Two weeks ago, ADL co-sponsored a conference in Kyiv on the 100th anniversary of the Beilis blood libel trial. It was to be the last time a Jew was tried in court on the infamous “blood libel” charge. Despite the clear anti-Semitism of the judge, the prosecution, the Tsarist government and of a certain portion of Ukrainian society, enough members of the jury stood up against the pressure and prevented Beilis from being convicted of a murder he did not commit.
Today we celebrate another example of courage, again in Ukraine, but in this case, over 150 innocent Jews were protected. And they were saved in circumstances much more dire and dangerous that those faced by Beilis.
The man we honor today, Metropolitan Archbishop Andrei Sheptytsky, acted courageously in the midst of war, in the midst of genocide. He 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.
Sheptytsky was born in 1865 into a Polish Catholic aristocratic family with Ukrainian roots. At the age 27, he decided to adopt the Uniate rite and was ordained a Greek Catholic priest. Just eight years later, in 1900, he became Archbishop and Metropolitan of Lvov, (now known as Lviv), the spiritual leader of Ukrainian Catholics in southeastern Poland.
Viscerally opposed to to the atheism and tyrrany of the Soviet regime, he was distraught when the Soviets occupied eastern Poland in September 1939 under a secret agreement with the Nazis. A supporter of Ukrainian political aspirations, he initially welcomed the arrival of German troops who expelled the Red Army from Lviv in June 1941.
However, he immediately realized the horror of the Nazi regime, when they ordered the murder of the local Jews. Metropolitan Sheptytsky had close and friendly ties to the Jewish community of the Lviv region before the war began, and it was thus natural for Jews to turn to him for help.
Under his direction and leadership, Jews were often supplied with false papers, including baptism certificates. Some were hidden and disguised in monasteries. The Metropolitan himself sheltered Jews in his private library and other locations on his own premises. It is said that he never turned away a Jew who came for help. Think about it, he never turned away a Jew who came for help.
The courage of his clandestine acts was matched by the bravery of his public statements. In addition to hiding Jews, a crime punishable by death, he expressed his opposition to the persecution of Jews both directly to the Nazi leadership and publicly to his entire community. In February 1942, Sheptytsky wrote a letter to the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, protesting the Nazis’ murderous policy and complaining about the use of Ukrainian policemen to kill Jews.
His pastoral letter issued in November 1942, “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” was to be read in every church. In that letter, he urged everyone to remain faithful to their religious obligations to love their neighbor and not to kill, and specifically not to engage in what he termed “political murder.”
In addition to those he saved directly, who knows how many more he saved indirectly, through his strong moral voice that influenced others to act.
But we do know about those he saved, including many children, some of whom are here today. I ask that those whose ancestors were saved by Metropolitan Sheptytsky please stand and be recognized.
You owe your lives to Andrei Sheptytsky, and I know how you feel. As a young boy in Poland, I had the good fortune to be sheltered by a brave and decent woman in an otherwise overwhelmingly hostile and disinterested Europe. I was hidden as a Catholic child by my nanny Bronislawa Kurpi, without whose help I would not be here today.
Someone said that there are no perfect people but there are perfect moments. Those we call righteous provided the civilized world with countless perfect moments at a time when it appeared that humanity had lost its way. Through their actions they proved that it was possible to disrupt what appeared to be an omnipotent reign of terror.
Indeed, the Nazis created a world of “choice-less choices,” where fear and terror reigned supreme. In such a world, where many wondered where G-d was, nothing could be certain. Perhaps in the end all we are left with is uncertainty and a spark of goodness within; a spark that for some is kindled into a light so bright as to be almost divine; a beacon, a reminder to the rest of us that one life can truly make a difference.
I want to make one last point, regarding the situation today in Ukraine. There is a strong and growing Ukrainian nationalist movement. It faces a choice of role models: the Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera, who declared an independent Ukrainian state on June 30, 1941 in Lviv, when the Nazis drove out the Soviet army, and the next day began murdering Jews.
Or it can be inspired by the Ukrainian nationalist Andrei Sheptytsky, who wrote on July 1, the day after the state was declared, that the new government should exercise – quote -- “wise, just leadership and measures that would take into consideration the needs and welfare of all citizens who inhabit our land, without regard to what faith, nationality, or social stratum they belong.”
The Ukrainian nationalism of Andrei Sheptytsky, one of compassion, even love, for his Jewish neighbors, is one that Jews around the world can embrace and support. And we ask all who are inspired by the Metropolitan’s actions and words to help oppose the destructive Banderite strain.
I would like to thank once again Eileen Ludwig-Greenland for her generosity through the years in sponsoring this award and ask her to join me at the podium to assist with the presentation.
I now call forward the great nephew of the Metropolitan Sheptytsky, Professor Jerzy Weyman to accept ADL’s Jan Karski Courage to Care Award on behalf of his family.
The Ukrainian nationalism of Andrei Sheptytsky, one of compassion, even love, for his Jewish neighbors, is one that Jews around the world can embrace and support.