In the early 1920s, thousands of Jewish refugee children flocked to Moscow from Ukraine, fleeing a series of terrifying pogroms. Legendary Jewish artist Marc Chagall recalled giving art lessons to some refugees in a Jewish orphanage outside the Soviet capital. He recalled the horrific atrocities they spoke of – their murdered parents, their sisters raped and killed, and the children themselves cold-hunted, worn-out and starving.
Unlike the Holocaust, this first wave of anti-Semitic violence has been largely forgotten by history. Yet at the time, it was the news on the front page. From 1918 to 1921, over 1,100 pogroms killed over 100,000 Jews in an area that is part of present-day Ukraine. Violence on such a large scale has raised fears that six million Jewish lives across Europe are threatened by anti-Semitic hatred. Those who made such predictions included writer Anatole France; less than 20 years later, those fears have come true.
The history of these fateful pogroms is recounted in a new book, “In the middle of civilized Europe: the pogroms of 1918-1921 and the beginning of the Holocaust”, by the professor of history and Jewish studies of the ‘University of Michigan, Jeffrey Veidlinger.
“I think at the moment they are not very well known at all, mainly because they were so overwhelmed by the Holocaust,” Veidlinger told The Times of Israel in a telephone interview. “In the interwar period, they were very well known. In some ways, it seems like everything everyone was writing back then.
Rooted in a previous linguistic research project with elderly Yiddish-speaking Jews in Ukraine who told Veidlinger how to survive pogroms, the book takes readers back to that unsettling moment in history during the Russian Civil War.
“It’s terrifying and horrible,” Veidlinger said. “It costs you a lot to write [down] this testimony. I’m sure it weighs on the reader… It was hard for me to hear, and probably hard for them to say.
The title phrase comes from France’s fears for the future of the European Jewish community. The French poet and journalist noted that some of the pogroms occurred at the same time as the Versailles peace talks tasked with ending World War I. Proskuriv on February 14, 1919, with 911 deaths listed, which Veidlinger estimates to be a third of the actual total.
“I think it was almost genocidal,” Veidlinger said of the Proskuriv pogrom. “This shows how the violence escalated during the very short period of time between November 1918 and February 1919.”
In addition to the testimonies collected by Veidlinger during the current century, he has accessed many more in the archives – including more contemporary accounts of survivors and aid workers, Jews and Christians, who have sought to help them. During this time, he discovered that the pogroms had many different perpetrators. Members of the Red and White camps opposed to the Russian Civil War each participated in the violence, as did many Ukrainian and Polish soldiers and civilians, as well as local warlords.
“It was intimate violence,” Veidlinger said. “They often knew each other, especially [in] small towns, especially warlord violence in local villages… Local blood feuds were a big part of the early pogroms. They definitely knew each other, remembered each other years later. This is why, 20 years later, the legacy of the pogroms was still very much felt in the cities. Everyone remembered, 20 years later, who were the perpetrators and who were the victims, because it was local.
Many of these pogroms took place in the former Russian settlement area – the region in which Jews were historically confined under the Czars. He had witnessed anti-Semitic violence before, notably during the first decade of the 20th century – a period that included the infamous Kishinev pogrom of 1903 and other pogroms accompanying the 1905 revolution. further anti-Semitic violence by the Russian armed forces – both and retreating.
After Russia emerged from the war, however, there was hope. Ukraine’s new government has adopted a remarkable policy of tolerance towards Jews, with some of its mottos even bearing Yiddish words. Yet the policies of the central government were eclipsed by soldiers and citizens who harbored hostility towards the Jews of the new country – a hostility that Veidlinger described as generational in some ways.
“More of a generational gap has marked Ukraine” than in neighboring Poland, he said. “The younger generation that grew up during the war tended to be more hostile to Jews than the older generation before the war. “
Hostility towards the Jews was to dissolve in the pogroms of 1918-21. A frightening section of the book chronicles four of these pogroms in chronological order, including two separate epidemics in the city of Zhytomyr. Collectively, they represent the myriad ways the pogroms have erupted, from isolated events by disgruntled army units to larger-scale actions involving more troops.
As wider conflicts erupted between the newly independent Ukraine – led by journalist-turned Cossack leader Symon Petliura – and forces claiming to represent the Tsar’s successor state, Jews found themselves embroiled in the violence that ensued. After the outbreak of the Russian Civil War, communist and anti-communist forces ravaged Ukrainian Jews through pogroms, notably in Tetiiv, the site of a March 1920 massacre by rampant whites for 10 days. In a particularly gruesome atrocity, whites burned a group of Jews alive inside a synagogue – a report said 1,127 dead. The book cites thousands of deaths from this pogrom.
“It was much worse than medieval cruelty,” Veidlinger said of the burnt down synagogue. “It was actually like the Holocaust.”
Veidlinger also recounts the situation in neighboring Poland, where one of the first of these pogroms took place – in Lemberg (now Lviv) in November 1918, when independence from Poland was established. The book describes the rape of Jewish women and girls and the destruction of Torah scrolls, with the perpetrators of the pogrom including Polish soldiers as well as civilians.
The author describes the pogroms against Jews in Poland as better documented at the time than those in Ukraine. A conflict between the two countries prevented an international investigator – American Jew Henry Morgenthau, former US Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire – from entering Ukraine’s war zone. The book cites controversial statements Morgenthau made later in his memoirs, such as describing some reports of pogroms in Poland as exaggerated by leaders of the Jewish community and accusing Zionism as the cause of the pogroms.
The book tackles the complex subject of Jews taking revenge on the pogroms in Ukraine. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Ukrainians often targeted Jews because they confused them with Communists – which was also the case in Poland. Veidlinger notes that many Bolshevik leaders had Jewish origins – most notably Leon Trotsky, who was born Lev Bronstein and who was the subject of two anti-Semitic cartoons shown in the book – and said some Jews joined the Red Army by desire to punish the Ukrainians. for pogroms. However, the author said, not all Jews were Communists, and refugees from Bolshevism included both Jews and non-Jews.
Another kind of revenge took place after the pogroms, in France – one of the many destinations Jewish and non-Jewish refugees fled to after the Russian Civil War. Among the latter was former Ukrainian ruler Petliura, who was found and murdered in 1926 by Yiddish poet Sholem Schwarzbard, which in the same year resulted in a trial that became a notorious cause and gave more testimony to Veidlinger. Meanwhile in Germany, Adolf Hitler himself was determined to take revenge – for Germany’s defeat in World War I – and used fears of Bolshevism allegedly propagated by Jewish refugees as fuel to ignite the ruling Nazi movement. .
However, not all Ukrainian Jews left. For those who did not have the means or the desire to emigrate, a tragic result occurred two decades later, after Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa in 1941. The massacres of Nazi Jews, notably at Babyn Yar that year, contained echoes of the pogroms of 1918-21. Ukrainians – including descendants of previous pogroms – aided the Nazis in slaughtering many of the region’s remaining Jews with mass shootings. At Bila Tserkva in August 1941, the Nazis were reluctant to slaughter a group of Jewish children and let Ukrainian auxiliaries kill the children instead.
“We imagine the nature of the Holocaust as Auschwitz, very mechanized and bureaucratized,” Veidlinger said. Yet, he added, there was also “the Holocaust by bullets, the way the Holocaust manifested itself in Ukraine, as well as in Belarus and Lithuania. We see the killings as much more intimate, much more participatory, more open. He naturally makes comparisons with the pogroms. It’s very similar to the pogroms of 1918-1921.
Yet, he reflected, “the aftermath of the Holocaust was so much more serious than these particular pogroms. [from 1918-21] just faded from memory.