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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Humanity in Infernal Abyss

25 November, 2003 - 00:00

The Dukh i Litera (Spirit and Letter) publishers have recently turned out the book, Metropolitan Andriy Sheptytsky. Documents and Materials of 1941-1944, on the metropolitan’s activities during the Nazi occupation. This book was prepared by such dissimilar institutions as the Ukrainian Catholic University (Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church), the Institute of Judaica, the Kyiv Mohyla Academy, and the Center for European Humanitarian Studies. The book uses the hitherto unknown materials found in Kyiv archives by Institute of Judaica researcher Zhanna Kovboy. Even today, our society’s attitude toward Metropolitan Sheptytsky is largely the one formed by Communist ideologues. From this perspective, it is informativeness that makes the new book especially valuable. The book is based on the metropolitan’s messages to the flock, archive church documents, eyewitness accounts, his correspondence with the Vatican and the Third Reich. Andriy Sheptytsky is depicted on the backdrop of a terrible page in the history of Western Ukraine and the Greek Catholic Church that got from the Soviet hell into a still worse (in the opinion of Sheptytsky himself) Nazi hell. During World War II, this land saw such things that, as the metropolitan wrote in his message On the Crime of Murder, “the impression is that hatred among people is a natural and finite phenomenon.”

Andriy Kravchuk, the book’s scholarly editor, rightly believes that what was mostly distorted was the metropolitan’s behavior during the Nazi occupation: “It is in this period that Soviet critics would find or invent the most powerful anti-Uniate arguments.” It was completely hushed up that the German occupation of Halychyna followed a two-year Soviet rule and that the situation in the region improved, albeit a little, immediately after the German occupational troops came. US researcher John Armstrong claims that, after surviving a period of Soviet power in Eastern Halychyna, “Ukrainians of this region would have welcomed, at least in the beginning, any troops hostile to the Soviet Union.” Society was full of hope that Germany would allow a territorial autonomy; an independent Ukrainian government was formed with Yaroslav Stetsko at the head. Sheptytsky also shared these expectations — he dreamed of “a wise and just leadership that would think about the needs and benefit of all the individuals who reside in our land, irrespective of the faith, ethnicity, and social stratum they belong to.” It should also be remembered that the Third Reich had not mapped out a clear policy toward Slavs before 1941.

The true situation clarified very soon, though. Sheptytsky wrote to Pope Pius XII, “Today, the whole country agrees that the German regime is perhaps a greater — almost diabolical — evil than the Bolshevik one... Where is this system going to lead the German people to? This seems to be nothing but a historically unprecedented degeneration of humanity.” The metropolitan was especially indignant that the Germans involved some Ukrainians into their punitive actions, violence, and bloodshed. In his messages (Thou Shalt Not Kill, On Mercy, etc.) he insisted on obeying the Fifth Commandment: “History has shown us so many times what an individual can stoop to when, out of pride and malice, he breaks the tables of God’s commandments and replaces these with his own arbitrariness. The whole human culture and all the centuries-old achievements of human intellect and heart will then be doomed to a decline and ruin.”

Metropolitan Sheptytsky soon embarked on non-violent civil disobedience, especially evident in the context of the “final solution of the Jewish problem.” For in the very first week of occupation, the Nazis wiped out 4,000 Jews, followed by another 2,000, in Lviv alone. Sheltering Jews was pronounced a capital crime. There were also wildcat anti-Semitic pogroms and murders. Obviously, that was preplanned genocide of the Jewish people rather than isolated spontaneous killings.

Metropolitan Sheptytsky sent a protest to Heinrich Himmler. He wrote that, as a priest, he could not leave unattended the actions of the German armed forces and police “against local residents, first of all, the Jews, atrocities and extra-judicial executions of people. So I will allow myself to draw your attention to this, because I do not know whether Berlin is aware of these things. As a church leader and the spiritual guide of my faithful, I consider it my duty to ask you not to involve Ukrainian police into punitive actions against the Jews.” Sheptytsky reminisced later that he had received an abusive answer, and the German officer who delivered it hinted that “were it not for my age, I would be shot dead for daring to intercede for Jews!” Yet, the metropolitan continued doing his best to protect the latter. Following his example, many priests preached sermons to their parishioners, which helped, to some extent, stem the tide of killings.

In his messages to the flock, the metropolitan repeatedly said that murder is a crime punishable by excommunication, and cautioned young Ukrainians against joining the police. Moreover, he did not confine himself to writing appeals and helping some individuals. In 1942, requested by the Jewish community, Sheptytsky organized a well-ramified refuge network for the Jews who managed to escape from Lviv ghettos and concentration camps. Two hundred children were secretly carried to various monasteries, hidden in crypts, hospitals and orphanages; fifteen children and several adult Jews took a longtime refuge at Metropolitan Sheptytsky’s official residence. They were issued false certificates of baptism and given Ukrainian names, which allowed them all to survive the occupation. To transport and shelter the persecuted, special groups of reliable people were organized, consisting of the clergy and monastic communities, including the Studite monks led by the metropolitan’s brother, Prior Klementy.

According to Rabbi Kahane, who also found refuge in Sheptytsky’s chambers, there were more than 240 priests who risked their lives, issuing baptism documents to and hiding Jews. The Greek Catholics performed these underground activities for two years until “the second Soviet occupation” in 1944. It is difficult today to name the exact number of those rescued. There might be several thousand of them.

It should be noted that Metropolitan Sheptytsky’s attitude toward the Third Reich did not change his assessment of the Soviet state. He wrote, among other things, “Marxism is a system that turns an individual into a machine without taking into account his rights, needs, and nature.”

Leonid Finberg, director of the Institute of Judaica, wrote in the book’s afterword: “Metropolitan A. Sheptytsky is undoubtedly one of the most powerful and illustrious personalities in the Ukrainian history of the twentieth century. Society is still to adequately assess both his intellectual heritage and his organizational talent of a national leader... Let this modest study be a token of our respect for the Great Person, Metropolitan Andriy Sheptytsky, who, by way of his texts and his own life, used to assert ‘humanity in the infernal abyss’.”

By Klara GUDZYK, The Day