20 years before the Holocaust, pogroms killed 100,000 Jews – then were forgotten
‘In the Midst of Civilized Europe’ by Jeffrey Veidlinger revisits the brutal violence in 1918-1921 that portended a genocide of Europe’s Jews, and was soon overshadowed by it
In the early 1920s, thousands of Jewish child refugees flooded into Moscow from Ukraine, fleeing a terrifying series of pogroms. Legendary Jewish artist Marc Chagall remembered giving art lessons to some of the refugees at a Jewish orphanage outside the Soviet capital. He recalled the horrifying atrocities they spoke about — their parents murdered, their sisters raped and slain, and the children themselves chased out in the cold, threadbare and starving.
Unlike the Holocaust, this earlier wave of antisemitic violence has largely been forgotten by history. Yet at the time, it was front-page news. From 1918 to 1921, more than 1,100 pogroms killed over 100,000 Jews in an area that is part of present-day Ukraine. Such large-scale violence led to fears that six million Jewish lives across Europe were at risk from antisemitic hate. Those who made such dire predictions included writer Anatole France; less than 20 years later, these fears were realized.
The story of these fateful pogroms is chronicled in a new book, “In the Midst of Civilized Europe: The Pogroms of 1918-1921 and the Onset of the Holocaust,” by University of Michigan history and Judaic studies professor Jeffrey Veidlinger.
“I think right now they’re not very well-known at all, mostly because they’ve been so surpassed by the Holocaust,” Veidlinger told The Times of Israel in a phone interview. “In the interwar period, they were very well-known. In some ways, it seems like it was all anybody was writing about then.”
Rooted in a previous linguistic research project with elderly Yiddish-speaking Jews in Ukraine who told Veidlinger about surviving the pogroms, the book takes readers back to this disturbing moment in history during the Russian Civil War.
“It’s terrifying and horrifying,” Veidlinger said. “It takes a toll on you to write [down] that testimony. I’m sure it takes a toll on the reader… It was difficult for me to hear, and probably difficult for them to tell.”
The title phrase comes from France’s fears for the future of European Jewry. The French poet and journalist noted that some of the pogroms occurred at the same time as the peace talks at Versailles tasked with ending World War I. One was perhaps the largest single mass murder of Jews in modern history up to that point — the pogrom of Proskuriv on February 14, 1919, with 911 listed deaths, which Veidlinger estimates is one-third of the actual total.
“I think it was almost genocidal,” Veidlinger said of the Proskuriv pogrom. “It shows how the violence escalated during the very short period of time between November 1918 to February 1919.”
In addition to the testimonies Veidlinger took in the current century, he accessed many more in archives — including more contemporaneous accounts by survivors and the aid workers, both Jewish and Christian, who sought to help them. Meanwhile, he found that the pogroms had many different perpetrators. Members of the opposing Red and White sides in 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, particularly [in] small towns, particularly the violence of the warlords in local villages… Local vendettas were a big part of the first pogroms. They definitely knew each other, remembered each other years later. It’s why, 20 years later, the legacy of the pogroms was still very much being felt in the towns. Everybody remembered, 20 years later, who were the perpetrators and who were the victims, because it was local.”
Many of these pogroms took place within the former Russian Pale of Settlement — the region to which Jews were historically confined under the tsars. It had witnessed previous antisemitic violence, notably during the first decade of the 20th century — a period that included the notorious Kishinev pogrom of 1903 and further pogroms accompanying the revolution of 1905. WWI brought further antisemitic violence from Russian army forces — both on the advance and in retreat.
After Russia exited the war, however, there was hope. The new government of Ukraine adopted a policy of remarkable tolerance toward Jews, with some of its currency even bearing Yiddish words. Yet the central government policies were overshadowed by soldiers and public citizens who harbored hostility toward the new country’s Jews — a hostility that Veidlinger described as generational in some respects.
“More of a generational divide marked Ukraine” than in neighboring Poland, he said. “The younger generation that had grown up in war tended to be more hostile to Jews than the older generation in the time before the war.”
Hostility toward Jews would coalesce in the pogroms of 1918-21. A chilling section of the book narrates four such pogroms in chronological order, including two separate outbreaks in the city of Zhytomyr. Collectively, they represent the multiple ways in which pogroms erupted, from isolated events by disaffected army units to larger-scale actions involving more troops.
As wider conflicts erupted between newly independent Ukraine — headed by journalist-turned-Cossack leader Symon Petliura — and forces claiming to represent the successor state to the tsar, Jews got caught up in the ensuing violence. Following the outbreak of the Russian Civil War, both communist and anticommunist forces ravaged Ukraine’s Jews through pogroms, including in Tetiiv, the site of a March 1920 massacre by rampaging Whites over 10 days. In a particularly gruesome atrocity, the Whites burned a group of Jews alive inside a synagogue — with one report estimating 1,127 dead. The book cites reports of overall deaths from this pogrom into the thousands.
“It was much worse than medieval cruelty,” Veidlinger said of the synagogue set alight. “It was actually like the Holocaust.”
Veidlinger also chronicles the situation in nearby Poland, where one of the earliest of these pogroms took place — in Lemberg (now Lviv) in November 1918, as Polish independence 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 pogroms against Jews in Poland as better documented at the time than those in Ukraine. A conflict between both countries prevented one international investigator — American Jew Henry Morgenthau, the former United States ambassador to the Ottoman Empire — from accessing the war zone of Ukraine. The book cites controversial statements that Morgenthau made later in his memoirs, such as describing some reports of pogroms in Poland as exaggerated by Jewish community leaders, and blaming Zionism as a cause of the pogroms.
The book addresses the complex subject of Jews taking revenge for the pogroms in Ukraine. Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, Ukrainians often targeted Jews because they conflated 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 antisemitic cartoons shown in the book — and said that some Jews joined the Red Army out of a desire to punish Ukrainians for the pogroms. However, the author said, not all Jews were communists and that refugees from Bolshevism included Jews and non-Jews alike.
A different kind of revenge took place after the pogroms, in France — one of many destinations where Jewish and non-Jewish refugees headed after the Russian Civil War. Among the latter was ex-Ukrainian leader Petliura, who was tracked down and assassinated in 1926 by the Yiddish poet Sholem Schwarzbard, resulting in a trial that same year that became a cause celebre and yielded more testimonies for Veidlinger to delve into. Meanwhile, in Germany, Adolf Hitler was himself bent on revenge — for German defeat in WWI — and used fears of Bolshevism allegedly spread by Jewish refugees as fuel to ignite the Nazi movement to power.
Not all Ukrainian Jews left, however. For those who lacked the means or desire to emigrate, a tragic result unfolded two decades later, after Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa in 1941. The Nazi mass killings of Jews, most notably at Babyn Yar that year, contained echoes of the pogroms of 1918-21. Ukrainians — including descendants of the perpetrators of the earlier pogroms — helped the Nazis slaughter many of the remaining Jews of the region through mass shootings. In Bila Tserkva in August 1941, the Nazis were reluctant to massacre 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 Belarus and Lithuania. We see the killings as much more intimate, much more participatory, more open. It naturally draws comparisons to the pogroms. It’s very similar to the pogroms of 1918 to 1921.”
Yet, he reflected, “the aftermath of the Holocaust was so much more severe that these particular pogroms [from 1918-21] just faded into memory.”
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