Andrei Sheptytsky did everything possible to save Jews during the Holocaust: Historian Yaroslav Kit

Yaroslav Kit (Copyright: Hromadske Radio)

On today’s program Yaroslav Kit, Doctor of Philosophy at the Institute of Religion and Society, talks about Andrei Sheptytsky.

Iryna Slavinska:  You are listening to Hromadske Radio. Iryna Slavinska is in the studio, and this is the latest installment of the Encounters program. We are continuing to talk about Ukrainian-Jewish relations. Today my guest is Yaroslav Kit, Doctor of Philosophy at the Institute of Religion and Society. We will be discussing Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky from the perspective of his being the chief rabbi of the Ukrainians. This is taken from the title of an article written by my guest, and we will begin with this metaphor. What does this comparative phrase “chief rabbi of the Ukrainians” mean?

Yaroslav Kit:  I will immediately tell you that this metaphor was not chosen by me, because I was somewhat afraid about its meaning when I was submitting the text to a foreign journal—a Ukrainian-language one, incidentally. I was submitting a text about the importance of Metropolitan Andrei and his role in Ukrainian history with regard to the Jewish people. Let’s not forget that at one time there was a huge number of Jewish inhabitants in Ukrainian territories, and the majority of cities had large Jewish communities before the Second World War. During the Second World War they were practically destroyed.

So, why “chief rabbi of the Ukrainians”? The title was provided by the editor of this journal because for the Jews, Metropolitan Andrei, the figure of a spiritual leader, the religious leader of the Ukrainians, of Ukrainian Greek Catholics, was a figure for Jews who was equal to the figure of a chief rabbi. And this was probably the first such religious leader in the history of Ukraine in the twentieth century—and to this day he has remained as such. Unfortunately, no one in the meantime has surpassed him in those matters that he carried out for the sake of the consolidation and creation of the Ukrainian state, and support for the Ukrainian language. He was the first to envision Ukraine’s future through inter-faith dialogue and reconciliation.

Iryna Slavinska:  Here I want to ask about the context of this work. You say that no one has surpassed [him] to this day. Of course, looking at the Ukrainian contexts of various periods, one can search for analogies and comparisons. But let’s focus precisely on the era in which Andrei Sheptytsky, an entirely concrete historical figure, lived in this context before and during the Second World War, and on his attitude to inter-faith reconciliation and cooperation, particularly with Ukraine’s Jewish communities. To what extent was this a trend at the time? To what extent was this characteristic of that period?

Yaroslav Kit:  I will say straightaway that this was not characteristic of that period. This is because there was a high level of antisemitism in the five states in which Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky lived throughout his life—at first a secular life [as] Roman Sheptytsky the aristocrat, a person from a noble family, a wealthy individual with an excellent education, wonderful experience, and contacts. This begins with Austro-Hungary and ends finally with the Soviet state, which he encountered in 1944 in Lviv, the very year that he died. There was in all the countries a high level of antisemitism, first of all everyday [antisemitism] and also on the state level. Let’s not forget that in the Polish state generally there were laws connected with the debarment of Jews from positions, some positions, and from studying in universities. There was also the so-called “bench law,” according to which Jewish students had to sit apart in auditoriums. These are the kinds of things that we would be afraid to talk about today, if that kind of thing were happening at the present time. However…

Iryna Slavinska:  But, at the same time, even not so long ago—I simply want to draw an analogy; perhaps it will be closer to listeners, not geographically, but chronologically—in the United States for example, there was something similar to that bench law, with separate seating for the black population. And these things were taking place in the 1960s. To talk about discrimination against part of a population because of religion or race—these things are actually recent.

Yaroslav Kit:  Well, here we are talking about racial theory, which, of course, inundates the minds even of many contemporaries. But Sheptytsky already opposed Italian fascism in the 1930s, which is hardly mentioned today. Yet this happened. He came out openly against racial theory, and his goal was to establish contact with all religious communities in Ukraine, especially in order to smooth over in various ways these conflicts that had existed earlier in history, and to validate Ukrainians, and [help them] find their place in that society. Of course, Ukrainians were in the minority both in Austro-Hungary and in the Polish state. Accordingly, Galicia, where Metropolitan Andrei lived, was a very conflict-ridden region. This is worth mentioning here. Galicia to this day occupies a separate place in the history of Ukraine, which is important to discuss. But if we turn to this Jewish topic, then I must say that this everyday antisemitism had no effect on Metropolitan Andrei. He lived in Prylbychi. This is a small town, a small village next to the town of Drohobych, where there was a large Jewish community. That’s the first thing. The second is that since childhood he had associated with Jewish tradesmen and antique dealers. He studied Hebrew. Later, when he was studying—and in his secular life he graduated from Cracow University and obtained the title of Doctor of Law—student debates constantly took place there, not like today, when students spend all their time in social networking websites on the Internet after classes…

Iryna Slavinska:  But these are debates also!

Yaroslav Kit:  They are debates, but they are contactless, and non-visual. But in those days students at higher educational institutions debated with each other after classes. Especially those elite individuals…whose future careers could culminate at the highest state levels. Those who had titles—and Sheptytsky held the title of count. Those who owned estates, who had social status. Accordingly, this elite also held debates about the Jews. Let’s remember that the Zionist movement in the late nineteenth century is also growing in the early twentieth century; that is, the idea of the creation of a Jewish state, and their—the Jews’—place in Austro-Hungary and Poland, which we are discussing today.

And initially Sheptytsky was under the influence of this antisemitism, but he understood, in his position as metropolitan in 1901, that without good contacts with the religious Jewish community in Galicia, there would be no positive development of Ukrainians, of Ukrainian religious, spiritual, economic life. At this precise moment he begins to establish very close contacts and a dialogue, which did not exist earlier. Never in Ukrainian history had a metropolitan communicated with Jews in the ancient Hebrew language. Never had a metropolitan written letters to Jews in their language. Never had one met with rabbis, whose friends were rabbis, and later this led to his family saving one of the rabbis of Lviv, Ezekiel Lewin, and saving another rabbi of Lviv, David Kahane, who, incidentally, later became the chief rabbi of the Israeli army [sic, Israeli Air Force—Ed.]. In other words, these contacts led to the Jews recognizing and respecting Sheptytsky more than the leaders of Galicia at the time, the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church. And this too is an iconic example. For Sheptytsky’s seventieth birthday, the Jews, the sole non-Ukrainians to do so, congratulated Sheptytsky on his birthday in their press, which the Poles did not do, even though Sheptytsky was of Polish origin and the Polish language was in fact his mother tongue, it was the language of his childhood, the language of his youth.

I must also mention the important point that Sheptytsky’s path toward saving the Jews did not begin by chance during the Second World War. Many say that supposedly—this was created through Soviet “scholarly” discourse—he was repenting some kind of guilt for crimes and so he rescued Jews, but this completely…In reality, he valued [Jews]. In his epistles, nearly two hundred of which were issued (they have been published now, four colossal volumes), he talks about the value of human life as preeminent, and no terrorism, no antisemitism, no national or state aspirations should be valued higher than human life. He talks about this in the epistle “The Truth of Faith” in 1901. He talks about it today in the text “How to Build One’s House,” which is one hundred percent topical in Ukrainian history. If you take this text and read it and cross out the date—the 1940s—it is absolutely applicable to the current political situation in Ukraine.

The value of human life is of paramount importance for Sheptytsky. Because of this, when this immense tragedy, the Holocaust, happens in Ukrainian history, the destruction of the Jews, their extermination, Sheptytsky, as a churchman and as the spiritual leader of the Ukrainians, does everything possible to save them. Of course, he could not [do this] openly, although he did write letters to the pope and expressed his candid position. However, his straightforward position of saving the Jews could have caused the destruction of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church during the Second World War.

Iryna Slavinska:  I would like to take a half-step back from this conversation.  I was struck by the emergence, supposedly out of nowhere, of the very idea that it makes sense to build an inter-faith, inter-national dialogue, particularly between Ukrainians and Jews within the framework of the Austro-Hungarian Empire during that period. If I understand the historical context correctly, the Ukrainians, like the Jews, were a national and religious minority in the framework of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They were not the titular nation, according to the terminology of the time. They were not the majority that could wield real influence on politics. Obviously, in various periods there were differences between these minorities’ access to rights, opportunities, etc., but in any case, they were two minorities. Are there some other reasons for developing this cooperation, in addition to humanism, which is absolutely important for this work?

Yaroslav Kit:  You see, here in a certain way you have posed a complex question that is difficult to answer. Here it is necessary to turn to the historical context of Ukrainian history, the history of the Jews, and contacts and conflicts between Ukrainians and Jews on the territory of Central and Eastern Europe definitely from the eleventh to the nineteenth centuries. This is complex. Here I must note this important point: Austro-Hungary was the country where Andrei Sheptytsky was born, where the so-called Concordat was signed with the Vatican, [codifying] the Vatican’s legal relations in the religious sphere. There was no separation of church and state, as is the case today in European countries. Because of this, the state paid the salaries of church leaders, and financed various buildings. That is, it took on sufficient commitments. Correspondingly, the Church also took on commitments. This was quite an interesting legal norm and a legal form of the functioning of religion in the state.

Accordingly, the Jews, as a minority, as a non-Christian minority, did not fall under this legal norm. Neither did Orthodox Ukrainians. To a lesser degree, Greek Catholics, who were in union with the Roman Catholic Church and who had signed the [Act of] Union, were subject to this legal regulation. Therefore, it was easier to work in this context, and Sheptytsky took advantage of this. Another issue is that when Sheptytsky became the bishop of Stanyslaviv in 1899, the Ukrainians were in such a bad situation in their religious, cultural, and spiritual life that Sheptytsky himself simply set about upgrading this Stanyslaviv bishopric, today’s Ivano-Frankivsk. Imagine: at this very time the first epistle to the Hutsuls appears in their dialect, in their language. If you read it today, it is simply a shock. On the one hand, it may look funny, but to the local population it is comprehensible. Previously, no one had spoken to the local population in such a language—their language. Sheptytsky himself traveled around doing visitations. Today this would be called an inspection of parishes. And he begins communicating with people. He goes to the people, which earlier had never happened. He communicates with people. This was certainly the only Ukrainian bishop and, later, metropolitan, an individual of such high rank, who, if he was healthy, always kept his doors open for visitors. He did not have two hours for visits once a month, as is the case with today’s officials.

Iryna Slavinska:  In other words, the office hours were 24 hours a day.

Yaroslav Kit:  Yes. When people came to him and knocked [at the doors] of the metropolitan’s palace, the guards would inquire who had come and on what business. Then they relayed this. Sheptytsky received people if it was truly important and the situation depended on his decision. Thus, he was the first such [hierarch] who was close to the people. But he did not stoop to an everday low level, inasmuch as he was from such an aristocratic high-born family that his prestige may be compared, for example, to the current Roman popes, Francis or John Paul II, who would enter a room and the very air would change, one might say. That is, people became different. They understood that they were communicating with a unique person, on whose decision very much depended.

Iryna Slavinska:  In this context it is obvious that Andrei Sheptytsky as a political figure had quite a few instruments, in my opinion, in order to argue in particular for the political need for cooperation between Ukrainians and Jews. What could these arguments have been? What do we know about this?

Yaroslav Kit:  Well, naturally, he [could] not openly conclude those agreements with the Jews and work with this in such a… This was atypical at the time. This is one issue. The other is that Jews are not Christians. Nevertheless, for Sheptytsky the figure of Jesus Christ, the people of Israel, about whom he speaks often in his epistles, are very important. And in his texts he often quotes the Old Testament. In fact, the characterization of Sheptytsky as the Moses of the Ukrainian people emerged after the Second World War. Well, you know that Moses is an Old-Testament prophet of the people of Israel. These prophetic words by Sheptytsky, that a Ukrainian state would come forth, became true, This is the biggest such prophecy. These prophetic words of his and advice concerning how the state administration is to be formed; what the language should be, and there should be one—Ukrainian—in the Ukrainian state; how contacts between the state and the individual should be regulated; the role of civic organizations about which he speaks during the prewar period. That is, there is…Right now we are at Hromadske Radio. There is very much of all this, but at the same time he does not occupy state positions. We must take this into account as well. He is not an official, not a minister. He is the head of a church that is also not in the majority.

Iryna Slavinska:  But at the same time, the Church, if I understand the context correctly, is precisely the institution that people trust a lot in Ukraine. And according to public opinion polls, we see that contemporary Ukrainians also regard the Church as an institution that is very trustworthy, which can exist in our society.

Yaroslav Kit:  Yes, I agree, and the building of positive contacts of inter-faith dialogue is important. Understand that today we are talking about a single, local Ukrainian church. This was aptly formulated by President Yushchenko. But imagine the great initiatives for uniting the Greek Catholic Church with the Orthodox Church, which Metropolitan Sheptytsky carried out already in the 1920s and 1930s. He contacted Metropolitan Ohiienko, and if not for the Second World War, who knows, perhaps this unification would have taken place in the 1940s. Hardly anyone talks about this today, but these initiatives did take place. There should be one church, one language in the state. This was also Metropolitan Andrei’s idea. Thus, in this context the Jews acted as partners, not as people who have to be expelled or destroyed. That is why the metropolitan was in conflict with the Ukrainian nationalists, who championed one nation in one state. To Sheptysky, this was incompatible with his understanding. And because of this, because of those initiatives, Sheptytsky should certainly have been recognized long ago as a Righteous Among the Nations. Yad Vashem is a non-state structure. But we must take into account one extraordinarily important point: Recognizing Sheptytsky as a Righteous, as a savior of the Jews, is a political question. This will mean that the entire Greek Catholic Church is being somehow whitewashed in the context of the Second World War.

Iryna Slavinska:  At issue here, of course, is experience and collaboration and other accusations that can be heard, one way or another, in the context not only of the figure of Andrei Sheptytsky. I agree with you that here he emerged rather as a kind of avatar around which one can construct everything that pertains to the entire Church and, perhaps, all of Ukraine, because the experience of Ukraine as a territory during the Second World War is also multifarious. There is room here for the experience of executioners and the experience of victims, and, as Ola Hnatiuk, who was one of the previous guests on our program, has stated aptly, there is also room here for courage and for fear.

Yaroslav Kit:  In conclusion, I definitely want to quote a saying that Sheptytsky loved to repeat:  “The mills of God grind slowly.” Divine affairs are resolved quite slowly. Often, reforms cannot be introduced in a year or two. All this takes place in quite a—well, according to its own rhythm. That is why Sheptytsky dealt with many issues, looking five, ten, fifteen, or fifty years ahead. And in fact these prophecies of his are coming true today. Of course, it is necessary to listen to those thoughts.

Iryna Slavinska:  We still have a couple of minutes to talk. To conclude, I would like to link the figure of Andrei Sheptytsky and the discussions around him with the contemporary Ukrainian context. The fact that Andrei Sheptytsky is beginning to be mentioned in the context of inter-faith cooperation—actually, you and I met at the Hromadske Radio studios in connection with an important international conference that is devoted to Andrei Sheptytsky precisely in the context of the Ukrainian-Jewish dialogue. What can the fact that we are beginning to pay attention to this also tell us about contemporary Ukraine? Not just about internal Greek Catholic or Galician affairs but more broadly?

Yaroslav Kit:  Сontemporary Ukraine has changed in this regard. The government is starting to listen, and not just listen to religious communities and various national minorities, but listen to their position and do something. This conference is supported by the Ministry of Culture, the All-Ukrainian Union of Jewish Public Organizations, Kyiv Mohyla Academy, and the Polish Institute in Kyiv—that is, by numerous structures that understand that without research on these Ukrainian-Jewish questions, and not just them, because here at this conference questions about the Polish and Roma minorities, the many conflicts, the overcoming of conflicts, are being examined, which is also of considerable importance in the current context of Ukraine’s contemporary international relations. And this scholarly experience should be used because who, if not scholars, should be advisors on the construction of the Ukrainian state? I believe that this is a very important consequence…. One of the participants of the conference, Yosyf Zissels, declared that we should have reactions to such conferences from the government. The government should take into account these thoughts.

Iryna Slavinska:  You have been listening to Yaroslav Kit, Doctor of Philosophy at the Institute of Religion and Society. As is usually the case, we went from our conversation about a concrete historical figure—and what a figure! We were talking about Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky—to a conversation about more urgent contemporary issues and contexts that are unfolding in the cooperation between the non-state sector and the state sector. We will continue these conversations in upcoming broadcasts of the Encounters program. You are listening to Hromadske Radio. This is Iryna Slavinska. Our slogan is: “Listen. Think.” See you in two weeks! 

This program was made possible by the Canadian non-profit organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated by Marta Olynyk.

Edited by Peter Bejger.