THE BLOG
11/26/2014 12:44 pm ET Updated Jan 26, 2015

Victor Pinchuk, Mistral Warships, and the Jews of Ukraine

On November 18, 2014, in Kiev, philanthropist Victor Pinchuk was awarded the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Medal of Honor by the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine and Ukrainian Jewish Encounter (a Canadian organization) for his contributions to Ukrainian-Jewish understanding and cooperation. What follows is a corrected version of my remarks at the ceremony.

* * *

Grand Rabbi, Archbishops and Metropolitans, Presidents, Mr. Prime Minister, Mr. Ambassador, dear friends:

I am happy to have this occasion to honor Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky, in whose name you have brought us together this evening.

Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky--I am not telling you anything you don't already know--was the primate of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church during the Second World War and remains a very controversial figure.

He is one of those Ukrainians whose patriotism and anticommunism went off course during those terrible years.

In particular, there is his pastoral letter of June 1, 1941, which his critics point to when they wish to remind us that he was indulgent toward Germany.

At the same time, he was incontestably one of the few voices that dared to speak out, during those same years, against the persecution and extermination of the Jews.

He wrote to Hitler and Himmler to urge them to spare the Jews of Galicia.

In November 1942, he issued another pastoral letter titled "Thou shalt not kill" in which he forbade his flock, on pain of excommunication, to participate in any way in the mass murder that had begun to unfold around them.

He asked the monks and sisters of the region to hide Jews. In Lviv, he himself hid them in the cellars of Saint George Cathedral and in his private quarters across the street. Of the 150 he saved, most were children, but 10 or so were rabbis.

It has been argued that his goal, in so doing, was conversion. This is not accurate. He hid Jews in churches, yes. He gave them false Christian names and false certificates of baptism. He even went so far as to disguise them. But I don't believe that there was a single case of a child he saved becoming Christian after the war. Moreover, there is another pastoral letter that I read before coming here in which he cautions very clearly against the temptation to "profit" from the situation to, in effect, convert those being protected.

In short, Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky was a savior of Jews.

We have a great many accounts, including that of Rabbi David Kahane, reporting that in doing what he did he incurred immense risks, not least of which the risk of imprisonment and death.

And I have not even touched on what we know today, through the archives of the Vatican Chancellery, of his dealings with Pius XII and the messages he sent throughout the war imploring the pope to take stock of the "diabolical" character of Nazism.

What Jan Karski was to Roosevelt, Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky was to Pope Pius XII.

It is not by chance that the Anti-Defamation League last year awarded him, posthumously, at the initiative of Abraham Foxman, its prestigious Jan Karski Courage to Care Award.

I know that when Yad Vashem examined his case and had to decide whether he should be elevated to the rank of "Righteous Among the Nations," the response was not the same. Fine. The discussion is not over. The Yad Vashem committee has often had to revisit cases several times and to rule on appeal. I continue to hope the same will be true here.

The case of Andrey Sheptytsky is less complicated than many others, however, including that of Oskar Schindler, to cite just one. It is my intention, if you will allow me, to mount a modest campaign to see that Metropolitan Sheptytsky joins not only Schindler but also the two thousand Ukrainians who, in recent years, have been honored as "Righteous Among the Nations."

* * *

I would like now to take a great leap in time to bring us to today and to pay tribute to the role of Ukraine's Jews, individually and through their organizations, in the Maidan revolution.

In this case, too, things could might turned out differently.

Recall the incredible propaganda during those weeks of revolt and repression, the purpose of which was to make people believe that most of the revolutionaries in the Maidan were Nazis.

Some of it came from former president Yanukovych who, while delving into the repertoire of hackneyed anti-Semitism to argue that the international Jewish conspiracy was pulling the strings of the insurrection, was also finding fascism in the Maidan.

And some of it came from Vladimir Putin in person--yes, the same Vladimir Putin who was preparing to revive, as we have seen recently, the German-Soviet Pact--who was telling us that the Banderist, anti-Semitic counterrevolution was brewing right here in Kiev.

And he was correct in one respect. It is impossible to overlook that deep-rooted collective anti-Semitism is present in the Ukrainian memory: the holocaust by bullets that Desbois, a French priest, devoted his life to uncovering. It is true, yes, that a monstrous liability separates Ukraine and its Jews.

But the result, 70 years later, cannot be ignored either.

In that space open to all freedoms that was the Maidan, on that stage where all words, from the wisest to the most delusional, could be expressed, there was one form of madness that had not been expected--anti-Semitic madness.

Hearing this, understanding its import, the country's Jews--I can attest to this; I was there--threw themselves as one, together with their fellow Tartars, Russians, Cossacks, Armenians, and Ukrainians in general, into the forefront of the citizen revolution of which the Maidan was the forum.

Josef Zissels, who is here and to whom I extend my greetings, spoke eloquently during those days.

All of Ukraine's Jewish associations--some of which are represented here tonight--signed an open letter to the president of the Russian Federation, the French version of which I published on March 6, 2014, in my review, La Règle du Jeu, imploring "Vladimir Vladimirovich" to understand that the Jews were grown up enough to protect their rights and that they had made a clear choice to "cooperate with the government and civil society of a sovereign, democratic, and united Ukraine."

And the fact is that some part of the unbindable wound inflicted by the participation of Ukrainian civil society in the Holocaust began to close during those days.

In situations like those, you have two possible attitudes, two paradigms.

On the one hand, you have "the competition of victims," which, in essence, is this: There is not enough room, in one heart, for two loyalties; not enough room in one soul for two memories; and, between the Ukrainians massacred by Stalin and the Jews massacred by Hitler and his Ukrainian stand-ins, a choice must be made.

On the other hand, you have the "solidarity of the shaken," as defined by the great Czech philosopher Jan Patocka, which is the opposite of the first attitude, a sort of spontaneous fraternity of victims whose memories, rather than competing, reinforce each other. In this view, it is when you have the Holocaust at heart that you can see the Gulag; it is when your ear is attentive enough to hear the anti-Semitic clamor that you are also sensitive to racist or genocidal baying in general; it is because nothing about the torment of the Jewish people escapes you that you remember the torment of the Ukrainian nation--and vice versa.

Ukraine's Jews adopted Patocka's paradigm.

Ukraine's Jews practiced, as never before, the "solidarity of the shaken."

Ukraine's Jews--to their great credit--chose to remember that Ukrainians were overrepresented in the Red Army that contributed to the fall of Nazism. They chose not to forget that the battalion that liberated Auschwitz was called the First Ukrainian Front. To be a Jew in Ukraine is to agree to hold Holodomor and Babi Yar in the same thought.

That, too, I wanted to say here.

* * *

And now I want to pay tribute to one Jew in particular, a uniquely Ukrainian Jew: the very one whom you have chosen to honor with your Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Medal of Honor Award and who faces me here tonight.

That Jew's name is Victor Pinchuk. We are meeting tonight for the first time. But we have many friends in common and, in speaking with them over the last few days, I believe I have acquired a little better idea of who he is.

Victor Pinchuk is first, of course, a Ukrainian patriot--that is, in my terminology (which I believe he shares, even though I do not know him) a dedicated European, a solid and effective European, a militant with no qualms about integrating his country with Europe.

Victor Pinchuk is also what is known as an oligarch--but an oligarch of a very special stripe: a philanthropic oligarch. An oligarch who believes that he owes more than he is owed, that he his obligations outweigh his rights. An oligarch who believes that his first duty is to give back to Ukraine a little of what it has given him--which is to say his fortune. I do not know whether or not Victor Pinchuk has formally joined the Giving Pledge, the movement launched in the United States by Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Nicolas Berggruen, and others, a movement that invites the world's billionaires to donate half of their money to philanthropic causes. But as far as I can tell, he clearly is operating in this spirit. Moreover, like President Poroshenko, I believe he is one of the few Ukrainian billionaires to have remained in Kiev at the time of the Maidan demonstrations and to have organized, in the midst of the revolution and just a few hundred meters from the field of battle, a major exhibition honoring an artist whom he defends (as do I), an artist by the name of Jan Fabre.

But what interests me tonight, and what interests you as well, since it is the reason for which you have chosen to honor him, is that he is above all a great Jew.

What makes a great Jew?

The phrase may be surprising, but I believe that there are great and less great Jews. And I believe that what makes a great Jew are three traits that are all found in Victor Pinchuk.

The first is Ahavat Israel, the "love for the Jewish people," or simply the love, friendship, or benevolence that Gershom Scholem, in a celebrated debate, found to be so tragically lacking, at the time of the Eichmann trial, in his colleague Hannah Arendt. Many are the Jews who, having achieved power, glory, or recognition in the gentile world turn their back on Ahavat Israel, forgetting it. I do not believe that is the case with Victor Pinchuk.

The next is the connection with memory, particularly the memory of suffering, pain, and persecution. Here, too, Victor Pinchuk can be distinguished from the many Jewish amnesiacs, forgetful Jews, who we see around us. Was he not Steven Spielberg's partner in the production of Spell Your Name, the only film ever made on the Babi Yar massacre? And, perhaps even more important, is he not one of the sponsors of Holocaust by Bullets, the foundation created by Patrick Desbois to locate, disinter, name, and honor the nameless and uncounted dead of that other holocaust?

And finally I believe that a great Jew is an affirmative Jew. There are negative Jews who practice their Judaism in secret or experience it shamefully. There are the many "Sartrian" Jews who believe, with Jean-Paul Sartre, that Judaism is nothing more than a reflection of anti-Semitism or who might agree with Heine, who, in a remark that unfortunately remains famous, once exclaimed, "Judaism? I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy; insult and pain is all it brings." Well, Victor Pinchuk begs to differ. He lives his Judaism, not ostentatiously but with the positivity of a clear and frank affirmation. He supports Ukraine's Jewish charities. He restores sites of worship in Ukraine. And when he invites friends like Tony Blair or Chelsea Clinton to visit his country, where does he take them? To the Golden Rose synagogue in Dnipropetrovsk, for one. To a synagogue in Kiev. I like that. It is good when a Jew wears his Judaism calmly and confidently. Because that, too, is being a great Jew. It is, in fact, the definition of what I call an affirmative Jew.

* * *

One more word.

I am French. And I realize that most of you here cannot listen to a Frenchman talk about Ukraine without being reminded of the affair that, at this very moment, is poisoning relations between our two countries. That is, of course, the matter of the Mistral helicopter carriers.

You need not ask me the question, because I am going to give you the answer first.

As you may know, I am one of those in France who are campaigning against the delivery of those ships. But what you probably do not know is that there are a great many French citizens, probably a majority, who share my opinion and find that delivering warships to Russia while Russia is delivering to the Ukrainians a war in which France's foreign policy has already chosen a side would be inconsistent at best and scandalous at worst.

Another thing you do not know is that among the many French people who hold this view is the president himself, François Hollande, who is in Australia but whom I contacted this morning, knowing that you might ask me about this. He said to me explicitly, and authorized me to repeat to you, that France was standing firm (those were his words) and that the Russian sailors who for several weeks now have been in the French port where the first of the Mistrals is moored and who, under the terms of the contract, are supposed to familiarize themselves with the ship and take possession of it, have been barred from boarding it since yesterday.

The Mistrals are a cause of controversy in France. The opponents of the French president are pressuring him to "honor France's signature." But I do not think that he will yield. I assume that at this very moment he is considering the options open to him that would allow him to extricate himself from a morally and strategically untenable situation without penalizing the workers of France's shipyards.

There is the "Canadian" solution proposed by our friend Berel, who is here with us.

There is the solution that I proposed, which would be to sell the ship to Ukraine under a long-term loan granted by the European Union at a favorable interest rate.

There is the idea of German vice chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, which is to sell it to the European Union. Would that not be the best way to give form, for the first time, to the "common defense" that has been discussed for so long but that remains a dead letter?

There might be yet another way--the idea has just occurred to me. And that would be for Ukraine's "oligarchs" to chip in and buy it. It is a beautiful ship, really! And, at $1 billion, the price is not so astronomical for them. They might even be getting a bargain!

The only hypothesis that seems to me to be out of the question is for France to deliver the ship calmly to Putin, as if it meant nothing at all--because Putin is capable of sending it just as calmly to sit off Mariupol or Odessa.

I wanted to tell you about these developments.

* * *

One last thing.

I realize that I am delivering this tribute to Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky, to Victor Pinchuk, and to Ukraine's Jews at a very particular and particularly dramatic moment in the history of your country.

And I am not unaware--no one could be unaware--that as I speak thousands of Russian soldiers are on maneuvers in Donbas. Nor am I blind to the fact that, in support of the dogs of war of Donetsk and Lugansk and the Cossack and Chechen mercenaries who were already there, Russian soldiers are converting that region of Ukraine into a sort of Sparta where force alone is respected, where only violence is preached, and where even the rhetorical "defense of oppressed Russian speakers" has given way to what is plainly a more offensive line. I read just now an article in which our friend Adrian Karatnycky reported a statement by the leader of the Donetsk People's Republic, Aleksandr Zakharchenko. "My army," this bandit says in essence, "is now in a position not only to defend but to attack."

Faced with that, faced with this change in discourse and, perhaps, in scale, I know that words and pretty declarations are no longer enough.

Faced with what has to be called a new state of emergency and of extreme danger, I understand that your country needs support that is much more substantial than that conveyed by flowery diplomatic phrases.

But I want to tell you that many of us at home already share your view, and I dare to hope that very soon a majority will understand that Europe's survival is at stake here in Kiev and that it is absolutely necessary to help you wage this battle and win it.

You know, I assume, that two courageous American senators have succeeded in obtaining the approval of a senate committee for a Ukrainian Freedom Support Act, which, if it becomes law, will permit delivery to Ukraine of encrypted communication systems, drones, anti-tank and anti-aircraft batteries, and even the precision weapons that your armed forces so desperately need.

I was in the United States in recent weeks, and I have a feeling that the bill in question will pass by January or February.

I also have a feeling that other countries, including my own, will join the movement or even act first. And I am convinced that you are less alone than you are reported to be, less alone than Mr. Putin thinks, and less alone than you probably believe yourselves to be.

In any event, I am working on it. In my small way, with my limited means, I am working on it. Just a short while ago, before joining you, I met with officials from Ukraine's defense ministry who explained some of their needs to me. I intend, upon my return, to make those needs known in the right places.

* * *

And finally, a very last word.

At the outset of this talk, I mentioned the Kremlin's propaganda campaign, which, for nearly a year now has tried to present the Maidan as a den of rabid anti-Semites at whom the heavy artillery of the antifascist struggles of the past should be aimed.

What I find heart-breaking is that many Russian Jews seem to have fallen for this ruse and swallowed the story. What not only breaks my heart but also angers me is that Putin has dared to impress Moscow's Jews into this mad, fratricidal campaign.

You cannot do that.

You cannot play with those words and that memory.

You cannot recreate the war against the Jews in order to serve short-term political interests.

I believe that we must find a way to oppose this, too, this indecent and odious manipulation.

Russian Jews who, like Grand Rabbi Berel Lazar, flatter Putin--are they the Kremlin's new useful idiots? Are the misinformed? Are they being held hostage? Is someone holding a gun to their head, or do they truly believe what they are saying?

In any case, it is intolerable. The situation truly breaks my heart. And, even if only to unburden myself, I want to offer a suggestion.

Let us organize a meeting of the Jews of Ukraine and Russia. At that meeting, let us put everything on the table. Let us discuss the misunderstandings that this propaganda has created, if misunderstanding there be. And let us repair, if it is broken, the living link between Jews that Flavius Josephus, author of The Wars of the Jews, said should never be allowed to be touched or corrupted by tyrants.

I tell you this from the depth of my love for Ukrainian Judaism, which has suffered so much and is now raising its head.

I tell you this with the great respect that I have for Russian Judaism, which, too, is emerging from a long night. It would be so sad to see it fall back under the fist of the likes of Vladimir Putin. Natan Sharansky, Yosef Begun, Ida Nudel, Yosef Mendelevich, Alexander Lerner, Victor Brailovski! All those names for which I, along with many of my compatriots, fought so hard in my youth! All the refusniks, all those refused exit visas, those men and women of the great refusal, people of steely resistance, models of indomitability and courage!

All those who could not be broken--it is intolerable to imagine them kowtowing to a shabby FSB officer!

We owe it to those of them who are no longer with us to save their children and their heirs from the trap that is closing around them.

It is for them--for all of us, living or dead--that I issue this call for a congress of the free Jews of two countries, Ukraine and Russia.

The congress could be held in Jerusalem, Paris, or elsewhere. It could be held at the initiative of the Grand Rabbi of Kiev and Ukraine, Yaakov Dov Bleich, who is here tonight. Victor Pinchuk could be, in an extension of the affirmative and assertive Judaism that I described earlier, the facilitator or even the architect.

Of only one thing am I sure: The very fact that such a congress takes place would be, in and of itself, a defeat for Putin and a victory, in Moscow as in Kiev, for the values of truth and liberty.

Thank you.