Former leader of the Catholic rite spoke couragously against violence against Jews during WWII
By Deborah Gyapong
Canadian Catholic News
As religious leaders from Ukraine sat in the gallery, on Apr. 24 the House of Commons passed unanimously a motion honoring Ukrainian Catholic Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky (1865-1944) for his courageous efforts to save Jews during the Nazi occupation.
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney’s motion said Metroplitan Sheptytsky, who headed the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church from 1900 until his death in 1944, courageously spoke out against violence against Jews and sheltered and saved the lives of more than 160, many of them children.
“This House is united in expressing Canada’s recognition of Andrey Sheptytsky’s courageous actions, compassion for his oppressed Jewish Ukrainian countrymen, and enduring example of commitment to fundamental human rights as humankind’s highest obligation,” the motion said.
Also in the gallery was a man who owes his life to Metropolitan Sheptytsky. Dr. Leon Chameides, a retired pediatric cardiologist now living in Hartford, Connecticut, told CCN said he and his older brother were put under the Metropolitan’s care when he was seven and his brother was almost ten.
At age seven, he met Sheptytsky, who by then was confined to a wheelchair. He had a rug over his knees. He touched his head and said a few words he cannot remember. “He knew suffering,” Chameides said. “He identified with the Jews who came to him.”
The brothers were separated so as to make it less likely they would give each other away, and they were hidden among Ukrainian orphans, taught Christian prayers and the Ukrainian language, he said. They never undressed or bathed around the other children to protect their identities. The Nazis often came around the monastery to inspect, looking for Jews.
All the rest of his family died during the Nazi occupation, Chameides said. After the war, he and his adoptive mother, a woman who had lost all her family, eventually made their way to the United States. His brother now lives in Australia. The key, he said, was his ability to adapt, and even at the age of seven he knew his survival depended on it.
Though Sheptytsky directly saved more than 160 people, including the then chief rabbi of Ukraine who hid behind the books in the Metropolitan’s library, Chameides said he led by example, prompting others to shelter Jews.
The delegation included the Chief Rabbi of Kiev and Ukraine, Rabbi Jacob Dov Bleich, and a successor to Sheptytsky, the primate of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk. The heads of the three Orthodox churches in Ukraine, including Patriarch Filaret Denysenko of the Kyivan Patriarchate were in the group as were leaders from evangelical and Adventist religious communities. The Muslim Mufti of Ukraine also took part in this historic visit.
The delegation met with Prime Minister Harper following the passage of the motion.
“We represent millions of individuals who in their worst moments—like all humans—might bow to hatred or intolerance,” Shevchuk said. But our Ukrainian delegation is here together today---and most importantly in Ukraine---to insist that we, their leaders reject such attitudes.”
The 20 or so religious leaders representing 95 per cent of Ukraine’s religious believers, who now amount to about 75 per cent of the population, said Bleich, making it “the most powerful NGO in the country.”
“Today we have a thriving religious community in Ukraine,” the rabbi said, noting the Communists had tried to destroy and uproot religious faith.
The memory of Sheptytsky has been the inspiration and unifying force for the Council of religious leaders, he said. “We’re not only honoring the person but what his life stood for. When a person is willing to go through self-sacrifice, that’s something that is holy for all mankind.”
The travel to Canada has deepened the bonds already formed among the religious leaders, the rabbi said. “This is a great witness to all of the individuals on our Council, but also to Ukrainian society as a whole.”
The delegation, including scholars, was brought to Canada by the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter (UJE), a multi-national group founded in 2008 to seek healing of the past, the development of a cultural record, and the forging of new relationships.
UJE co-founder James Temerty said he desired to do something after discovering the history of Jews in Ukraine had not always been a happy one. But many Jews who have identified themselves as Soviet or Russian come from Ukraine and Temerty said he wants to “appropriate them” and their 1,000 year shared history.
The UJE sponsored a symposium of scholars at the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute of Christian Studies at Saint Paul University Apr. 25 on the subject “Ethical action in extreme conditions.”
Father Andriy Chirosky, who founded the Sheptytsky Institute, described Sheptytsky as a mystic who loved wisdom and sought it in the Jewish and Christian texts of the Bible. He learned Hebrew and during his visits in parts of the Ukraine, Jews would come from their villages to greet him, carrying their Torah scrolls and he would speak to them in Hebrew. He also sought rapprochement with the Orthodox, he said, and if he were alive today, he would be doing the same with Muslims.
The UJE screened part of a documentary featuring interviews with Jews who were sheltered by Metropolitan Sheptytsky, with many arguing the Metropolitan should be listed as a Righteous Among the Nations at Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem.