Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytskiy headed the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church for over half a century; he died in November 1944 at the age of 79. In different historical periods and under different regimes, his life was often interlinked with Jews. His personal circumstances, family and education made him the product of a multinational and multicultural environment. He supported an ecumenical approach to society and thus favoured cultural coexistence. But his tragic fate forced him to live in the cruel reality of Eastern Europe.
Jews and Judaism were a part of Sheptytskiy’s world. At the age of 20 he started learning Hebrew, and in 1905 and 1906 he visited the Holy Land. His charitable activity included the Jewish communities of Halychyna (the West Ukrainian region) among others and he also had friends among Jewish religious and civil leaders. The Lviv Jewish community congratulated Sheptytskiy on his 70th anniversary in itsChwila newspaper. According to some testimonies, he voiced support for Zionism in 1934, but when World War II started, the region saw many changes.
In 1985, I was asked to give a lecture in the Toronto University entitled Sheptytskiy and the Jews during World War II. I had never dealt with this topic before, and I was shocked to learn that Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytskiy had not been decorated with the title of “Righteous Gentile”, despite the fact that he and his friends had saved around 150 Jews. This title is conferred to a person who saved at least one Jew from the Holocaust. I considered this to be greatly unjust. I have gathered testimonies of witnesses still alive then. Among others there was former Polish Foreign Affairs Minister, Professor Adam Daniel Rotfeld. There is no doubt he rescued many Jewish children, giving them baptismal certificates (without a real baptism) and Ukrainian names and sending them to Greek Catholic monasteries and asylums. Lily Polman of London recalls the Metropolitan putting his hand on her head, when she first entered his office, and saying in Ukrainian “Don’t be afraid, my child…”. Those who were saved still revere Sheptytskiy.
Other historians and I have regularly applied to the commission conferring the title of “Righteous Gentile” with new testimonies, but to no effect. There are always opponents to be found in the commission. Meanwhile, there are irrefutable testimonies, namely the memoirs of some of those saved by the Metropolitan — rabbi David Kahane and Lewin Kurt, the son of rabbi Ezekiel. Furthermore, there is Sheptytskiy’s famous appeal to Ukrainians under the title On Mercy, in which he used quotations from the Old Testament, accepted by both Jews and Christians. This appeal, written in June 1942, just as the better known one under the title Do Not Murder!, contains very strong words in Clause 49, saying “Every neighbour is one’s brother and part of the human family”. The Metropolitan also wrote letters to the Pope, in which he described the Holocaust terrors in detail. According to historians who have studied the Vatican’s papers of that time, there was no other Catholic hierarch who cared so much about the fate of the Jews as did Sheptytskiy.
The Yad Vashem Institute refuses to recognise Sheptytskiy’s right to the honorary title due to his support for the foundation of the nationalist Ukrainian division Halychyna. The case concerns the period after the Battle of Stalingrad, when Ukrainians feared the Red Army's return and the consequences that would entail for the locals. That is why Sheptytskiy, perhaps with some naïvety, hoped the Ukrainian division could be a prototype of Ukrainian Army and make Ukraine an independent country. Those who say Sheptytskiy did not consider rescuing Jews a priority must be very narrow minded people. I would even venture to say that a person with such views must be an idiot. Sheptytskiy called the Nazis “crazy wolves” and “monsters” in his letters to the Pope. Despite his being an authoritative person for his congregation, Sheptytskiy could not freely express his thoughts due to the historical circumstances in which he lived. Some have tried to make Sheptytskiy something of a supporter of Hitlerism, which is also idiotic. As for Professor Rotfeld, many papers must have been falsified later by communist propaganda. Andrey Sheptytskiy was a Ukrainian nationalist, and this does not contradict his being a great humanist.
Jewish historical memory of Sheptytskiy was deformed due to negative stereotypes about Ukraine and Ukrainians first of all. The first articles justifying the Metropolitan were published in the Israeli press in 2005, yet to this day the subject is difficult to broach. When one says something positive of Ukrainians, one is attacked at once, just as was often the case with me. Yet how can I say anything bad of them, when I was saved by a Ukrainian woman myself?