Should Israel honour a Ukrainian who sheltered Jews from the Nazis - even if he backed the SS? Anne Sebba meets a man who thinks so
Why would an Israeli, let alone a retired historian, fight for the reputation of a Ukrainian nationalist Catholic Church leader who had a close bond with the Nazis in the Second World War?
For Shimon Redlich, an emeritus professor of Ben Gurion University in the Negev, it is more than just a matter of examining the record of one individual, it is an issue that challenges notions of historical accuracy and historical "truth" and highlights the dangers of collective memory.
At the centre of the case is Metropolitan (a title equivalent to archbishop) Andrei Sheptytskyi, who was head of the Greek Catholic (Uniate) Church. In the Second World War, he risked his life to save some 150 Jews.
Redlich believes that the metropolitan's actions qualify him for recognition in Israel as a "righteous Gentile". But others in Israel believe just as passionately that his good actions, which are not disputed, are invalidated by his support for the Ukrainian SS division (Halychyna) and because, given his influence and position, he did not do more.
Redlich, who visited London this month to promote his cause, began researching Sheptytskyi's story some 20 years ago as a visiting scholar at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute. Later, he wrote a partly autobiographical book about prewar life in his home town of Brzezany (which was then part of Poland but is now in Ukraine) that showed the interdependence of the Polish, Jewish and Ukrainian communities. The role of Sheptytskyi, who helped to save two families of rabbis from nearby L'viv from the Nazis, was a key part of that story.
The controversy over honouring Sheptytskyi goes to the heart of the debate in Israel about historical interpretation and truth. On one side is the personal history of each individual survivor. On the other is the truth proclaimed by Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust Memorial Authority, which sees itself as the final arbiter on Holocaust history. Ukrainian treatment of Jews in the Second World War is considered especially vicious.
Sheptytskyi is sometimes dubbed the Ukrainian Oskar Schindler. Yet since the 1960s, the committee at Yad Vashem has met 13 times to discuss his case, and 13 times has refused to confer on him the title of "righteous among the nations" despite the requests from Holocaust survivors who say they owe their lives to the Ukrainian priest.
Redlich, who survived the Holocaust (but not through the actions of Sheptytskyi), has now decided to take a more active role in pressing Sheptytskyi's case, aware that time is running out. Soon there will no longer be anyone alive who can bear direct witness to the metropolitan's wartime deeds.
Redlich, who was for many years director of the Rabb Centre for Holocaust Studies at Ben Gurion University until he retired in 2003, is leading the campaign to have Sheptytskyi recognised. He helped organise a conference in L'viv in November to discuss the issue. A month after that, a new petition from Sheptytskyi survivors was delivered to Yad Vashem. The ten signatories included Adam Daniel Rotfield, who was until recently Poland's Foreign Minister; Kurt Lewin, a US businessman who is the son of one of the rabbis saved; and Lily Stern-Pohlmann, who owes her own and her mother's life to the metropolitan agreeing to shelter them.
This month, as Britain geared up for Holocaust Memorial Day today, Redlich brought his struggle to London, giving a lecture at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES).
Why is he devoting so much to this cause? "This is not a clear-cut case,"
he says. "But, historically speaking, what is important is contextualisation. Sheptytskyi was working in tragic times. People who do not understand the circumstances make wrong decisions.
"Second, there is a personal reason. My mother and I were saved by a Ukrainian peasant woman. These two aspects are connected and have to do with emotions as well as scholarly research. In addition, throughout the years that I was lecturing, I always tried to teach students to balance the strongly anti-Polish and anti-Ukrainian opinion so prevalent among Israeli Jews.
"A person, a family or a nation that does not know its past cannot look to the future. The Second World War and the Holocaust were tremendous events that shaped the collective memory. Among many Jews and Israelis, there is a prevailing collective memory, a frozen stereotype, that the Poles and Ukrainians, even more than the Germans, were all murderers. I am trying to show that these stereotypical images are not correct, any more than the negative stereotypes of Jews are. At the very least, this is ahistorical.
"There is a strong tendency in Jewish collective memory, because we were the number one victims (of the Holocaust), not to look at other victims, including Poles and Ukrainians. I believe it is important that we do."
Sheptytskyi, who was born in 1865 and died in November 1944, grew up in a multicultural environment. He began studying Hebrew at the age of 20 and he travelled twice to Jerusalem. He cultivated friendly relations with the Jews in L'viv, who admired and respected him.
But attitudes changed in the Second World War. Soviet rule in western Ukraine fuelled pro-German sentiment; many Ukrainians - Sheptytskyi among them - thought Jews were Soviet sympathisers. In July 1941, after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, the slaughter of Jews began. In a single week, about 4,000 Jews were massacred. Extremist nationalist Ukrainians joined in these pogrom-like acts. Sheptytskyi must have known what was going on, especially after a young nationalist confessed to him that he had "murdered 75 people in L'viv in one night". Yet Sheptytskyi cheered on the German army in the belief that it offered the best chance of Ukrainian independence.
Critics point out that it was not until November 1942 that Sheptytskyi wrote a pastoral letter to his flock titled "Thou Shalt not Kill" - and even then he did not explicitly mention Jews. Redlich argues that it was clear in the context of the times that this was a warning to Ukrainians to eschew Nazi anti-Jewish activities. "He was," Redlich said in his SSEES lecture, "the only senior Catholic Church leader to write to the Vatican that the Jews were the primary targets of German bestiality... I see him as an acrobat walking on a tightrope."
At the same time, Sheptytskyi was helping to hide more than 100 Jews.
Although he initiated the rescue, the task of concealing and caring for these people was carried out by trusted priests and monks of the Uniate Church, including Sheptytskyi's brother, Klemens, head of the Studite order. One irony is that Klemens was long ago declared a righteous Gentile, even though his actions were closely linked with those of his brother and would not have been possible without his elder brother's blessings.
Sheptytskyi's support of the Ukrainian SS must be understood, Redlich states, in the context of his fear of anarchy and his hopes that a Ukrainian military force would defend the local people; it should not, Redlich continues, be taken as support for Nazi ideology.
Yad Vashem has always argued that there are a number of reasons for not declaring Sheptytskyi a righteous Gentile. But now, even despite the lack of new material to support the cause, there is a groundswell of opinion urging Yad Vashem to reconsider Sheptytskyi. Israel Gutman, who was for many years chief historian at Yad Vashem, backs Redlich. He has said that he urged the case for recognition many years ago but was in a minority.
Stern-Pohlmann, who was 11 in the winter of 1943-44, still remembers when Sheptytskyi told her: "Don't be afraid. I will save your life." She says:
"You cannot malign such a man; for what he did, the penalty was death. I want to dispel the incredible misnomer that this man was a collaborator - he was not. The world should know about wonderful people like him."
Redlich says: "In my view, it is only the strongest of institutions that can allow itself to reconsider something that was decided in the past. In this case, the views of historians are more relevant and nuanced than the sometimes narrow, legalistic views that have prevailed in the past... I believe that Sheptytskyi did all that it was possible to do at the time. He saved I50 Jews."
Anne Sebba's latest book, T he Exiled Collector: William Bankes and the Making of an English Country House , is published by John Murray, £22.50.
Shimon Redlich's Together and Apart in Brzezany: Poles, Jews and Ukrainians is published by Indiana University Press, $29.95.