very correctly drew attention to this phenomenon in a letter to Avner Shalev, chairman of the Yad Vashem, in which he expresses his belief “that contemporary Israel and Jewish communities in the Diaspora need to reject all these myths and stereotypes of Soviet propaganda about Sheptytsky.”
Ukrainians, too, must renounce their myths and stereotypes concerning Sheptytsky. I refer here to the myth of Sheptytsky as an ardent Ukrainian nationalist, which is based on a distortion of the metropolitan’s attitude toward radical nationalism, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army.
The issue of Yad Vashem’s recognition of the metropolitan’s activities has catalyzed Ukrainians’ interest in the Holocaust and Sheptytsky’s activities. At the same time, the younger generation of Ukrainians and Jews are increasingly taking up the cause of gaining recognition for Andrei Sheptytsky’s great services. Their efforts hold out the promise of an easier and faster path toward overcoming their mutual mistrust and finding mutual understanding.
By LILIANA HENTOSH