“The theme of Andrei Sheptytsky had an impact on me”: Shimon Redlich, a historian who survived the Holocaust

Holocaust survivor and professor of history Shimon Redlich. Photo: Tamara Zieve.

Professor Shimon Redlich was saved by a Ukrainian family during the Holocaust. We talk with him about Andrei Sheptytsky and the reasons why he has not been awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations.

Shimon Redlich is a specialist on the history of the Jews in Eastern Europe and a professor of Ben-Gurion University (Israel). He is a graduate of Harvard University, where he did his M.A. During the Holocaust Redlich was saved by a Ukrainian family. He lived in Berezhany until 1945, and later in Łódź (Poland). He immigrated to Israel in 1950.

I met with Shimon Redlich at his home in the city of Modi'in, near Jerusalem. On the eve of our meeting the topic of Ukrainian-Jewish relations was discussed as part of the program of the Jerusalem Book Fair. In keeping with the points raised during that discussion, my first question for Shimon Redlich was a request to explain his statement that he has had a direct and personal experience of Ukrainian-Jewish relations.

Shimon Redlich:  I lived in Berezhany, where Jews, Poles, and Ukrainians lived. I think that my nanny, one of them, was Ukrainian. So, I did not speak Ukrainian, but I heard it when I was a little boy. What did have an impact on me was the fact that I was saved by a Ukrainian, a Ukrainian woman from the village of Rai, near Berezhany. We were hiding there, in that village of Rai; today it is part of the city of Berezhany. Her husband was a forced laborer in Germany. She was alone with two children, and she hid me, my mother, my mother’s sister and her husband. That is four people. My mother’s sister and her husband were there for almost an entire year, 1943–44, and my mother and I—for half a year.

After the war I did not have contact with this family for various reasons. There was the Iron Curtain, and it was very difficult. I only began searching for my rescuers in the 1980s—and I found them as well as this woman and one member of a Polish family that helped at the time. And since that time, we have been in touch.

Iryna Slavinska:  Did the family that saved Shimon Redlich during the Holocaust become a Righteous Among the Nations?

Shimon Redlich: Tatiana Kuntsevych, or, as we called her, Tanka Kuntsevych, became a Righteous, as well as her daughter Ania. Even though Ania was eight or nine years old at the time, on one occasion she definitely saved us. That is why she, too, was granted the title of Righteous.

Iryna Slavinska:  On Zustrichi we are continuing to talk about Ukrainian-Jewish relations. In the opinion of Professor Shimon Redlich, you have to discuss not just good things in this context.

Shimon Redlich:  It is necessary to talk about everything, not just about what is good and humane but also other things, about bad things.

I personally did not have any experience with the Ukrainian nationalist underground in Galicia, the place where we lived; this means either the UPA or the Banderites, stuff like that. But I know, not only as a historian but also from people’s accounts in these places, that some of these Ukrainian underground members also killed Jews. And where Ukrainians are concerned, there is a negative image among the majority of Jews from these territories.

It may be that this, too, had an impact on me psychologically as well as symbolically. When I came the first time for a visit to Lviv with my family, Tatiana Kuntsevych was waiting for us at the airport. She very much wanted us to go with them right away to their house, spend the night there, and be with them all the time. But I had a kind of fear. It wasn’t a concrete fear but more of a psychological fear of not wanting to bring my family to a Ukrainian village. It was a kind of inexplicable fear. Why? Because I seemed to be afraid of these Banderites. Do you understand this?

Iryna Slavinska:  In 1991 there were no more Banderites.

Shimon Redlich: But I’m telling you that it was all more psychological, not concrete things. I knew precisely that there was no longer any of that. But some kind of fear remained.

Iryna Slavinska:  There are a number of stereotypes surrounding Ukraine. For example, in his office Shimon Redlich shows me a Ukrainian flag and the trident. According to him, you can see such things only in a few Israeli homes. And this is not simply due to a lack of interest in Ukraine. Why?

Shimon Redlich:  For you, this is a completely normal thing in Ukraine, but for me this symbol of the trident was for many years seemingly connected with the UPA and all those terrible things that had happened during the Second World War and the Holocaust. But now it is a completely normal thing for me. What does this mean? That 20 or 25 years later, from 1991, I changed, say, internally, I changed and can now accept this Ukrainian symbol as something completely normal.

Iryna Slavinska:  Speaking of the change in attitude to things associated with Ukraine, like the national flag or emblem, we are talking about how Professor Redlich worked on himself and the stereotypes that he overcame; for example, how he became accustomed to the trident as the emblem [of Ukraine]. Professor Redlich says that he was helped a lot through his personal contacts with such Ukrainian researchers as Ivan Dziuba, Myroslav Marynovych, Yaroslav Hrytsak, and the writer Yuri Andrukhovych.

Shimon Redlich:  First of all, this was constant communication with contemporary Ukraine, with the people who saved me, but not just this.

For almost twenty years I have been meeting with Ukrainian historians, Ukrainian intellectuals. And all this altered my initial image of Ukraine and Ukrainians. I have friends and acquaintances; I think these are famous people in Ukraine, for example, Ivan Dziuba. If I can put it this way, for me, Ivan Dziuba is a cultural hero, or a hero of culture. My good friend from Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, Mr. Myroslav Marynovych. I also talked on Skype and by telephone with Yuri Andrukhovych, but to this very day I have not met him [in person]. I have read about him and read what he has written. In addition, I was the first to invite Yaroslav Hrytsak, one of the finest historians in Ukraine. Today he is Professor Hrytsak, but when I invited him the first time to my university, he was still a young historian and it was his first visit to Israel, to my university. And his people also helped me when I was gathering materials for my book on Berezhany. A large part of this book consists of my conversations with former residents of Berezhany from all parts, not just Jews: Jews, Poles, and Ukrainians.

Iryna Slavinska:  Professor Shimon Redlich goes on to talk about his personal, important experience of spending a year at the Ukrainian center in Harvard. That is how he discovered Metropolitan Sheptytsky.

Shimon Redlich:   This was the first time that I directly encountered historians of Ukraine, demographers of Ukraine. And this center is a small Ukraine in Cambridge. Later, there was a conference that had a big impact on me. It was my first year at Harvard, I had been invited by the University of Toronto. I was invited to an international conference on the life and activities of Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky. And for the first time in my life I saw around me many Ukrainian scholars but also Ukrainian church people, representatives of the clergy in their garb. This had an impact on me.

Iryna Slavinska:  What changed precisely as a result of your stay at the Ukrainian center? For example, Professor Shimon Redlich began researching a new topic: the life of Metropolitan Sheptytsky, whom he discovered in the mid-1980s, and which he continues to work on to this day.

Shimon Redlich:  I started talking to these people. For many years, Ukraine and Ukrainians were not a very concrete matter for me. But now I research them. The topic of Metropolitan Sheptytsky also had a big impact on me. I began working on this topic in the mid-1980s, and am working on it to the present day.

Iryna Slavinska:  Why has Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky still not been recognized as Righteous Among the Nations?

Shimon Redlich:  The Sheptytsky issue was discussed over the years at many meetings of this commission to name Righteous Among the Nations, and they always ended with a negative decision. Why? I will tell you what the opponents of Sheptytsky say. They call him a collaborator. Why? Because there are documents: his correspondence with the leaders of the German regime, even a letter to Hitler himself. Some Jews accuse him of not helping Jews during the period of that anti-Jewish pogrom in Lviv in late June–early July 1941. The strongest argument is that he was a collaborator of the German regime.

And on the other side is what I say: that he rescued between one and two hundred Jews, many them little boys and girls, and some of them are still alive today, and some of them I know personally. In my opinion, Sheptytsky did not completely understand the German regime and its conduct from the very beginning. You have to enter this period, not look from the current point in time, but be there at that time. But when he found out what the Nazis were doing and what concerned the Jews, he became more aware of how terrible this regime was. And there are documents about all this.

In my opinion, as concerns the title of Righteous Among the Nations for Sheptytsky, sometimes images have a greater influence than historical facts. And when there are such negative images and emotions, they still have a very strong impact. Perhaps for the ordinary young Ukrainian, like you, this looks very bizarre. Those who know the facts and circumstances must grasp this mentality, because psychology and emotions, in my opinion, have a very big impact. Perhaps changes will come with the rise of new generations who still do not have a perception of negative things. I very much hope that this will happen.

Iryna Slavinska:  Shimon Redlich then shares his experience of working on the history of Ukraine and the Jews of Ukraine.

Shimon Redlich:  I tried to get into the minds of Ukrainians, Poles, and Jews. So, when I talk about my books with Jews, sometimes they criticize me because my views do not correspond one hundred percent with general views. I write also positive things about Ukrainians, but Jewish viewpoints are mostly negative. And you will not be able to learn this from one trip to Israel. Here everything is connected. For example, the Khmelnytsky era is studied in schools. If you ask, who was [Bohdan] Khmelnytsky? A pogromist! You will be told this in every school. And that is why it is important for people to come and speak. This begins with Khmelnytsky, then comes [Symon] Petliura, then [Stepan] Bandera. Even the average schoolchild in Israel knows about Khmelnytsky, but s/he doesn’t know who Sheptytsky is. You understand? It is necessary to know about Khmelnytsky, but it is also necessary to know about Sheptytsky.

Iryna Slavinska: We are concluding this broadcast of the Encounters program with a philosophical and somewhat naïve question. Why did the Holocaust happen in the first place?

Shimon Redlich:  Because any man, regardless of whether he’s a Jew, a Ukrainian, a Pole, or a Russian, turns into a beast in certain circumstances. Take the example of this small town, the city of Berezhany. There was a more or less normal life there for a long time. Of course, not everyone loved each other, but they could live together somehow. But when the totalitarian regime came, both the Soviet and the German, when society collapses and ordinary ties break, that’s when people’s behavior changes, becomes extreme, very extreme. And then terror ensues, force, violence, and the like. Everything depends on each territory, little on history. But the most important thing, in my view, is when the norms of life collapse. The norms of life in those territories that [Timothy] Snyder calls the “bloodlands” collapse more than in other European territories.

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

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian and the Russian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.

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