I was invited to give a presentation at a Christian-Jewish church service with a theme of persecution and immigration, as part of this year’s North Cornwall Book Festival. The recent horror of refugees trying to flee Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban victory, and the plight of migrants making perilous sea crossings in an attempt to reach Europe or the UK, have once again brought these issues to the fore.
My own family lived through the pogroms, a series of anti-Semitic riots that took place in the Russian Empire, which in many ways served as a precursor to the Holocaust. Today, we would probably call the pogroms a form of ‘state-sponsored terrorism’ against Jews – supported and incited by the government, if not actually perpetrated by it. They began in 1881, when Jews took the blame for the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, and continued in waves for the next 40 years, peaking in 1905 before coming to a head during the Russian Civil War – a chaotic and intensely violent period that lasted for about four years following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.
During the civil war, the area where my family lived – near Kiev, in present day Ukraine – became a battleground with numerous armies criss-crossing the land – Communists, Nationalists, Anarchists, anti-Bolsheviks, peasant militias – all of them anti-Semitic to a greater or lesser degree. The White Army in particular, which was loyal to the Tsar – and backed by the West – introduced methods of mass murder of Jews that were later taken and pushed to their limit by the Nazis twenty or so years later. Many White Army soldiers later went on to join the Ukrainian militias that collaborated with the Nazis to destroy all Jewish life in Ukraine in the early 1940s.
As well as the violence during the civil war, there was hunger. Food had become scarce during World War l, inflation soared making what little there was unaffordable, and the Bolsheviks requisitioned grain from the countryside (including from my great-great grandfather, who was a grain trader), to feed the workers in the towns. Not only did they take the grain, but also the seed, leaving the peasants with nothing to grow crops with the following year. The population was left to starve.
My grandmother Pearl was around 17 years old at the start of the civil war, and an orphan. She lived with her grandparents, siblings and cousins and took it upon herself to become the family breadwinner, undertaking terrifying and dangerous journeys by train to markets across the region to buy, sell and barter what she could to keep her family alive.
Eventually she even became a black-market gold dealer – taking any gold items belonging members of her local community on a murderous journey half way across Ukraine to exchange them for hard currency, which she brought back to the villagers so they could use it to buy food. Had she been caught, either with the gold or hard currency, she would have been shot.
After more than three years of this perilous life that she hated with a passion, and following a particularly arduous trading trip when she was caught in a snowstorm and almost froze to death, she could take it no more. She decided she must try to get herself and her family out of the country.
Six months later, in 1924, Pearl managed to emigrate to Winnipeg, Canada to join some other members of her extended family who had already made it out of Russia. She travelled alone, and with nothing. Once in Canada she did what so many immigrants do. She found a job and worked hard, scrimping, saving, and borrowing to raise enough money to bring the rest of her family over to join her the following year. Today my family is spread across Canada, from Vancouver to Toronto, and in America from California to New York, as well as in Germany, Israel and the UK, where they became, among other things, teachers and lawyers, journalists and doctors, Rabbis and social workers, all adding in their own unique ways to the prosperity and cultural life, as well as the wonderful diversity, of the places they now call home.
Photo: Pearl (left) with her sisters Sarah (centre) and Rachel, circa 1920
Keeping stories alive
This blog aims to discuss historical events relating to the Jewish communities of Ukraine, and of Eastern Europe more widely. As a storyteller, I hope to keep alive stories of the past and remember those who told or experienced them. Like so many others, I am deeply troubled by the war in Ukraine and for the foreseeable future, most articles published here will focus on the war, with an emphasis on parallels with other tumultuous periods in Ukraine's tragic history.