In the late summer of 1942, 7-year-old Leon Chameides accompanied his father on an hour-long truck ride. As the Nazis tightened their grip over the Ukraine, the two journeyed from a village in the western part of the country where the Chameides family, Jews from Poland, had found refuge with relatives, to Lvov, the major city in that region. After stepping down from the truck, father and son walked to a towering building on Mount Jur, in the center of the city, where they knocked on the door of Ukraine’s Greek Catholic Church headquarters.
The pair was taken to a dark library where an old man in a white beard, sitting under a blanket in a wheelchair, talked to Leon’s father for a few minutes and patted the child’s head.
Kalman Chameides quickly departed, leaving his son behind. He offered the child no explanation.
Leon Chameides realized that his life, threatened by the Nazis who had occupied the country earlier that year, was in the hands of this stranger, the old man with arthritis-crippled legs, Metropolitan Andrei Sheptitsky, the leader of the country’s Greek Catholic (or Uniate) church.
For the next two years, until the Red Army liberated Ukraine from Nazi rule, Chameides lived, under the protection of the church, in an orphanage and monastery and its adjoining self-sufficient farm run by Uniate priests. He was, he later learned, among at least several dozen Jews, including his older brother, saved from the Holocaust by the church, all with the knowledge, if not direct involvement of, Metropolitan Sheptitsky.
Seventy-two years after he died, the metropolitan (the title in Orthodox Christianity is analogous to an archbishop in Roman Catholicism) is a venerated figure in Ukraine but a controversial one in some Jewish circles.
After repeated attempts by Chameides and other Holocaust survivors to have Metropolitan Sheptitsky declared a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial’s highest honor for non-Jews who saved Jews during the Shoah, he still has not joined the ranks of the 2,000-plus Ukrainians with the title of Righteous Among The Nations. (That list includes the metropolitan’s less controversial brother, Clement, who was an accomplice in the rescue effort.)
The metropolitan’s case stands in contrast to Pope Pius XII, the World War II-era pontiff who some say turned a blind eye to Jewish suffering during the Holocaust and others say surreptitiously guided the Church in rescuing Jews. The Vatican, which is moving to beatify Pius, has not opened wartime archives that would permit a full examination of the pope’s conduct; scholars have full access to archives in Ukraine that deal with Metropolitan Sheptitsky.
Turned down after consideration by Yad Vashem’s Commission for the Designation of the Righteous Among the Nations (the commission convenes more than 20 times each year in closed sessions) more than a dozen times since 1964, Metropolitan Sheptitsky remains arguably Yad Vashem’s most difficult case. While no one denies that he was responsible for the rescue of many Jews, his critics point to many factors that have made him ineligible to be named a Righteous Gentile: as Ukraine’s highest-ranking cleric, he putatively faced no personal danger for opposing the Germans’ Final Solution; as the acknowledged leader of the wartime Ukrainian nationalist movement, he originally welcomed the Nazis, seeing them as a means to Ukrainian independence; as the head of the Uniate church, he gave his blessings to the formation of two Ukrainian SS divisions; as a man with longtime sympathetic relations to the Jewish community, he did not proactively seek out Jews to assist but did open his church’s doors to people who approached him.
“Throughout the German occupation he helped and sheltered Jews, restrained members of his church in the name of Christ or threatened punishment and political consequences after the war,” Kurt Lewin, who was saved as a child under the metropolitan’s auspices, has written. Lewin, the son of Lvov’s murdered chief rabbi, now lives in Manhattan, where he has headed an international management-consulting firm.
On the eve of Yom HaShoah (April 19 this year), as Yad Vashem marks the 50th anniversary of its Righteous Gentiles initiative with the 2012 theme “My Brother’s Keeper,” the Sheptitsky case opens a window on several aspects of Holocaust remembrance: the Jewish responsibility to recognize and thank those who helped in a time of need; the level of transparency in Yad Vashem’s selection of its honorees; and the role that political considerations, particularly the remnants of Cold War politics that cast the metropolitan as an anti-Russian villain, play in the naming of Righteous Gentiles.
For survivors like Chameides, who lived as Levko Cheminskiy under the church’s protection and is now a retired pediatric oncologist in Hartford, Conn., the issue is simple — Metropolitan Sheptitsky saved their lives, and the Jewish community should honor him.
“We as the people saved are absolutely biased,” says Chameides, 76. He, along with other people who owe their lives to the metropolitan — including Lewin, a future Nobel Prize-winner, a future foreign minister of Poland and Chameides’ older brother — has actively lobbied on Metropolitan Sheptitsky’s behalf, writing letters of testimony and giving public speeches.
“Without the personal intervention of Archbishop Sheptitsky and his priests I and my brother would not have survived the war,” Chameides wrote in one letter.
“His actions in saving Jews … were brave acts of human compassion, in very dangerous times,” Roald Hoffman, an emeritus professor at Cornell University who received the 1981 Nobel Prize in chemistry, told The Jewish Week in an e-mail interview.
“Time is running out. We are today in our 70s and 80s,” a joint letter written to Yad Vashem in 2005 stated. “The memory of Sheptitsky as our saviour will live on within our families. However, there will always persist a sense of frustration and disappointment, if he is not granted that title and honor awarded to thousands of other saviours.”
Born as Roman Aleksander into a Polish Catholic noble family with Ukrainian roots, Metropolitan Sheptitsky (this article uses the most familiar rendering of his original Slavic name) grew up identifying with the Ukrainian cause and taking the adopted religious name Andrei when ordained into the priesthood in 1892. In 1900 he was installed as metropolitan; as founder and leader of the monastic Uniate (or Studite) order, he had jurisdiction over all Greek Catholic churches in the Russian empire, serving as a bridge between Catholicism’s Orthodox and Roman branches.
Fiercely nationalistic, he was arrested by Russian troops in 1914 and placed under house arrest, intensifying his anti-Russian fervor.
When the German army arrived in 1942, he regarded the soldiers as liberators, calling himself a “friend of Germany.”
“Uppermost in Andrei Sheptitsky’s mind were the national aspirations of his adopted Ukrainian people,” Mordecai Paldiel, former director of Yad Vashem’s Department of the Righteous, writes in “Saving the Jews” (Schreiber Publishing, 2000). “Throughout the war years, he remained the incontestable leading religious figure in Ukrainian society in Lwow and eastern Galicia.
“The communists loomed in his mind as the personification of a double evil — against both God and the Ukrainian people — and he therefore looked forward to a German-Ukrainian empire, which would ensure an independent Ukraine,” Paldiel writes.
“I think the commission acted rightly” in denying Metropolitan Sheptitsky Righteous Gentile status, Paldiel tells The Jewish Week in an interview.
The metropolitan — who spoke classical Hebrew and had visited the Holy Land and sent contributions to the local Jewish community each year for Passover expenses — was a natural person for Lvov’s Jewish leaders to turn when annihilation threatened.
According to eyewitnesses and historians, he never turned away a Jew who came for help, taking a part in rescuing a total whose estimate ranges from several dozen to 150.
That’s the clear part.
“He used his capacities [as a church leader] … to save … more than almost anyone else in Europe at that time,” says Timothy Snyder, professor of history at Yale University, who has written extensively on World War II-era Ukraine.
According to David Cymet’s “History vs. Apologetics: The Holocaust, the Third Reich, and the Catholic Church” (Lexington Books, 2011), Metropolitan Sheptitsky “hid 21 Jewish children in his cathedral and 183 more in convents and monasteries.”
What’s unclear is the extent of Metropolitan Sheptitsky’s support for — or even collaboration with — the Nazis after they first occupied Ukraine.
He was silent about Nazi atrocities for several months, seeing the German army “as a deliverer from the [Russian] enemy” and declaring his enthusiasm for “the New Order in Ukraine and throughout Europe” in a letter to Hitler. However, he became disillusioned after realizing the extent of German atrocities against both Ukrainians and Jews. In subsequent pastoral letters he criticized German actions, but did not name Jews as the Nazis’ specific victims; he reportedly wrote a letter to SS leader Heinrich Himmler, protesting the use of Ukrainian militia in the mass killings, and in a 1942 letter to the Vatican expressed his horror that the Nazi regime was “becoming more intolerable every day … perhaps even more diabolical than the Bolshevik.”
This limited complicity is a primary reason why Yad Vashem has not named Metropolitan Sheptitsky a Righteous Gentile, says Paldiel, who now teaches history at Touro College and Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women. Approving the metropolitan’s nomination would “seriously undermine the prestige of such a dignified honor. At the same time, those whose lives were spared, thanks to Sheptitsky’s intervention, have every right to hold him in their highest esteem.”
“Risk is the basic criterion for granting this award — not altruism,” says historian Alex Grobman, president of the Institute for Contemporary Jewish Life.
Was the metropolitan’s life at risk for his role in aiding doomed Jews?
Paldiel says no. The Nazis probably would not harm Ukraine’s leading religious figure. “It’s not clear.”
But Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League and child survivor of the Holocaust, says yes. “Of course he took risks. He is to us a true hero.”
Chameides agrees. “The Germans would not have thought twice about killing him” — as they did other members of the Christian clergy — had they known the extent of his rescue activities. “He put all his priests at risk.”
Chameides says he is not giving up his part in the campaign to have Yad Vashem honor Metropolitan Sheptitsky. “It’s our responsibility,” referring to fellow survivors and the wider Jewish community.
Yad Vashem can consider the metropolitan’s case if new information is presented, Paldiel says.
“It remains to be seen whether the last official word has been said regarding this case,” Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, a Holocaust survivor who serves as chairman of the Yad Vashem directorate, wrote three years ago.
Meanwhile, the Vatican, 54 years after Metropolitan Sheptitsky’s name was first put forward for beatification, still has not taken action on the first step on the road towards the Metropolitan’s eventual canonization as a saint.