As one who grew up in a city heavily populated by Ukrainians, there was no love lost between the Jews and the Kapusta (Ukrainian word for cabbage) eaters. Despite many exceptions on both sides, there were a good many Jews who saw the ancestors of the local Ukrainians as “pogromchiks” who would ride into a shtetl and revel in the rape and carnage of “Christ Killers”. Similarly, a good many Jews saw the parents and grandparents of the local Ukrainians as eagerly assisting the Nazis by doing all of the dirty work in the Concentration camps. Here too, the Ukrainian henchmen were avenging their savior’s death. Given that most Ukrainians in my hometown were descendants of peasant stock, we Jews referred to them as prosteh goyim (crude Gentiles) in Yiddish, while in English, we resorted to the local vernacular and called them Bohunks.
It was therefore with more than with a modicum of interest that I read about Pope Francis affixing his signature to a decree affirming the “venerable” status of Metropolitan Archbishop Andrey Sheptytsky. His Excellency’s claim to fame as far as I’m concerned, lies not in the fact that he served as the Archbishop of the Ukrainian Catholic Church for four decades, or that he served as the de facto political leader of western Ukraine, because of the government turmoil that existed; His Excellency’s claim to fame lies in the ambivalent view that Jews with knowledge of his participation in World War II, have of him. On the one hand, he is an angel from heaven, in that together with his brother Klementiy, he saved hundreds of Jews, among them, more than one hundred Jewish children from Nazi slaughter. It should be noted that not one Jewish child saved by Sheptytsky was lost to the Nazis or was lost to the Jewish people (through conversion). On the other hand, Sheptytsky is the devil incarnate for welcoming the Nazis, as they liberated Ukraine from Soviet rule. Because of the latter, Yad VaShem leadership refused to accord Archbishop Sheptytsky a plaque or signpost on the Avenue of the Righteous until 1995. Belated Righteous Gentile recognition notwithstanding, consider the following:
Andrey Sheptytsky’s welcoming the Nazis had nothing to do with the Jews. For him and millions of other Ukrainian nationals, the Soviets were the arbiters of man’s inhumanity against man. Soviet purge of religion aside, Uncle Joe Stalin systematically starved seven million Ukrainian peasants to death less than a decade earlier, in an effort to “nationalize” agriculture. The way Archbishop Sheptytski saw things; the Nazis were their enemy’s enemy and therefore friends of the Ukrainians. Never could the Archbishop fathom that the Nazis would be more inhumane than the Soviets. After all, what would be worse than stealing land from millions upon millions of peasants and then starving them to death?
However true it may be that hindsight is 20/20, hindsight greatly distorts one’s view as well. When Adolph first came to power, there were more than a few Jews in Germany who were fawning all over him. I have heard first hand, that our very own co-religionists were lovingly referring to him as Der shoner Adolph. Put differently, long before he devised the “final solution”, Adolph was seen as “the solution”! Before we excoriate others for rolling out the red carpet to the greatest enemy our people were ever cursed with, we would do well to beat our chests with an enormous chatati (I have sinned) in that there were those of us who also rolled out that very same red carpet!
Speaking of “final solution”, we would do well to realize that the “final solution” was a product of the Wannsee Conference which took place well over two years after the Nazis invaded Poland. Back in 1939, there were still those who were naïve enough to believe or to hope against hope that Hitler could be mollified, whether through the acquisition of Sudetenland or maybe even Poland.
Andrey Shepytsky was a priest, not a politician. One of the features of the vast majority of clergy is that they believe not only in a Supreme Being, but in their fellow human being as well, however naïve and foolish and even dangerous at times that may be. In September 1939, the Archbishop of western Ukraine simply couldn’t fathom that humans could undertake such diabolical, dastardly plans and come awfully close to succeeding.
As one, who by my own admission is no ardent supporter of Pope Francis, I extend to him a big Yasher Koach for his latest action concerning Andrey Sheptytsky. Such recognition, as far as I’m concerned, is long past due. This Wednesday marks the 150 anniversary of Andrey Sheptytsky’s birth. No doubt the descendants of those saved by Andrey Sheptytsky will thank HaShem for putting him on the face of this earth.