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 read a fascinating obituary of the last musician to grow up playing traditional Jewish music in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust. Leopold Kozlowski died in March at the ripe old age of 100.
Kozlowski gained fame as the “Last Klezmer of Galicia”. He was an expert on Jewish music, having taught generations of klezmer musicians and Yiddish singers in Poland. He continued to perform until shortly before he died.
He was born Pesach Kleinman in 1918 in the town of Przemyslany, near Lviv, which was then in Poland and is now part of Ukraine. His grandfather was a legendary Klezmer player by the name of Pesach Brandwein, one of the most famous traditional Jewish musicians of the 19th century. With his nine sons he performed at Hassidic celebrations and even for heads of state, including the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph.
Brandwein created a musical dynasty, with many of his descendants forming family orchestras throughout Galicia. The clan also gained renown in America. Brandwein’s son, the clarinetist Naftuli Brandwein, settled in New York in 1908 and became known as the “King of Jewish Music.”
Because of the family’s reputation, Brandwein’s youngest son, Tsvi-Hirsch, decided that in order to prove himself, he should change his name and go it alone. He adopted his mother’s maiden name, Kleinman, to avoid association with his famed grandfather and uncle. His son Pesach — later to be known as Leopold Kozlowski — and his brother Yitzhak would prove to be the greatest musical talents of all Brandwein’s grandchildren.
Kozlowski played the accordion and later the piano, while his brother played the violin. By the 1930s, as teenagers, they began playing alongside with their father, but times were hard and most families could no longer afford to hire a band for weddings. The boys devoted nearly all of their free time to practicing and performing and were later admitted to Conservatory in Lviv, completing their studies in 1941.
By this time their home town had become part of Soviet Ukraine and was flooded with Polish Jews who gave increasingly dire accounts of the situation in Nazi-occupied Poland. When Germany invaded the USSR on June 22, most believed that the Germans would only kill Jewish men of fighting age. Kozlowski’s mother told him, his brother and his father to flee.
The three men travelled 200 miles on foot in a little over a week, their instruments slung over their shoulders. But they were intercepted by the German army on the outskirts of Kiev. Realising that capture meant near certain death, they searched for a place to hide, settling on a cemetery where they dug up the earth with their hands and hid in coffins alongside the dead.
Finally emerging from hiding, they were immediately captured by the German army. But just as the soldiers were about to fire, Kleinman pleaded with them to allow him and his sons to play a tune. The soldiers listened, and slowly they lowered their rifles. After checking to see that no-one was watching, they gave Kleinman and his sons some food and left. The three men returned to their coffins.
Unable to remain among the dead any longer, and with no other option open to them, they eventually headed home, travelling by night and hiding in the forest by day. Three times German soldiers captured them, and each time they were released after playing a song.
Back in Przemyslany, the Gestapo ordered all Jews over 18 to assemble in the marketplace. From there the Germans led 360 Jews into the forest where they were forced to dig their own graves and then shot. Among them was Kleinman, while his wife was murdered soon afterwards when German soldiers found her hiding in a nearby barn.
Kozlowski and his brother attempted to flee, but were quickly captured and sent to the Kurovychi concentration camp near Lviv. Both brothers soon joined the camp’s orchestra and when SS officers learned of Kozlowski’s skill as a composer, they ordered him to compose a “Death Tango” to be played by the orchestra every time Jews were led to their execution.
The officers would bring the brothers to their late-night drinking sessions and command them to play. They were frequently made to strip naked and the Germans extinguished cigarettes on their bare skin.
Eventually the two men joined a group that planned to escape. They befriended a Ukrainian guard with a drinking problem, and while the brothers distracted a group of SS officers with their music, a third prisoner stole a bottle of vodka from them and gave it to the guard while he watched over the camp fence. Once the guard passed out, the inmates grabbed his wire cutters and made a hole in the barbed wire.
Immediately the camp’s searchlights fired up and gunfire reverberated. Several inmates were mown down by bullets just outside of the fence; others were caught by guard dogs and executed. Running alongside his brother with his accordion over his shoulder, Kozlowski felt several sharp jabs in his shoulder. When he examined his accordion later, he found multiple holes; the accordion had blocked the bullets’ path, leaving him unscathed. The accordion is now on display at the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow.
Following their daring escape, the brothers joined a Jewish partisan unit and later a Jewish platoon of the Home Army. In 1944 Kozlowski’s brother was stabbed to death having stayed behind from a mission to guard injured comrades, and Kozlowski never forgave himself for being unable to save him.
Throughout the horrors of their wartime experiences, the brothers had continued to play music. Music not only saved Kozlowski’s life several times, but also helped heal his psychological wounds, his long-time friend, the American klezmer artist Yale Strom, said in an interview.
After the war Kozlowski settled in Krakow and enlisted in the army. Still fearful of anti-Semitic violence, especially after the massacre of Jews in Kielce in July 1946, he exchanged his Jewish surname for the Polish Kozlowski.
He served in the military for 22 years, achieving the rank of colonel and conducting the army orchestra. In 1968 he once again fell victim to anti-Semitism when he was discharged under President Wladyslaw Gomulka’s anti-Semitic campaign.
“He thought to himself: ‘I’ve already changed my name, already hidden my identity and I’ve served more than 20 years in the Polish army and yet I’m still considered ‘the Jew,’” Strom said. “‘I’d be better off not hiding anymore. I might as well play Jewish music.’”
At a time when most of Poland’s remaining Jews fled the country, he joined the Polish State Yiddish Theatre and began composing original scores and coaching actors to sing with an authentic Yiddish intonation. He also played at celebrations for Krakow’s Jewish community and taught children Yiddish songs.
Under perestroika as the Soviet Union began to release its iron grip, Kozlowski was able to connect with klezmer musicians abroad, and in 1985 he visited the US where he met the leaders of the nascent klezmer revival movement.
Later, Stephen Spielberg met Kozlowski in Krakow while scouting locations for his film Schindler’s List. The two hit it off and Spielberg hired him both as a musical consultant for the film and to play a small speaking role.
Strom released a documentary, “The Last Klezmer: Leopold Kozlowski, His Life and Music,” in 1994, transforming Kozlowski into a celebrity in Poland. In old age, Kozlowski’s fame continued to grow. As well as international festival appearances and his regular concerts at the Krakow restaurant Klezmer Hois, he gave an annual concert with his students as part of Krakow’s international Jewish cultural festival. Even at 99 he was still the star of the show, playing the piano for two hours.
In his final years, Kozlowski spent much of his time in Kazimierz, Krakow’s historic Jewish quarter, which has become a tourist attraction. He often received visitors from abroad at his regular table at Klezmer Hois. Among the Jewish cemeteries, synagogues that function primarily as museums, and quasi-Jewish restaurants, Kozlowski himself became a sort of tourist attraction, the last living link to the music of pre-war Jewish life.
I can only wish that I had chanced upon him when I visited Kazimierz last summer.
This is an abridged version of a piece that appeared in The Forward. Click here to read the full article. https://forward.com/culture/423976/klezmer-leopold-kozlowski-holocaust-survivor-spielberg-schindlers-list/
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.”
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.
The West is once again engaging in reprisals against Russia and considering wider sanctions in the wake of the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK. The moves come four years after the European Union and United States first imposed sanctions in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
On 16 March 2014, Crimea held a referendum on its status, and two days later it became a constituent part of Russia. The referendum was declared to have achieved an overwhelming majority, with more than 80% in favour of annexation by Russia. But no Western observers were able to monitor the ballot and it attracted widespread criticism. Turnout figures in particular were thought to have been massively inflated, with the number of citizens actually voting for a Russian takeover possibly closer to the 30% mark. Both Kiev and the leaders of the Tatar community urged their citizens to boycott the vote.
The annexation of Crimea, while shocking from a legal and human-rights perspective, should not have surprised informed observers. It followed months of unrest in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, that had spread across the country, tipping the situation from protest to civil war. The dismissal of a compromise deal on 21 February by the leaders of the revolt, the flight of President Viktor Yanukovych and the formation of a so-called ‘unity’ government in fact made up predominantly of anti-Russian and nationalist members, were factors in the increasing radicalism taking hold in Ukraine.
Across the country, statues of Lenin were toppled, provoking a counter-mobilisation in Russian-speaking areas such as Crimea and the Donbas in the east of the country. Sections of society opposed to the pro-Western and nationalist forces that had occupied Kiev’s central Maidan, or square, since November began to seize government buildings, copying the tactics of the protesters in Kiev. Armed militants gained quasi-official status, patrolling the streets and providing ‘security’.
Anti-Maidan sentiment was strongest in Crimea and it is remarkable that Russia’s takeover of the region passed so peacefully given the state of confrontation elsewhere in the country.
Crimea’s history as a part of Ukraine was a short one. It was transferred from Russia to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic only in 1954, at a time when major water courses were being developed from Ukraine to irrigate Crimea’s arid, desert landscape with water from the River Dnieper – bringing Crimea under the Ukrainian republic’s jurisdiction at that time made logistical sense.
At the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, Crimea was treated as a special case, being home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol. Sevastopol was recognised as having ‘all-union significance’ and therefore would normally have reverted to Russia when Ukraine gained its independence, given Russia’s role as the ‘continuer state’ of the Soviet Union, assuming the former country’s obligations and privileges.
At the time Russia, under President Boris Yeltsin, did not pursue the idea assuming, one imagines, that the relationship between the two countries would continue as before under the newly formed Commonwealth of Independent States.
The events of early 2014 prompted Russian fears that it would be evicted from Sevastopol. On 28 February, soldiers took control of the local airport at Simferopol, under the pretext of protecting Russians in Crimea from Ukrainian nationalism. Although Russia officially denied sending in forces, armed military seized control of strategic areas. As late as 4 March, Russian president Vladimir Putin denied any intention of annexing Crimea, although he stated that residents should have the right to determine the region’s status by means of a referendum.
The status of Sevastopol was just one of the factors behind the Russian annexation. The Kiev protests began after President Yanukovych failed to sign an Association Agreement with the EU in November 2013. With much of the population of western Ukraine clamouring for closer ties with the West, Putin feared that Russia would continue to lose status and influence in a region it had once called its own. Already most of the Warsaw Pact countries of Eastern Europe that had severed ties with the Soviet Union were fully-fledged members of the EU and NATO, including the three Baltic States that had been part of the USSR.
If this were not enough for Putin to bear, the EU and NATO appeared to be creeping even closer, right into his backyard. Ukraine’s history as the birthplace of modern Russia dating back to medieval Kievan Rus’ and the two nations’ close – even intertwining – ties throughout their history, make Ukraine a special case. “We are not simply close neighbours, but we are one people,” Putin said. “Kiev is the mother of Russian cities. Ancient Rus’ is our common source and we cannot live without each other.”
Putin perceived that he was being repeatedly snubbed by the US and EU in their pursuit of closer ties with Ukraine, and as the West has repeatedly learnt, Hell hath no fury like the Russian president scorned. The Western powers should have paid more attention to that great diplomat of the 20th century, Henry Kissinger, who said, “Far too often the Ukraine issue is posed as a showdown: whether Ukraine joins the east or west. But if it is to survive and thrive, it must not be either side’s outpost against the other, it should function as a bridge between them. The West must understand that to Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign country.”
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.