By: Father Bohdan Lukie CSsR (1998)
I remember when the Jewish visitor came to Roblin, Manitoba and when he told me about a modern-day Moses. Ours, and his!
The year was 1959. The place was St. Vladimir’s College, a minor seminary, run by the Redemptorist Fathers. I was in Grade 11. With 49 other students, I listened to this Jewish Ukrainian speak.
He praised one of the greatest European prelates of this century, Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky, who headed the Ukrainian Catholic Church for nearly 50 years until his death on Nov. 1, 1944.
I had never heard of Sheptytsky before. I was just a farm kid from Grandview, Manitoba. And yet here was Kurt Lewin, a Holocaust survivor, a Haganah commander during the siege of Jerusalem, an Israeli Army officer, the great-grandson of Isaac Schmelkes – a rabbi of Lviv still revered by orthodox Jewry as a spiritual and intellectual giant – telling me about his Ukrainian saviour!
Lewin told us that we, as future priests of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, should know what our Metropolitan had done for the Jews of Ukrainian Galicia under Nazi occupation. He spoke about how his own life was saved when the Metropolitan gave him shelter in Lviv’s St. George’s Cathedral, how the Metropolitan, who stood resolutely in favour of Ukraine’s independence and shared in the general euphoria of liberation from the Soviets, nevertheless kept a critical vigilance toward German rule.
In February 1942, he even dared to lodge a protest against the destruction of the Galician Jewish community with Himmler himself. The Nazi who delivered Himmler’s response bluntly told the Metropolitan that if it were not for his age, he would have been shot for meddling in matters which should not concern him.
The Metropolitan saw things differently. He soon mobilized a Christian opposition to Nazi rule in western Ukraine. He let the Vatican know what was happening, he wrote to Pope Pius XII alerting him to the “almost diabolical” nature of the German regime.
A few days later he repeated that condemnation in a letter to Eugene Cardinal Tisserant, Prefect of the Congregation of Eastern Churches. He also encouraged Christian resistance.
Working with his brother, Klymentii, leader of Lviv’s Studite monks, the Metropolitan gathered together a small army of nuns and priests who would risk their own lives in clandestine rescue and sanctuary operations.
False baptismal certificates were arranged for no less than 200 Jewish children, who were then smuggled to monasteries, orphanages, and convent schools in and around Lviv. All of these children’s lives were saved, 15 in the Metropolitan’s own residence. This at a time when sheltering Jews was a criminal offense punishable by death.
Rabbi Dr. David Kahane also survived thanks to the Metropolitan’s intervention. Later he drew up a list of over 240 Ukrainian Catholic priests who saved Jews. This good rabbi noted that his list was not exhaustive.
Thousands of Jewish Ukrainian lives were saved at the Metropolitan’s command. And all remember how, in November 1942, Sheptytsky issued what was to become his best-known pastoral letter, “Thou Shalt
Not Kill.” His message on the sanctity of human life was a clear condemnation of genocide.
As Lewin has observed, even Yad Vashem, dedicated to keeping alive the memory of the Holocaust, “seems to have difficulty in recognizing the man’s compassion and assistance extended to the Jewish community in his diocese at the time of its martyrdom and destruction.” To this day Sheptytsky is not honoured in Israel.
Of late there has been much debate about whether the Catholic Church did enough to save Jews during the Nazi terror. There can be no doubt that Sheptytsky did, acting as a leader of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, as a Ukrainian patriot, and as a man of rare intellect and spirituality. If he had been discovered, he would have been martyred, joining the many millions of other Ukrainian victims of the Holocaust.
NOTE: In 2014, Ukrainian Chief Rabbi Yakkov Dov Bleich declared “Sheptytsky saved many worlds and his actions are a lesson for us all.”