In recent webinar presentations I’ve given, one topic that tends to generate a lot of interest and provokes many questions and discussions is that of Jewish conscription to the Russian army in Tsarist times. One particularly brutal and terrifying experience for our forefathers was the arrival of happers to take the family's sons away.
In 1827, during the reign of Tsar Nicholas I, the government ordered a quota system of compulsory conscription of Jewish males aged 12 to 25 to the army (for Christians it was 18 to 35). The quota was higher for Jews – part of the Tsar’s effort to refashion and forcibly assimilate the Jewish population.
The kahal, or local administration, run by leading members of the Jewish and Rabbinical community in each locality, was responsible for selecting the recruits. The selection process was often arbitrary and influenced by bribery, turning Jews against their communal leaders. By the 1850s, the happers had taken to kidnapping Jewish boys, sometimes as young as eight if they couldn’t lay their hands on enough older boys, in order to meet the government’s quotas. The drafting of children lasted until 1856.
Once conscripted, the young Jewish recruits were pressured to convert to Russian Orthodoxy, with the result that around one-third were baptised. Their military service lasted 25 years. As described in my book, A Forgotten Land, the happers spread fear across the Pale of Settlement, and with very good reason:
“It took only days for the Jewishness to be squeezed out of the recruits like water from a sponge. They were barred from following the kosher laws or keeping the Sabbath, or even from speaking Yiddish. Anyone who insisted on holding fast to the dietary laws – refusing to eat pork or soup made with lard – was beaten with a rod or forbidden from drinking. But however firm their Jewish resolve, there was no way the boys could avoid marching or performing drills on the Sabbath. At the end of a ten-hour march, having eaten nothing but dry bread, the young recruits would arrive exhausted at their destination and be forced to kneel until they agreed to convert to Christianity. If they continued to refuse, they had to kneel all night.”
My great-great-great grandfather had all his teeth pulled out to avoid being taken by the happers during the Crimean War of 1853-56, as the army would not accept recruits who had any kind of deformity. He never had a pair of false teeth, so the extractions altered his appearance for life. Other young men turned to self-mutilation to avoid conscription, cutting off fingers or toes, or even blinding themselves or wielding a red-hot poker to the face.
I have just watched a beautiful and fascinating short film (just 18 minutes long) directed by Jacob Stillman depicting the role of the happers and the terror they spread among Jewish communities at this time. The film, released in 2013, is called simply The Pale of Settlement. It is set in 1853 in the Carpathian Mountains on the western reaches of the Russian Empire. The opening scene shows a young boy cutting wood in the snow near the forest hut where his family lives. He watches as happers approach on horseback, rounding up recruits for the Crimean War.
Ten-year old Moishe hides in the trees as the men, accompanied by a Cossack horseman, knock at the door of the family home. Moishe’s father tells them, “Let me talk to the kahal. They know me, they would never choose my son.” One of the men replies, “The kahal sent us.”
Moishe overhears the conversation, screams and runs deeper into the forest to hide, pursued by the happers. His initial effort at taking refuge with a neighbour has the most horrific consequences. I won’t give away any more plot spoilers, I simply urge you to watch the film for yourself. It gave me a much better sense of who the happers were and just how frightening their arrival would have been. This moving film is dedicated to the memory of all the child victims of the happers.
The Pale of Settlement is available to watch free on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/70219384
Many readers have told me how much they have enjoyed my book reviews in recent weeks, so here is another tome for you to keep an eye out for. Eternal Calendar is the debut novel by celebrated Ukrainian poet and essayist Vasyl Makhno and recently won the inaugural Ukrainian-Jewish Literary Prize, run by Canadian non-profit organisation Ukrainian Jewish Encounter and Ukrainian NGO Publishers Forum.
Unfortunately, the book, published in 2019 in Ukrainian as Вічний календар, is not yet available in translation but this no doubt will be rectified soon – although translating a work of such depth and complexity would be no easy task. The book is a panoramic narrative about the lives of Ukrainians, Poles, Jews and Armenians from the 17th century to the present day.
In an interview after the publication of this novel, Vasyl Makhno – who has lived in New York for the last two decades – said that he had wanted to write an epic work about small places and to depict the particular “dirt of life”.
According to a review in The Ukrainian Weekly, the book, on a macro level, is a family saga, while on a micro level, it contains a number of stories within the stories and dramatised narratives. The novel follows the family histories of several generations, all coming from one area in western Ukraine, or eastern Galicia, centring on the village of Yazlivets and cities of Buchach and Chortkiv, where the author grew up.
The novel is divided into three parts. The first is set during the Polish-Ottoman war of 1672-1676 and its aftermath, intertwining events in both local and world history of the time. The second part takes place during World War One, specifically the Brusilov offensive of 1916, and features the rise of Chortkiv as a centre of European Hasidism. The third part brings the story almost up to date, covering the period from the end of the Second World War to the decline of the 1970s and 1980s.
In the final chapter, the protagonist travels back to Ukraine from his home in New York, where he has lived since the 1990s, to visit the places where he grew up. He is looking for the remains of the Armenian cemetery, and finds the location with the help of an elderly resident. He learns that no one else remembers the Armenian community anymore, and there is nothing left of the cemetery.
This sounds profoundly sad and reminds me of my trip to Ukraine in 2005 to visit the locations where my family had lived, and died. My grandmother had talked of the Armenian quarter in her home shtetl of Pavolitch, but no sign of it remained, and the Armenians who had once lived there appeared to have been completely forgotten.
And in most of the villages I visited, nothing at all was left of the much larger Jewish communities that had lived there for generations. In the village of Khodarkov we met a 95-year old lady who remembered the pogrom that members of my family had fled. But none of the towns and villages we visited were still home to any of the Jewish families that had lived there before the World War Two. The small numbers of resident Jews arrived after the war. Often not even the Jewish cemetery remained – the Nazis used Jewish gravestones for road building.
“Vasyl Makhno’s novel Eternal Calendar still encompasses me. The novel is great and majestic, like both the whole planet and the separate Tower of Babel, in which people who have lost a common language try to understand each other with their eyes and deeds,” says internationally best-selling writer Andrey Kurkov, who headed the prize’s international jury.
Incidentally, if you’re not familiar with Andrey Kurkov’s own writing, I can wholeheartedly recommend Death and the Penguin, widely available in English and one of my all-time top ten novels. Although set in Ukraine, it doesn’t contain a Jewish element so has no place in my blog, but I urge you to read it anyway.
The other shortlisted books for the 2020 Ukrainian-Jewish Literary Prize were My Grandfather Was the Best Dancer of Them All by Kateryna Babkina; Teacher of German by Iryna Vlasenko; A Story Worth a Whole Apple Orchard by Maksym Dupeshko; and Babyn Yar: In Voices by Marianna Kiyanovska.
If you have read any of the books that have featured in my blog this year, please do post your comments and let me know what you thought of them.
Having written recently about The Slaughterman’s Daughter, a unique novel set in the shtetls of Imperial Russia, I set out to find more stories of Russian Jewish life before the Bolshevik Revolution. Happily, an article in Russia Beyond came to my aid, listing five important novels about that lost era. An abridged version follows.
Russian literature has benefited from the creative minds of the country’s many different national groups. It was enriched by Jewish authors, some writing in Russian, others in Yiddish.
“Many believe that the language determines the national literature, and in most cases that’s true,” says Moscow-born Jewish author Semyon Reznik, now a US citizen who still writes in Russian. “Pasternak was a Jew, but he considered himself a Russian writer. The same for Mandelstam and many others.”
At the end of the 18th century, the Russian Empire acquired most of the world’s Jewish population with the annexation of Polish lands. While the Jews simultaneously prospered and faced persecution in 19th century Russia, few were active as Russian language writers. Prominent Tsarist-era Jewish authors, such as Sholem Aleichem, usually wrote in their native Yiddish. Later, in the Soviet period, Jewish writers almost exclusively wrote in Russian.
Russian-Jewish literature’s founder is Lev Nevakhovich (1778-1831), who in 1803 wrote a book, in Russian, titled The Cry of the Daughter of the Jews, which was intended as a defence of the Jews. Nevakhovich is considered one of the first Jewish writers to master the Russian language. A Jewish patriot, he wanted to show the Tsar that the Jews were upstanding and reliable citizens. The Cry of the Daughter of the Jews («Вопль дщери иудейской») was a sort of appeal to the Russian people, calling them to show tolerance and brotherly love toward Jews.
Nevakhovich wrote: “For centuries, the Jews have been accused by the peoples of the earth… accused of witchcraft, of irreligion, of superstition... All their actions were interpreted to their disadvantage and whenever they were discovered to be innocent, their accusers raised against them new accusations... I swear that the Jew who preserves his religion undefiled can be neither a bad man nor a bad citizen.”
The next books on the list is The Fixer by Bernard Malamud (1914-1986), published in English in the US in 1966. A fictional account of a Jewish man in Imperial Russia, it depicts how Jews lived in a highly anti-Semitic society. The book’s inspiration is the true-life story of Menahem Mendel Beilis, unjustly accused and jailed in what became known as the infamous Beilis trial of 1913.
Beilis, from Kiev, was accused in 1911 of murdering a Christian boy to use his blood in making Passover matzah. He was jailed for over two years awaiting trial, but resisted pressure to admit that he and other Jews were guilty. In 1913, an all-Christian jury acquitted Beilis.
Later, Beilis’ son David complained that Malamud plagiarised from his father’s memoir, a bold accusation considering that The Fixer had won a Pulitzer Prize for best novel, and that he had besmirched his father’s memory. Malamud’s main character, Yakov Bok, is “an angry, foul-mouthed, cuckolded, friendless, childless blasphemer”. The son countered that his father was “a dignified, respectful, well-liked, fairly religious family man with a faithful wife”. (Blood Libel: The Life and Memory of Mendel Beilis; editors Jay Beilis, Jeremy Garber and Mark Stein, 2011). While Malamud denied the accusations, historian Albert Lindemann lamented: “By the late twentieth century, memory of the Beilis case came to be inextricably fused (and confused) with... The Fixer.”
The only book on this list familiar to me is Tevye and His Daughters by Sholem Aleichem (1859-1916). The most popular of all Yiddish writers, Aleichem was born in a Jewish village near Pereyaslav, Ukraine. He wrote with humour and warmth about the Yiddish-speaking Jews of the Russian Empire and is sometimes considered a ‘Jewish Mark Twain’. Tevye and His Daughters is set in Imperial Russia in the late 19th century, but it’s better known today as the American musical Fiddler on the Roof, and the cinema version gave the world such famous songs as ‘If I were a Rich Man’ and ‘Sunrise, Sunset’.
Tevye the dairyman is one of the most vivid characters in the Jewish literary tradition. In the novel, he’s baffled that God gave him seven daughters, but no sons. Tevye loves them all dearly, and the daughters love him back, but as they grow up in a rapidly changing world, the family is confronted by various generational dilemmas that are familiar even today. Anti-Semitism and pogroms eventually lead to a final dissolution of their world. Tevye, along with some of his family and neighbours, emigrates to the US, as did Aleichem himself, who is buried in New York.
The next book on the list is The Road Slips Away into the Distance by Aleksandra Brushtein (1884-1968), written in the Soviet Union in 1956, in Russian and later translated into Hebrew. This autobiographical trilogy set in Vilnius during the Russian Empire is barely known outside the Russian-speaking world. It is considered an adventurous coming-of-age story, as well as a historical and social tale.
“With biting humour, abundant self-irony and a deep appreciation of her past, Brushtein tells the story of her childhood and adolescence in Vilna at the turn of the 20th century,” wrote one reviewer in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in October 2019.
The story’s main hero, Sasha Yanovskaya, confronts the quota system limiting Jewish enrolment to educational institutions, but nevertheless, finds a way to get admitted to a prestigious school for girls. She encounters dozens of fascinating characters, including the family’s servant, Yozefa, a pious Polish woman, as well as Hannah, an elderly Jewish pretzel vendor. As a teenager in the second book, Sasha witnesses the anti-Semitic trial of Jewish peasants falsely accused of making human sacrifices.
“It is hard to overstate just how much Aleksandra Brushtein’s autobiographical novel about Aleksandra (Sasha) Yanovskaya, a young Jewish girl growing up in Vilna at the turn of the century, was beloved by generations of Soviet children,” according to critic Yelena Furman. “In the Soviet Union, where it ran through many editions of tens of thousands of copies each, the trilogy achieved cult status.”
Chaim-and-Maria by Semyon Reznik (born 1938) is the final book on the list. Written in Russian in the 1970s and published in English this year, it is based on an anti-Jewish pogrom in the Russia Empire in the 1820s. The novel is full of wit and sarcasm, and even its title is a play of the name of the flower Ivan-da-Maria (Иван-да-Марья), which symbolises Love.
During the Soviet era, Reznik was better known as the author of several books on scientists, including the “ideologically harmful” biography of Soviet biologists, such as Nikolay Vavilov, who was murdered under the rule of Joseph Stalin. He emigrated to the US in 1982.
Like The Fixer, the novel has a blood libel trial as its subject. The Velizh case was one of the largest of nearly 200 blood libel cases against Jews in 19th century Europe. In April 1823, three-year-old Fedor, a Russian boy, was found murdered in a field outside Velizh, a small city in Vitebsk Province. More than 40 Jews were wrongly accused of the murder and arrested. Many died in prison; others survived, but their lives were destroyed.
“The prejudices and persecution of the Jews in Russia was not so much a Jewish problem, but rather a Russian problem. It damaged the Russian spirit, culture and statehood,” said Reznik. “It’s too trivial to demonstrate that the Jews are suffering when they are persecuted. But what about the persecutors? That is why I tried to represent all layers of Russian society, from top to bottom.”
The full article can be found here https://www.rbth.com/arts/332714-jewish-authors-imperial-russia
One of the most original and unusual books I’ve read in a long time is The Slaughterman’s Daughter by Yaniv Iczkovits, a recent release, translated from the Hebrew, from the always impressive MacLehose Press – a UK publisher that specialises in works in translation. Set in the Pale of Settlement of Imperial Russia at the end of the 1800s, it tells the story of Fanny Keismann, the eponymous daughter of a kosher butcher, who goes in search of her brother-in-law, Zvi-Meir, after he abandons her sister and their two children.
Fanny’s journey to Minsk – now the capital of Belarus and recently in the news for mass protests against its tinpot dictator Alexander Lukashenko who refuses to give up power – is fraught with danger. Fanny’s talent with a butcher’s knife stands her in good stead to quell her foes, but it also sets in train a fantastical series of events that spiral out of control and, unsurprisingly, get her into trouble with the law.
Like the stories of Sholem Aleichem, this book and its cast of motley characters evokes a nostalgia for the shtetls of Belarus, Ukraine and elsewhere in the region before the Russian Revolution, and a way of life that was already beginning to unravel when this novel was set. Hundreds of thousands of Jews had begun to emigrate to the west (mostly the United States) in search of an escape from discrimination, anti-Semitic violence and economic hardship from the 1880s onwards. Later, of course, during the Nazi occupation of 1941-44, the shtetls were destroyed altogether, their inhabitants murdered or, in the case of a lucky few, forced to flee eastwards in a bid for survival.
It is impossible not to feel a deep regret for the disappearance of these vibrant communities where our ancestors lived for generations, settlements that were extinguished so brutally. I for one am fascinated by stories and images of the lost Jewish world of Eastern Europe. But the shtetls were home to a way of life that was tough and unenviable, as this novel demonstrates. They were generally poor, miserable places, where, “The Jews have huddled so close to each other that they have not left themselves any space to breathe”. And where Jew and Goy often distrust one another absolutely.
For most of us with origins in the kinds of places that Iczkovits writes about, when we think of this period of history what we remember are the pogroms – the brutal anti-Semitic violence that broke out periodically in Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This book, filled with black humour and deep affection, but also gritty realism, provides a wonderful illustration that there was much more to this time and place.
The author describes a way of life where, outdoors, “The market is a-bustle with the clamour of man and beast, wooden houses quaking on either side of the parched street. The cattle are on edge and the geese stretch their necks, ready to snap at anyone who might come near them. An east wind regurgitates a stench of foul breath. The townsfolk add weight to their words with gestures and gesticulations. Deals are struck: one earns, another pays, while envy and resentment thrive on the seething tension. Such is the way of the world.” Meanwhile, indoors, mothers share a bed with their multiple children and face continual curses and criticism from their in-laws in the next room, who treat them like servants.
Yaniv Iczkovits is an Israeli born of Holocaust survivors. “What I wanted to do was to bring these forgotten memories of this lost world into 21st century Israel, and to present the richness of a culture that is now gone, but is still a major part of who we were and what we are,” he says.
I finally had the opportunity during lockdown to watch a documentary that I’d been wanting to see for a long time. My Dear Children, a 2018 film by director and co-producer LeeAnn Dance, tells the personal and heart-rending tale of a family separated by thousands of miles as a result of pogroms during the Russian Civil War.
Central to the story is Feiga Shamis, a mother who strives to protect her 12 children from the turbulence and violence around them. The pogroms of 1917-1921 were far more terrible than any of the anti-Semitic violence that had gone before, with a death toll estimated anywhere between 50,000 and 250,000, and up to 1.6 million injured, attacked, raped, robbed, or made homeless in the largest outbreak of anti-Jewish violence before the Holocaust. The number of individual pogroms is estimated at more than 1,200. Feiga’s 16-year-old son was killed during one of these, while her husband – like my own great-grandfather – died during the typhoid epidemic of 1918-19.
“We overheard them saying they should kill all the Jewish children so the Jews would die out,” Feiga wrote. It was time to plot her escape. With her older children married off or sent to the US, she fled to Warsaw with the four youngest, where she placed two of her children – eight-year-old Mannie and 10-year-old Rose – in an orphanage, a fairly common practice at the time. “I thought the children would be safer in the orphanage,” she wrote, “so I took them there.”
From Warsaw, the two children were selected as part of a rescue effort by Isaac Ochberg, a Jewish South African philanthropist, who managed to bring to safety nearly 200 Jewish orphans from his former homeland. At great personal risk, he travelled around Eastern Europe collecting children from orphanages and bringing them to Warsaw—to the orphanage where Feiga had placed her children. Only later did Ochberg learn the children’s mother was alive.
When Feiga learned of the plan, she faced a heartbreaking decision—keep the children with her, or let them go, to a place half a world away where she would probably never see them again, but where she was assured that they faced a better future. She chose to let them go.
My Dear Children is based on a long letter that Feiga wrote to Rose and Mannie after she had emigrated to Palestine in 1937 to live with one of her older daughters. She gave it to Mannie on the one occasion they met after his and Rose’s departure for South Africa. As a young soldier in the South African army, Mannie was posted to Egypt, from where he took a week’s leave to visit his mother. Tragically Mannie cut short his week-long visit to just a single day, with he and his mother unable to connect to one another.
Mannie never read his mother’s letter, suppressing a past that was too painful to contemplate. For the rest of his life, Mannie would agonise over why his mother had sent him away, and neither he nor his sister Rose would ever talk about their childhood back in Russia. It wasn’t until after Mannie’s death that his widow had the letter translated from Yiddish into English, printed as a small book, and distributed among members of the family.
The scenes that Feiga witnessed during the Civil War and her experiences during that time resonate deeply with the recollections of my grandmother, documented in my book A Forgotten Land. In particular, Feiga wrote about becoming a black-market vodka trader, bartering vodka for food to keep her family alive. My grandmother too was a black-market trader at this time, dealing in food, and later gold, as the sole breadwinner for her grandparents, siblings and cousins.
It is clear from her writing that Feiga remained racked with guilt and suffering over her decision to allow her children to leave for South Africa, and she wrote the letter as a justification and explanation for what she had done.
In 2016, Mannie’s daughter Judy and granddaughter Tess set out on a trip to Poland and what is now Ukraine, hoping to find answers as to why Mannie refused to talk about his past and what drove Feiga to the choice she made. They found a landscape virtually erased of its Jewish past.
“The Holocaust did not happen in a vacuum. The pogroms of 1917-1921 should be seen as a precursor to the greater tragedy just 20 years later. My Dear Children shows the consequences of unchecked, or worse – officially sanctioned – anti-Semitism, and given the increasing incidents of anti-Semitism today, this story remains relevant today. Feiga’s story is not unique. Nearly 80% of the world’s Jewry can trace their roots to Eastern Europe, thus Jews around the world share Feiga’s story. Many likely have no idea they do so.” LeeAnn Dance said in an interview for the Washington Jewish Film Festival in 2018.
For more information about My Dear Children, click here www.mydearchildrendoc.com
Books have provided me, like many others, with a place to escape during this strange Covid era. Perhaps paradoxically, my escape has not been to happier times, but to the bleakest, most terrible period of mid-20th century history, which has absorbed me during recent months. Bringing myself back again and again to the Holocaust has helped me appreciate all the freedoms we have still been able to enjoy this year, as opposed to those that the coronavirus has taken away.
The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe (translated from the Spanish) tells the fascinating story of Dita Kraus, who was 13 in 1942 when she was deported from her home in Prague to Terezin (Theresienstadt), and later to Auschwitz. Dita – a feisty, strong-minded teenager – and her parents were sent to the family camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, a showcase area established in September 1943 most likely in case a delegation of the International Red Cross were to come to inspect conditions there. The Nazis wanted to preserve the illusion that children could live in Auschwitz, and to contradict reports that it was a death camp.
In the event, though, the International Red Cross inspected Theresienstadt but chose not to come to Auschwitz after all, in the mistaken understanding that Theresienstadt was the Nazi’s final destination for Czech Jews. Perhaps if the visit had taken place, just perhaps, it would have created such a public outcry that the allies would have been forced to take action. But once the threat of a Red Cross visit disappeared, the family camp had no further purpose and was liquidated in July 1944. Of the 17,500 Jews deported to the family camp, only 1,294 survived the war.
Prisoners at the family camp were not subjected to selection on arrival and were granted several other privileges. Rations were a little better, heads were not shaved and civilian clothes were permitted. Family members were able to stay together; males and females were assigned to separate barracks, but were still able to meet one another outside their quarters. Prisoners were given postcards to send to relatives in an attempt to mislead the outside world about the Final Solution. Strict censorship, of course, prevented them from telling the truth.
Prisoners in the family camp had “SB6” added to the number tattooed on their arm, indicating that they were to receive “special treatment” for six months. When the six months were up, each transport was liquidated and a new one took its place. In spite of the privileges and so-called special treatment, living conditions were still abysmal by any standards other than those of a concentration camp, and the mortality rate was high. Dita’s father died of pneumonia in the camp.
The family camp was home to a clandestine school, established by Fredy Hirsch – a German Jew and former youth sports instructor – who persuaded the authorities to allow block 31 to act as a special area for the camp’s 700 children. Inside the block, the wooden walls were covered in drawings, including Eskimos and the Seven Dwarves, stage sets for plays performed by the children. Stools and benches took the place of rows of triple bunks. Education was officially forbidden, with the children permitted only to learn German and play games. But that did not prevent Hirsch and his teachers from organising lessons on all manner of subjects, including Judaism. There were no pens or pencils, of course, and the teachers would draw imaginary letters or diagrams in the air rather than on a blackboard.
And inside block 31 was something else, something “that’s absolutely forbidden in Auschwitz. These items, so dangerous that their mere possession is a death sentence, cannot be fired, nor do they have a sharp point, a blade or a heavy end. These items, which the relentless guards of the Reich fear so much are nothing more than books: old, unbound, with missing pages, and in tatters. The Nazis ban them, hunt them down.”
Dita became the custodian of block 31’s motley collection of books, which had been secretly taken from the ramp where the luggage of incoming transports was sorted. There were eight books – eight small miracles – which included an atlas, a geometry book, a Russian grammar, A Short History of the World by H G Wells, a book on psychoanalytic therapy, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas and a Czech novel: The Adventures of the Good Soldier Svejk, as well as a Russian novel with no cover. The school also had six “living books”, stories learnt by heart and recounted by the teachers.
Dita cared for her eight books like she would her own children, caressing them, putting their pages back in order, gluing their spines and trying to keep them neat and tidy. She took huge risks on their behalf, removing the books from their hiding place each day and lending them out to teachers as requested, always alert to the possibility of an unplanned inspection or visit from the SS.
Despite the many books I’ve read about the death camps, and a visit to Auschwitz in 2018, literature on the subject still has the power to shock. In this book, for me, it was this passage, in which a woman, together with her young son, is told that they will be transferred from Birkenau to be with her husband – a political prisoner – in Auschwitz, three miles away:
“Miriam and Yakub Edelstein have sharp minds. They immediately understand why they have been reunited. No-one can begin to imagine what must pass through their minds in this instant.
“An SS corporal takes out his gun, points it at little Arieh, and shoots him on the spot. Then he shoots Miriam. By the time he shoots Yakub, he is surely already dead inside.”
This is a beautifully written story about a time and place that was hideous and brutal. As the author says, “The bricks used to construct this story are facts, and they are held together in these pages with a mortar of fiction.” I urge you to read it for yourself.
Continuing my series of articles based on books I have read during the lockdown, The Knife Sharpener’s Bell by Rhea Tregebov is a story that attracted my attention as it unites several of my areas of interest. It begins in depression-era Winnipeg – depicting the time and place that my father was born – with the story of Annette Gershon whose father owns a delicatessen on Main Street, close to Selkirk Avenue. This is the area where my father grew up, on Flora Avenue just two blocks from Selkirk, in the old Jewish North End.
And like Annette’s family, my Dad’s parents too had immigrated to Winnipeg from Russia. The North End was where the Eastern European Jews settled, where they recreated the shtetl they had left behind in the Old Country, opening up Jewish bakers, kosher butchers and grocery stores selling all their traditional foods. In the book, the Gershons eat the same dishes that my Dad remembered from childhood – chicken soup, potato knishes, dill pickles.
Annette’s parents had come to Canada before the Russian Revolution, during the reign of Tsar Nicholas II, who had encouraged anti-Semitic mobs known as the Black Hundreds to rage pogroms against the Jews. They arrived in 1914, the same year that my great-great uncle Menachem Mendl came to Winnipeg with his family, in a race against time for his two sons to avoid conscription to the Russian Army when the First World War broke out.
But here the similarities between my family and the fictional Gershons end. Unlike my family, the Gershons have given up their Jewish customs and traditions, becoming true believers in Soviet-style socialism. In contrast, Menachem Mendl almost didn’t make it out of Russia in time because he had dithered so long, wanting his sons to avoid going into the army, but at the same time unwilling to commit himself to what he called ‘das treyfe land’ – the unkosher country. He was a deeply religious man and feared for the future of Jewish customs in the West.
When the Great Depression hit in the 1930s, the Gershons saw it as devastation wreaked by the ills of the capitalist system. Mass unemployment and plunging incomes devasted families, children went hungry and the rate of suicide increased. They longed for the Worker’s Paradise of the Soviet Union where unemployment didn’t exist and the planned economy replaced the cycle of boom and bust.
The book opens with nine-year old Annette trying to stop a train to prevent her father from travelling to the Soviet Union. He plans to go first and bring his family to join him later. This dramatic farewell takes place at a railway station that was central to my grandparents’ lives. My grandfather worked on the railways and he and my grandmother later owned a small restaurant next door called Cooper’s Lunch Bar.
Once, in the Soviet Union the Gershons settled in Odessa and tried to make the best of their new life. Annette was a teenager in 1941 when the Germans invaded. All the Jews who could prepared to leave Odessa ahead of the Nazi occupation, heading for the Urals or Central Asia. All except for Annette’s extended family, who refused to part from their beloved city. Only Annette and her brother departed for Moscow, while her parents remained on the platform at another train station and were still in Odessa when the Nazis invaded.
The tragedy of Ukraine’s Holocaust by Bullets, the shooting of naked men, women and children beside mass graves that they were often forced to dig themselves is too abominable and too well known for me to need to elaborate on it here. But it wasn’t the only form the Holocaust took in Ukraine. There were also random shootings in the streets, groups gathered together then set on fire to burn to death, and some were deported to death camps elsewhere.
The war and the Holocaust decimated Annette’s extended family, leaving her more alone and rootless than ever. In the early years of the Soviet Union, the Jews had enjoyed an unprecedented level of equality and freedom after centuries of repression. But by 1950 the age-old prejudices had crept back and the anti-Semitism of Stalin’s final years left no Jew safe. Model employees with an unblemished record suddenly lost their jobs, accused of imagined crimes or being enemies of the people. Annette’s fate lay in the hands of a merciless State.
During lockdown, I have found my reading dominated by the Second World War, and have been struck by some parallels between that era and this strange period that we are living through now. The second of the wartime books to feature in my blog is The Volunteer by Jack Fairweather, which has the subtitle “The true story of the resistance hero who infiltrated Auschwitz”. I read it straight after finishing Bart van Es’ fascinating tale The Cut Out Girl about a young Dutch girl whose parents sent her away shortly before being deported to Auschwitz. The Volunteer picks up on their experience.
The book charts the true story of Witold Pilecki, a member of the Polish resistance who agrees to get himself sent to Auschwitz in September 1940 in order to build a rebel army within the concentration camp and lead an uprising against its Nazi oppressors.
Witold succeeds in developing an extensive network of resistance in Auschwitz, but he knows that ultimately a camp rebellion will be impossible without external support. His intention – through numerous oral, written and transmitted reports that he miraculously manages to smuggle out of the camp from October 1940 onwards at tremendous risk to all involved – is to get news of the camp to the Allied leadership. Each report makes the same request: that the Allies make bombing raids over Poland to sever the train lines bringing new transits of prisoners, and to destroy Auschwitz and thereby assist the prisoners with an uprising from within. Witold argued that although the bombing would kill hundreds, it would save the lives of many thousands more over the course of the war.
While the author describes some of the unimaginable horrors of Auschwitz, it feels sometimes that these no longer have the power to shock, so familiar are we today with the narrative of the Holocaust. Yet Witold’s reports smuggled out of the camp exposed to the outside world the events that are now so familiar. Just imagine being confronted with the atrocities of Auschwitz for the first time. Gas chambers. Daily transports of Jews being divided between those to be murdered immediately, and those to die a longer, slower death by starvation, hard labour and disease. Emaciated bodies. Random shootings and other acts of extreme violence. Obscene medical experiments.
It is hardly surprising that some dismissed reports of the mass killings as fiction, they must have read like the script of a horror movie. But the Polish resistance in Warsaw took Witold’s reports seriously and used a network of underground couriers to bring news of atrocities committed at Auschwitz to the notice of the Polish government in exile in London and its leader Wladyslaw Sikorski.
The experience of the couriers who carry his reports – transmitted verbally to Warsaw, then written up, microfilmed and sent to London – is an adventure story in its own right, fraught with danger at every turn. One courier, a Polish underground agent by the name of Napoleon Segieda, carried a microfilm with news of the first mass gassings of Jews in May 1942 in a false-bottomed suitcase from Poland via Austria, Switzerland, France, Spain, Gibraltar and Scotland finally reached London six months later. He called the delay “heartbreaking”. The Nazis had killed nearly a quarter of a million Jews in Auschwitz in that time.
Sikorski repeatedly attempted to engage the British government to pay attention to the horrors committed in Nazi concentration camps in Poland and, from 1942, the mass murder of European Jews. I was deeply shocked to learn how much the Allied leaders knew of what was happening in Nazi-occupied Europe that they kept from the media and from the public, and refused to act on. Churchill and Roosevelt were both briefed repeatedly about the events taking place in Poland, but failed to comprehend the true nature of Auschwitz and its central role in Hitler’s plans. And from late 1942 reports emerged from other sources that backed up the smuggled information from inside Auschwitz.
The Allied leadership knew what was happening, and yet they did nothing. Churchill over and again dismissed out of hand the idea of bombing the camp and its train lines, finding numerous excuses for inaction – he didn’t want to upset the local population with too many grim images, feared stirring up violent anti-Semitism at home, and was wary of reprisals against captured British airmen. Most damningly, he and Roosevelt believed bombing Auschwitz would a distraction from the overall war effort.
Indeed, in early 1943, the US State Department even instructed its legation in neutral Switzerland to stop sending information from Jewish groups about the situation in Europe as they might inflame the public.
Witold and his comrades continued to conduct their activities in Auschwitz – at huge personal risk and contending with sickness, hunger and deprivation – always with the expectation of support from the Allies that never materialised. Witold could not understand the lack of action, and wondered whether his reports were being intercepted and failing to get through to the Allies. He knew that a major uprising within the camp was destined to failure without help from outside, and several unsuccessful attempts to start a camp rebellion confirmed this belief.
During Witold’s time in Auschwitz, many of his co-conspirators were discovered and killed. Having finally learnt that his reports from the camp had indeed reached the Polish resistance in Warsaw and travelled from there to London, but that international focus was elsewhere and few paid much attention to Auschwitz, Witold lost heart and began to plot his own departure from the camp.
Miraculously, he and a colleague managed to escape in April 1943, but his work was not done. Witold continued his attempts to rally support among the Polish resistance for an attack on Auschwitz. But to his bafflement, his entreaties continued to fall on deaf ears. Few people in Poland were talking about the camp’s role in the murder of Jews, and meanwhile gangs of blackmailers roamed the streets in search of any Jews still in hiding.
From outside the camp, Witold continued to write reports and to work for the Polish underground in spite of his increasing frustration. He survived the war and worked on his memoirs, but his story of futile heroism was forgotten. He was arrested by the Soviet authorities in May 1947 and sentenced to death at a show trial a year later. Had the outside world heeded Witold’s calls, millions of lives could have been saved.
Churchill’s unwillingness to step in to help the Jews, Poles, gypsies, homosexuals, communists – all those deemed inferior by the Nazi ideology – brings me back to the current move to reassess many historical figures that have long been celebrated as national heroes. The recent wave of Black Lives Matter protests resulted in the toppling of statues of those who benefitted from the slave trade and colonialism.
The statue of Churchill in London’s Parliament Square was vandalised then boarded up to prevent further damage by anti-racism protestors. Posterity has for too long airbrushed out the uncomfortable bits of history – the racism and bigotry that most of us today can no longer accept. That the tragic death of George Floyd spawned a worldwide movement to highlight inequality and bring institutional racism to the very top of national agendas is testament to how far we have come in 75 years. But it also highlights just how far we still have to go before all lives are considered equal irrespective of colour, creed, nationality or sexual orientation.
Coronavirus has caused the greatest economic disruption globally since the Second World War and, for those of us who did not live through it, this would be our World War moment – a time of sacrifice, when we make huge changes to our own lives to help save those of others. So we were told repeatedly as governments around the world shut down shops, businesses and schools and imposed previously unimaginable restrictions on the lives of their citizens.
The comparison always seemed a glib one. Nothing will ever compare with the untold suffering forced upon hundreds of millions of people in World War Two. Perhaps for those on the front line of this pandemic – our healthcare workers and those looking after the elderly – the comparison may ring true, but for most of us, lockdown has been unusually peaceful. For me personally, the hecticness of everyday life has been stripped away, to be replaced largely with home-schooling and gardening – busyness of a different kind that has forced my blog to take a back seat for the last three months.
But the wartime analogies seeped into me and for this reason most of my reading in recent weeks has centred around experiences of World War Two. Now my children are finally back at school for a couple of days a week, I intend to spend some of my new-found time writing up my thoughts about the books I have read and how I feel they chime with current events.
One book I found deeply absorbing is The Cut-Out Girl by Bart van Es, the tale of a young Jewish girl in the Netherlands who is sent away by her parents in 1942 in the hope of saving her life. Their dream is realised, as the mother and father are deported to Auschwitz just weeks after giving up their adored only child.
Meanwhile young Lientje passes from one Christian family to another, from one town to another, gradually changing from a friendly and vivacious eight-year old to a solitary and withdrawn 11-year old. With her first foster parents she is welcomed as one of the family and able to play outside freely with the other children. Later she is forced into hiding and by 1945 she is kept as a house servant, made to feel unwelcome and suffering abuse.
Lientje’s experience is far from unique in the Netherlands. Unlike other occupied countries, Holland’s socialist and resistance organisations developed networks to rescue Jewish children following the Nazi occupation and place them in hiding. Anne Frank was just one of many Dutch children tucked away in hidden rooms, attics and cellars across the country. Many thousands of hidden war children – Jews who, unlike Anne, were given up by their parents in the hope of saving them – survived, but at great emotional cost.
For me the most shocking aspect of this book is the level of complicity among the local population and the lack of resistance to the Nazi occupiers – in a country that has a longstanding reputation for tolerance. Four-fifths of Holland’s Jews were murdered during the war, more than double the proportion in any other western European country.
Van Es offers several reasons for what he terms “the exceptionally low chance of survival”. The country’s population was largely urban, persecution began early, escape across borders was almost impossible, and registration, aided by the Jewish Council, was efficient. Another factor was help from the local population, thanks to a bounty of 7.5 guilders offered for every Jew caught, which made people all too willing to inform on their Jewish neighbours and helped the local police to exceed the quotas for Jew-hunting set by their German masters.
Added to this, in July 1942 the Dutch Reformed Church refused to make a statement of disapproval about the mass deportation of Jews. It wasn’t until late 1943 that the Church decided to reverse its position and backed active resistance, telling its members to protect their fellow citizens even at cost to themselves. This enabled Jews like Lientje to go into hiding with families in rural areas, which were inherently safer.
The author intersperses Lientje’s wartime experience with the story of his own present-day research, including interviews with Lien, as she is now known, in her 80s. Comparisons between the Dutch countryside of today, connected by wide, well lit motorways dotted with bright car showrooms, contrast with the bleak, flat, empty lands of three-quarters of a century ago. A park close to Lien’s apartment in Amsterdam, where she and the author go for a stroll, was a German military camp during the war, surrounded by barbed wire and embedded with deep concrete bunkers.
Other comparisons between the two eras also resonate. The long period of economic hardship and austerity in Germany that followed the First World War; and now the global financial crisis of 2008, both pushed voters further to the right in the years that followed. This loss of faith in the political centre ground has enabled the election of an American president who is unfit to govern, while emboldening powerful leaders in countries without democratic elections. The blind belief in government propaganda of the last century has transmuted into an unquestioning faith in ‘fake news’ on social media at the expense of expertise and journalistic rigour.
The other obvious parallel is the alarming rise in racism and anti-immigrant discourse and attacks in recent years, including many perpetrated against Jews. But perhaps the demonisation of the Muslim community following terror attacks by Islamic extremists – culminating in President Trump’s attempts to impose a ‘Muslim ban’ – comes closest to the anti-Semitism of the Nazi era.
Yet the newly resurgent Black Lives Matter movement brings hope of a rising opposition to anti-immigrant sentiment, and a hope that society will not return to the division of the 1930s and 1940s. Thousands of people around the world, most of them young and many of them white, are risking their own health to attend marches and stand up to racism. The rise in people power has even prompted corporations to make statements and put their money where their mouth is, withdrawing advertising from platforms that are not doing enough to root out racism.
I cannot help but think back to the past, when there were no marches, no boycotts. Anti-Semitism was rife in society and whipped up by propaganda, in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, as well as in Germany. The number of citizens standing up to racism was tiny, hardly surprising given that they did so at great risk to their own lives. In the words of the famous 1946 poem by the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller:
First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me
My second and final post based on the publication A Journey through the Ukrainian-Jewish Encounter looks at issues of assimilation and emigration. The Journey is a fascinating document published last year by a private multinational initiative called Ukrainian-Jewish Encounter aimed at strengthening mutual comprehension and solidarity between Ukrainians and Jews.
Jewish assimilation in the Russian Empire wasn’t necessarily a question of choice. The government of Tsar Nicholas I enacted measures to refashion and forcibly assimilate the Jewish population. In 1827, it ordered a quota system of compulsory conscription of Jewish males aged 12 to 25 (for Christians it was 18 to 35) to the Tsarist army and made the leadership of each Jewish community responsible for providing recruits.
The selection process was often arbitrary and influenced by bribery, turning Jews against their communal leaders. By 1852–55, so-called happers were tasked with kidnapping Jewish boys, sometimes as young as eight, in order to meet the government’s quotas. As described in my book, A Forgotten Land, the happers spread fear across the Pale of Settlement. Once conscripted, the young Jewish recruits were pressured to convert to Russian Orthodoxy, with the result that around one-third were baptised. The drafting of children lasted until 1856.
Other assimilationist measures included the establishment of state-sponsored secular Russian-language schools for Jewish children and rabbinic seminaries to train ‘Crown Rabbis’ who were expected to modernise the Jews. An 1836 decree closed all but two Hebrew presses and enacted strict censorship of Hebrew printing. In 1844 the kahal system of Jewish autonomous administration was abolished. Decrees were also passed on how Jews should dress and the economic activities in which they were allowed to engage.
The Jewish Enlightenment – an intellectual movement across central and eastern Europe promoting the integration of Jews into surrounding societies – helped to further the aims of the tsarist government. Activists known as maskilim were enlisted to censor Jewish religious books, as these were considered to promote fanaticism and be an obstacle to Russification.
A series of laws and decrees improved the situation of the Jews under Tsar Alexander II (1855-81). Conscription requirements became less severe, while some Jews were allowed to reside outside the Pale and to vote. Political and social reforms enabled the first generation of Jewish journalists, doctors, and lawyers to obtain degrees at the state-sanctioned rabbinic seminaries and universities, going on to form the core of a modernised Jewish intelligentsia. Journalists and writers, often from the ranks of the maskilim, began to publish Russia’s first Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian-language Jewish newspapers. Modernist synagogues were established.
But state-sponsored discrimination against Jews continued, as did anti-Semitic articles in the Russian press and the expulsion of Jews deemed to be residing in Kiev illegally. The assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 triggered a new round of repression, with Jews banned from certain professions and geographical areas, and political and educational rights restricted. Only Jews who converted to Orthodox Christianity were exempt from the measures.
By the late 1800s, a small group of prosperous Jewish traders had emerged, but the vast majority of Jews lived a modest existence that often bordered on poverty. According to the Jewish Colonization Society, in 1898 the poor comprised 17-20% of the Jewish population in several provinces of present-day Ukraine.
But worse than the grinding poverty and discrimination were the pogroms. Derived from the Russian verb громить (gromit’), meaning to destroy, pogroms were waves of violent attacks on Jews that took place across the Pale primarily in 1881-82, 1903-06, and 1918-21.
Alexander II’s assassination triggered mobs of peasants and first-generation urban dwellers to attack Jewish residences and stores. Of 259 recorded pogroms, 219 took place in villages, four in Jewish agricultural colonies, and 36 in cities and small towns. Altogether 35 Jews were killed in 1881–82, with another 10 in Nizhny Novgorod in 1884. Many more were injured and there was considerable material damage.
A second wave of pogroms began in 1903 with an outbreak of anti-Semitic violence in Kishinev, in which the authorities failed to intervene until the third day. Further pogroms followed Tsar Nicholas II’s manifesto of 1905 that pledged political freedoms and elections to the Duma. The mass violence was orchestrated with support from the police and the army and carried out by the ‘Black Hundreds’ – monarchist, Russian Orthodox, nationalist, anti-revolutionary militants. Around 650 pogroms took place in 28 provinces, killing more than 3,100 Jews including around 800 in Odessa alone.
Jews attempted to resist pogroms in many areas by organising self-defence groups. Many were community-organised, but the Jewish Labour party or Bund also began mobilising self-defence units in the early 20th century.
The 1881–82 pogroms set in motion new political and ideological movements, and led to large-scale emigration. For many Jewish intellectuals, the goal of integration and transformation of communities through education and Russification was now discredited. Some perceived socialism, with its promise of equality, as the solution; others promoted emigration to America or Palestine. By the end of the nineteenth century, both Jews and Ukrainians began to emigrate in large numbers, mostly to North America.
In 1882 Leon Pinsker, a physician from Odessa who had earlier promoted the integration of Jews into broader Russian society, published an influential pamphlet titled Autoemancipation, in which he advocated that Jews establish a state of their own. He proceeded to found the Hibbat Zion movement, which paved the way for the Zionism. In 1882–84 some 60 Jews from Kharkov moved to Palestine, the first mass resettlement of Jews in Israel. From 1897 Zionist circles were established in several Ukrainian cities, making the region a centre of organised Zionism. The Tsarist government was initially indifferent towards the Zionists, but eventually banned them.
According to the 1897 census, 2.6 million Jews lived on the territory of present-day Ukraine. Kiev and some other provinces had a Jewish population of around 12-13%, while in Odessa, Jews made up almost 30% of the population. Of the Jewish population, more than 40% were engaged in trade, 20% were artisans and 5% civil servants and members of ‘free professions’, such as doctors and lawyers. Just 3-4% were engaged in agriculture, in contrast to the vast majority of the Ukrainian population.
Given these figures, the scale of emigration was immense. More than two million Jews migrated to North America from Eastern Europe between 1881 and 1914, mainly from lands that make up present-day Ukraine. Of these, about 1.6 million came from the Russian Empire (including Poland), and 380,000 from provinces of western Ukraine that were at the time part of Austria-Hungary (mainly Galicia). Another 400,000 Eastern European Jews migrated to other destinations, including Western Europe, Palestine, Latin America, and southern Africa. Jews comprised an estimated 50 to 70 percent of all immigrants to the United States from the Russian Empire between 1881 and 1910.
About 10,000 Jews had arrived in Canada by the turn of the century, rising to almost 100,000 between 1900 and 1914, settling mostly in Montreal, Toronto and Winnipeg, the hub of the Canadian Pacific Railway, where my own family settled.
Click here to see the document on which this article is based https://ukrainianjewishencounter.org/media/UJE_book_Single_08_2019_Eng.pdf?fbclid=IwAR2D2QAuBtjsIqF1kHi4eRUlxBZT-UFPR3usj0741Cp3nnnouJT1icJGphM
One hundred years ago
2017 marked the centenary of the Russian Revolution, an event that heralded the country's 1918-21 Civil War and a period of terrible suffering for my family and others who lived through it. This blog began as an investigation of current events affecting Jews in Ukraine today and comparing them with historical events from a century ago. It is broadening to include personal experiences and my exploration into Ukrainian history as my research for a new book, set in the country, develops.