I have just watched a fascinating little documentary about Fania Brantovskaya, now in her 90s, who conducts walking tours of old Jewish Vilnius (Vilna) in Yiddish.
Listening to her speak I was vividly reminded of my own grandmother, Pearl, and the recordings my father made of her talking about her life back in Russia. Fania’s intonation, the cadence of her language, mirror almost exactly my grandmother’s speech.
Fania was born in 1922. She had just started university in 1941 when the Nazis occupied Vilna. She tells how two Lithuanian policemen knocked on her door at 6am on 6 September and told her family they had to move into the ghetto, giving them just half an hour to pack.
Fania lived with her parents and sister in a crowded apartment shared with four other families. She points out their three windows, on the middle floor of a large three-storey building. Fania guides us past the hospital, school, theatre and library that continued to function within the ghetto walls. Indeed, the Vilna ghetto was known as the Jerusalem of the ghettos for its intellectual and cultural richness. But death was never far away, with regular deportations from the ghetto to Ponary, now Paneriai, a suburb of Vilnius, where tens of thousands of Jews were murdered.
Fania’s father changed her birth date to make her appear four years younger than she actually was, enabling her to avoid the call up to work in the Nazis’ forced labour camps. Instead she joined the United Partisan Organisation that was formed in the ghetto in January 1942 by the poet Abba Kovner, among others, as a means of Jewish self-defence and to sabotage German industrial and military activity.
The partisans smuggled arms, food and medicine, and found ever more ingenious ways of doing so. Chimney sweeps carried guns in false-bottomed cases, while wounded men and women hid supplies in their bandages. Fania worked as a messenger, using the slogan “Lisa is calling,” in honour of a partisan who had died early during the resistance.
After more than two years in the ghetto’s stifling narrow streets, in September 1943 Fania managed to escape to join other partisans living in the forest a two-day march away. She couldn’t have known at the time, but her escape was to precede the liquidation of the ghetto by just a few hours. Fania never saw her family again. They were divided up and taken to different concentration camps across the area, where they perished.
From September 1943 until the end of the war, Fania lived in the forest, where she and her fellow partisans continued their struggle against the Nazis and their local collaborators. They lived in tents and underground shelters dug from the earth, with walls of wooden planks and foliage pulled over for cover, sleeping on pieces of wood covered with spruce branches. They had very little to eat, surviving mostly on grain flour donated by local people and hot water. Some locals would willingly give them food, she says, but others would not. Nevertheless, after two years in the ghetto, Fania says, the forest made her feel like a human being again.
Today Fania works as a librarian at the Yiddish Institute in Vilnius, where she created a collection of Yiddish books. She leads walking tours of the city of her youth, keeping alive the language and memory of her family and the tens of thousands of other Vilna Jews murdered at Ponary and elsewhere.
Fania is one of just two or three thousand Jews living in Vilnius today, a city that had been a major Jewish population centre for over four hundred years. Around 70,000 Jews were resident there by 1941, close to half the city’s population. Through much of its history, Vilna was a hub of Jewish culture and learning. The definitive edition of the Talmud was printed on the Vilna presses, the famous Talmudist Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman—known as the Vilna Gaon—was one of the most authoritative Jewish scholars since the Middle Ages. And YIVO, an organisation dedicated to the study of Yiddish life and language, was founded in Vilna.
After the war, Vilnius became part of the USSR, as capital of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. I visited in 1989, shortly before Lithuania finally gained lasting independence. Even in Soviet times, the city had a lively and attractive air, but it has changed a lot since then--the historic centre has been restored and a buzzing arts and entertainment culture has taken root. It must be time for a return visit, before Fania and her walking tours are no more.
The documentary, by Edita Mildazyte, can be viewed here:
The tiny settlement of Anatevka is a pretty interesting place. Located just outside the Ukrainian capital Kiev (Kyiv), it is a rare example of a modern-day shtetl, built for Jewish refugees fleeing the war in Eastern Ukraine. It’s also an attempt to revive the Jewish communities and way of life that existed in these parts before they were torn apart by pogroms and, later World War II.
If the settlement’s name sounds familiar, that’s because Anatevka was also the fictional home of the iconic Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem’s most famous character – Tevye the Dairyman in Fiddler on the Roof. Bizarrely Anatevka has become interesting for another reason too: it is playing an unlikely role in the impeachment story of President Donald Trump.
Anatevka was founded in 2015 by Rabbi Moshe Azman of Kiev, a large burly man with a bushy beard, and an ardent Trump supporter. In its early days, the nascent village was built almost entirely of wood, as so many Eastern European shtetls were, with a three-storey wooden synagogue including two mikvahs (ritual baths), a residential block with 20 apartments and a shared kitchen. A brick-built school, apartments, a clinic and an orphanage soon followed.
The facilities are built largely by local residents – builders, carpenters and tradespeople who were forced out of their homes by gunfire, rockets and bombing in cities like Donetsk, Lugansk and Mariupol – who earn a small salary for their work. Those without building skills take on other roles like preparing food, working in the school or looking after the synagogue.
One local resident is Meshulam Kolesnik, a web designer and observant Jew who was forced to leave Crimea after its annexation by Russia. He abandoned his successful business and a city-centre apartment and came to Anatevka to build a website to solicit new donations for the project. Anatevka may be without a postal service but it has a fast WiFi connection. Kolesnik is not bitter about giving up his old life. “We are once again living among equals in our own Jewish community and country,” he says. “And like this, I think we can face whatever lies ahead.”
Rabbi Azman used his own money and funds raised from private donors to create not just a refugee centre but a living, breathing community based on Yiddishkeit and self-reliance – a spiritual as well as physical revival of the shtetl. The village continues to rely on donations, mostly from the US. “I’m in debt to my eyeballs, but I’m not afraid because this is God’s mission. Besides, each day that Anatevka is running is another day that my community lives in dignity. Builds a future. You can’t put a price tag on that,” Azman told The Times of Israel in 2016.
Around 30 families now live in Anatevka, and some 200 pupils attend school there, the majority from Azman’s old community in Kiev. A high fence surrounds the village and entrance is through a brown, metal gate with military guards.
Not everyone here is a practising Jew, indeed several are not Jewish at all but have a Jewish wife or husband. The majority of Jews who fled Eastern Ukraine are secular. “We don’t force anyone to become a practising Jew,” Azman says. But there are rules people must obey if they want to live in Anatevka. In public, all residents must respect the Sabbath and dress modestly, although behind closed doors they are permitted to do as they like.
And Anatevka’s basic amenities and lack of infrastructure don’t suit everyone. Even some of those the community was built to attract don’t actually want to live there. “I’m a city person,” says Svetlana Koznitsova, a refugee from Lugansk who helps run Anatevka but lives in a rented apartment in Kiev. “I need to stay in the city and I will for as long as I can earn a salary.”
So how did this tiny Jewish community become embroiled in a political scandal half way across the world? Bizarrely, Anatevka’s honorary mayor is none other than embattled Trump lawyer Rudolph Giuliani. The settlement found itself at the centre of an aborted effort to get the former mayor of New York to come to Ukraine in May for a meeting with Volodymyr Zelensky, then the president-elect, whom he planned to push for investigations that would help President Donald Trump politically.
Giuliani’s associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman are board members of the American Friends of Anatevka, a charity raising funds for the village. They allegedly introduced Giuliani to several Ukrainian officials as part of a pressure campaign to convince Ukraine to investigate Hunter Biden, the son of former vice-president and 2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden. Parnas and Fruman stand accused of funnelling money, much of it allegedly of foreign origin, into Republican campaigns in the US. Both pleaded not guilty on 23 October to four counts of campaign finance violations in a federal court in New York City and are now awaiting trial.
I have written before about the revival of the Yiddish language, in particular in the US where a hit Yiddish production of Fiddler on the Roof is currently running in New York.
But many will be surprised to learn that Yiddish lives on in parts of Eastern Europe too, in a few isolated communities that survived the Holocaust and its destruction of a once vibrant Jewish culture.
A group of linguists and historians from Indiana University spent seven years from 2002-2009 interviewing nearly 400 elderly Yiddish speakers across rural Ukraine, Moldova, Romania, Hungary, and Slovakia and documented their journeys in photographs and video. They named their project AHEYM meaning “homeward” in Yiddish, and doubling up as an acronym for “Archives of Historical and Ethnographic Yiddish Memories.” In subsequent years AHEYM expanded its work into Latvia and Poland.
The project is led by linguist Dov-Ber Kerler and historian Jeffrey Veidlinger and explores Jewish life in Eastern Europe before, during and after World War II. The interviews cover a range of topics, including family and religious life, community structure, cultural activities and recreation, education, health, food and folklore, as well, of course, as harrowing tales of Holocaust survival and life under the Communist regime. They include musical performances, anecdotes, jokes and folk remedies. Some present guided tours of local sites of Jewish memory.
These testimonies bring to life the story of those Jews who stayed behind. The interviewees were mostly born between 1900 and 1930 – they would have grown up in the shtetls of Eastern Europe and not only survived the Holocaust, but rebuilt their lives in the very places where some of the most horrific events of the 20th century occurred.
The majority of Jews who survived the war in Eastern Europe soon abandoned the shtetl and the Yiddish language, following the call of the metropolis or a life abroad, where they lost many of the local customs and practices that had defined Jewish identity in the shtetl.
But a small number of Jews came back to these small communities after the war. Some returned after evacuation – often to a different town from the one they had left, others came out of hiding. Some literally crawled out of mass graves to reclaim their lives.
The AHEYM team has catalogued, annotated, and translated into English nearly 800 hours of videotaped interviews in Yiddish with such survivors. The recordings are preserved at Indiana University’s Archives of Traditional Music and form part of the EVIA Digital Archive Project.
Most of the video clips lack English subtitles, but even as a non-Yiddish speaker I found them addictive. I can’t understand much of the content, but I recognise the accents and the cadence of the language. They recall the recordings I have of my own grandmother telling stories similar to many of those in the AHEYM archive. Some of the videos are funny, some are strange and of course, some are chillingly harrowing.
“When they called us here for work, how could we have imagined that they would murder us?” remembers an old man near Berdichev. “My mother asked me to watch the bread while she went to work. That’s what saved my life and that’s why I bake bread every day, in honour of my mother who kept me alive with her request.”
Visit the AHEYM website for more information: http://www.iu.edu/~aheym/index.php
A selection of the videos is available on the AHEYM Facebook page
And a full list of the recordings can be found here http://eviada.webhost.iu.edu/atm-subcollections.cfm?sID=69&pID=162
I have written before about the revival of the Yiddish language and was interested to read about a Yiddish version of Fiddler on the Roof that has taken New York by storm.
A Fidler afn Dakh, as it is called, opened last year at the Museum of Jewish Heritage before moving to a large, commercial theatre, Stage 42, in February. The Yiddish production comes more than half a century after the musical first opened on Broadway in 1964. It would become the longest-running musical in Broadway history, as well as a blockbuster film.
It is the authenticity of the latest production that has wowed critics and audiences and makes the show so moving. Yiddish is, of course, the language that the fictional dairyman Tevye and his neighbours would have spoken. Fiddler is based on a series of short stories by Sholem Aleichem set in Anatevka, a fictional shtetl near Kiev in present day Ukraine.
My family, too, came from a shtetl near Kiev and in fact my great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother once met the famous Yiddish writer during a holiday at a country dacha. In the course of this meeting, they discovered that they were related. The family name on both sides was Rabinovitch, although I have never actually managed to put my finger on the branch of our family tree that links me to Sholem Aleichem.
Yiddish was once spoken by around 12 million people and transcended national boundaries. But the language was almost wiped out by the holocaust. Almost...but not quite. Jewish immigrants to America brought Yiddish with them and plays in Yiddish were common in New York in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There was even a Yiddish theatre district in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. But you might think that the potential audience for a Yiddish production of Fiddler today would be pretty limited.
The show’s director, Joel Grey, told the Financial Times, “I thought it was kind of crazy, that six people would understand it”. Only six out of a cast of 29 spoke any Yiddish at the outset, three of them being native speakers.
However, anyone already familiar with other stage or screen versions will be able to understand much of the production even without knowing Yiddish, and it has English and Russian surtitles to help the uninitiated.
But for those who grew up surrounded by Yiddish, the production is likely to strike a particularly deep emotional chord. “For me, it’s not just the fusillade of familiar words and phrases: meshuga, geklempt, zay gezunt. It is the sound of my own grandparents and all that they lost in leaving their Anatevkas,” wrote Jesse Green in The New York Times.
Yiddish was the language of the mundane, the every-day. It was the ‘mame-loshn’, or mother tongue, as opposed to ‘loshn-koydesh’, or holy tongue, meaning Hebrew. Grey calls it “the language of the outcast”. Much of the Jewish intelligentsia quickly abandoned the language on arrival in the West in order to assimilate. Yiddish represented the poverty and persecution of the world they had left behind.
Also helping the authenticity of the piece is its simplicity. The big Broadway show style is stripped away in favour of a greater emphasis on the simple human choices and everyday trials and emotions of the struggle to preserve Jewish traditions in an era of ever greater assimilation and persecution. The production “though not without its comic moments, is suffused with a hauntingly melancholic aura that seems to foretell the annihilation of the world depicted on stage,” writes Max McGuinness in the FT.
For more information, the production’s website can be found at http://fiddlernyc.com/#home.
The Financial Times article about it is available here https://www.ft.com/content/f38136ee-cef6-11e9-b018-ca4456540ea6
And The New York Times review here https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/17/theater/review-yiddish-fiddler-on-the-roof.html
Back in March 2018 I wrote a blog post about the origin of Jewish surnames in the Russian Empire. I recently came across as series of articles about surnames that covers other parts of the Jewish world too.
Across much of central eastern Europe, surnames became commonly used from the late 18th century with the first of a series of laws that required the population of the Austro-Hungarian empire to adopt hereditary names. One of several decrees issued by emperor Joseph II, who ruled from 1765-1790, stated that new hereditary names should be German, which helps to explain why so many eastern European Jews have German-sounding names.
But not all Jews were subjects of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and not all those who were obeyed the decree. For example, those descended from the priestly groups Cohen and Levi often noted this status in their surname, helping to make these some of the most common Jewish names today.
Before the late 18th century, the only Ashkenazi Jews that had adopted surnames were those belonging to certain rabbinical dynasties. For the rest of us, our ancestors would have been known by their name and patronymic, their father’s name, as in Abraham ben Moses or Nathan ben Israel. Indeed, Jews are still referred to in this way in the synagogue, at weddings and in prayers.
But among the Sephardic community, Jewish surnames go back much further. They started to proliferate after the Spanish Inquisition and the expulsion of Jews in 1492. Many chose to adopt a name to help recall the places their families had left, or local landmarks and places, and passed these onto subsequent generations.
Below is a list common Jewish surnames and their origins, which fall into a number of categories. I was particularly interested to discover that my own family name, Cooper, is a form of the Yiddish nickname Yankel, meaning Jacob.
Variations on the name Abraham, including Abramovich, Avraham and Abrahams, are patronymics recalling ancestors named after the first patriarch Abraham. Jacobs and its numerous variations including Jacob, Jacobson, Jacoby, Judah, Idelsohn, Udell and Yudelson are patronyms from the Hebrew name Jacob, the third patriarch of the Jewish people. And Benjamin and Binyamin recall ancestors named after the Benjamin, the son of Jacob and Abraham’s great grandson, who founded one of the 12 tribes of Israel. Another Biblical patronymic is Isaacs or Itkowitz, meaning son of Isaac.
The patronymic name Baruch comes from an ancestor named Baruch, meaning blessing in Hebrew. Perez or Peretz is another common patronymic name derived from the Hebrew name Peretz. Manishewitz, meaning son of Menashe, refers to the grandson of the patriarch Jacob who founded one of the 12 tribes of Israel. Mendelsohn and its variation Mendelovich mean son of Mendel, a variant of the Hebrew name Menachem, which means comforter, and a popular Yiddish name. In German-speaking areas, the suffix -son or -sohn was added to some names to denote ‘son of’. The suffix -ovich means the same in Russian. Kessler (also Kesel and Kesl) are thought to be a patronymic meaning son of Kesl, but may also can refer to a kestler, a Yiddish term for a married man who lives with his in-laws – a common practice among Ashkenazi families – or to a coppersmith.
Many Jewish surnames are derived from matronyms, the that is the name of the mother rather than the father. Dvorkin and its variants including Dworin, Dwarkin and Dvarkin come from the Jewish name Devorah, meaning bee. In Biblical times, Devorah was a famed prophetess and leader who orchestrated Israel’s victory over the tyrannical Canaanite oppressors. Blum comes from the name Bluma, meaning flower in Yiddish, while Malkin, Milliken, Milken and Miliken are all matronymics of Malka, which means queen in Hebrew.
Eidel and its variants Edel and Adel is derived from the Yiddish name Eidel meaning gentle or sweet. One of the first known Jews with the name Eidel was the Polish Rabbi Shmuel Eidel (1555-1631). His mother-in-law Eidel Lifschitz was a businesswoman who financially supported the yeshiva he ran for over twenty years, and he appears to have taken her name as a surname in tribute. And Margolis, Margalis and Margulis, meaning pearl in Hebrew, are derived from Margolit, the wife of the 15th century Rabbi Jacob of Nurenberg, whose descendants included many prominent religious scholars. Margolis is a more common spelling among Lithuanian Jews, while Margulis is favoured among Jews from Poland and Ukraine.
While some of these are self-explanatory – Berlin referring to someone with origins in the German city, for example, and Epstein from the town of Eppstein in the German province of Hesse – many are less obvious or have additional meanings. For example, Berlin and Berliner may also be a patronymic of the name Berl, while Epstein is one of the earliest Jewish surnames – the earliest written mention of Epstein as a Jewish name comes from 1392 – and commemorated a prestigious rabbinical dynasty.
Ash and Asch are a shortened version of various European towns and could refer to Aisenshtadt (Eisenstadt in modern day Austria) or Amsterdam, among others. Eisenstadt means iron town in German and is the capital of the Austrian province of Burgenland. Goldberg meaning golden town, refers to the town of Goldberg in Germany or Złotoryja/Goldberg in Poland, both once home to Jewish communities. Warshavsky and Warshauer both denote a family from Warsaw, while Wiener, Wein and Weinberg indicate someone from Vienna. Wallach can refer to someone from the German town of Wallach, but may also refer to the middle high German word walhe, which means a foreigner from a Romance country. This name is likely to have been given to Jews who migrated to Germany from Italy, or the Papal states. Similarly, Bloch or Block is derived from the old Polish word wloch, which originally meant foreigner and became a common way to refer to migrants from Italy, which had a thriving Jewish population in the Middle Ages. Montefiore is a common name originally referring to someone from the Montefiore region of Italy.
Gordon can refer to the town of Grodno in Lithuania, but may also reference the Russian word gorodin meaning a town-dweller. With its easy pronunciation and non-Jewish connotations – Gordon is also a common Scottish surname – it was a popular choice among Jewish immigrants to America and the UK. Berger and Berg are common names referencing the type of place that a family came from – Berg meaning a hilly or mountainous place, while Berger often referred to someone from a town (burgh in German).
Navaro and Navarro are Jewish surnames denoting someone from the Navarre kingdom of Spain before the expulsion of Jews in 1492. Many of those forced to flee adopted names to remind them of their homeland. Other names of this type include Spinoza, referring to the Spanish town of Espinosa.
Kirghiz is a Turkish Jewish name related to the town of Kagizman in eastern Turkey. Interestingly, this was the maiden name of the singer Bob Dylan’s grandmother (Dylan himself was born Robert Zimmerman).
Many Jewish surnames, both Ashkenazi and Sephardi, reference professions. An interesting example from North Africa is Abecassis and its variations Abiksis, Abucassis and Cassis, which incorporates a variant of the prefix Abu, meaning father of, and cassis, which means storyteller in Arabic. In past generation, a cassis was considered a profession and many North African Jews engaged in this job and adopted the surname of their profession.
Surnames denoting professions have their origins in many different languages. From the German we derive Bauman, meaning builder, and Nagler, which comes from nagal, the old German word for nail. It referred to a builder or someone who made or sold nails. The Polish equivalent is Plotnick or Plotnik, also meaning builder. Goldschmidt means goldsmith in German, while Shnitzer and Schnitzer come from the German for carver. Zuckerman – from zucker, the German word for sugar – refers to a dealer in sugar or confectionary, but was also adopted by some Jewish families because of its pleasant connotations, which made it an attractive surname.
Some Jewish surnames derive from the Yiddish name for occupations, such as Fishman, meaning fish-seller. Fingerhut comes from the Yiddish word for thimble, and refers to a tailor. Garfinkel or Garfunkel was probably adopted by families in the jewellery business. The name derives from the Yiddish word gorfinkl (karfunkel in German) which literally means a carbuncle, but in the past was also was used to refer to red precious stones such as rubies and garnets.
In the Sephardic community, Elkayim is a Middle Eastern Jewish surname meaning tentmaker. Teboul and its numerous variations including Toubol, Touboul, Tovel and Abitbol is a popular Sephardic name indicating ancestors that may have been musicians. It derives from the Arabic tabell, a type of drum.
Among German-speaking Jews, it was popular to choose names reflecting beautiful gems or precious metals, such as Diamond and Gold. Similarly, Goldman was a popular choice among Austrian Jews for its connotation of gold and man. Eisen, meaning iron, was another popular choice for Austrian Jews. Colours were popular too, in particular Blau, meaning blue.
Rosenberg – literally mountain of roses – was adopted by many Jewish families because of its beauty and evocative nature. Likewise, Rosenthal, meaning valley of roses in German, was a popular choice, in particular in the area around Minsk in present-day Belarus, where many Russian Jews favoured beautiful and symbolic Germanic names. Another popular name in the same area was Silverstein or Silberstein, meaning silver stone in German.
Human or physical qualities:
Several Jewish surnames were bestowed to reflect the physical characteristics or human qualities of their holders. Ehrlich, for example, was used in the Austro-Hungarian empire to denote a person who is honest. Friedman was a popular Jewish surname from the 1600s, deriving from the old Germanic word fried, meaning peace. Literally a man of peace, Friedman was used to refer to a holy person or a friend. Fogel derives from the old German word fugal meaning bird, which was used as a term of endearment. Hart or Heart is from the Germanic word hart, meaning a stag or deer, which may have symbolic connotations.
Zadok and related names including Sadoc, Zadoq, Acencadoque, Aben Cadoc and Sadox are variations of the Hebrew word tzedek, meaning justice and righteous, and commonly used as surnames in Sephardic communities. Another Sephardic name, this time relating to physical appearance is Bouskila, which is derived from the Arabic word shakila, which was a distinguishing cloth, usually red and white, worn by Jews in North Africa in Medieval times. The prefix bou- or bu- means father of, and the name refers to someone who used to wear this distinctive Jewish outfit.
Ashkenazi surnames relating to Physical characteristics include Gelb and Geller, which both mean yellow in Yiddish, and were often given to people with fair or even reddish hair.
This blog post is based on an article on aish.com. To read the full article, click here www.aish.com/jw/s/The-Meaning-of-Some-More-Jewish-Last-Names.html
Last Saturday, 13 July, marked the 125th anniversary of the birth of the Odessan writer journalist and playwright Isaac Babel. The event may not have been cause for much celebration, but it was fittingly marked with an article in the Moscow Times and gives me an excuse to write again about this doyen of twentieth century Russian literature.
Born in 1894 to a middle-class Jewish family in Odessa, present-day Ukraine, Babel was best known for his collection of Red Cavalry stories, drawn from his personal experience as a journalist with the Red Army in 1920, and his Odessa stories, featuring characters from his hometown, including the legendary gangster Benya Krik. It has been said that, “To read Babel is to experience the wild and often terrifying swings of Russian history”.
Babel has also been called "the greatest prose writer of Russian Jewry" and is considered one of the luminaries of 20th-century Soviet literature.
Babel’s career was supported by his friendship with the Russian Revolution’s leading literary light, Maxim Gorky. Babel moved from Odessa before the revolution to St Petersburg, where he lived illegally (as a Jew, he was restricted to the Pale of Settlement in the southwest of the country) to be close to Gorky, who began mentoring him in 1916 and published his early works in a literary magazine. The two would remain friends until Gorky’s death in 1936.
Indeed, it was Gorky who urged Babel to become a journalist to gain more life experience in order to inform his writing, prompting him to enlist in the Soviet army as a war correspondent and propagandist. He was assigned to an army division in the Polish-Soviet War of 1920, where he witnessed scenes of horrific brutality, some of which would become the basis for his Red Cavalry stories.
Observers have said the book’s depictions of violence contrasted jarringly with Babel’s gentle nature. His honest, explicit description of war diverged heavily from revolutionary propaganda and was the first exposure many Russian readers had to the realities of the war.
After the war, Babel returned to Odessa, where he began work on a series of short stories that were later published as the Odessa Tales. The stories, narrated by an ironic version of Babel himself, describe the life of Jewish gangsters in an Odessa ghetto around the time of the October Revolution. The character of Benya Krik, has been referred to as one of the great anti-heroes of Russian literature.
Babel wrote that Odessa was ‘the most charming city of the Russian Empire…a town in which you can live free and easy. Half the population is made up of Jews, and Jews are a people who have learned a few simple truths along the way…you might not be able to budge these Jews from their opinions but there’s a whole lot you can learn from them. To a large extent it is because of them that Odessa has this light and easy atmosphere.’
In the 1930s, Babel increasingly withdrew from public life as Stalin applied pressure on the Soviet intelligentsia. By the end of the decade he had fallen victim to Stalin’s purges. He was arrested in 1939 by the NKVD, a precursor to the KGB, on fabricated espionage and terrorism charges and taken to the infamous Lubyanka prison, the headquarters of the secret police in Moscow. His papers were confiscated and destroyed, among them half-completed stories, plays, filmscripts and translations. Babel was shot by firing squad in January 1940 following a brief, clandestine trial. His name and work were erased until 1954, when he was rehabilitated during Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev’s ‘thaw’.
I have both read and written a lot about the pogroms in Ukraine, which were at their peak a hundred years ago. Like Holocaust literature, the more one reads, the more one ceases to be shocked and horrified. I thought that reading about the pogroms would no longer have the searing impact on me that it once did, but I have found that a new book published this month still has the ability to sicken.
The work, by Nokhem Shtif, was first published in Yiddish 1923, but now appears in English for the first time translated and annotated by Maurice Wolfthal as The Pogroms in Ukraine, 1918-19: Prelude to the Holocaust. Shtif was editor-in-chief of the editorial committee for the collection and publication of documents on the Ukrainian pogroms, which was founded in Kiev in May 1919.
Shtif focuses specifically on atrocities committed by the Volunteer Army, also known as the White Army, under General Anton Denikin, as opposed to the myriad other armies and militarised groups – banda as my grandmother called them – that were rampaging violently across Ukraine at the time.
The number of Jews murdered in Ukraine in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution is estimated at anywhere between 50,000 and 200,000, with 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.
“The Jews were attacked by a number of different groups of perpetrators including Anton Denikin’s Russian Volunteer Army, Simon Petliura’s Army of the Ukrainian Republic, various peasant units, hoodlums, anarchists, and the Bolshevik Red Army.
“These attacks stemmed from a number of grievances: accusations of supporting the enemy side, the chaos following the collapse of the old order, the aftermath of World War I and of the Russian Revolution, and a widespread anti-Semitism, after the dissolution of the Russian and Habsburg Empire.” So writes the Berlin-based historian Grzegorz Rossolinski-Liebe in his preface to the book.
The relative lack of literature and research on these events provides some explanation for why the Ukrainian pogroms have garnered so much less attention than the Holocaust that followed some 20 years later. Of the research that does exist, much focuses on the nationalist leader Petliura, the subject of my December 2018 blog post.
When it comes to Denikin, “the crimes committed by his army have not been forgotten but they were neither investigated as thoroughly as the massacres by the Petliura army nor did they arouse any major controversies, because none tried to systematically or deliberately deny them as the Ukrainian nationalists did in the case of Petliura’s soldiers”, Rossolinski-Liebe argues.
But Denikin’s army was unique among the banda in that it murdered Jews in an orderly and methodical way, clearing out the Jewish population from the towns and villages it raided using many of the practices that would be adopted by the Nazis two decades later. The author’s aim is to demonstrate that the pogroms were an integral part of the Volunteer Army’s military campaign, much as the murder of the Jews was for the Nazi regime.
The Volunteer Army was a force made up of former Tsarist officers that aimed to drive out the Bolshevik regime and restore every aspect of Russia to its pre-Revolutionary days. Their aims, as Shtif says were, “The land must be returned to the aristocracy. The labor movement must be crushed […] Jews will continue to be second-class citizens, oppressed and subservient.” Pogroms were a way of preventing Jews from gaining the equal human rights that the revolution had granted them.
Shtif is convincing in his explanation of the causes of the pogroms: “For the reactionaries pogroms are a way to prevent Jews from obtaining equal rights, which the hated Revolution granted them. Pogroms are the first step towards reducing them to a state of slavery. That principle […] is at the root of the pogroms. In the eyes of reactionaries Jews are creatures without rights. And as soon as anyone dares to give them their rights, they are outraged and they burn to put the crown back on the head of perverted justice. In the eyes of reactionaries, of course, Jews have no rights.”
In describing the events of the pogroms, I feel traumatised yet again knowing that my grandmother and her family lived through and survived such terrifying times. So much of what Shtif writes corroborates what my grandmother said about the pogroms, and the many different banda that perpetrated them. The towns my great-grandparents came from – Pavoloch and Makarov – both in Kiev province, receive several mentions in the book, each one sending shivers down my spine. “So horrendous are the accounts that they are difficult to grasp,” Shtif writes…. “There are no words…”
It often feels in these troubling times of the early 21st century that swaths of the population in many parts of the world are returning to the extreme nationalism that pervaded a century ago. We seem to be revisiting that world of religious extremism, with murderous attacks on immigrant communities and a US president who vilifies those of other faiths and nationalities. We would be well served to learn lessons from the past and prevent the current polarisation of society from leading once again to the kind of mass violence that tore Ukraine apart a hundred years ago.
The Pogroms in Ukraine, 1918-19: Prelude to the Holocaust is published by Open Book Publishers
I’ve had a copy of Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate taunting me from my bookshelf for several years. I’ve been meaning to read it, really meaning to, ever since my Dad gave it to me. But at nearly 900 pages, somehow I’ve never found the time.
I have read other, less hefty, works by Grossman in the meantime, and have found them fascinating. Now a new biography of the writer by Alexandra Popoff, a former Moscow-based journalist now based in Canada, is finally goading me into action and I plan to devote the coming summer to finally reading Life and Fate.
Grossman is an intriguing character, a celebrated Soviet writer who later turned against the regime. His conscience forced him into the tormented double life of a Soviet intellectual, trying to express his doubts about the Soviet system in ways that would not lead to his arrest.
Life and Fate, however, was an incendiary work by Soviet standards. A panoply of characters and sub-plots centred around the events of World War II, it is often compared with Leo Tolstoy’s monumental War and Peace, which shares a similar structure based on an earlier war – Napoleon’s unsuccessful Russia campaign. But what made it so controversial to the Soviet censors is its comparison of the USSR with Nazi Germany and Stalin’s persecution of the Jews with Hitler’s holocaust.
Mikhail Suslov, the chief Communist party ideologue, told Grossman, “Your book contains direct parallels between us and Hitlerism…Your book defends Trotsky. Your book is filled with doubts about the legitimacy of our Soviet system.” Its publication was out of the question.
Grossman was born in 1905 to a Jewish family in Berdichev, Ukraine, a town with one of Europe’s largest Jewish populations. His early novels, published in the 1930s, were mostly typical of Soviet literature at the time and Grossman was promoted by the regime’s most influential writer Maxim Gorky. But even then, some of his short stories were banned and he could be considered lucky for avoiding arrest during Stalin’s purges of the late 1930s.
During World War II, Grossman worked as a journalist for the army newspaper Red Star, reporting from the front line on the battle for Stalingrad and the fall of Berlin. He gained access to the Nazi death camp at Treblinka, near Warsaw, shortly after it was destroyed. This chilling experience formed the basis for his article ‘The Hell of Treblinka’, published in September 1944, which was one of the first accounts of the true horror of the Holocaust to reach the outside world.
In it he writes: “It is infinitely painful to read this. The reader must believe me when I say that it is equally hard to write it. ‘Why write about then?’ someone may well ask. ‘Why recall such things?’
“It is the writer’s duty to tell the terrible truth, and it is a reader’s civic duty to learn this truth. To turn away, to close one’s eyes and walk past is to insult the memory of those who have perished.”
Grossman completed Life and Fate in 1960, at a time when Soviet literature was enjoying a period of relative liberalism during the post-Stalin Khrushchev ‘thaw’. But like Boris Pasternak’s better-known work Doctor Zhivago, the novel could not be published in its homeland. Suslov told Grossman that there was no question of Life and Fate seeing the light of day for another 200 years.
Every copy of the manuscript was confiscated by the KGB in 1961, with orders to take not just the typewritten pages, but any sheets of used carbon paper and even the typewriter ribbons used to write it. It is thanks to the emigré dissident Vladimir Voinovich that the book made its way to the West on microfilm. The Russian text was published abroad in 1980 and in English five years later. Life and Fate was finally published in the Soviet Union in 1988, some 24 years after Grossman’s death.
In a couple of months or so I will write my own thoughts about the novel, once I’ve completed the monumental task of reading it.
Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century by Alexandra Popoff is published by Yale University Press
Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman is published by Vintage Classics
I recently read a fascinating obituary of the last musician to grow up playing traditional Jewish music in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust. Leopold Kozlowski died in March at the ripe old age of 100.
Kozlowski gained fame as the “Last Klezmer of Galicia”. He was an expert on Jewish music, having taught generations of klezmer musicians and Yiddish singers in Poland. He continued to perform until shortly before he died.
He was born Pesach Kleinman in 1918 in the town of Przemyslany, near Lviv, which was then in Poland and is now part of Ukraine. His grandfather was a legendary Klezmer player by the name of Pesach Brandwein, one of the most famous traditional Jewish musicians of the 19th century. With his nine sons he performed at Hassidic celebrations and even for heads of state, including the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph.
Brandwein created a musical dynasty, with many of his descendants forming family orchestras throughout Galicia. The clan also gained renown in America. Brandwein’s son, the clarinetist Naftuli Brandwein, settled in New York in 1908 and became known as the “King of Jewish Music.”
Because of the family’s reputation, Brandwein’s youngest son, Tsvi-Hirsch, decided that in order to prove himself, he should change his name and go it alone. He adopted his mother’s maiden name, Kleinman, to avoid association with his famed grandfather and uncle. His son Pesach — later to be known as Leopold Kozlowski — and his brother Yitzhak would prove to be the greatest musical talents of all Brandwein’s grandchildren.
Kozlowski played the accordion and later the piano, while his brother played the violin. By the 1930s, as teenagers, they began playing alongside with their father, but times were hard and most families could no longer afford to hire a band for weddings. The boys devoted nearly all of their free time to practicing and performing and were later admitted to Conservatory in Lviv, completing their studies in 1941.
By this time their home town had become part of Soviet Ukraine and was flooded with Polish Jews who gave increasingly dire accounts of the situation in Nazi-occupied Poland. When Germany invaded the USSR on June 22, most believed that the Germans would only kill Jewish men of fighting age. Kozlowski’s mother told him, his brother and his father to flee.
The three men travelled 200 miles on foot in a little over a week, their instruments slung over their shoulders. But they were intercepted by the German army on the outskirts of Kiev. Realising that capture meant near certain death, they searched for a place to hide, settling on a cemetery where they dug up the earth with their hands and hid in coffins alongside the dead.
Finally emerging from hiding, they were immediately captured by the German army. But just as the soldiers were about to fire, Kleinman pleaded with them to allow him and his sons to play a tune. The soldiers listened, and slowly they lowered their rifles. After checking to see that no-one was watching, they gave Kleinman and his sons some food and left. The three men returned to their coffins.
Unable to remain among the dead any longer, and with no other option open to them, they eventually headed home, travelling by night and hiding in the forest by day. Three times German soldiers captured them, and each time they were released after playing a song.
Back in Przemyslany, the Gestapo ordered all Jews over 18 to assemble in the marketplace. From there the Germans led 360 Jews into the forest where they were forced to dig their own graves and then shot. Among them was Kleinman, while his wife was murdered soon afterwards when German soldiers found her hiding in a nearby barn.
Kozlowski and his brother attempted to flee, but were quickly captured and sent to the Kurovychi concentration camp near Lviv. Both brothers soon joined the camp’s orchestra and when SS officers learned of Kozlowski’s skill as a composer, they ordered him to compose a “Death Tango” to be played by the orchestra every time Jews were led to their execution.
The officers would bring the brothers to their late-night drinking sessions and command them to play. They were frequently made to strip naked and the Germans extinguished cigarettes on their bare skin.
Eventually the two men joined a group that planned to escape. They befriended a Ukrainian guard with a drinking problem, and while the brothers distracted a group of SS officers with their music, a third prisoner stole a bottle of vodka from them and gave it to the guard while he watched over the camp fence. Once the guard passed out, the inmates grabbed his wire cutters and made a hole in the barbed wire.
Immediately the camp’s searchlights fired up and gunfire reverberated. Several inmates were mown down by bullets just outside of the fence; others were caught by guard dogs and executed. Running alongside his brother with his accordion over his shoulder, Kozlowski felt several sharp jabs in his shoulder. When he examined his accordion later, he found multiple holes; the accordion had blocked the bullets’ path, leaving him unscathed. The accordion is now on display at the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow.
Following their daring escape, the brothers joined a Jewish partisan unit and later a Jewish platoon of the Home Army. In 1944 Kozlowski’s brother was stabbed to death having stayed behind from a mission to guard injured comrades, and Kozlowski never forgave himself for being unable to save him.
Throughout the horrors of their wartime experiences, the brothers had continued to play music. Music not only saved Kozlowski’s life several times, but also helped heal his psychological wounds, his long-time friend, the American klezmer artist Yale Strom, said in an interview.
After the war Kozlowski settled in Krakow and enlisted in the army. Still fearful of anti-Semitic violence, especially after the massacre of Jews in Kielce in July 1946, he exchanged his Jewish surname for the Polish Kozlowski.
He served in the military for 22 years, achieving the rank of colonel and conducting the army orchestra. In 1968 he once again fell victim to anti-Semitism when he was discharged under President Wladyslaw Gomulka’s anti-Semitic campaign.
“He thought to himself: ‘I’ve already changed my name, already hidden my identity and I’ve served more than 20 years in the Polish army and yet I’m still considered ‘the Jew,’” Strom said. “‘I’d be better off not hiding anymore. I might as well play Jewish music.’”
At a time when most of Poland’s remaining Jews fled the country, he joined the Polish State Yiddish Theatre and began composing original scores and coaching actors to sing with an authentic Yiddish intonation. He also played at celebrations for Krakow’s Jewish community and taught children Yiddish songs.
Under perestroika as the Soviet Union began to release its iron grip, Kozlowski was able to connect with klezmer musicians abroad, and in 1985 he visited the US where he met the leaders of the nascent klezmer revival movement.
Later, Stephen Spielberg met Kozlowski in Krakow while scouting locations for his film Schindler’s List. The two hit it off and Spielberg hired him both as a musical consultant for the film and to play a small speaking role.
Strom released a documentary, “The Last Klezmer: Leopold Kozlowski, His Life and Music,” in 1994, transforming Kozlowski into a celebrity in Poland. In old age, Kozlowski’s fame continued to grow. As well as international festival appearances and his regular concerts at the Krakow restaurant Klezmer Hois, he gave an annual concert with his students as part of Krakow’s international Jewish cultural festival. Even at 99 he was still the star of the show, playing the piano for two hours.
In his final years, Kozlowski spent much of his time in Kazimierz, Krakow’s historic Jewish quarter, which has become a tourist attraction. He often received visitors from abroad at his regular table at Klezmer Hois. Among the Jewish cemeteries, synagogues that function primarily as museums, and quasi-Jewish restaurants, Kozlowski himself became a sort of tourist attraction, the last living link to the music of pre-war Jewish life.
I can only wish that I had chanced upon him when I visited Kazimierz last summer.
This is an abridged version of a piece that appeared in The Forward. Click here to read the full article. https://forward.com/culture/423976/klezmer-leopold-kozlowski-holocaust-survivor-spielberg-schindlers-list/
In the wake of Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, I came across this wonderful and heart-warming story of a holocaust survivor who after nearly 80 years has discovered the identity of the man who saved her from the fate of 6 million other Jews.
Janine Webber was born in 1932 in Lviv, which at that time was in Poland but became part of Soviet Ukraine following the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939. When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, she and her family were rounded up and forced to abandon their home and move into a room together with three other families on the outskirts of the city, ahead of the formation of the Lviv ghetto.
Janine’s parents created a hiding place for her, her brother and mother, but the Nazis shot her father. Her mother then died of typhus aged 29, shortly after being forced into the ghetto. Later her brother was shot by the SS while the children and their uncle and aunt were in hiding on a farm. Other members of her extended family died of disease or were deported to Belzec concentration camp. Janine wandered the countryside in search of new hiding places and worked as a shepherdess until the Polish family she lived with learnt of her Jewish identity and sent her back to Lviv.
By 1943, Janine was 11 years old. Her uncle and aunt gave her a piece of paper with the name Edek written on it, and an address. They told her to find Edek if she needed help.
“I told him who I was and he said, ‘Follow me – at a distance’. He took me to a building. He put a ladder against the wall and told me to climb up. I opened the door and that’s where I found my aunt, my uncle…13 Jews. I was the only child.”
The building was a convent, where Edek worked as a night watchman and his sister Floriana was Mother Superior. As the situation became more dangerous, the group dug an underground bunker beneath the building and remained hidden there for nearly a year.
As the group struggled with the cramped conditions and related health problems, Janine’s aunt arranged false papers for the girl and sent her to a convent in Krakow. She later moved again to work as a Catholic live-in maid with an elderly couple until the end of the war.
All 14 of the Jews that Edek had protected survived the war, but they never saw him again. All they knew of their saviour was his name. And Edek was a common Polish name.
Janine moved to the UK in 1956 and lives today in north London. In the 1990s she determined to try to find Edek. She approached a BBC documentary team, which spent six months trying to track him down, but with no luck. Last year she took part in a short feature film for the UK’s National Holocaust Centre and Museum, produced by one of the centre’s trustees, Marc Cave.
With help from the Polin museum in Warsaw and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, he was able to track down Edek’s true identity. Edek’s real name was Franciszek Rzottky, a 19-year old Catholic and a member of the Polish resistance. He survived internment in a labour camp and concentration camp, but never betrayed the Jews he had rescued.
Rzottky later entered the priesthood and died in 1972 at the age of 49. In 1997 he, alongside Janina and Tadeusz Lewandowski who had organised food and money for the 14 Jews, were named as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. This year, the National Holocaust Centre will plant a white rose in Rzottky’s memory. The centre’s chief executive Phil Lyons said he hopes the small ceremony will “help transform fear and persecution of ‘otherness’ into mutual acceptance at this time of rising antisemitism and Holocaust denial”.
Click here to read the full story in The Telegraph https://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/life/finally-found-catholic-teenager-saved-nazis/
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.