I recently received as a gift a stunning book of photographs by the Jewish photographer Roman Vishniac. The photos were taken in the shtetls of eastern Europe in the 1930s, just before those communities were wiped out forever.
A Vanished World was published in New York in 1983. It is difficult to get your hands on a copy of it now, but the photographs it contains serve as an important historical document.
Vishniac was born in Russia, but was living in Germany in the 1930s. He took the photographs between 1934 and 1939, when the Nazis had already taken power, and when anyone with a camera was at risk of being branded a spy – and in communities where observant Jews did not want to be photographed for religious reasons.
But he had the foresight to see what few others could possibly imagine, that the Nazis would systematically wipe out the shtetls and Jewish communities that had existed and maintained the same way of life for hundreds of years. He made it his mission to not let their inhabitants, along with their occupations and preoccupations, be forgotten.
“I felt that the world was about to be cast into the mad shadow of Nazism and that the outcome would be the annihilation of a people who had no spokesman to record their plight. I knew it was my task to make certain that this vanished world did not totally disappear”, he says in his commentary on the photos.
Vishniac used a hidden camera, at a time when photography was in its infancy and equipment was bulky and unsophisticated. He put himself at great risk, and was thrown into prison for a time, but still he persisted in his mission, constantly running the risk of being stopped by informers or arrested by the Gestapo. He managed to take around 16,000 photographs, although all but 2,000 were confiscated and, presumably, destroyed. He chose to include around 200 in this book, the images that he considered the most representative.
He travelled from country to country, taking in Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania, from province to province, village to village. He captured images of slums and markets, street scenes and school houses, from the wrinkled faces of old men and careworn mothers to pale religious scholars and hungry, wild-eyed children.
The images are far from anonymous. Vishniac got to know the people he photographed, he often availed of their hospitality and spent time working and living among them. He slept in a basement that was home to 26 families, sharing a bed with three other men. “I could barely breathe, Little children cried; I learned about the heroic endurance of my brethren,” he wrote.
He spent a month working as a porter in Warsaw, pulling heavy loads in a handcart, in one of the very few occupations still open to Jews during the Jewish boycott in the late 1930s, which forced tens of thousands of Jewish employees out of their workplaces. It was cheaper to have a Jew pulling a cart than a horse, for the horse had to be fed before it would work, while Jews were forced to carry the goods first and eat later, only once they had been paid.
As one reviewer, the American photographer and museum curator Edward Steichen, wrote, “Vishniac took with him on this self-imposed assignment – besides this or that kind of camera or film – a rare depth of understanding and a native son’s warmth and love for his people. The resulting photographs are among photography’s finest documents of a time and place”.
Vishniac emigrated to New York in 1940 and became an acclaimed photographer and professor of biology and the humanities. His only son Wolf died in Antarctica while leading a scientific expedition, and his grandson Obie died at the age of just 10. The book is dedicated to them, as well as to Vishniac’s grandfather. He writes: “Through my personal grief, I see in my mind’s eye the faces of six million of my people, innocents who were brutally murdered by order of a warped human being. The entire world, even the Jews living in the safety of other nations, including the United States, stood by and did nothing to stop the slaughter. The memory of those swept away must serve to protect future generations from genocide. It is a vanished but not vanquished world, captured here in images made with hidden cameras, that I dedicate to my grandfather, my son and my grandson."
I recently came across the story of the Ochberg orphans, nearly 200 Jewish children rescued in 1921 from the ravages of the Russian Civil War, pogroms and the subsequent typhus epidemic and famine. The rescuer was Isaac Ochberg, a Ukrainian Jew who had emigrated, penniless, to South Africa in 1895 and went on to become a successful entrepreneur. By 1920 he was one of South Africa’s richest men and leader of the Cape Town Jewish community.
Horrified by the news of the pogroms, which together with war, disease and hunger left an estimated 300,000 Jewish children orphaned, Ochberg turned to the South African Jewish community for help in financing a rescue mission to bring Jewish children to South Africa for adoption.
Ochberg left for eastern Europe in March 1921, travelling by road and rail through Ukraine, Lithuania and Poland in search of the neediest children, visiting synagogues where orphans had gathered and orphanages funded by Jewish foreign aid.
This was no easy journey. Civil war was still raging in some areas, pitting against one another numerous marauding bands of soldiers – from Ukrainian Nationalists to Communists and Anti-Communists, Germans and Poles to Anarchists and local warlords – all of them anti-Semitic to a degree.
The area was filled with people on the move – refugees, the hungry, the sick and the weak. As well as war and pogroms, typhus and famine had ravaged the population.
By August 1921 he had assembled a group of 233 children in Warsaw, ready for the train journey to Danzig (Gdansk) and onward journey to London then Cape Town. Some of the group fell ill and were forced to stay behind. Others ran away, scared off by stories of Africa and its wild animals.
The task of selecting the children must have been heart-breaking, given the number he had to leave behind. The South African government, under Prime Minister Jan Smuts, had matched the funding Ochberg managed to raise, but laid down certain conditions. Two hundred orphans could come, but no sick children, nor any with mental or physical disabilities. No child could be selected if there was a living parent, nor any child over the age of 16. Under no circumstances could families be broken up; if one member of a family did not qualify, the siblings had to remain behind.
But Ochberg had no qualms about ignoring these rules. Siblings aged 16 or over became accompanying ‘nurses’, and several whose parents were still living, but had chosen to give up their children in the hope of offering them a better life, were included in the group. Some 165 children and 25 accompanying adults made the journey to South Africa, where they were divided equally between Jewish orphanages in Cape Town and Johannesburg and offered for adoption.
A 2008 film made by South African film maker Jon Blair entitled Ochberg’s Orphans tells the children’s story, interspersed with harrowing images of the pogroms, and interviews with some of the last remaining orphans still alive at that time. “When we arrived we thought we were in Fairyland,” one recalled. And of Ochberg, the same old lady said, “We called him Daddy, because for most of us children he was the only daddy we ever knew”.
The film includes footage shot by UK camera crews while the group spent two weeks at an orphanage in London before heading to Southampton to board the ship for Cape Town. The children briefly became minor celebrities, having captured the imagination of the British media.
The story of the Ochberg orphans also features in a new film by US filmmaker LeeAnn Dance, My Dear Children. I have not managed to see the film yet, but it has been broadcast on TV across the US and at film showings at Jewish centres. I have been in touch with the filmmaker and look forward to seeing it at the first opportunity.
The film centres on Judy Favish’s 2013 pilgrimage to trace her grandparents Feiga and Kalman Shamis’s route from their shtetl in Ukraine to Warsaw with their 12 children.
Two of Feiga’s children, Mannie and Rose, joined the group that travelled from Warsaw to Cape Town with Isaac Ochberg. Feiga’s other children were dispersed – two were sent to New York, while five survived the pogroms only to die later in Nazi concentration camps, and one ended up in Palestine.
Mannie was adopted from one of the Jewish orphanages in South Africa, but Rose refused to let herself be taken by another family, never giving up hope that her mother would come for her. But she never did.
Feiga did maintain contact with her children, however. Years later she settled on a kibbutz and Mannie was able to visit her there while serving as a soldier in North Africa during World War II. She gave him two copies of a 40-page letter, handwritten in Yiddish, which contained the story of her life.
Neither Mannie nor Rose could read or speak Yiddish, and although Mannie eventually had the letter translated, he couldn’t bear to read it. It wasn’t until after he died that one of his children had it properly translated and edited, and made into a small book, a copy of which she gave to each family member.
Although both Mannie and Rose felt that their mother had abandoned them, for Feiga it was a case of doing what she could to ensure her children would survive. Little could she know that for those who escaped from Europe, her decision also spared them the horrors of the Holocaust twenty years later.
More information about My Dear Children is available here: www.mydearchildrendoc.com/
The film of Ochberg's Orphans is available to view here:
This month marks the centenary of one of the worst pogroms in history, an attempt at genocide against the Jews of the town of Proskurov in present-day Ukraine. In February 1919, local Cossack leader Ataman Semosenko assumed command of the nationalist forces in the region and called for the elimination of the Jews in order to “save Ukraine”.
As the town’s Jews, who numbered around 25,000, prepared to celebrate the Sabbath, hoards of Cossacks descended on the town and began attacking Jews in the streets and in their homes with knives, swords, bayonets and even hand grenades.
The following are accounts from survivors:
“They [the Cossacks] were divided into groups of five to 15 men and swarmed into the streets which were inhabited by Jews. Entering the homes, they drew their swords and began to cut the inhabitants without regard to sex or age… Jews were dragged out of cellars and lofts and murdered.”
Entire families were slain. One survivor, a nurse by the name of Chaya Greenberg, later testified:
“The young girls – repeatedly stabbed. The two-month old baby – hands lacerated. The five-year old – pierced by spears. The elderly man – thrown out of a window by his beard. The 13-year old – deaf because of his wounds. His brother – 11 wounds in his stomach, left for dead next to his slain mother. The paralysed son of a rabbi – murdered in his bed. The two young children – cast alive into a fire….I will never forget the reddened snow from sleds filled with the hacked bodies going to a common pit in the cemetery.”
Some of the victims were forced to dig their own graves. Around 1,600 Jews are estimated to have been killed, although some put the death toll higher. Many more sustained terrible injuries and were crippled for life having had limbs severed.
The Jewish hospital and makeshift medical stations were filled with the wounded as relatives and local peasants brought in the victims. Most were buried in mass graves.
Some gentiles risked their lives to protect their fellow townsfolk, in a community that generally experienced good relations between those of different faiths. A doctor named Polozov helped many wounded Jewish children he found in the street. He hid more than 20 Jews in his own home. Priests were murdered as they attempted to halt the pogrom.
The Proskurov pogrom was just one of hundreds that took place in Ukraine in 1919 during Russia’s chaotic and bloody civil war that followed the Bolshevik Revolution. The pogroms followed the withdrawal of German troops after World War I, when Communists, Ukrainian nationalists, the anti-Bolshevik White Army and numerous smaller factions vied for control, all of them engaging in anti-Semitic violence to a greater or lesser degree.
The words of historian Orest Subtelny in his mammoth Ukraine: A History are worth repeating, “In 1919, total chaos engulfed Ukraine. Indeed, in the modern history of Europe no country experienced such complete anarchy, bitter civil strife, and total collapse of authority as did Ukraine at this time”.
My own ancestral village of Pavoloch, where like Proskurov relations between Jews and the rest of the community were generally amicable, suffered wave after wave of attack by different groups of fighters, who my grandmother referred to collectively as ‘banda’. The most vicious was the White Army under General Anton Denikin.
The following is an extract from A Forgotten Land describing just one of many, many horrors that my family suffered in Pavoloch in 1919:
“The Whites weren’t like the anarchists who burst in and began smashing the furniture to pieces. They had brains and intuition that they used to figure out just where their victims might be hiding money or jewellery or hoarding food. The soldiers sniffed around like dogs, tapping at walls and floor boards, listening for a hollow echo that might indicate a hiding place.
“‘Money! Give us your money, old man!’ the first giant demanded in Russian, prodding Zayde [Grandpa] with his bayonet.
“Zayde’s carefully learnt Russian seemed to desert him and he mumbled something incomprehensible, his eyes fixed on the scuffed leather boots of his interrogator.
“While his companions continued to search the house, kicking down the door to the warehouse, the leader of the group dealt my grandfather a swift blow with his rifle butt and watched poor Zayde crumple to the floor like a rag doll. Then he kicked him in the stomach with his huge leather boots until Zayde curled into a ball on the hard kitchen floor as pitiful as a tiny child. Again and again he beat him with his gun and kicked him.
“By that time the other four soldiers had returned. Zayde wasn’t a big man so it didn’t take them long to hustle him onto the table, pull his scuffed leather belt from around his waist and force his head into the noose they made with it. Then they hanged him from the hook on the kitchen ceiling that we used for drying meat.”
My great-great grandfather survived the ordeal, but only because the belt that was used to hang him snapped in two, dropping him to the floor with a great thump. But he was never the same again.
A state of total chaos reigned in Ukraine a century ago. The Canadian-Ukrainian academic Orest Subtelny described it thus:
“In the modern history of Europe, no country experienced such complete anarchy, bitter civil strife, and total collapse of authority as did Ukraine at this time. Six different armies-– those of the Ukrainians, the Bolsheviks, the Whites, the Entente [French], the Poles and the anarchists – operated on its territory. Kiev changed hands five times in less than a year. Cities and regions were cut off from each other by the numerous fronts. Communications with the outside world broke down almost completely. The starving cities emptied as people moved into the countryside in their search for food.”
The prime targets for much of the violence that engulfed the region were Jews. Historians estimate that between 35,000 and 50,000 Jews were killed in Ukraine’s pogroms in 1919-1920 – the greatest modern mass murder of Jews before the Holocaust.
But unlike the Holocaust, these earlier attempts at ethnic cleansing are largely forgotten, even in their centenary year. However some fascinating footage of the pogroms has emerged on the Russian website net-film, an organisation that is digitising film archives in cooperation with Russia’s state cinema archive, Gosfilmofond.
The first of the two short films covers just a small number of the hundreds of pogroms that took place in Ukraine in 1919-20. It shows still shots of shops and apartments pillaged by peasant insurgents or povstantzy in Bohuslaff (Boguslav) and by the Ukrainian army in Shitomir (Zhitomir); Jews murdered by Ataman Grigorieff in Kamenskoje (Kamianske) and by Ataman Strook in Tshernobil (Chernobyl); and rows of victims lined up in common graves. The second film shows moving images of a hospital in Ukraine treating victims of the pogroms, from the very young to the very old; several of the scenes make you wince and look away.
Most interesting for me was the inclusion of victims of a pogrom in Khodorkoff (Khodorkov). Members of my family lived in the town and escaped a vicious pogrom there. Here is how I describe it in my book A Forgotten Land:
“The Cossacks rounded up all the Jews and accompanied them to the sugar beet factory that stood beside the lake. Then they herded them past the plant to the water’s edge. To terrified screams and cries for mercy, the soldiers forced the Jews to continue walking into the lake until the icy water entered their bones and froze them to death or pulled them down into its depths. Bloated bodies could be seen bobbing on the lake’s surface or washed up on the shore for days.
“At last a letter arrived from Kiev to tell us that our relatives had survived. Leah, Babtsy, her husband Moishe and the children had hidden in the cellar beneath Moishe’s watch shop. Babtsy had stuffed her young children’s mouths with rags to stop them from uttering a sound when they heard the Cossacks destroying the shop upstairs. Moishe winced at the noise of his precious display cabinets being beaten to splinters, panes of glass being smashed into tiny shards and his valuable clocks hitting the wooden floor above their heads.
“At last the heavy thump of hob-nailed boots above them receded and they dared to breathe again. But they weren’t yet ready to risk emerging from their shelter. They listened carefully and heard the sounds of distant screams. They sensed the sweetness of the lilac that drenched the town in springtime being overpowered by the smell of fear and the stench of burning houses. They remained in the cellar all night and the next day rose to witness the devastation. Their town lay in ruins. Houses were smouldering all around them and the lakeside was littered with pale corpses. Barely stopping for a moment to grab a handful of belongings, Moishe and Babtsy fled to the railway station, a young child in each of their arms and a third running by their side, while Leah, over seventy years old now and much less vigorous than she used to be, stumbled along behind them holding onto the belt of Babtsy’s coat. They took the first train to Kiev and remained there with Moishe’s parents and sisters, who harboured them through the years that followed.”
My dad and I visited Khodorkov in 2005, where we met a 95-year old woman who had lived there all her life. Her daughter, no youngster herself, shooed out the chickens and invited us into her modest home to talk with this impossibly old lady. She spoke in Ukrainian and I couldn’t understand everything, but I got the gist.
“What do you remember from before the Revolution,” I asked her (in Russian).
“Pogrom,” she said. “They took them to the lake.”
“Who did they take?”
“Who took them?”
This word banda was the same one that my grandmother had used to describe the warring parties that had passed through her village during Russia’s civil war, spoken with identical intonation. Grandma passed away back in 1988, but my father had recorded her many years earlier telling stories, in Yiddish, of her early life in Russia. It sent shivers down my spine hearing this old lady talking of the same events that Grandma had described, and even using the same word, despite the fact that she spoke a completely different language.
You can view the films here:
Five years ago this month Ukraine's Maidan protests were at their height, a precursor to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March of that year. The night of 22 January 2014 marked a turning point in events at the Maidan square in central Kiev, the night when the first killings took place.
The demonstrations had begun in late November as a protest against President Viktor Yanukovych’s eleventh-hour refusal to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union, a deal that would have consolidated ties with Europe, but was far from a precursor to joining the EU club.
Through the cold, bleak Ukrainian winter, crowds gathered every evening in the large central square that became known as the Euromaidan. Many remained permanently on site, sleeping in tents and warmed by bonfires, living off donated food heated on makeshift stoves.
The original protestors, made up largely of students and young professionals, had been joined by their parents’ generation, angry at the authorities’ aggressive treatment of the young demonstrators, a core of passionate pro-Europeans from parts of Western Ukraine that had previously been part of Poland or Austria, as well as a well publicised and aggressive bunch of die-hard members of radical right-wing movements.
Encouraged by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Yanukovych had forced a raft of repressive measures through parliament. The ‘dictatorship law’ passed on 16 January made the erection of tents without police permission illegal as well as the wearing of hard hats during public demonstrations, among other measures.
Shortly afterwards riot police used water cannon in an attempt to break up the crowds, then rubber bullets, stun grenades and tear gas. For their part, the protestors retaliated with cobbles, fireworks and home-made petrol bombs. They built up barricades into huge bulwarks surrounded with burning tyres. The peaceful protests had become a Revolution.
On 22 January, the body of Yuriy Verbytsky – a middle-aged seismologist-turned-activist from Lviv in Western Ukraine – was found in the forest near Kiev’s Boryspil airport, his ribs broken and remnants of duct tape over his hands and clothing. He had been abducted the previous day with his friend Igor Lutsenko, an opposition journalist.
Lutsenko claims the men were thrown into a van, taken to the forest and locked up separately in an abandoned building. He was beaten, interrogated, forced to his knees with a bag over his head and told to pray, in what he described as a mock execution. Lutsenko, who was far from the only journalist to suffer brutal injuries at the hands of riot police while covering the Euromaidan protests, made it out alive. Verbytsky was left to freeze to death.
The same night, police killed three protestors during riots on Hrushevsky Street, close to Kiev’s national gallery. Two were attacked and shot. A third was beaten, stripped, jabbed with a knife and made to stand naked in the snow singing the national anthem.
Altogether 130 people would die during the Euromaidan demonstrations, the vast majority civilian protestors. Eighteen police officers were also killed during the clashes. I will write some of their story next month to mark the anniversary of the killings of 20 February, which brought an end to the Revolution as Yanukovych fled to Russia and Putin began his annexation of Crimea.
Following a trip to Poland in August, I wrote about the revival of the Jewish quarter of Krakow, with its Jewish restaurants, Jewish festival and synagogue renovations. Now attempts are under way to undertake a yet more unlikely revival across the border in Ukraine.
The town of Mezhbizh in western Ukraine is famous as the home of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hassidic movement in the 18th century. Mezhbizh has become something of a pilgrimage site for tourists, mostly Hassidic Jews, visiting from Israel. Some are even returning to the town to live, and renovating the shtetl that was home to around a third of the town’s population before pogroms, emigration and the Holocaust wiped the Jews from this part of the map.
The shtetls of Eastern Europe were once vibrant communities, home to millions of Yiddish-speakers, as I describe in my historical work A Forgotten Land. Numerous writers of the time wrote of the world of the shtetl – brothers Isaac Bashevis and Israel Joshua Singer, Sholem Aleichem (apparently a distant relative of mine, but I am yet to discover our common ancestor), Bella (wife of artist Marc) Chagall and Elie Wiesel to name but a few.
In the Russian empire, pogroms from 1881 onwards prompted waves of emigration that began to decimate the population of the shtetl, a process that culminated, of course, in the Holocaust when the remaining Jewish inhabitants were exterminated en masse. In this part of the world, the process generally involved mass shootings rather than deportation to concentration camps, the most famous being at Babi Yar, a ravine on the outskirts of Kiev where 34,000 Jews were killed in 1941 (see my blog post of 27 January 2017 for more about Babi Yar).
Today Mezhbizh is a small town of 2,000 inhabitants, down from as many as 10,000 during the era of the Baal Shem Tov. In those days it was a regional centre and a third of its residents were Jewish. Their numbers swelled every Sabbath and Jewish holiday as devotees travelled from miles around to worship at the Rebbe’s synagogue and express their devotion to the famous Rabbi and subsequent Hassidic Rebbes.
A Hassidic cemetery was built near the Baal Shem Tov’s grave. The illustrious Rebbe’s remains now reside in a white marble tomb inscribed in Hebrew script, which draws thousands of Hassidic pilgrims each year. To accommodate the tourists, infrastructure has been built including a large hotel catering for Orthodox Jewish customs, a kosher restaurant, a yeshiva and Torah institution.
And now an initiative has developed to recreate the Mizhbizh shtetl, renovating old Jewish homes abandoned three-quarters of a century ago. Numerous single-storey houses built of mud and brick or straw stand derelict on the site of the old shtetl, and around a dozen are currently under reconstruction aimed at becoming homes for Jewish families wanting to return to live in the town. Some members of the Hassidic community have already left Israel and set up home in Mezhbizh. In two-to-three years, entrepreneurs claim, the shtetl will have a Jewish-Israeli street with up to three renovated synagogues.
Mezhbizh is not the only Ukrainian town to attract Jewish visitors from overseas. Famously Uman, in central Ukraine, draws tens of thousands of tourists each year for the High Holy Days to visit the grave of Rabbi Nachman, the founder of the Breslov Hassidic movement, and a great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov. Not all are Hassidic believers, for according to tradition, the rabbi promised to intercede on behalf of anybody praying at his grave on Rosh Hashanah.
In Uman too, the rabbi’s grave has been renovated, with funds donated by Jewish tycoons from around the world. Hotels and hostels have popped up and locals have carried out house renovations to provide accommodation for the visitors. A few hundred Israelis have made Uman their home and the annual pilgrimage has become the town’s major source of income.
In 2005 I visited Berdichev, once known as Russia’s Jewish capital with a population of over 50,000, some four-fifths of whom were Jewish. The large Jewish cemetery is impressive, with acre upon acre of beautiful old graves overgrown with vegetation. A path between the graves leads to a new mausoleum built above the grave of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak, a prominent Hassidic leader. The tomb has become another pilgrimage site for Jewish tourists.
The cemetery is also home to the rabbis Moshe Mordechai Twersky and Tsvi Arye Twersky of Makarov, in whose rabbinical court my great-grandfather Meyer grew up and hoped to stay forever. Thanks to money sent from abroad, their graves are topped with newly hewn gravestones of slate and marble and housed in a small, painted mausoleum.
Meyer’s own grandfather – my great, great, great grandfather – was advisor to the famous Reb Dovidl Twersky of Talna. Reb Dovidl was the grandson of Rabbi Nochum Twersky of Chernobyl, a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov. When I visited Talna, now known as Talnoye, we found Reb Dovidl’s grave in a dirty concrete box housed in an old shack covered with graffiti. It lay at the end of a dingy alley that smelt of urine, on the edge of what was once a Jewish cemetery but had become an overgrown wasteland littered with old tyres.
The site has since been renovated, thanks to the editor of the local newspaper who spearheaded a fundraising effort to have the rabbi’s remains interred in surroundings more appropriate to the founder of one of the most revered of Hassidic dynasties.
The story of the renovation of the Mezhbizh shtetl comes from an article on ynet.news.com by Dr Yoel Rappel. To read the full article, please click here https://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-5443742,00.html
Ukrainian director Oles Yanchuk’s latest film, Secret Diary of Symon Petliura, was released earlier this year. I believe it released only in Ukrainian, but am hoping a version with English subtitles will become available.
Yanchuk is known for making films that are both historical and political. His other works treat subjects such as the 1930s famine in Ukraine – widely regarded as a preventable disaster forced on the region by the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin – in his 1991 film Famine 33; while his 1995 work Assassination deals with the killing of Ukraine’s wartime nationalist leader Stepan Bandera in 1959.
All his films address subjects that were off limits during the Soviet era and have often spawned controversy. The latest is no different. Posters for the film displayed outside a cinema in Zaporizhia were splattered with red paint in September, and leaflets distributed with the words “Petliura – Persecutor of Jewish People”.
Petliura led the Ukrainian National Republic during Ukraine's short-lived sovereignty in 1918–1921, and was commander of the Ukrainian Army, leading the struggle for independence following the fall of the Russian Empire in 1917.
Secret Diary of Symon Petliura is based on entries in a fictional diary featuring key events leading up to Petliura’s exile in France from 1924. It also features a number of clips in black and white that were filmed in Ukraine in 1919. The main event of the film is the trial of Sholem Schwartzbard, a Jewish watchmaker who assassinated Petliura in Paris in 1926 because of his involvement in anti-Semitic pogroms at the time of the Russian Civil War in 1918-21. The accused was pronounced not guilty on the basis of Petliura’s role in respect of the attacks on Jews.
Much later, in the 1950s, a KGB agent who had defected to the US claimed that Schwartzbard had been an agent of the Soviet secret police, the NKVD – a precursor to the KGB.
Petliura is still a controversial figure. For Ukrainians he is a national martyr who fought against Poles, Bolsheviks, Russia’s White Army and Anarchists during the mayhem that constituted the Civil War in Ukraine.
For Jews, he was the Ukrainian leader, whose army committed terrible anti-Semitic violence. It is widely understood that Petliura himself was not an anti-Semite. Indeed he signed an order dated August 1919 that “All those who will be inciting you to carry out pogroms be expelled from our army and tried as traitors of the Motherland”.
But he manifestly failed to prevent his troops from carrying out pogroms and appeared to have pulled back from his threats to punish officers and soldiers engaged in crimes against the Jews for fear of losing their support.
This account of Petliura, published in the Yiddish language Der Morgen Zshurnal in 1926, gives a glimpse of the commonly held view.
“In the primitive Jewish folk consciousness a very definite idea of the just recently assassinated Petliura has formed. Under this name the people imagine a terrible, wild rider on a white horse, with blood-filled eyes, a thick Cossack moustache and an unhuman cruel face, who rides into a Jewish village at the head of bloodied pogromchiks and slaughters every Jew that comes in his way with animal delight”.
And here’s how I described Petliura’s army in my book A Forgotten Land:
“A rogue by the name of Petliura had been released from prison and was regrouping the Ukrainian nationalists. One of his first actions was to order railway stations to be attacked so that he could grab the weapons of the evacuating German soldiers, which were more sophisticated and in better condition that then guns and grenades that his own men had stowed away in chicken sheds and stables across the land. He and his banda didn’t only steal weaponry, they took clothes, money, munitions, trucks, carts and horses, anything that would help them seize Kiev and the government of the land for themselves.
“Thieving was a way of life to them and in the towns and villages Petliura’s men passed through they stole first and foremost from the Jews. All across the land, the experience was the same. They didn’t knock at the door, but hammered and kicked, giving an indication of what to expect. Once I was alone in my father’s cottage when the Petliurists came. I hid in the wardrobe upstairs rather than answer the door, my heart pounding. First they tried kicking it down, then they shot bullets at the hinges so that the door collapsed. They walked in and dropped cigarettes on the floor, grinding the stubs with the heel of their boots, crushing shreds of paper and tobacco into the earth floor that I spent hours sweeping and watering so that it looked like polished tiles. Seeing that there was nothing for them, they soon walked out, and I could hear them hammering on the neighbours’ doors, shooting other people’s door hinges and shouting ‘You filthy yids!’ as they pushed occupants aside and took all they could find: food, clothing, silver and especially money.”
Ten years ago I travelled with my Dad to America for a family visit. It was the first time I had met most of his first cousins – and it turned out to be the last time I saw his sister, my dear aunt Lil, who died a few years later. One of Dad’s relatives, irrepressible and wonderful cousin Betty, is a psychic and clairvoyant. Betty is much on my mind at the moment as wildfires rage around Los Angeles, forcing her to evacuate her home.
“I know you are a writer, but have you ever thought about doing documentaries?” she asked me back in 2008.
“I’d love to make documentaries!” I replied.
“Well, you will.”
And today, ten years on, the first documentary I have been involved in is being broadcast on the BBC's World Service radio station. It’s a ten-minute piece about the lost Jewish world of the Eastern European shtetl, using anecdotes recounted by my grandmother about her early life back in Ukraine – then part of the Russian Empire.
Mostly when I give talks about my work, I focus primarily on the dramatic major events that affected Russia’s Jewish community at the time – pogroms, World War I, the Russian Revolution and civil war. But the documentary concentrates on more mundane aspects of day-to-day life, such as Sabbath rituals in my grandmother’s house, relations with the local Ukrainian population, the Rabbi’s court where members of my family lived and worked, and a crazy and somewhat comical incident that landed my great-great grandmother in jail, to the horror and embarrassment of the whole family.
The documentary is based on snippets of recordings made by my father back in the 1970s of my grandmother telling stories about her early life in Russia. They are recorded in Yiddish, the language of the Jews of Eastern Europe. It is a language once spoken by around 12 million people that transcended national boundaries, but which was almost wiped out by the holocaust. The vast majority of the Jews killed in the Nazi death camps would have spoken Yiddish as their mother tongue.
Today the language is undergoing something of a revival, in the US in particular. Surprisingly there are still up to two million Yiddish speakers in the world. You can sign up to Yiddish evening classes, watch Yiddish theatre performances and attend Yiddish dance parties. In 2017, the Yiddish Arts and Academics Association of North America was born, with a mission to promote Yiddish language and culture through academic and artistic events and through Yiddish food. “The goal,” says founder Jana Mazurkiewicz Meisarosh, “is to make Yiddish culture hip, modern and interesting.”
In the US, “Yiddish has been trapped within two discrete, hermetic spheres: the ultra-Orthodox sphere, which engages the religious aspects of Yiddishkeit, and the academic sphere, which tends to study secular Yiddishkeit of the past. As a result, Yiddish language and culture … is often viewed as a relic of the past, and fails to find resonance in daily life and modern culture,” she says.
It’s a fascinating and worthy goal, to bring back to life a language that came close to extinction. The culture of the shtetl is unlikely to be reborn outside of the most restrictive Jewish communities, but if it can gain further resonance in today’s world, this is surely something to celebrate.
Listen to the documentary here: www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w3cswsp3
My great as-yet-unwritten novel has not yet started to take form, but its shape is finally becoming slightly less amorphous. The notes on historical background are burgeoning in the lovely soft-backed notebooks with cream-coloured pages that I treated myself to in the hope that they would help inspire my writing.
I recently embarked on a dauntingly enormous tome that has been sitting beside my sofa for many months, taunting me with its great heft. At nearly 800 pages, Ukraine: A History by the academic Orest Subtelny, promises to be a valuable resource, but perhaps one that I shall dip into rather than reading from cover to cover in my usual methodical way.
I like the book’s dedication: "To those who had to leave their homeland but never forgot it" – people like my grandparents who circumstance forced to travel thousands of miles to forge a new life in Canada. Grandma certainly never forgot her homeland. She talked about it endlessly, so much so that her children – my Dad and aunt – grew up surrounded by her stories, and the inhabitants of a distant Ukrainian village – many of them long dead – seemed more real to them than those of the Canadian city in which they lived.
The period that interests me most is the Russian civil war of 1917-22. The book refers to this era as the Ukrainian Revolution. These two events were intertwined, each an integral part of the other. After the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia in October 1917, the revolution turned to civil war as, in Subtelny’s words, “numerous claimants for power in Ukraine and throughout the former empire were embroiled in a bitter, merciless military struggle, complete with large-scale terror and atrocities, to decide who and what form of government should replace the old order”.
These “claimants for power”’ were what my grandmother called the banda. They were “rebels and hoodlums, peasants and ex-army officers representing every kind of faction, every ideology imaginable. Some fought for Communism, others for Nationalism, Anarchism, Freedom or Holy Russia. Each recruited fighters to his cause, often luring the impoverished and the illiterate with the promise of food and action, arming them with guns brought back from the war – the other war – and hidden in hayricks or underground hideouts.
“It seemed that each banda was competing to be more bloodthirsty than the last. They appeared to take pride in acts of rape and pillage, mutilation and murder. Their armies were each represented by a colour, like pieces in a giant board game. Every banda was competing against all the others, occasionally forging an alliance to gang up on one enemy, only to break the pact a few months later and start fighting again. There were Reds, Whites, Greens and sometimes even Red-Greens and White-Greens and names that instilled fear: Petlyura, Makhno, Zeleny, Denikin. The Greens took their name from their little flat caps and those of Zeleny’s men were yellow. Makhno’s anarchist fighters wore black hats and carried black flags crudely painted with the words ‘Liberty or Death’. The Cossack fighters had scarlet caps, while the Bolsheviks decorated their arms with thick, blood-red bands. As well as those sporting what could pass for a uniform, there were other banda made up of rag-tag bunches of ruffians.”
One of the key turning points of the Ukrainian Revolution took place exactly a century ago, in November 1918. Ukraine had been ruled since April of that year by a regime known as the Hetmanate, a conservative Ukrainian government headed by Hetman Pavlo Skoropadsky – his title evoking Ukraine’s old Cossack traditions. The Hetmanate existed under German occupation and replaced Ukraine’s year-old Central Rada, a broad but mostly nationalist and socialist council, or soviet, which had come to power following the Russian Revolution.
Skoropadsky was a wealthy landowner and part of the Tsarist establishment, but had thrown off his imperialist veneer to become leader of a Free Cossack peasant militia and set about dismantling some of the left-wing policies imposed by the Central Rada. He bestowed on himself sweeping powers and declared the establishment of the Ukrainian State. New Ukrainian-speaking schools popped up across the land, Ukrainian-language school books were hastily published and even two new Ukrainian universities were created.
But opposition to Skoropadksy and the Hetmanate soon mounted and spontaneous, fierce peasant revolts spread across Ukraine. Led by local, often anarchistic, leaders known as an otaman or batko, hordes of peasants fought pitched battles against the occupying German troops. The insurrection centred on a town called Bila Tserkva, just west of Kiev and only a few miles from my family’s home in Pavolitch. Thousands of peasant partisans poured into the area. By 21 November they had encircled Kiev and three weeks later the occupying Germans evacuated the city, taking Skoropadsky with them. As a result of the fall of the Hetmanate, the following year total chaos would ensue, but the story of 1919 is one that I will save for later.
I was in London last week to record a radio documentary for the BBC. The programme, Witness, describes events in history using the voices of people who lived through them. The producer was interested in my grandmother’s stories of the lost Jewish world, as recorded by my father in the 1970s.
At that time, Dad was a social historian working at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, and Grandma was a tiny, frail old lady in her late 70s, living in Los Angeles. Dad had grown up with his mother’s stories of her early life in Russia and, as an adult and an academic, he wanted to probe deeper into the Jewish community in which she had lived.
Over the course of the years that followed, some of the audio tapes Dad recorded became distorted, broken, lost or accidentally re-recorded with pop music (my brother and I were teenagers, we wholeheartedly apologise), but enough remained to ensure that my grandmother’s stories were not lost.
Until about 15 years ago I had never listened to these cassettes. They were recorded in Yiddish, a language I don’t understand, and as a youngster I was never sufficiently interested to ask my father to translate them. I had no idea what a rich and fascinating history they would reveal. Even Dad had not revisited the tapes for years.
When my father reached his 70s, I began to fear that the stories would be lost. It was a labour of love for the two of us to listen to the cassettes one by one and piece together a story. Hour after hour Dad translated while I typed. These transcripts eventually became the basis for my book, A Forgotten Land.
After we had finished translating and transcribing the recordings, Dad put the cassettes away and I did not see them again until I came across them tucked away in a drawer when we cleared Dad’s flat after he died in 2012. I brought them home and put them away in a box with some other items of Dad’s that I kept – some photos, newspaper clippings and the family Kiddush cups. And there they stayed for the next six years.
Before my trip to London, I needed to identify the sections of the recordings that would go out on air. First I had to borrow an old tape recorder, and cross my fingers that it didn’t chew up the audio tape. I spent several days listening to the cassettes, digitising them and trying to work out which story was which, listening out for names and places (Bolsheviki, Kerensky, Kiev, Libau), family members, familiar Russian words and anything in Yiddish that my rudimentary knowledge of German was able to pick up. Thankfully I found some of my early transcripts, which were a great help. But as Dad didn’t number the tapes as he recorded or replayed them, everything was utterly jumbled.
Eventually I managed to pick out the four short segments that the radio producer wanted to use. At the recording studio, I talked around these stories, filling in background and adding details. When I had finished, an actress arrived to record voice-over translations. She began talking with a theatrical flourish and a mild Russian accent. “No, no,” the producer said. “This is a very simple woman, an uneducated woman, recounting events to her family. Tone it down!”
The final result will be broadcast on the BBC World Service in the coming weeks. I wait with bated breath!
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.