I finally had the opportunity during lockdown to watch a documentary that I’d been wanting to see for a long time. My Dear Children, a 2018 film by director and co-producer LeeAnn Dance, tells the personal and heart-rending tale of a family separated by thousands of miles as a result of pogroms during the Russian Civil War.
Central to the story is Feiga Shamis, a mother who strives to protect her 12 children from the turbulence and violence around them. The pogroms of 1917-1921 were far more terrible than any of the anti-Semitic violence that had gone before, with a death toll estimated anywhere between 50,000 and 250,000, and up to 1.6 million injured, attacked, raped, robbed, or made homeless in the largest outbreak of anti-Jewish violence before the Holocaust. The number of individual pogroms is estimated at more than 1,200. Feiga’s 16-year-old son was killed during one of these, while her husband – like my own great-grandfather – died during the typhoid epidemic of 1918-19.
“We overheard them saying they should kill all the Jewish children so the Jews would die out,” Feiga wrote. It was time to plot her escape. With her older children married off or sent to the US, she fled to Warsaw with the four youngest, where she placed two of her children – eight-year-old Mannie and 10-year-old Rose – in an orphanage, a fairly common practice at the time. “I thought the children would be safer in the orphanage,” she wrote, “so I took them there.”
From Warsaw, the two children were selected as part of a rescue effort by Isaac Ochberg, a Jewish South African philanthropist, who managed to bring to safety nearly 200 Jewish orphans from his former homeland. At great personal risk, he travelled around Eastern Europe collecting children from orphanages and bringing them to Warsaw—to the orphanage where Feiga had placed her children. Only later did Ochberg learn the children’s mother was alive.
When Feiga learned of the plan, she faced a heartbreaking decision—keep the children with her, or let them go, to a place half a world away where she would probably never see them again, but where she was assured that they faced a better future. She chose to let them go.
My Dear Children is based on a long letter that Feiga wrote to Rose and Mannie after she had emigrated to Palestine in 1937 to live with one of her older daughters. She gave it to Mannie on the one occasion they met after his and Rose’s departure for South Africa. As a young soldier in the South African army, Mannie was posted to Egypt, from where he took a week’s leave to visit his mother. Tragically Mannie cut short his week-long visit to just a single day, with he and his mother unable to connect to one another.
Mannie never read his mother’s letter, suppressing a past that was too painful to contemplate. For the rest of his life, Mannie would agonise over why his mother had sent him away, and neither he nor his sister Rose would ever talk about their childhood back in Russia. It wasn’t until after Mannie’s death that his widow had the letter translated from Yiddish into English, printed as a small book, and distributed among members of the family.
The scenes that Feiga witnessed during the Civil War and her experiences during that time resonate deeply with the recollections of my grandmother, documented in my book A Forgotten Land. In particular, Feiga wrote about becoming a black-market vodka trader, bartering vodka for food to keep her family alive. My grandmother too was a black-market trader at this time, dealing in food, and later gold, as the sole breadwinner for her grandparents, siblings and cousins.
It is clear from her writing that Feiga remained racked with guilt and suffering over her decision to allow her children to leave for South Africa, and she wrote the letter as a justification and explanation for what she had done.
In 2016, Mannie’s daughter Judy and granddaughter Tess set out on a trip to Poland and what is now Ukraine, hoping to find answers as to why Mannie refused to talk about his past and what drove Feiga to the choice she made. They found a landscape virtually erased of its Jewish past.
“The Holocaust did not happen in a vacuum. The pogroms of 1917-1921 should be seen as a precursor to the greater tragedy just 20 years later. My Dear Children shows the consequences of unchecked, or worse – officially sanctioned – anti-Semitism, and given the increasing incidents of anti-Semitism today, this story remains relevant today. Feiga’s story is not unique. Nearly 80% of the world’s Jewry can trace their roots to Eastern Europe, thus Jews around the world share Feiga’s story. Many likely have no idea they do so.” LeeAnn Dance said in an interview for the Washington Jewish Film Festival in 2018.
For more information about My Dear Children, click here www.mydearchildrendoc.com
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 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:
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.
My first blog post of the new year is inspired by a passage written by the Russian Jewish author Isaac Babel, which I came across while doing research for a new book that I am starting this year.
Babel was born in Odessa, in present-day Ukraine. He initially embraced the Russian Revolution, welcoming the new freedoms that Jews experienced under the Bolsheviks – the Pale of Settlement, where Jews were confined to living under the Tsars – was dissolved, quotas for schools, universities and professions were abolished and censorship ended.
Like many other artists and writers, Babel became an ardent Bolshevik, but found himself increasingly out of favour during the rule of Joseph Stalin, who led the Soviet Union from 1924. Stalin promoted the bland Socialist Realist artistic style and the exciting, experimental art and literature of the immediate pre- and post-revolutionary years was brutally supressed.
Unwilling to leave Mother Russia and follow his wife and daughter into exile in Paris, Babel was eventually shot in 1940, during Stalin’s purges, following a brief show trial. His name and work were erased in the Soviet Union until 1954, when he was rehabilitated during the so-called ‘thaw’ under Nikita Khrushchev.
The passage below is a wonderful illustration of the contradictions that people – perhaps Jews especially – felt about the revolution. It comes from the short story Gedali, which forms part of Babel’s Red Cavalry collection. The Red Cavalry stories describe snapshots from Babel’s experience as a war correspondent during the 1920 campaign by the newly formed Soviet Red Army to invade Poland and spread socialist revolution to neighbouring countries.
We sit down on some empty beer barrels. Gedali winds and unwinds his narrow beard. His top hat rocks above us like a little black tower. Warm air flows past us. The sky changes colour – tender blood pouring from an overturned bottle – and a gentle aroma of decay envelops me.
“So let’s say we say ‘yes’ to the Revolution. But does that mean that we’re supposed to say ‘no’ to the Sabbath?” Gedali begins, enmeshing me in the silken cords of his smoky eyes. “Yes to the Revolution! Yes! But the Revolution keeps hiding from Gedali and sending gunfire ahead of itself.”
“The sun cannot enter eyes that are squeezed shut,” I say to the old man, “but we shall rip open those closed eyes!”
“The Pole has closed my eyes,” the old man whispers almost inaudibly. “The Pole, that evil dog! He grabs the Jew and rips out his beard, oy, the hound! But now they are beating him, the evil dog! This is marvellous, this is the Revolution! But then the same man who beat the Pole says to me, ‘Gedali, we are requisitioning your gramophone!’ ‘But gentlemen,’ I tell the Revolution, ‘I love music!’ And what does the Revolution answer me? ‘You don’t know what you love, Gedali! I am going to shoot you, and then you’ll know, and I cannot not shoot, because I am the Revolution!’”
“The Revolution cannot not shoot, Gedali,” I tell the old man, “because it is the Revolution.”
“But my dear Pan! The Pole did shoot, because he is the counterrevolution. And you shoot because you are the Revolution. But Revolution is happiness. And happiness does not like orphans in its house. A good man does good deeds. The Revolution is the good deed done by good men. But good men do not kill. Hence the Revolution is done by bad men. But the Poles are also bad men. Who is going to tell Gedali which is the Revolution and which the counterrevolution? I have studied the Talmud. I love the commentaries of Rashi and the books of Maimonides. And there are also other people in Zhitomir who understand. And so all of us learned men fall to the floor and shout with a single voice, ‘Woes unto us, where is the sweet Revolution?’”
Today marks the centenary of Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution. As recent media broadcasts have repeatedly told us, Lenin’s men seized power in the autumn of 1917 and the world’s first communist state was born. But the reality was not so simple. Across parts of the Russian Empire the revolution unleashed a brutal civil war and it was several years before the Bolsheviks consolidated power. One such area was the territory of present-day Ukraine, my ancestral home.
The fall of the Russian Provincial Government in Petrograd on 7 November 1917 (25 October according to the Russian calendar of the time) prompted a power struggle in Kiev that was to last for four years. The abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in March 1917 had led to the formation of Ukraine’s Central Rada, or parliament. In November, following the Bolshevik Revolution, it declared a Ukrainian People’s Republic opposed to Communist rule, and gained independence from Russia in 1918. In the years that followed, the government in Kiev changed hands so many times that it became difficult to keep track of who was supposed to be in charge.
My family came from the village of Pavoloch, about 60 miles from Kiev. Here the October Revolution gave way to anarchy, as newly formed ‘banda’ – or armed factions – roamed the land. Some fought for Communism, others for Nationalism, Anarchism, Freedom or Holy Russia. The names of their leaders instilled fear: Petlyura, Makhno, Zeleny, Denikin.
Later, in 1919 Pavoloch repeatedly became a sea of carnage as one banda after another passed through, stealing, raping, pillaging and killing. The White Army, under General Denikin, was the most ruthless of all. His professional soldiers were armed by western powers, including Britain, which wanted to see the Communists defeated. The Whites hated the Communists, but more than anything else they hated the Jews. They barged into Jewish homes, drew their swords and cut inhabitants down regardless of age or sex. Anyone who tried to escape was shot in the back as they fled. They threw grenades into cellars, blowing up entire families; poured petrol over synagogues and set them alight; raped thousands of women.
One day five White Army soldiers burst into my family’s home. They searched the house for money, kicking down the door of the warehouse and smashing floorboards. One of the soldiers dealt my great-great grandfather a blow with his rifle butt and watched him crumple to the floor, then kicked him repeatedly in the stomach. They hustled the old man 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 meat hook on the kitchen ceiling.
After the soldiers left, the frayed old belt snapped in two and my great-great grandfather landed with an almighty thump on the hard stone floor. He had survived!
This is only one of around a dozen terrible incidents that affected my family during the Civil War. Here is Canadian scholar Orest Subtelny’s assessment of the time:
“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. 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 Bolsheviks finally secured power in the region in 1921 and the following year it became part of Soviet Ukraine.
The death of Rabbi Mendel Deitsch last week resonated through the Jewish community and throws up parallels with the past. The Rabbi was beaten up in the Ukrainian city of Zhitomir at in October last year, at Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. He was robbed of his money and mobile phone at the city’s train station, suffering multiple head injuries and brain trauma. He was not discovered until hours later and was airlifted to hospital in Israel, where he remained unconscious until his death on 14 April.
Ukraine continues to suffer high levels of anti-Semitic crime, despite the appointment of a Jewish prime minister, Volodymyr Groysman, last year. Incidents include the desecration of Holocaust memorials and Jewish cemeteries with Swastikas and Nazi slogans, and an attack on a former synagogue in Uzhgorod, western Ukraine, which was daubed with red paint and anti-Semitic pamphlets. Most shockingly, the grave of one of Judaism’s most revered figures, Rabbi Nachman of Breslav in Uman was vandalised on the eve of Hannukah and adorned with a pig’s head. In Zhitomir, the scene of Rabbi Deitsch’s attack, the mass graves of holocaust victims were dug up earlier this year by thieves looking for gold teeth.
In early 1919, Zhitomir was the scene of one of the worst anti-Semitic attacks of Russia’s Civil War. Just like the assault on Rabbi Deitsch almost 100 years later, the initial attacks took place at the city’s train station, where followers of Symon Petlyura, one of the leaders of Ukraine’s fight for independence and a vicious anti-Semite, carried out a massacre, killing 17 Jews, many of them old men on their way home from synagogue.
But it didn’t stop there. Local peasants started a rumour that spread around the whole of Zhitomir in a matter of hours. They said that during the recent brief period that the Red Army had occupied the city, the Jews who had taken charge of the civil authorities had put to death nearly two thousand Christians. Who were these condemned men? Why and where were they killed? Nobody knew the answer to these questions – because there had been no mass execution. The rumours were pure fantasy, aimed at inciting hatred against the Jews. Thankfully the stories of Christian carnage provided a warning and when the pogrom began, all those who were able had already scattered to the wind or sought refuge with Ukrainian friends or neighbours. The only Jews left were the elderly or infirm, pregnant women and nursing mothers.
But the slaughter went ahead regardless. An old man on his way to synagogue with his prayer shawl over his arm was the first to die. He was propped against a tree and shot. But the bullet didn’t kill him. The old man dragged himself towards the synagogue on his hands and knees, but collapsed and died in the street just yards from the door, while Petlyura’s men stood and watched.
Witnesses spoke of seeing people having their eyes gouged out, their clothes torn off and the skin of their shoulders engraved by knife-blade with the badge of rank of their killer. The pogrom lasted for five days. Over three hundred Jews were killed.
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.