The second award of the Andrey Sheptytsky Medal, bestowed in honor of the early-20th-century metropolitan of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, was awarded to businessman and philanthropist Victor Pinchuk in mid-November at the Kiev Hilton. Various members of Ukraine’s ardently fractious Jewish community, who would under no other circumstance have congregated in the same building, cast aside their differences in acknowledgment of the evening’s honoree. The same could be said of the picaresque cast of Ukrainians: Both the old and the new elite were amply represented by newly elected glamorous young reformist Maidan-square activists in attendance. Olga Bogomolets floated around in a royal purple stole looking like she had wandered out of a 1930s French film. Retired world champion pugilist and Kiev Mayor Vitali Klitschko mingled with ambassadors and robed churchmen. Former presidents Leonid Kravchuk and Leonid Kuchma were in attendance: Kuchma, the honoree’s father-in-law, sat several tables away from the former girlfriend of murdered journalist Georgiy Gongadze, who died after a beating that Kuchma allegedly had ordered.

The dinner, co-sponsored by Chief Rabbi Yaacov Dov Bleich’s Jewish Confederation of Ukraine along with the Canadian-based organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter, was a gesture of belated recognition for the wartime leader of the Ukrainian church. In the absence of a duly elected political leader Sheptytsky had assumed the role of Ukrainian leader for the duration of almost half a century. The dinner was also a manifestly political act in politicized times—the latest salvo in the asymmetrical information war being waged between the Russians and Ukraine over the legacy of World War II, and by extension who was a true anti-Semitic fascist. Sheptytsky, a humane figure of deep learning, broad sensibility, and ecumenical tolerance, had personally arranged for the hiding of 150 Jews—mostly children as well as about a dozen rabbis—in the metropolitan’s official residence and among his monasteries. Not one person sheltered by the church was turned over to the Gestapo. A unifying figure commanding axiomatic respect among both Ukrainians and Ukrainian Jews, he represents a more palatable (and healthier) symbol of WWII-era Ukrainian nationalism than the militant Stepan Bandera.

Yet seven decades after his death in 1944, Sheptytsky remains a divisive figure, as the heroism of his personal actions is marred by the historical stain of having greeted the invading Germans as liberators in his official capacity as head of the Ukrainian Greek Church. Yad Vashem’s steadfast refusal to recognize him as a Righteous Among the Nations has been its most controversial decision for decades. Sheptytsky’s name has been submitted to the selection committee at least a dozen times. Tablet’s inquiries to Yad Vashem in regard to the reexamination of Sheptytsky’s case garnered this obfuscating riposte:

The case of Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytski is very complex and complicated. 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.

The intense lobbying of Yad Vashem on behalf of Sheptytsky is led by the impassioned but dwindling group of the survivors that he personally hid. They include former Polish Foreign Minister Adam Daniel Rotfeld, Nobel prize-winning chemist Roald Hoffmann, David Kahane, the former chief rabbi of the Israeli Air Force, and the pediatric cardiologist Leon Chameides. The Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman is an ally of the cause. The mounting chorus of voices calling for Yad Vashem’s reappraisal of the Sheptytsky legacy also includes its former Director Avner Shalev, who recently declared that Yad Vashem needs to rethink its position. But the case is by no means an uncomplicated one.


Sheptytsky was born in 1865 on a family estate in the village of Prylbychi, about 30 miles northwest of Lviv, at that time still a jewel in the Austro-Hungarian crown. The aristocratic family line was of Ruthenian-Polish stock: The Polish Romantic writer Aleksander Fredro was Sheptytsky’s maternal grandfather, and one of his brothers would go on to become chief of staff of the Polish army. A career in the Austro-Hungarian army never solidified, and he chose studying toward a doctorate in law in Wrocław and Kraków instead. Studies in theology with the Jesuits in Kraków were followed by ordination into the priesthood. Sheptytsky himself would later repudiate both his class and the Polish nation, instead throwing in his lot with the cultural and national aspirations of the Ukrainian peasantry to which he was spiritually drawn. The decision to pastor a Ukrainian flock was a radical one for a Polish aristocrat to undertake.

Sheptytsky’s ascent up the ladder of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church hierarchy was remarkably swift. He would be appointed metropolitan archbishop of Lviv at the age of 36. A decade later he was arrested and imprisoned for several years by the Russians as an enemy national following the outbreak of World War I. This would inculcate an understandable feeling of anti-Communism in anybody, and it would later metastasize into fierce disdain for the Soviet occupation of Ukraine.

Sheptytsky’s relationship with the Galician Jews was about as excellent as it could have been for a cleric of that era, though he had almost certainly imbibed and harbored the extant theological stereotypes during his studies. Yet Sheptytsky had made a point of learning both biblical and modern Hebrew while at seminary, and he wrote letters laced with beautiful Hebrew liturgical phrasing. In the course of his official pastoral visits to mixed Ukrainian-Jewish villages, he would be met by Ukrainian delegations led by the local priest, to be followed by the local rabbi carrying the village Torah. Engaging in a radically idiosyncratic gesture of political respect, he would often make a point of allowing the Jews to approach him first. Invariably, this served to confuse both the Ukrainians and Jews equally.

The tangled and contradictory facts of Sheptytsky’s wartime actions are as follows:

Following the invasion of Ukraine and subjugation of Lviv at the end of June of 1941, the Organization of the Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), led by Yaroslav Stetsko, declared an independent Ukrainian state, which was suppressed by the Germans a day later, on July 1. By that same day, Sheptytsky had already issued his now-infamous pastoral letter that welcomed “the victorious German army as the liberator from the enemy” and recognizing Stetsko as de facto head of the Ukrainian government. That letter, written in the naive hope that the Germans would free the Ukrainians from the Soviet yoke, will forever haunt his legacy. Still, Sheptytsky came to regret his support for the newly proclaimed state almost immediately. The scholarly consensus is that he was persuaded into supporting it during a June 30 meeting with Stetsko, during which the crucial information of the OUN’s fracturing—as well as the fact that the administration would be under the unitary control of Bandera’s faction—was omitted.

Andrey Sheptytsky (Wikipedia)
That same day saw the concurrent breakout of organized mob pogroms against Lviv’s Jewish population. This was the first wave of the so-called “Petliura Days,” which were carried out in retaliation for the machine-gunning of several thousand prisoners—including Ukrainians, Poles, and Jews; intellectuals, political prisoners, and common criminals—by the retreating Soviet NKVD. The slaughter would prove to be the first of many massacres and was carried out by the Einsatzgruppen and assisted by Ukrainian militia. Sheptytsky’s knowledge of the events was almost certain; his role or lack thereof in containing these riots is still contested (unsubstantiated claims have been made that he haplessly sent messengers to quell the crowd), but it now seems obvious that he had little if any direct control over the conflagration.

What we know definitively was that Sheptytsky was informed of the pogrom by the chief rabbi of Lviv, Ezekiel Lewin. The two enjoyed cordial relations, and the rabbi had traveled to the metropolitan residence with the tragic tidings on either the first or the second of July. The specifics of the meeting remain a mystery of which we possess only contradictory hearsay, mostly based on two different accounts given decades apart by the rabbi’s son Kurt Lewin, who would be saved by Sheptytsky and would become one of his fiercest advocates before his passing this summer. Lewin wrote one of the major memoirs of experiencing Sheptytsky’s sanctuary.

What Sheptytsky had pledged to do for the Jews of Lviv during his meeting with the rabbi of Lvov is still debated. That the cleric offered sanctuary to Rabbi Lewin and his family is indisputable. The rabbi accepted the offer on behalf of his own children but refused it for himself, insisting on his duty to remain with his community. He was arrested by Ukrainian militia later that day and shot dead in front of his son Kurt. Sheptytsky took in two of Lewin’s boys (another son would perish along with their stepmother in a camp), providing forged baptismal certificates, crafted identities, and instructions to his priests to train the boys to pray in Ukrainian. Not one Jewish child saved by Sheptytsky was lost to the Nazis or lost to the Jewish people: While spending several years ensconced in monasteries, none was converted to Christianity. Though he essentially lost faith in Germans shortly after the invasion, Sheptytsky still appeared to sustain illusory hopes of utilizing or converting the Germans to the cause of Ukrainian nationalism until the autumn or end of 1941. At the end of August he was still writing the papal nuncio in Budapest of his hopes that Germans might “liberate Galicia from the Bolshevik regime, and defeat atheistic communism once and for all.” He reiterated the point (and protested the killing of Jews) to high-ranking Nazis who made official visits to his residence. He also wrote futile personal appeals to Hitler and Himmler urging clemency for the Jews of Galicia. The letter to Himmler demanded that he discontinue the murder of Jews by Ukrainian policemen as well as complying with the removal of all Ukrainian policemen from duty in the camps (the request was couched in the language of concern for his flock). He also penned a series of letters to Pope Pius XII advising him on his observations of the Nazis’ “diabolical” nature.

The belated conclusion that the Nazi horrors were far worse than anything perpetrated by the Soviets took Sheptytsky almost a full year of the occupation to comprehend. The default position of historians is that “in the first phase [of the war], Sheptytsky was unable to develop an adequate response to the Nazi aggression,” in the words of historian John-Paul Himka. Having figured it out, he did a great deal. In a series of pastoral letters produced and disseminated until his death in 1944, Sheptytsky inveighed consistently against “political murder.” These culminated in the renowned epistle of November 1942, “Thou shalt not kill,” in which he explicitly forbade—and threatened with outright excommunication—his flock from taking part in the ongoing murder. He also issued calls for community-wide shunning of murderers with the “the disgust and disgrace they deserve” as a form of deterrence.

Not being able to speak openly about the Jews (as well as the later Ukrainian massacres of Poles) in his speeches or in the distributed leaflets, much of Sheptytsky’s moral message had to be smuggled through rigorously coded ciphers. References to the crime of Cain and allusions to “neighbors” had to suffice, as well as formulations such as “because every neighbor is a brother—a member of that same human family which grew out of the family of the first man,” “real love includes all one’s neighbors,” and the cultivation of fraternal love as an aspect of “duty to be extended to every person by virtue of their human nature.” The allusion to “first victims” intimated that they would not be the last and echoed received theological ideals about the Jews’ status as “elder brothers” to Christians. This roundabout and indirect phrasing (which was enveloped in a lexicon perfectly comprehensible to the average Ukrainian) and the lack of direct references to the Jews is likewise counted against Sheptytsky by his detractors.

A final argument against Sheptytsky relates to his support for the creation of the Galician Waffen-SS Division. This was done in the spring of 1943 as a precaution against the mass anarchy that would inevitably break out with the eventual German loss of the war. The Germans would be defeated by the Russian army soon enough, the reasoning went, and the Ukrainian nationalist leadership wanted to seize the moment to create the nucleus of an army. The Galician SS division would be a Ukrainian instrument defending Ukrainian national interests, formed with the conditional (and touchingly hopeful) proviso that it would not be used against the allies and be deployed solely against the advancing Soviet army. Sheptytsky blessed the division, and the young men who joined it, but retained no later relationship with it. He certainly could not have known that blood-stained members of the Ukrainian auxiliary police would join its ranks after the severe depletion it suffered during the battle of Brody. The unit’s composition and career, and the particularities of the fighting record of the 1 Galician 14th Waffen-SS Division, remains a deeply contentious issue.

The damning crux of Yad Vashem’s critique of Sheptytsky’s role is best articulated by former Yad Vashem Director Yitzhak Arad’s appraisal of him as “[i]nconsistent. His [early] calls to join with the Germans … were construed by many Ukrainians as a call to be party to [the] German’s anti-Jewish policies as well. The practical results of this partnership with the Germans consisted of pogroms, large-scale volunteering to the Ukrainian police, and the active participation in the mass murder of Jews. Sheptytsky certainly did not intend for this to happen, but it did.” This alleged inconsistency was buttressed by the perception of a reciprocal lack of personal risk.

According to this point of view, as the revered head of the church Sheptytsky himself was never at any personal risk and, finding himself in a position of unparalleled influence, should have done much more than he did. The Germans would not have dared to move against him personally, this argument stipulates. The counter-argument is that while Sheptytsky faced no bodily threat himself, he carried responsibilities to protect the priests and nuns under his charge. Spiritual authority and moral grandeur would not necessarily translate into concrete influence upon men’s actions in the corporeal sphere. Sheptytsky’s brother, Klementiy, was beatified by Pope John Paul II and, perversely enough, was recognized by Yad Vashem for carrying out his brother’s vision.


The award dinner was a model of high-minded ecumenical tolerance and moral purpose. Bernard-Henri Lévy gave the rousing keynote speech, proclaiming Sheptytsky to be a “rare, courageous, brave, and lucid voice in the darkness.” His speech characteristically connected historical events to exegeses of the current situation and called for concrete political action.

The acclaimed historian of Eastern Europe Timothy Snyder, whose fortuitously timed Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin has cast him as North America’s primary explicator of Eastern European political and ethnic conflagrations, delivered a measured and intelligent speech. He spoke of the behavior of the encounter with the neighbor and of the parable of the Good Samaritan in times of strife. He also spoke about how one is to behave in a time of trial, concluding that Sheptytsky, like all of us, was not born a neighbor but chose to become one.

Victor Pinchuk Receives Sheptytsky Award in Kiev, Nov. 18, 2014. (Victor Pinchuk Foundation © 2014. Photo: Sergey Illin)
Former Polish President Aleksander Kwaśniewski called on Yad Vashem openly to recognize Sheptytsky as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. The former career Communist turned impeccable liberal successfully stewarded Poland into the European Union. Kwaśniewski related the personal story of one of the children Sheptytsky had saved: Polish politician Adam Daniel Rotfeld, who had served as foreign minister in Kwaśniewski government.

This was followed by the evening’s most affecting moment, when Leon Chameides stood up to speak on behalf of the survivors. “By all statistical measures I should not be here today, for I was born with a congenital condition which once resulted in a child mortality rate of 99.5 percent,” began the pediatrician. “My congenital condition was that I was a Jewish child in Poland.”

The visibly humbled Pinchuk himself gave a dignified, if slightly stilted acceptance speech, recounting the story of how his parents had met on the ship to Dnipropetrovsk after being denied entrance to universities in Kiev because of quotas for Jews. There had been intolerance in Ukraine, he admitted, and even now Ukrainian politicians were not always as tolerant as the “always tolerant” Ukrainian people. “I myself have been the recipient of Ukrainian tolerance when in 1997 one of the most proletariat industrial constituencies in Ukraine sent me, a Jew and businessman, to represent Dnipropetrovsk in the Rada,” Pinchuk continued. “They were even more tolerant when I became a member of the family of the head of government of this country.” No one blamed former President Kuchma, in the audience, for his having a Jewish oligarch for a son-in-law, Pinchuk assured us, breaking through the fourth wall to speak about himself as an oligarch. The pair of good-looking blond reformist MPs sitting at my table could not contain themselves from tittering.

Ukraine Jewish Encounter was founded by the Canadian businessman James Temerty (he was awarded the first medal, which is awarded to a Christian in odd years and a Jew in even years), former high-ranking member of the Canadian government Berel Rodal, his wife, the historian Alti Rodal (she directed research for the Deschenes Commission that compiled the official report on the immigration of Nazi war criminals to Canada), and an American of Ukrainian descent, former Freedom House Director Adrian Karatnycky. The organization has a global mission of enabling dialogue between Jews and Ukrainians, with a particular emphasis on refuting stereotypes. Such a project is restorative, rather than merely historical. “Jewish and Ukrainian stories are incomplete without each other,” Mr. Rodal told me. “It is an encounter which is not delineated merely by the Second World War, there is a 1,000-year-long encounter between the two peoples.” I also asked the medal’s organizers about the symbolism of awarding the prize to a complex figure like Pinchuk, and whether there was a symmetrical connection to be found in Sheptytsky’s own munificent philanthropy. (He founded numerous institutions including the Studite holy order, a theological academy, and the National Museum in Lviv.) “While few people can match Sheptytsky’s moral courage and his role as a major historical figures,” Karatnycky explained to me, “there are important similarities in Sheptytsky’s patronage of the arts and Pinchuk’s role as a patron of young Ukrainian artists and one of the major collectors of contemporary art in the world.”

Brooklyn-born Ukrainian Chief Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich can be exceedingly witty, droll enough to have impoverished the profession of standup comedy by having entered the rabbinate. He is also quite serious when necessary, as he was when he publicly jousted with the Milanese-born Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar of Russia. At a pre-dinner press conference, Bleich spoke out about the need “to counter the propaganda that is coming out of Russia about anti-Semitism.” Russian rhetoric during annexation leaned heavily on the trope of protecting Crimea’s Jews from the encroaching specter of “Banderist fascism.” It has also relied on the rhetoric of preventing any repetitions of events in 1940s Western Ukraine. In April of this year, I turned on Russian television to catch glimpses of happy Crimean Jews celebrating Passover, with a voiceover explaining that “Crimea’s Jews were finally free to celebrate Passover.” That the Ukrainian Jews of Crimea had been free to celebrate Passover for the last 25 years went unmentioned. Infamously, Lazar clapped and cheered harder during Putin’s annexation speech than any member of the Russian Duma sitting around him.

Seventy years after Sheptytsky’s death, his actions are much more than mere historical curiosities of ethnic relations in the midst of war. Russian and Ukrainian Jews once again find themselves caught between shifting borders, held hostage as rival political ideologies conduct their disputations, and knowing that siding with one will surely antagonize the other. Will giving the noble priest a gold star expiate some of what at times has been a bloodstained history between the Ukrainians and the Jews?

It is true that entrenched stereotypes nursed by both stand in the way of a more comprehensive understanding of the complexities of a history that includes episodes of violence against one stateless people committed by members of another stateless people—both trapped within the context of oppressive multiethnic empires. The repayment of the historical debt to Sheptytsky would certainly go a long way toward alleviating damage wrought by the mutual antagonism that has pockmarked the thousand-year period of symbiotic co-existence. Whether doing so would earn the patriotic Jews of Ukraine, not to mention Russia, enough good will to weather the next crisis of jingoism in the mitteleuropean bloodlands is a different matter.