Imagine for a moment that there was a Catholic archbishop who protested to leading Nazis about the Holocaust, instructed his flock that to murder Jews was a great sin, and personally saved the lives of many dozens of Jews. Surely such a figure would be known to us, and would appear in every discussion of the role of Catholic institutions in the Holocaust? And surely such a figure would by now be recognized as one of the Righteous Among Nations by Yad Vashem, and canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church?
Andrei Sheptyts’kyi (1865–1944) the Ukrainian metropolitan of the Greek Catholic Church, did all of these things. (Greek Catholics accept the authority of the pope, but practice a liturgy much like that of the Orthodox.) He wrote a letter to Himmler asking him to stop using Ukrainian policemen to murder Jews. He issued pastoral letters urging his people, the Greek Catholics of western Ukraine, to love their Jewish neighbors rather than serve in the police formations that were killing them. With the assistance of his brother Klymentyi, the archimandrite of the Greek Catholic Studite Order, he gave shelter to more than a hundred Jews in Lviv. Seriously ill and confined to a wheelchair throughout the war, he managed to survive until November 1944, by which time German forces had been driven from western Ukraine by the Red Army. Klymentyi was arrested by the Soviets—who eliminated the Greek Orthodox Church on their territory—and died in prison in 1951.
Yet far from being seen as a hero, Andrei Sheptyts’kyi is regarded by many Christians and Jews as a traitor to the causes that he should have served. Though he saved more Jews than almost anyone in occupied Europe, and though his brother has already been recognized as one of the Righteous among Nations, such recognition for Andrei is unlikely. The formal proceedings of his beatification are complete, but he cannot be counted among the blessed unless someone attests that he performed a miracle. Some vocal Polish Roman Catholics have opposed his canonization, calling him a Ukrainian nationalist and a collaborator with Hitler. On November 26 a scholarly conference in Cracow devoted to Sheptyts’kyi was interrupted by protestors with megaphones and placards, led by a Roman Catholic priest.
It is tempting to say that a miracle would be necessary for Sheptyts’kyi to be remembered at all. In 1941, he welcomed the German invasion of the Soviet Union. In 1943, he sent Greek Catholic chaplains to accompany the Ukrainian soldiers of the Waffen-SS Division “Galizien.” These lamentable choices are not so very difficult to explain when viewed in their historical setting. Western Ukraine, part of Poland until 1939, had been turned over to the Soviet Union in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Soviet rule of western Ukraine had brought mass arrests and deportations among Sheptyts’kyi’s congregants and the repression of his Church. When the Germans arrived in June 1941, he saw them, briefly, as liberators.
Sheptyts’kyi quickly changed his mind. How, then, could he have dispatched chaplains to a Waffen-SS unit two years later? Once again, a decision that we might tend to understand as a collaboration with the Germans was directed against the Soviets. The Waffen-SS Division “Galizien” was established by the Germans after their demoralizing defeat at Stalingrad. Many Ukrainians who joined thought, as German propaganda instructed them, that they would be fighting against Bolshevism. For Sheptyts’kyi and for western Ukraine, the coming German defeat meant a second Soviet occupation. It seems possible that he believed that the Waffen-SS Division would train Ukrainians who could later fight the Soviets. In some measure it did. After the Soviets re-conquered Ukraine, veterans of the Waffen-SS unit were recruited by the Americans for espionage missions in the Soviet Union.
As we know from his correspondence, Sheptyts’kyi had been taught by experience to think of the future of his flock in military terms. He had already long been metropolitan of the Greek Catholic Church in 1918, when Ukraine failed to gain recognition as a nation deserving a sovereign state. He watched as a Ukrainian army was defeated by Poland in 1919, and lands he regarded as Ukrainian were added to the interwar Polish state. His own aristocratic family, of mixed Polish-Ukrainian origin, had a proud military tradition. Indeed, his brother Stanislaw was a general, and involved in that very Polish-Ukrainian war—but on the other side: he was chief of the Polish general staff. Andrei Sheptyts’kyi’s experience of the end of World War I likely stood behind his intuition that Ukrainian military forces would be needed after World War II. He wanted a Ukraine that was Christian and independent. In fact, the disaster after World War II was even greater than that after 1919: Soviet rule and the dissolution of the Greek Catholic Church itself. Greek Catholic practice became illegal, and Soviet propaganda presented Sheptyts’kyi as a reactionary nationalist collaborator, little better than a Nazi.
Sheptyts’kyi came from the confusing east European borderlands, where the most horrible political crimes were committed by both the Germans and the Soviets, and where national and religious divisions lay beneath the great century-defining contest between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Sheptyts’kyi’s own Greek Catholic Church was established in 1596 to mend the rift between western and eastern Christianity, and bring about a union between western- and eastern-rite Christians, Catholics and Orthodox. Sheptyts’kyi, like his flock, had to make decisions in a setting defined not only by competing loyalties, but by both German and Soviet occupation.
It may seem impossible that a man who could welcome Nazi rule could then save dozens of Jewish lives, but this is just what Sheptyts’kyi did. Had he not done this, David Kahane would almost certainly not have lived to become chief rabbi of the Israeli Air Force, and Adam Daniel Rotfeld would almost certainly not have lived to become foreign minister of Poland. If Sheptyts’kyi’s choices seem incomprehensible to us, this might say as much about our own limits as about his. It is perhaps easiest to see Nazi Germany as a singular evil, and to define our identities with respect to remembered national responses to that evil: we the nation fought a good war, or we the nation resisted the occupation, or we the nation did wrong but repented. But what if evil were plural in 1941? And what if patriotism is not about perfecting the past, but about making imperfect choices about the future?