In this disputed area lived the largest Jewish community in the world at the time, some 6 million souls. Few could have imagined that within this European territory some 200,000 Jews would be murdered within two years of the end of the First World War.
We know little about this massacre of Jews because it was overshadowed by the Holocaust. However, as Jeffrey Veidlinger documents in his book “Amidst Civilized (Metropolitan) Europe”, the anti-Jewish violence of 1918-1921 presaged the annihilation of the Jews during World War II.
Veidlinger is Professor of History and Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan. He will speak about his book on Wednesday, November 10 at noon, at the Kaplan Theater at the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center. The program is part of the Ann and Stephen Kaufman Jewish Book & Arts Festival.
In 1917, the Russian monarchy was overthrown; first by a provisional government, led by Kerensky, then by a Bolshevik government, led by Lenin and Trotsky. This plunged Russia into civil war.
On the one hand, the Whites, led by former Tsarist officers and cadets. They aimed to restore the old regime and reunify Russia. On the other side, the reds. Lenin created the Cheka (Extraordinary Commission for the Fight against Counter-Revolution, Profits and Corruption). The Cheka worked in conjunction with the Revolutionary Courts to eradicate opposition to the Bolsheviks in the territories controlled by the Bolsheviks.
The anti-Bolsheviks responded with a policy of “unmasking the Jews in power”. This policy was aimed at discrediting the Reds, arousing suspicion of the new regime in the eyes of the Christian population and creating the myth of the Jewish domination of the Bolshevik movement, especially with regard to the courts and the Cheka.
In Ukraine, more than 150,000 Jews died in 2,000 pogroms in the two years after the war, following the withdrawal of occupying German troops. Ukrainian nationalists, Polish invaders, red and white Russians and black groups (anarchists) fought against each other. All the participants treated the Jews as loyal game.
In his book, Veidlinger points out that the value of Jewish life has deteriorated because of this violence.
“Killing breeds more killings,” Veidlinger told JHV. “The model in Ukraine dates from the 1880s. The pogroms at that time would result in around 20 deaths.
“But people got used to the violence. The appropriate response to the invading armies has become to go after the Jews no matter what the army does. The local population allows this and even takes part in the violence. The Jews are seen not only as the enemy, but as part of a larger Jewish conspiracy which is becoming the cause of all problems.
“More and more Jews are being targeted because they are associated with Bolshevism,” continued Veidlinger. “The Bolsheviks become the
most prominent spokespersons against pogroms. I don’t think most Americans fully appreciate the importance of the association between Jews and Bolshevism as a key factor in the Holocaust. We think of racial and religious anti-Semitism. However, in Eastern Europe, the association between Jews and Bolshevism was the main motivation for violence against Jews.
In some places, the post-WWI pogroms continued for as long as it took to completely get rid of the Jewish population and to completely loot or destroy their property. Homicidal thefts against Jews and mass rapes boosted the morale of Ukrainian troops, reduced desertions and supplemented soldiers’ pay. The initiators of the pogrom often invited Christian neighbors and farmers in surrounding areas to profit, participate and profit from the mass murder. The justification given: the Jews were all Bolsheviks.
A Polish republic was proclaimed on November 11, 1918. Over the next six weeks, there were more than 150 outbreaks of anti-Jewish violence. The deadliest was in Lviv (now part of Ukraine).
According to Veidlinger, the violence in Lviv was started by armed soldiers in the line of duty after the fighting between Polish and Ukrainian forces ended. A united population, including members of the upper classes, encouraged the violence. At that time, the city had 220,000 inhabitants, including 75,000 Jews.
We know the Lviv pogrom in detail from the story published in 1919 by Joseph Tenenbaum, military doctor in Lviv, who was a victim and witness. In writing his report, Tenenbaum referred to 800 testimonies.
“Before that, there had been three weeks of fighting between Polish and Ukrainian nationalists,” said Veidlinger. “The Jews proclaimed strict neutrality. But after the victory of the Poles, they claimed that the Jews secretly supported the Ukrainians and gave them large sums of money. The organization of the pogrom was the task of the Polish army which determined when it would start, how long it would last (48 hours) and which buildings could be looted in order to save damage to businesses and Christian homes.
“Officials from the city’s water company cut off the water supply to the Jewish quarter. Jews have been burned alive in their homes after Polish soldiers nailed down their doors from the outside. At 10 a.m. on the second morning, Polish nationalists stormed the synagogue on the outskirts of the city, stole everything they could and set the Torah scrolls on fire. Two boys trying to save Torah scrolls were shot dead at the entrance to the synagogue. Not a single Polish firefighter tried to put out the flames.
In 1919, the situation in Ukraine was completely chaotic. The army of Ukrainian leader Petliura was decimated by typhus and attacked by the Bolsheviks in the north and east, whites in the south and Poles in the west.
In this power vacuum, charismatic local peasant leaders have emerged. They were supported with the help of their parents and their village. Most of these warlords used anti-Jewish sentiments and the promise of Jewish booty to gain support. Many have become sensitive to the Jewish conspiracy theory.
They spread the story that the Jews aided the German occupation of Ukraine during the war; had speculated on commodities and currency leading to economic collapse; had betrayed the Ukrainian cause by siding with the Russians; betrayed the peasant revolution by siding with the Bolsheviks; threatened the churches; and now were on the verge of controlling the whole country.
The Ukrainian perception of Jews as Bolsheviks and the resulting pogroms alienated Jews from the Ukrainian cause. This led many to turn to the new Soviet bureaucracy for justice and protection, Veidlinger said.
“The association between Jews and Bolsheviks has become a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Veidlinger. “The way out, via massive emigration, has closed. Jews from Ukraine fled to Poland and Romania where they became the object of further discrimination.
“This wave of Jewish refugees raised fears of Bolshevism and the Red Fear. Although they were fleeing Bolshevism, it was believed that they brought Bolshevism to these countries. These fears have contributed to the rise of right-wing political parties.
Veidlinger argues that many Jews recognized that this was the start of the extermination of the Jewish people. And, they took action.
“They fled as much as possible. They worked in the Soviet government. They went to Palestine. They petitioned the world powers at the Paris Peace Conference, which led to the minority treaties. “
Veidlinger said most of the sources used in his book are Russian archival sources, including testimony originally collected in Russian.
“During the interwar period, a lot of research was done on pogroms in Yiddish. Then the Holocaust happened, which completely eclipsed the pogroms. After the Holocaust, very little research has been done on this period until recently.
“With the opening of the archives in Russia and Ukraine, we realized that the murders in Ukraine in 1941 were very similar to the pogroms I am writing about in 1919.
“The events I cover in my book are difficult and complex. They’ve happened in places Americans don’t know. It was a challenge to present this story in a readable way.