Marco Levytsky, National Affairs Editor.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy threw his support behind the latest appeal directed to the Holocaust Remembrance Center “Yad Vashem” to honour Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky as “Righteous Among the Nations”, during the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz at Oświęcim, Poland, January 27.
Righteous Among the Nations is an honorific used by the State of Israel to describe non-Jews who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews from extermination by the Nazis for altruistic reasons.
Ukraine ranks fourth among the nations behind Poland, Netherlands and France with 2,634 people on this list, including Metropolitan Andrey’s younger brother Blessed Hieromartyr Klymentiy Sheptytsky.
However, Yad Vashem has to date refused to include Metropolitan Andrey, despite the fact he saved 160 Jewish children during the Holocaust, arguing that he welcomed the Nazis when they invaded Ukraine in 1941 and supported the creation of the “Galicia” Division in 1943.
In his statement Zelenskyy noted that the honorary title of the Righteous Among the Nations was officially bestowed upon more than 2,500 Ukrainians, although there were many more people who saved Jews at risk of their own lives.
“These are people of a great heart and of the same great courage. I cannot but mention the Sheptytsky family, which not only saved more than 160 Jews, but also openly demanded the Nazi leaders stop their persecution. Recently, Chief Rabbi of Ukraine Moshe Reuven Azman urged the Holocaust Remembrance Center “Yad Vashem” to confer the honorary title of the Righteous Among the Nations to Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky. I join this appeal for the restoration of historical justice,” he said.
In his letter, which was posted on January 22, Rabbi Azman stated: “Metropolitan Andrey rescued more than 150 Jewish children during the Holocaust in Western Ukraine. Not only did he command churches and monasteries to hide these children, but he also did not allow them to be baptized, thus saving them for the Jewish nation. Some of these children are still alive today. I have read their testimonies, where they all acknowledge their deep debt to Andrey Sheptytsky.
“The situation is indeed absurd: Andrey’s younger brother, Archimandrite Klymentiy Sheptytsky and Mother Superior Olena Viter, both of whom obeyed Metropolitan Andrey’s direct orders related to the Jewish children, were awarded the honorific title of “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem, whereas the Metropolitan, who was in charge of all these extremely dangerous operations, has never been recognized.”
The arguments against the Metropolitan are well-known: 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. In Sheptytsky’s eyes, the Soviet regime was cruel and godless. Moreover, as protector of his flock and the church, Sheptytsky also sent similar greetings to Tsar Nicholas II of Russia when the Russian army occupied Lviv in 1914 and to Stalin in 1939.
“When viewing events in their historical context, what should be more important? 150 children rescued from certain death or some telegrams addressed to the Fuhrer?
“During the first year of Nazi occupation, Metropolitan Andrey wrote several letters to the Vatican, stating that the Nazi regime was committing atrocities that even surpassed Stalin’s crimes. In his 1942 pastoral letter ‘Do Not Kill!’, Sheptytsky exhorted his faithful to respect their neighbours and refrain from taking part in any form of killing or murder. The Metropolitan also sent a telegram to Himmler demanding that the Nazi occupation troops stop forcing Ukrainians to participate in barbaric acts. This was indeed a very risky statement to make at that time!
“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.
“Any other stories and tales are just myths and stereotypes invented by the Soviet regime to discredit Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky. I firmly believe that it is high time for modern Israel and the Jewish Diaspora to abandon these old myths.
“During the hellish years of the Holocaust, the figure of Andrey Sheptytsky rises above all others, like a strong rock of human goodness and salvation. Metropolitan Andrey was a giant of humanism and one of the greatest Ukrainian personalities of the 20th century. His work and cooperation with the Jewish population lasted dozens of years.
“The fact that Metropolitan Andrey has not been awarded this honorific title is indeed a gross miscarriage of justice. According to Jewish traditions, we must express our sincere gratitude for any acts of kindness and goodness extended to the Jewish nation. Therefore, by granting Metropolitan Andrey the honorific title of ‘Righteous Among the Nations’, Israel will show Ukraine and the world that the Jewish nation respects and remembers its friends and saviours.”
Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman was elected as Chief Rabbi of Ukraine by the delegates of the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress and the United Jewish Community of Ukraine in October 2005. However, most Jewish people and the government of Ukraine still consider the Chief Rabbi of Ukraine to be Rabbi Yaakov Bleich. Nevertheless, Azman has a large following in Kyiv.
Rabbi Bleich too has called for the recognition of the role Metropolitan Sheptytsky played in saving Jews. He was the chief force behind the creation of the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Medal of Honor for contributions to the cause of Ukrainian-Jewish understanding and cooperation.
In his statement on January 27, Zelenskyy also said: “Today, we will mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi concentration camp. Being here on the International Holocaust Remembrance Day is very important to me. The Holocaust tragedy has left wounds in the hearts of Ukrainians forever… We will never forget the horrific crimes that took place in Babyn Yar when the Nazis executed more than 150,000 innocents,”
He also mentioned the commander of the T-34 tank Ihor Pobirchenko, who together with the crew first broke the gates of the Auschwitz concentration camp, and the soldiers of the shock battalion of the 100th Lviv Division, who entered the camp under the leadership of Poltava resident of Jewish origin Anatoly Shapiro who, along with 322-nd Division of the First Ukrainian Front liberated the camp.
Zelenskyy stressed that almost 9 million Ukrainians – military and civilians killed in the Second World War in the fight against Hitler’s regime – would never be forgotten.