Ukrainian Jewish Heritage: Sheptytsky from A to Z

Today we will play a game with the alphabet. “A” is for aristocrat, someone who is privileged but also someone who can be considered the best of its kind.

“A” is also for ascetic, someone who practices profound self-discipline and abstains from the worldly pleasures of life.

“A” is also for Andrei, as in Andrei Sheptytsky, a legendary Ukrainian religious leader and moral authority in the very much-tormented Galicia of the 20th century.

A remarkable children’s book—and a book that will delight not only children—created a stir at this year’s Lviv Book Forum.

Sheptytsky from A to Zed, or if you prefer, from A to Zee, offers a delightful yet thoughtful account of a renowned figure’s life through the letters of the alphabet.

Of course, in the original Ukrainian the last letter is not zed, but rather “ya,” which means “I.” I, and you, and anyone else reading the book will get an invaluable tip when we reach this letter. But more about that later.

The book, written by Halyna Tereshchuk and Oksana Dumanska, and illustrated by Romana Romanyshyn and Andrii Lesiv, covers with wit and panache all the highlights of a great man’s life.

Count Roman Aleksander Maria Sheptytsky was born in 1865 into a wealthy family of landowners whose noble Ruthenian lineage dates back to the 13th century.

Sheptytsky’s family was Roman Catholic Polish aristocracy whose household language was French. A life of ease only available to the upper classes of that era awaited the young man.

But he chose another path. Defying his father, he became a monk at the Basilian monastery in the western Ukrainian town of Dobromyl. He returned to his family’s ancient roots to serve in what was then regarded as the very unfashionable and peasant Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

He took the name Andrei, or Andrew, after the younger brother of Saint Peter, who is considered the founder of the Byzantine Church, and specifically of the Ukrainian Church.

He rose rapidly. In 1901, at the age of thirty-six, he was enthroned Metropolitan Archbishop of Lviv and head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

Despite his illustrious background and exalted position, he remained a man of simple tastes. German officers who called on him during the Nazi occupation of the Second World War were surprised to witness his meager meal of potatoes, bread, and water. “I eat what my people eat,” said Sheptytsky.

The German visitors were interested in more than the churchman’s cuisine. While still a student at Krakow University, Sheptytsky learned Hebrew and read widely on Jewish history, religion, and culture.

And in the bleak terrain of Nazi-occupied Ukraine, Sheptytsky hid Jews in his palace, including , Kurt and Nathan Lewin, the sons of the rabbi of Lviv. Additional Jewish children were hidden throughout Ukrainian Catholic monasteries in Galicia, a complex operation coordinated by Sheptytky’s brother Klement.

In addition to this dramatic account of his moral choices, Sheptytsky’s achievements as a scholar, philanthropist, patron of the arts, and leading public figure in Ukrainian society are covered in this charming and engaging book.

At the very end of the book we reach the Ukrainian letter “ya” or “I.” And I, and you, and all our listeners are reminded that as individuals we each have choices in the path we choose to follow. Some are more constructive. Sheptytsky’s example offers a clue, and not only for children.

The illustration of a lock and a key on one of the last pages offers the reader of this book an open-ended question. What does faith, hope, and love mean to you?

This has been Ukrainian Jewish Heritage on Nash Holos Ukrainian Roots Radio. From San Francisco, I’m Peter Bejger. Until next time, shalom!

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