By Yossi Melman and Asaf Carmel
"He was a huge and impressive man. Even though he was confined to a wheelchair, the most noticeable thing about him was his tremendous physical size. To me, as a little girl, he looked like a giant. He had a thick white beard and warm eyes," she recalls her first meeting with Andrei Sheptyts'kyi, speaking by telephone from her home in London. "I was very scared. He put his hands on my head and said with a smile: 'Welcome, don't be afraid. I will save your life.'"
And he kept his promise. A few months later, in the summer of 1944, the Red Army liberated the western provinces of Ukraine from Nazi occupation. Lily and her mother could stop hiding at last.
Over the past 50 years or so, Lily, her mother (who has since died) and a group of other Holocaust survivors and relatives, including Adam Rotfeld, currently the Polish foreign minister, have been trying to persuade the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial authority in Jerusalem to confer on the Ukrainian priest Andrei Sheptyts'kyi the title of "Righteous Among the Nations." But in vain. Aside from the persistent efforts of these survivors and a few brief mentions in history books, the story of Sheptyts'kyi has been consigned to oblivion. Nor was Yad Vashem moved by an article about him that was published in Maariv on the most recent Holocaust Day four months ago.
The Problem:This is not just an argument about memory, forgetting and commemoration. In the backdrop, there is also a stinging debate about historical interpretation and historical "truth." On one side are the personal truths and histories of each one of the survivors. And on the other: the truth as proclaimed by Yad Vashem, holder of the legal authority to grant the title, which views itself as the final arbiter on Holocaust history. The survivors are convinced that their own motives are pure and noble, while those of Yad Vashem, in their estimation, are also influenced by political and bureaucratic considerations. It is also a battle over time. As the passing years continue to cull the number of survivors, the phenomenon of forgetting history only gains momentum. With this in mind, the survivors are all the more determined to make their case.
In recent weeks, a small group has taken up its struggle anew. This time, they are being assisted by Prof. Shimon Redlich of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, a historian and expert on Eastern European Jewry. They are currently formulating a petition on which they aim to collect the signatures of other Holocaust survivors and public figures; the petition will then be sent to Yad Vashem along with a call for the institution to reconsider its position. In early November, the Ukrainian-Jewish organization Tkuma will hold a seminar in Lvov, with the participation of historians from Israel and the Ukraine, in appreciation of Sheptyts'kyi and his contribution to the Jewish people. But most of all, the Holocaust survivors and supporters of their struggle are drawing encouragement from the planned visit to Israel - in about two months - by Ukrainian president Victor Yushchenko, and are hopeful that the Foreign Ministry's attitude will also help: In the ministry, they're aware that the granting of this title to someone who is considered a national hero in the Ukraine could give a boost to relations between the two countries.
Biography: Roman Sheptyts'kyi was born in 1865 to a Ukrainian noble family whose family tree could be traced as far back as the 13th century. Over the generations and living under Polish occupation, the family underwent a process of assimilation and adopted Polish customs, values and culture. When Sheptyts'kyi was a young man, Ukraine was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and he was drawn to the Ukrainian national movement, which sought to establish an independent state. He also expressed a desire to become a priest. Instead, his parents sent him to Germany to study law. Although he graduated with outstanding marks, instead of embarking on a legal career, he remained steadfast in his desire to join the priesthood.
When he finished his studies, in 1888, the young Sheptyts'kyi decided to travel to Italy, to see Pope Leon XIII and to consult with him about his future. He subsequently abandoned the Catholic Church for the Greek Catholic (Uniatic) Church, changed his first name from Roman to Andrei and began studying in a seminary for priests. The Uniatic Church was founded in 1596, when Ukraine was under Polish-Catholic rule: It preserved the Byzantine ceremonies and rituals, but recognized the pope as its ultimate authority. In Russia, it was dismantled by the czarist government and combined with the Pravoslavic Church, though it continued to exist in the western provinces of Ukraine, which were under the Austro-Hungarian regime. This is still its center of power and it has between five and six million faithful today.
Sheptyts'kyi's rise within the church was meteoric and in 1900, at the age of 35, he was invested with the title of metropolitan and appointed head of the Church, a position he held until his death. In the history of Ukraine, his name is connected with the revival of the Church in western Ukraine in the first half of the 20th century. In 1903, Sheptyts'kyi founded the Studite monastic order, which built schools, orphanages and hospitals. These monasteries would later play an important role in saving Jews. Sheptyts'kyi also persuaded his brother, Kazimierz, a lawyer and member of the Austrian parliament who shared his nationalistic views, to give up his worldly pursuits and join the priesthood. Kazimierz changed his name to Clement and was appointed head of the Studite order.
In his early years in the Church, when he was just 20, Andrei Sheptyts'kyi began studying Hebrew and before long he was able to read the Bible in that language. Years later, he took pride in an exchange of letters with leaders of Jewish communities, written in elegant biblical Hebrew. In 1905 and 1906, he headed a group of pilgrims that visited the Holy Land. After his second visit, he wrote a religious guide book that included a description of pilgrimage routes, complete with maps and illustrations.
His study of the Hebrew language spurred the metropolitan to want to get to know Jews up close. "Acquaintance with Jews and with Judaism was an integral part of the intellectual and practical environment of Sheptyts'kyi," says Prof. Shimon Redlich, author of the book, "Together and Apart in Brzezany: Poles, Jews and Ukrainians, 1919-1945" (Indiana University Press, 2002). His special attitude toward the Jews was made manifest over the years in numerous friendly get-togethers with community rabbis. The greetings exchanged at these events were primarily in Hebrew. The very occurrence of such meetings was no trivial matter in a land where anti-Semitism was deeply ingrained. In his book, "Lvov Ghetto Diary," Dr. David Kahana (one of the people the metropolitan saved during the Holocaust), describes how Sheptyts'kyi prided himself on taking part in the kimha-depisha (alms for the poor) projects in his area before each Passover holiday.
When he turned 70, in 1935, a Jewish daily newspaper published a special congratulatory message from the Lvov Jewish community, praising the metropolitan for his high level of ethics and morals. The chief rabbi of Lvov's Reform community, Rabbi Dr. Ezekiel Lewin (whose two sons, Kurt and Nathan, were also later saved thanks to Sheptyts'kyi's actions) held a special reception in his honor.
Sheptyts'kyi also supported the Zionist settlement in the Land of Israel and expressed his enthusiastic opinion of it in a 1934 interview with Lieber Krumholz, a young Jewish journalist who later immigrated to Israel, changed his name to Haviv and was a member of the Haaretz editorial board for many years. Yet it must also be borne in mind that Sheptyts'kyi's attitude toward the Jews was motivated by his theological outlook and a missionary aspiration. "When I stand before a Jewish audience that is willing to hear me," he explained in one of his sermons, "I can't help but see them as people who are exposed to eternal devastation. This is why I see it as my duty to use the opportunity to bring them at least a single word of the divine revelation."
The head of the Uniatic Church was first and foremost a Ukrainian patriot, who as early as 1905 built a Ukrainian national museum and supported the establishment of an independent Ukrainian state. In World War I, when Russia conquered Lvov, Sheptyts'kyi was imprisoned for two years. After the war, he returned to Lvov, which had now been annexed to Poland. In 1923, his younger brother Stanislaw, a general in the Polish army, was appointed the defense minister of Poland, but he himself, and his Church as an organization, formed close ties with the Ukrainian national movement.
It was natural for him to oppose the Soviet Union, which controlled a large part of Ukraine, because of the communist regime and Stalin's anti-religious policies. The resistance to the Soviet Union grew when Lvov was occupied by it in 1939 and came under Soviet rule for about two years. When the German army invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, he cheered it on in the hope that it meant the dream of Ukrainian independence would now be fulfilled. In a letter "To the Ukrainian Nation," the metropolitan proclaimed: "We see the German army as the savior from the enemy."
But at the same time, as Rabbi Kahana writes in his book, Sheptyts'kyi also did not hesitate to compose a "shepherds' letter" in which he called on the new government to issue directives and rules that would ensure the welfare of all inhabitants of the land, without regard to faith, nationality or social class. Kahana is convinced that the metropolitan was referring to the Jews. And this was written at a time when SS units, with the assistance of auxiliary Ukrainian [which had a majority of Dutch members and totally controlled by Germany] units, had already begun massacring Jews. Heinrich Himmler, the SS commander, heard about the letter and ordered Sheptyts'kyi arrested, but the German commander in Lvov informed him that such a move would arouse the fury of Ukrainians, for whom this clergyman was a national hero, and could thus pose a danger to the German army. Himmler was persuaded and withdrew his demand.
Later on, in February 1942, the metropolitan sent a direct letter to Himmler in which he demanded that all Ukrainian police officers be removed from all the actions involving killings of Jews. In his letter, he denounced the Germans' treatment of the Ukrainian population, and of the Jews in particular, and protested the use of Ukrainian police in actions against the Jews. In his letter to Himmler, Sheptyts'kyi wrote that the Ukrainian was basically a primitive human being and would eventually do to his own people what he did to the Jews, that he was becoming accustomed to murder and would not easily be weaned from it.
According to Prof. Redlich's research, "at least three people (one of them was Rabbi Kahana) testified that they saw Sheptyts'kyi's letter to Himmler. However, the original cannot be obtained, nor can any copy of it." Afterward, the metropolitan published his famous "shepherds' letter" under the heading "Thou Shalt Not Kill," and in March, 1942 sent a letter to Pope Pius XII in which he warned about the murder of the Jews at the hands of the Germans and their Ukrainian minions. In another letter to the Vatican, from August, 1942, which was written in the shadow of the aktzias of that month, in which about 50,000 Jews from the Lvov ghetto were sent to their deaths, he spoke out against the Nazi regime: "When we were liberated by the German army from the Bolshevik burden we felt a certain relief. Now everyone agrees that the German regime is perhaps worse and more evil than the Bolshevik one." He also conveyed directives to the people of his sect to hide Jews in churches, monasteries and orphanages in order to save them from the genocide. And, in this, he also set a personal example.
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Turned down after consideration by Yad Vashem’s Commission for the Designation of the Righteous Among the Nations (the commission convenes more than 20 times each year in closed sessions) more than a dozen times since 1964, Metropolitan Sheptitsky remains arguably Yad Vashem’s most difficult case. While no one denies that he was responsible for the rescue of many Jews, his critics point to many factors that have made him ineligible to be named a Righteous Gentile: as Ukraine’s highest-ranking cleric, he putatively faced no personal danger for opposing the Germans’ Final Solution; as the acknowledged leader of the wartime Ukrainian nationalist movement, he originally welcomed the Nazis, seeing them as a means to Ukrainian independence; as the head of the Uniate church, he gave his blessings to the formation of two Ukrainian SS divisions; as a man with longtime sympathetic relations to the Jewish community, he did not proactively seek out Jews to assist but did open his church’s doors to people who approached him.
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Submitted by: Lavrentiy
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e-mail: Olga Kaczmar / USA