About time Yad Vashem finally recognized Metropolitan Sheptytsky as “Righteous Among the Nations”

Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky

Marco Levytsky, Editorial Writer.

As we reported last week, the movement to get the Holocaust Remembrance Center “Yad Vashem” to honour Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky as “Righteous Among the Nations” is gaining traction. On the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp, one of the Chief Rabbis of Ukraine (there are several who use that title) Moshe Reuven Azman sent a letter to Yad Vashem requesting the restoration of historical justice with regard to Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky and awarding him the title of “Righteous Among the Nations”. During the commemoration ceremony itself, held at the Polish town of Oświęcim where the camp was located, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy added his name to those supporting the Metropolitan’s recognition as “Righteous Among the Nations”.

This is a campaign that has been going on for decades and for decades the result has been the same. Yad Vashem has to date refused to accord that honour to Metropolitan Sheptysky. In a 2015 interview with journalist Shimon Briman, who is also Ukrainian Jewish Encounter’s liaison in Israel, Cornell University Professor Roald Hoffman, a Nobel laureate in Chemistry, who, as a child, was hidden with his family by the Ukrainian teacher Mykola Dyuk in the village of Univ in Lviv oblast, which is known for its Ukrainian Greek Catholic monastery, made the following statement:

“I think his actions clearly deserve recognition as Righteous Among the Nations from Yad Vashem. I think Yad Vashem earlier received disinformation from Soviet authorities, who viewed Sheptytsky as a representative of Ukrainian nationalism. The sad thing is that in subsequent years the Yad Vashem leadership has not seen it possible to discard this false information and have not been able to reach a balanced judgment on a righteous religious leader.”

Writing in the Odessa Review in 2017, Shimon Redlich, a Professor Emeritus in History at Ben-Gurion University in Israel stated: “Within the largest Jewish communities, Israel and the United States, Sheptytsky’s name is quite unknown. The most famous Gentiles who saved Jews during the Holocaust are Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg. Both were recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Gentiles. The late Judge Moshe Beiski — head of the Righteous Committee at Yad Vashem for 20 years and himself a Schindler survivor who was instrumental in having Schindler recognized — had been a staunch opponent of Sheptytsky’s case. A short time before his death, he admitted that he and the Committee might have been wrong. I passed on this information to Yad Vashem with no response. Sheptytsky’s case is still pending, after decades of discussions by the Yad Vashem Committee for the Designation of the Righteous. The latest discussion of the Sheptytsky case was about two years ago. Like all previous meetings, it ended in a negative vote.”

In November 2008, when I participated in a tour of the Holy Land sponsored by the Israeli Ministry of Tourism for Catholic journalists, I submitted a written request to Yad Vashem (which was included on our tour) asking for an interview to discuss this issue and got the same result as Prof. Redlich – no reply.

As Rabbi Azman notes in his letter, the main reasons for Yad Vashem’s continued rejection of appeals to recognize Metropolitan Sheptysky for saving over 150 Jewish children during the Holocaust were first “his telegram welcoming Hitler and the Wehrmacht to Lviv in 1941 and second, his alleged ‘blessing’ of the SS Galicia Division in 1943. The telegram was written just after the horrifying discovery in Lviv prisons of hundreds of Ukrainians, executed by the retreating Stalinist criminals.”

Indeed, the brief Soviet occupation of Western Ukraine between 1939 and 1941 which was accomplished by collusion, created under the infamous Hitler-Stalin pact of August 1939, was extremely brutal. During their retreat they viciously murdered and tortured to death up to 8,000 political prisoners. Ukrainian Greek Catholic priests were especially targeted. For example, Father Yakym Senkyvskyi, who was beatified by Pope St. John Paul II in 2001, was boiled to death in a cauldron in a Drohobych prison on June 29, 1941. Another priest, Father Zenoviy Kovalyk was crucified on the wall of a prison in Lviv in June 1941.

With that in mind, it is no wonder Metropolitan Sheptysky welcomed the Germans as liberators. But that changed very quickly as he became aware of Nazi atrocities – especially the mass murder of Jews. He issued a pastoral letter “Thou Shalt Not Kill” strongly forbidding any of his faithful (under the pain of excommunication) from participating or helping in the destruction of Jews. As noted in Wikipedia: “Alone among the church leaders in Nazi-occupied Europe, Sheptytsky openly spoke in defense of the persecuted Jews. He (also) sent an official letter, as the First Bishop of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, to Hitler and Himmler protesting about the destruction of the Jews. …He issued secret instructions to his secular and monastic clergy, ordering them to help the Jews by hiding them on church property, feeding them and smuggling them out of the country. One of the rabbis whose life was saved by Metropolitan Sheptytsky, David Kahane, stated: ‘Andrew Sheptytsky deserves the undying gratitude of the Jews and the honorific title ‘Prince of the Righteous’”.

As for the Galicia Division, Rabbi Azman notes: “There are no historic documents confirming Sheptytsky’s alleged ‘blessing’ of the SS Galicia Division. In fact, the Metropolitan gave one of his priest’s permission to act as chaplain in the division in order to watch over the young recruits and prevent them from committing excessive crimes.”

Another Chief Rabbi of Ukraine, Yaakov Dov Bleich, especially created the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Medal of Honor Award in order to hold up Metropolitan Sheptytsky as a role model for reconciliation between Jews and Ukrainians in a country threatened by Russian aggression. Speaking at a press conference prior to the second such award ceremony in 2014, Bleich quoted the Talmudic dictum that one who saves an individual life has saved an entire world, Bleich said Sheptytsky “saved many worlds” and his actions are “a lesson for us.”

Even Avner Shalev, Chairman of the Yad Vashem Directorate of the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority has admitted that Yad Vashem’s earlier rejection of Metropolitan Sheptytsky receiving the “Righteous Among the Nations” title was a mistake, which gives us some hope that maybe the directors of Yad Vashem will finally come to their senses. In the meantime, we can only pray that this long-running campaign will finally reach a successful conclusion and Metropolitan Sheptytsky will finally receive the recognition he so richly deserves.