Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Chief Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich chat at a dinner in Kiev .
(photo credit: SAM SOKOL)
KIEV – Ukrainian Jews and political leaders have united in endeavoring to rehabilitate a controversial Holocaust-era cleric whose legacy has been fiercely debated for decades.
Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky, the leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church during the Second World War, has been painted as both a supporter of Nazism and a rescuer of Jews, having both greeted the Nazis as liberators in an open letter in 1941 and subsequently making a public call for Ukrainians to refrain from participating in “political murder.”
At a Tuesday dinner co-sponsored by the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine and the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter, which builds bridges between gentiles and Jews, oligarch Victor Pinchuk was awarded the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Medal of Honor Award for his communal activities.
The prize, now in its second year, is the brainchild of American- born Ukrainian Chief Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, who held up Sheptytsky as a role model for contemporary Ukrainians facing a conflict with Russian- backed separatists.
Sheptytsky, Ukrainian Jews seem to believe, can serve as a role model for reconciliation between Jew and gentile in their war-torn country. Speaking at a press conference prior to the award ceremony, Bleich stated that the idea came from “trying to find a way of bringing together the Jewish community and Ukrainian community.”
Quoting 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.”
Addressing a crowd that included Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, former presidents Leonid Kravchuk and Leonid Kuchma, and Ukrainian Greek Catholic Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, former Polish president Aleksander Kwaśniewski called on Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust museum to recognize Sheptytsky as one of the Righteous Among the Nations.
That honor, which carries with it honorary Israeli citizenship, is bestowed on those who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Despite lobbying from various quarters over the years, Yad Vashem has consistently declined to recognize Sheptytsky.
Last year the Anti-Defamation League posthumously honored Sheptytsky, with Abraham Foxman, the group’s longtime national director, describing him as someone who “took great risk upon himself, upon the priests and nuns in his charge, and upon his entire Church to save Jewish men, women, and children.”
Citing the priest’s public epistle “Thou shalt not kill,” which urged his countrymen not to take part in the ongoing mass murder, Foxman said “through his strong moral voice… [he] influenced others to act.”
However, the Sheptytsky case is “complex and complicated,” Yad Vashem’s Estee Yaari told The Jerusalem Post Wednesday.
“Over the years, the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous discussed it at length.
In those deliberations, the commission concluded that they could not recognize him as a Righteous Among the Nations.
While it seems clear that the Metropolitan sheltered some Jews during the Holocaust, there is a great deal of ambiguity regarding his active support for the Nazis. The commission debated how much weight such support carried, and whether it contributed to the murder of Jews in Ukraine,” she said.
“The history of the Holocaust is full of complex, emotionally charged stories which have different, sometimes even contradictory aspects and perspectives.
The commission must often address very real dilemmas, and in some cases one party or another disagrees with the commission’s decision.”
Efforts to rehabilitate Sheptytsky’s reputation are an “example of Holocaust distortion in post-Communist Eastern Europe,” stated Dr. Efraim Zuroff, a Nazi hunter and the head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Jerusalem office.
“I fully support the decision of the Yad Vashem Commission to deny him the title and honor, despite the fact that he did indeed save several Jews.”
Most if not all of the speakers at Tuesday’s dinner described increasing solidarity between Ukrainian gentiles and Jews, with some, like French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levi, calling out Russian President Vladimir Putin for his assertion that the post-revolutionary Ukrainian government is anti-Semitic.
Jews and gentiles stood shoulder to shoulder in Kiev’s Maidan Square during the revolution that toppled pro-Russian president Victor Yanukovich, Prime Minister Yatsenyuk said, saying that one can be a Ukrainian no matter what one’s nationality of religion.
The “cream of Ukrainian politics and society are here coming for a Jewish event,” Bleich said proudly.