The weeks following the tsar’s abdication were heady times, when the Provisional Government, made up of former members of Russia’s Duma, and the Petrograd Soviet vied for power. The Provisional Government set to work abolishing the death penalty, granting civil liberties and an amnesty for political prisoners – including those in exile – and ending religious and ethnic discrimination.
For Russia’s Jews, the Provisional Government promised almost unimaginable freedoms. For nearly 40 years, since the terrible pogroms of 1881, Jews had been emigrating in great numbers from the Russian Empire to America – the land of the free – seeing it as the fabled promised land. Now it appeared that the Promised Land was coming to Russia, there would be no longer be any need to emigrate.
Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich, brother-in-law of the recently deposed Tsar Nicholas II, was in Kiev in March 1917, still part of the Russian Empire and at the heart of the Pale of Settlement, where Jews were forced to live in the Tsarist era.
He described “triumphant demonstrations which have been organised to celebrate the country’s newly acquired freedom. The days are filled with endless meetings, and countless orators are promising peace, triumph and freedom.” Demonstrators marched through the streets carrying banners with the slogans:
“We demand immediate peace!”
“We demand the return of our husbands and sons from the front!”
“Down with the government of capitalists!”
“We need peace, not bloodshed!”
“We demand an independent Ukraine!”
For although the Provisional Government had granted significant reforms, it had not pulled Russia out of the war, which was bleeding the country dry and sapping morale. Nor did it address the thorny issues of land reform and the dreadful living standards, particularly among the peasantry.
The Grand Duke was fearful of the revolution, and above all, that it could allow Jews to gain power. “All these freedoms are all very well, but meanwhile we, for some reason, are obliged to suffer more than any other citizens. It seems we are heading, rapidly and irrevocably, towards a republican regime. I fear that we are not ready for this, and Russia will fall apart. Already, Ukraine wishes to become an independent republic. And above all, the Yids will now gain a great deal of power, as we’ve already seen in Kiev, but if they continue in this way, a pogrom is inevitable, and they are terribly afraid of this.”
In the coming months and years, the Grand Duke would be proved horribly correct.
Quotes from Project1917.com
The Jerusalem Post yesterday published an amazing story about the small town of Bershad, dubbed ‘Ukraine’s last shtetl’. Described as a “drab town 160 miles south of Kiev”, Bershad is located due south of Pavolitch (Pavoloch in Russian), where my family originates, close to the present-day border with Moldova. Its population numbers some 13,000, around 50 of whom are Jewish.
The town initially appears no different from hundreds of other grim Ukrainian towns where a handful of ageing Jews try to keep their traditions alive. My father and I experienced several similar settlements when we were in Ukraine in 2005 to visit our ancestral home and carry out research for A Forgotten Land. We were shocked, in particular, to find that the tiny Jewish community in Makarov – home to a famed dynasty of Twerksy Rabbis, and also to my great-grandfather Meyer – had no idea where the renowned Rabbi’s Court had stood. All were incomers who had not known Makarov before the Second World War.
But Bershad is clearly different, “a living testament to the Jewish community’s incredible survival story – one that has endured despite decades of communist repression, the Holocaust and the exodus of Russian-speaking Jews”.
In marked contrast to the region’s other Jewish communities – in fact to religious communities of any faith, which were harshly persecuted in the Soviet era – the authorities returned the town’s synagogue to the Jewish population in 1946, after the Nazi’s were defeated. While most shtetls were wiped out by the Nazi invasion (the Jews of Pavolitch were rounded up and shot in 1941), Bershad survived owing to its westerly location, which put it under the occupation of Romanian, rather than German, troops during the war. The Romanians were less systematic in their slaughter of Jews. They liquidated neighbouring shtetls, but Bershad (with a pre-war Jewish population of 5,000) became a Jewish ghetto with a population of 25,000. The majority perished, but after the war, some 3,500 remained.
In the post-war era, the community attributes the shtetl’s survival to centuries of coexistence with the gentile population. Bershad’s Jews were workers – metal workers, shoemakers, carpenters and fishermen – whose families had worked alongside non-Jews for generations. Unlike in larger towns, they were not regarded as class enemies, such as intellectuals or merchants.
Bershad’s elderly Jewish population recalls following the traditional rituals and festivals, with the smell of baking wafting from the makeshift matza bakery before Passover and families gathering outside the synagogue to hear the shofar on Yom Kippur.
Most of Bershad’s Jews have emigrated to the US or Israel since the Soviet Union collapsed and exit visas became freely available. The matza bakery has closed; the synagogue is more of a community centre and rarely achieves a minyan; and what remains of the Jewish quarter is disintegrating following a quarter of a century of emigration. The last remaining native Yiddish speaker is considering leaving for Israel. But the fact that Bershad’s Jewish community survived as long as it did is a miracle in itself.
This week marks the centenary of the end of the Russian Empire. Tsar Nicholas II abdicated on 15 March 1917. He had attempted to reach the royal palace at Tsarskoe Selo, but revolutionaries had occupied the train stations around Petrograd, the imperial capital, and palace guards refused to support the imperial family. Realising he had lost almost all support in the country, the Tsar was forced to stand down.
The Project 1917 website has some wonderful quotes from those involved. “All around is betrayal, cowardice and deceit!” decried Tsar Nicholas. Alexander Kerensky, justice minister in Russia’s Provisional Government said, “A free Russia has been born, and no one will succeed in prising this freedom from the people’s hands”.
And here’s a fabulously unstatesmanlike quote from the Britain’s King George V: “I fear Alicky [ie, the Tsarina, Alexandra Feodorovna] is the cause of it all and Nicky [Tsar Nicholas] has been weak.”
But not even a revolution could distract the composer Sergei Prokofiev from his work: “Thousands, tens of thousands of people are wandering the streets today with red bow-knots on their chests. This monotonous loitering has begun to annoy me. Right now I sit at home and work with great pleasure, I finished the 3rd sonnet and continued working on the violin concerto.
Here’s a great picture portraying that Prokofiev might have seen from his window.
The February Revolution centred on Petrograd, its name having been changed from St Petersburg at the start of the war in 1914 to make it sound more Russian. But its effects were felt across the empire. Here’s an extract from A Forgotten Land describing events in Kiev as the empire crumbled:
“The mood in the streets changed overnight with the tsar’s abdication. Decades – even centuries – of fear were lifted and the population brimmed with excitement and optimism. Not just Jews, but Ukrainian factory workers, railway men and labourers all rejoiced in the new sense of hope. Jubilant processions were swiftly organised, concerts planned and enthusiastic bands of actors performed hastily rehearsed plays that had previously been banned.”
And another on the effects on the Jewish community:
“Under the tsars, the Jews had been stifled. We had experienced nothing but suffering at the hands of the authorities ever since our land had become part of the Russian Empire. […]Now, at last, we felt we could breathe. Kerensky would change everything. He was a socialist, a democrat and an amazing orator. He was an almost god-like figure and my family worshipped him. He roused the inhabitants of the Pale [the area where Jews were forced to live under tsarist rule] with is powerful speeches proclaiming that from now on, nobody in Russia would face discrimination on the grounds of religion or race. For the first time, Jews would be able to travel freely; to study and work in regions and professions from which we were previously barred; to settle wherever we wished, buy land of our own. There was a great feeling of hope, a new dawn.”
Extracts from A Forgotten Land
Historians and Ukraine’s Jewish community are protesting at a Ukrainian historian speaking at a conference on the Holocaust to be held in Paris this week.
Volodymyr Vyatrovych, director of Ukrainian National Memory Institute, has praised a Nazi collaborator by the name of Roman Shukhevych whose Ukrainian Insurgent Army troops reportedly killed thousands of Jews and ethnic Poles in the 1940s. Vyatrovych is giving a talk at the 9-11 March conference on the Holocaust in Ukraine, subtitled New Perspectives on the Evils of the 20th Century.
Vyatrovych “is a falsifier and manipulator of historical facts who has not only blamed Jews for the Great Famine, but denies the anti-Semitic ideology and practices” of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, Eduard Dolinsky, director of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, says.
The two organisations fought during the first half of the 20th century against Soviet domination and briefly collaborated with Nazi occupation forces before turning against them. Today the group’s leaders, as well as other Holocaust-era nationalists are celebrated as heroes in Ukraine for their opposition to Soviet rule.
The conference coincides with the 100th anniversary of Russia’s February Revolution, which paved the way for the start of Soviet rule later in 1917. For around a week from 8 March (23 February in the Julian calendar used in Russia at the time), mass demonstrations and armed clashes came to a head, forcing Tsar Nicholas II to resign, and heralding the end of Russia’s monarchy.
Here’s how the February Revolution was viewed by Jews in Ukraine at the time, in the voice of my grandmother, Pearl Unikow Cooper:
“It was as if a black cloud had lifted from above our heads. Alexander Kerensky and the Provisional Government filled the power void left by Tsar Nicholas and represented everything we had ever hoped for[…]. The Pale of Settlement [where Jews were confined to living] was dissolved at a single blow; censorship was abolished, and my grandfather began devouring newspapers and any other source of information that he could find, hungry for news that had not previously been considered fit for public consumption.
“No more Tsar! No more restrictions on Jewish jobs and residence permits! Now we had the same rights as everybody else in the country. I didn’t understand the politics of it all, but I could feel the difference in my daily life. The mood of oppression that had settled since the beginning of the war was suddenly lifted. People smiled, chatted, laughed; they talked about their hopes and dreams, voiced aspirations that they had never dared to speak about before; some even danced in the street.”
Extract from A Forgotten Land
Ukrainians living in the US and Europe have made an appeal to Jewish communities to urge them to help end the looting of mass graves of Holocaust victims in Ukraine.
Dozens of incidents have been recorded in recent years in Jewish cemeteries in western Ukrainian cities with large pre-war Jewish populations like Berdichev, regarded as the Russian Empire’s Jewish capital in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and Zhitomir. The towns are in the heart of the old Pale of Settlement, where Jews were restricted to living in the Tsarist era.
Now robbers have unearthed the mass graves of Jews murdered in the Holocaust in search of gold, teeth, jewellery and even children’s skulls. The latter have been found at markets in town and cities, according to a statement released this week by the European and American forums for Russian-speaking Jews.
“Unfortunately, in the Ukraine there are many mass graves which are not sufficiently protected, where thousands of Jews were executed during the Holocaust,” said Michael Yehudanin, president of the European Forum of Russian-speaking Jews.
Dr Dimitry Shiglik, president of the American Forum of Russian-speaking Jews, called on Jewish communities and their leaders across the world to join the efforts “and take a more active role in protecting these mass Jewish graves in order to prevent their desecration, and call on the criminals to be severely punished”.
Here’s a photo of the pre-war Jewish cemetery in Berdichev, taken during my visit to Ukraine in 2005, while researching A Forgotten Land. The cemetery is vast, with acre after acre of crumbling headstones belonging to men, women and children who have long been forgotten – generations of Jews whose descendents either escaped to the West or were mown down by Nazi bullets. Now nobody is left to tend their graves. We were told that the Nazis smashed up thousands of Jewish gravestones and used them for road building.
Today Jewish cemeteries are under attack in North America too, along with a wave of bomb threats to Jewish centres and even a gunshot being fired through the window of a synagogue. Up to 100 tombstones were overturned and damaged in Philadelphia, less than a week after a similar incident at a Jewish cemetery in St Louis. In the first two months of the year, 69 bomb threats were made to 54 Jewish centres in the US and Canada, according to the JCC Association of North America.
Keeping stories alive
This blog aims to discuss historical events relating to the Jewish communities of Ukraine, and of Eastern Europe more widely. As a storyteller, I hope to keep alive stories of the past and remember those who told or experienced them. Like so many others, I am deeply troubled by the war in Ukraine and for the foreseeable future, most articles published here will focus on the war, with an emphasis on parallels with other tumultuous periods in Ukraine's tragic history.