A state of total chaos reigned in Ukraine a century ago. The Canadian-Ukrainian academic Orest Subtelny described it thus:
“In the modern history of Europe, no country experienced such complete anarchy, bitter civil strife, and total collapse of authority as did Ukraine at this time. Six different armies-– those of the Ukrainians, the Bolsheviks, the Whites, the Entente [French], the Poles and the anarchists – operated on its territory. Kiev changed hands five times in less than a year. Cities and regions were cut off from each other by the numerous fronts. Communications with the outside world broke down almost completely. The starving cities emptied as people moved into the countryside in their search for food.”
The prime targets for much of the violence that engulfed the region were Jews. Historians estimate that between 35,000 and 50,000 Jews were killed in Ukraine’s pogroms in 1919-1920 – the greatest modern mass murder of Jews before the Holocaust.
But unlike the Holocaust, these earlier attempts at ethnic cleansing are largely forgotten, even in their centenary year. However some fascinating footage of the pogroms has emerged on the Russian website net-film, an organisation that is digitising film archives in cooperation with Russia’s state cinema archive, Gosfilmofond.
The first of the two short films covers just a small number of the hundreds of pogroms that took place in Ukraine in 1919-20. It shows still shots of shops and apartments pillaged by peasant insurgents or povstantzy in Bohuslaff (Boguslav) and by the Ukrainian army in Shitomir (Zhitomir); Jews murdered by Ataman Grigorieff in Kamenskoje (Kamianske) and by Ataman Strook in Tshernobil (Chernobyl); and rows of victims lined up in common graves. The second film shows moving images of a hospital in Ukraine treating victims of the pogroms, from the very young to the very old; several of the scenes make you wince and look away.
Most interesting for me was the inclusion of victims of a pogrom in Khodorkoff (Khodorkov). Members of my family lived in the town and escaped a vicious pogrom there. Here is how I describe it in my book A Forgotten Land:
“The Cossacks rounded up all the Jews and accompanied them to the sugar beet factory that stood beside the lake. Then they herded them past the plant to the water’s edge. To terrified screams and cries for mercy, the soldiers forced the Jews to continue walking into the lake until the icy water entered their bones and froze them to death or pulled them down into its depths. Bloated bodies could be seen bobbing on the lake’s surface or washed up on the shore for days.
“At last a letter arrived from Kiev to tell us that our relatives had survived. Leah, Babtsy, her husband Moishe and the children had hidden in the cellar beneath Moishe’s watch shop. Babtsy had stuffed her young children’s mouths with rags to stop them from uttering a sound when they heard the Cossacks destroying the shop upstairs. Moishe winced at the noise of his precious display cabinets being beaten to splinters, panes of glass being smashed into tiny shards and his valuable clocks hitting the wooden floor above their heads.
“At last the heavy thump of hob-nailed boots above them receded and they dared to breathe again. But they weren’t yet ready to risk emerging from their shelter. They listened carefully and heard the sounds of distant screams. They sensed the sweetness of the lilac that drenched the town in springtime being overpowered by the smell of fear and the stench of burning houses. They remained in the cellar all night and the next day rose to witness the devastation. Their town lay in ruins. Houses were smouldering all around them and the lakeside was littered with pale corpses. Barely stopping for a moment to grab a handful of belongings, Moishe and Babtsy fled to the railway station, a young child in each of their arms and a third running by their side, while Leah, over seventy years old now and much less vigorous than she used to be, stumbled along behind them holding onto the belt of Babtsy’s coat. They took the first train to Kiev and remained there with Moishe’s parents and sisters, who harboured them through the years that followed.”
My dad and I visited Khodorkov in 2005, where we met a 95-year old woman who had lived there all her life. Her daughter, no youngster herself, shooed out the chickens and invited us into her modest home to talk with this impossibly old lady. She spoke in Ukrainian and I couldn’t understand everything, but I got the gist.
“What do you remember from before the Revolution,” I asked her (in Russian).
“Pogrom,” she said. “They took them to the lake.”
“Who did they take?”
“Who took them?”
This word banda was the same one that my grandmother had used to describe the warring parties that had passed through her village during Russia’s civil war, spoken with identical intonation. Grandma passed away back in 1988, but my father had recorded her many years earlier telling stories, in Yiddish, of her early life in Russia. It sent shivers down my spine hearing this old lady talking of the same events that Grandma had described, and even using the same word, despite the fact that she spoke a completely different language.
You can view the films here:
Five years ago this month Ukraine's Maidan protests were at their height, a precursor to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March of that year. The night of 22 January 2014 marked a turning point in events at the Maidan square in central Kiev, the night when the first killings took place.
The demonstrations had begun in late November as a protest against President Viktor Yanukovych’s eleventh-hour refusal to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union, a deal that would have consolidated ties with Europe, but was far from a precursor to joining the EU club.
Through the cold, bleak Ukrainian winter, crowds gathered every evening in the large central square that became known as the Euromaidan. Many remained permanently on site, sleeping in tents and warmed by bonfires, living off donated food heated on makeshift stoves.
The original protestors, made up largely of students and young professionals, had been joined by their parents’ generation, angry at the authorities’ aggressive treatment of the young demonstrators, a core of passionate pro-Europeans from parts of Western Ukraine that had previously been part of Poland or Austria, as well as a well publicised and aggressive bunch of die-hard members of radical right-wing movements.
Encouraged by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Yanukovych had forced a raft of repressive measures through parliament. The ‘dictatorship law’ passed on 16 January made the erection of tents without police permission illegal as well as the wearing of hard hats during public demonstrations, among other measures.
Shortly afterwards riot police used water cannon in an attempt to break up the crowds, then rubber bullets, stun grenades and tear gas. For their part, the protestors retaliated with cobbles, fireworks and home-made petrol bombs. They built up barricades into huge bulwarks surrounded with burning tyres. The peaceful protests had become a Revolution.
On 22 January, the body of Yuriy Verbytsky – a middle-aged seismologist-turned-activist from Lviv in Western Ukraine – was found in the forest near Kiev’s Boryspil airport, his ribs broken and remnants of duct tape over his hands and clothing. He had been abducted the previous day with his friend Igor Lutsenko, an opposition journalist.
Lutsenko claims the men were thrown into a van, taken to the forest and locked up separately in an abandoned building. He was beaten, interrogated, forced to his knees with a bag over his head and told to pray, in what he described as a mock execution. Lutsenko, who was far from the only journalist to suffer brutal injuries at the hands of riot police while covering the Euromaidan protests, made it out alive. Verbytsky was left to freeze to death.
The same night, police killed three protestors during riots on Hrushevsky Street, close to Kiev’s national gallery. Two were attacked and shot. A third was beaten, stripped, jabbed with a knife and made to stand naked in the snow singing the national anthem.
Altogether 130 people would die during the Euromaidan demonstrations, the vast majority civilian protestors. Eighteen police officers were also killed during the clashes. I will write some of their story next month to mark the anniversary of the killings of 20 February, which brought an end to the Revolution as Yanukovych fled to Russia and Putin began his annexation of Crimea.
Following a trip to Poland in August, I wrote about the revival of the Jewish quarter of Krakow, with its Jewish restaurants, Jewish festival and synagogue renovations. Now attempts are under way to undertake a yet more unlikely revival across the border in Ukraine.
The town of Mezhbizh in western Ukraine is famous as the home of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hassidic movement in the 18th century. Mezhbizh has become something of a pilgrimage site for tourists, mostly Hassidic Jews, visiting from Israel. Some are even returning to the town to live, and renovating the shtetl that was home to around a third of the town’s population before pogroms, emigration and the Holocaust wiped the Jews from this part of the map.
The shtetls of Eastern Europe were once vibrant communities, home to millions of Yiddish-speakers, as I describe in my historical work A Forgotten Land. Numerous writers of the time wrote of the world of the shtetl – brothers Isaac Bashevis and Israel Joshua Singer, Sholem Aleichem (apparently a distant relative of mine, but I am yet to discover our common ancestor), Bella (wife of artist Marc) Chagall and Elie Wiesel to name but a few.
In the Russian empire, pogroms from 1881 onwards prompted waves of emigration that began to decimate the population of the shtetl, a process that culminated, of course, in the Holocaust when the remaining Jewish inhabitants were exterminated en masse. In this part of the world, the process generally involved mass shootings rather than deportation to concentration camps, the most famous being at Babi Yar, a ravine on the outskirts of Kiev where 34,000 Jews were killed in 1941 (see my blog post of 27 January 2017 for more about Babi Yar).
Today Mezhbizh is a small town of 2,000 inhabitants, down from as many as 10,000 during the era of the Baal Shem Tov. In those days it was a regional centre and a third of its residents were Jewish. Their numbers swelled every Sabbath and Jewish holiday as devotees travelled from miles around to worship at the Rebbe’s synagogue and express their devotion to the famous Rabbi and subsequent Hassidic Rebbes.
A Hassidic cemetery was built near the Baal Shem Tov’s grave. The illustrious Rebbe’s remains now reside in a white marble tomb inscribed in Hebrew script, which draws thousands of Hassidic pilgrims each year. To accommodate the tourists, infrastructure has been built including a large hotel catering for Orthodox Jewish customs, a kosher restaurant, a yeshiva and Torah institution.
And now an initiative has developed to recreate the Mizhbizh shtetl, renovating old Jewish homes abandoned three-quarters of a century ago. Numerous single-storey houses built of mud and brick or straw stand derelict on the site of the old shtetl, and around a dozen are currently under reconstruction aimed at becoming homes for Jewish families wanting to return to live in the town. Some members of the Hassidic community have already left Israel and set up home in Mezhbizh. In two-to-three years, entrepreneurs claim, the shtetl will have a Jewish-Israeli street with up to three renovated synagogues.
Mezhbizh is not the only Ukrainian town to attract Jewish visitors from overseas. Famously Uman, in central Ukraine, draws tens of thousands of tourists each year for the High Holy Days to visit the grave of Rabbi Nachman, the founder of the Breslov Hassidic movement, and a great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov. Not all are Hassidic believers, for according to tradition, the rabbi promised to intercede on behalf of anybody praying at his grave on Rosh Hashanah.
In Uman too, the rabbi’s grave has been renovated, with funds donated by Jewish tycoons from around the world. Hotels and hostels have popped up and locals have carried out house renovations to provide accommodation for the visitors. A few hundred Israelis have made Uman their home and the annual pilgrimage has become the town’s major source of income.
In 2005 I visited Berdichev, once known as Russia’s Jewish capital with a population of over 50,000, some four-fifths of whom were Jewish. The large Jewish cemetery is impressive, with acre upon acre of beautiful old graves overgrown with vegetation. A path between the graves leads to a new mausoleum built above the grave of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak, a prominent Hassidic leader. The tomb has become another pilgrimage site for Jewish tourists.
The cemetery is also home to the rabbis Moshe Mordechai Twersky and Tsvi Arye Twersky of Makarov, in whose rabbinical court my great-grandfather Meyer grew up and hoped to stay forever. Thanks to money sent from abroad, their graves are topped with newly hewn gravestones of slate and marble and housed in a small, painted mausoleum.
Meyer’s own grandfather – my great, great, great grandfather – was advisor to the famous Reb Dovidl Twersky of Talna. Reb Dovidl was the grandson of Rabbi Nochum Twersky of Chernobyl, a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov. When I visited Talna, now known as Talnoye, we found Reb Dovidl’s grave in a dirty concrete box housed in an old shack covered with graffiti. It lay at the end of a dingy alley that smelt of urine, on the edge of what was once a Jewish cemetery but had become an overgrown wasteland littered with old tyres.
The site has since been renovated, thanks to the editor of the local newspaper who spearheaded a fundraising effort to have the rabbi’s remains interred in surroundings more appropriate to the founder of one of the most revered of Hassidic dynasties.
The story of the renovation of the Mezhbizh shtetl comes from an article on ynet.news.com by Dr Yoel Rappel. To read the full article, please click here https://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-5443742,00.html
Ukrainian director Oles Yanchuk’s latest film, Secret Diary of Symon Petliura, was released earlier this year. I believe it released only in Ukrainian, but am hoping a version with English subtitles will become available.
Yanchuk is known for making films that are both historical and political. His other works treat subjects such as the 1930s famine in Ukraine – widely regarded as a preventable disaster forced on the region by the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin – in his 1991 film Famine 33; while his 1995 work Assassination deals with the killing of Ukraine’s wartime nationalist leader Stepan Bandera in 1959.
All his films address subjects that were off limits during the Soviet era and have often spawned controversy. The latest is no different. Posters for the film displayed outside a cinema in Zaporizhia were splattered with red paint in September, and leaflets distributed with the words “Petliura – Persecutor of Jewish People”.
Petliura led the Ukrainian National Republic during Ukraine's short-lived sovereignty in 1918–1921, and was commander of the Ukrainian Army, leading the struggle for independence following the fall of the Russian Empire in 1917.
Secret Diary of Symon Petliura is based on entries in a fictional diary featuring key events leading up to Petliura’s exile in France from 1924. It also features a number of clips in black and white that were filmed in Ukraine in 1919. The main event of the film is the trial of Sholem Schwartzbard, a Jewish watchmaker who assassinated Petliura in Paris in 1926 because of his involvement in anti-Semitic pogroms at the time of the Russian Civil War in 1918-21. The accused was pronounced not guilty on the basis of Petliura’s role in respect of the attacks on Jews.
Much later, in the 1950s, a KGB agent who had defected to the US claimed that Schwartzbard had been an agent of the Soviet secret police, the NKVD – a precursor to the KGB.
Petliura is still a controversial figure. For Ukrainians he is a national martyr who fought against Poles, Bolsheviks, Russia’s White Army and Anarchists during the mayhem that constituted the Civil War in Ukraine.
For Jews, he was the Ukrainian leader, whose army committed terrible anti-Semitic violence. It is widely understood that Petliura himself was not an anti-Semite. Indeed he signed an order dated August 1919 that “All those who will be inciting you to carry out pogroms be expelled from our army and tried as traitors of the Motherland”.
But he manifestly failed to prevent his troops from carrying out pogroms and appeared to have pulled back from his threats to punish officers and soldiers engaged in crimes against the Jews for fear of losing their support.
This account of Petliura, published in the Yiddish language Der Morgen Zshurnal in 1926, gives a glimpse of the commonly held view.
“In the primitive Jewish folk consciousness a very definite idea of the just recently assassinated Petliura has formed. Under this name the people imagine a terrible, wild rider on a white horse, with blood-filled eyes, a thick Cossack moustache and an unhuman cruel face, who rides into a Jewish village at the head of bloodied pogromchiks and slaughters every Jew that comes in his way with animal delight”.
And here’s how I described Petliura’s army in my book A Forgotten Land:
“A rogue by the name of Petliura had been released from prison and was regrouping the Ukrainian nationalists. One of his first actions was to order railway stations to be attacked so that he could grab the weapons of the evacuating German soldiers, which were more sophisticated and in better condition that then guns and grenades that his own men had stowed away in chicken sheds and stables across the land. He and his banda didn’t only steal weaponry, they took clothes, money, munitions, trucks, carts and horses, anything that would help them seize Kiev and the government of the land for themselves.
“Thieving was a way of life to them and in the towns and villages Petliura’s men passed through they stole first and foremost from the Jews. All across the land, the experience was the same. They didn’t knock at the door, but hammered and kicked, giving an indication of what to expect. Once I was alone in my father’s cottage when the Petliurists came. I hid in the wardrobe upstairs rather than answer the door, my heart pounding. First they tried kicking it down, then they shot bullets at the hinges so that the door collapsed. They walked in and dropped cigarettes on the floor, grinding the stubs with the heel of their boots, crushing shreds of paper and tobacco into the earth floor that I spent hours sweeping and watering so that it looked like polished tiles. Seeing that there was nothing for them, they soon walked out, and I could hear them hammering on the neighbours’ doors, shooting other people’s door hinges and shouting ‘You filthy yids!’ as they pushed occupants aside and took all they could find: food, clothing, silver and especially money.”
Ten years ago I travelled with my Dad to America for a family visit. It was the first time I had met most of his first cousins – and it turned out to be the last time I saw his sister, my dear aunt Lil, who died a few years later. One of Dad’s relatives, irrepressible and wonderful cousin Betty, is a psychic and clairvoyant. Betty is much on my mind at the moment as wildfires rage around Los Angeles, forcing her to evacuate her home.
“I know you are a writer, but have you ever thought about doing documentaries?” she asked me back in 2008.
“I’d love to make documentaries!” I replied.
“Well, you will.”
And today, ten years on, the first documentary I have been involved in is being broadcast on the BBC's World Service radio station. It’s a ten-minute piece about the lost Jewish world of the Eastern European shtetl, using anecdotes recounted by my grandmother about her early life back in Ukraine – then part of the Russian Empire.
Mostly when I give talks about my work, I focus primarily on the dramatic major events that affected Russia’s Jewish community at the time – pogroms, World War I, the Russian Revolution and civil war. But the documentary concentrates on more mundane aspects of day-to-day life, such as Sabbath rituals in my grandmother’s house, relations with the local Ukrainian population, the Rabbi’s court where members of my family lived and worked, and a crazy and somewhat comical incident that landed my great-great grandmother in jail, to the horror and embarrassment of the whole family.
The documentary is based on snippets of recordings made by my father back in the 1970s of my grandmother telling stories about her early life in Russia. They are recorded in Yiddish, the language of the Jews of Eastern Europe. It is a language once spoken by around 12 million people that transcended national boundaries, but which was almost wiped out by the holocaust. The vast majority of the Jews killed in the Nazi death camps would have spoken Yiddish as their mother tongue.
Today the language is undergoing something of a revival, in the US in particular. Surprisingly there are still up to two million Yiddish speakers in the world. You can sign up to Yiddish evening classes, watch Yiddish theatre performances and attend Yiddish dance parties. In 2017, the Yiddish Arts and Academics Association of North America was born, with a mission to promote Yiddish language and culture through academic and artistic events and through Yiddish food. “The goal,” says founder Jana Mazurkiewicz Meisarosh, “is to make Yiddish culture hip, modern and interesting.”
In the US, “Yiddish has been trapped within two discrete, hermetic spheres: the ultra-Orthodox sphere, which engages the religious aspects of Yiddishkeit, and the academic sphere, which tends to study secular Yiddishkeit of the past. As a result, Yiddish language and culture … is often viewed as a relic of the past, and fails to find resonance in daily life and modern culture,” she says.
It’s a fascinating and worthy goal, to bring back to life a language that came close to extinction. The culture of the shtetl is unlikely to be reborn outside of the most restrictive Jewish communities, but if it can gain further resonance in today’s world, this is surely something to celebrate.
Listen to the documentary here: www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w3cswsp3
My great as-yet-unwritten novel has not yet started to take form, but its shape is finally becoming slightly less amorphous. The notes on historical background are burgeoning in the lovely soft-backed notebooks with cream-coloured pages that I treated myself to in the hope that they would help inspire my writing.
I recently embarked on a dauntingly enormous tome that has been sitting beside my sofa for many months, taunting me with its great heft. At nearly 800 pages, Ukraine: A History by the academic Orest Subtelny, promises to be a valuable resource, but perhaps one that I shall dip into rather than reading from cover to cover in my usual methodical way.
I like the book’s dedication: "To those who had to leave their homeland but never forgot it" – people like my grandparents who circumstance forced to travel thousands of miles to forge a new life in Canada. Grandma certainly never forgot her homeland. She talked about it endlessly, so much so that her children – my Dad and aunt – grew up surrounded by her stories, and the inhabitants of a distant Ukrainian village – many of them long dead – seemed more real to them than those of the Canadian city in which they lived.
The period that interests me most is the Russian civil war of 1917-22. The book refers to this era as the Ukrainian Revolution. These two events were intertwined, each an integral part of the other. After the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia in October 1917, the revolution turned to civil war as, in Subtelny’s words, “numerous claimants for power in Ukraine and throughout the former empire were embroiled in a bitter, merciless military struggle, complete with large-scale terror and atrocities, to decide who and what form of government should replace the old order”.
These “claimants for power”’ were what my grandmother called the banda. They were “rebels and hoodlums, peasants and ex-army officers representing every kind of faction, every ideology imaginable. Some fought for Communism, others for Nationalism, Anarchism, Freedom or Holy Russia. Each recruited fighters to his cause, often luring the impoverished and the illiterate with the promise of food and action, arming them with guns brought back from the war – the other war – and hidden in hayricks or underground hideouts.
“It seemed that each banda was competing to be more bloodthirsty than the last. They appeared to take pride in acts of rape and pillage, mutilation and murder. Their armies were each represented by a colour, like pieces in a giant board game. Every banda was competing against all the others, occasionally forging an alliance to gang up on one enemy, only to break the pact a few months later and start fighting again. There were Reds, Whites, Greens and sometimes even Red-Greens and White-Greens and names that instilled fear: Petlyura, Makhno, Zeleny, Denikin. The Greens took their name from their little flat caps and those of Zeleny’s men were yellow. Makhno’s anarchist fighters wore black hats and carried black flags crudely painted with the words ‘Liberty or Death’. The Cossack fighters had scarlet caps, while the Bolsheviks decorated their arms with thick, blood-red bands. As well as those sporting what could pass for a uniform, there were other banda made up of rag-tag bunches of ruffians.”
One of the key turning points of the Ukrainian Revolution took place exactly a century ago, in November 1918. Ukraine had been ruled since April of that year by a regime known as the Hetmanate, a conservative Ukrainian government headed by Hetman Pavlo Skoropadsky – his title evoking Ukraine’s old Cossack traditions. The Hetmanate existed under German occupation and replaced Ukraine’s year-old Central Rada, a broad but mostly nationalist and socialist council, or soviet, which had come to power following the Russian Revolution.
Skoropadsky was a wealthy landowner and part of the Tsarist establishment, but had thrown off his imperialist veneer to become leader of a Free Cossack peasant militia and set about dismantling some of the left-wing policies imposed by the Central Rada. He bestowed on himself sweeping powers and declared the establishment of the Ukrainian State. New Ukrainian-speaking schools popped up across the land, Ukrainian-language school books were hastily published and even two new Ukrainian universities were created.
But opposition to Skoropadksy and the Hetmanate soon mounted and spontaneous, fierce peasant revolts spread across Ukraine. Led by local, often anarchistic, leaders known as an otaman or batko, hordes of peasants fought pitched battles against the occupying German troops. The insurrection centred on a town called Bila Tserkva, just west of Kiev and only a few miles from my family’s home in Pavolitch. Thousands of peasant partisans poured into the area. By 21 November they had encircled Kiev and three weeks later the occupying Germans evacuated the city, taking Skoropadsky with them. As a result of the fall of the Hetmanate, the following year total chaos would ensue, but the story of 1919 is one that I will save for later.
I was in London last week to record a radio documentary for the BBC. The programme, Witness, describes events in history using the voices of people who lived through them. The producer was interested in my grandmother’s stories of the lost Jewish world, as recorded by my father in the 1970s.
At that time, Dad was a social historian working at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, and Grandma was a tiny, frail old lady in her late 70s, living in Los Angeles. Dad had grown up with his mother’s stories of her early life in Russia and, as an adult and an academic, he wanted to probe deeper into the Jewish community in which she had lived.
Over the course of the years that followed, some of the audio tapes Dad recorded became distorted, broken, lost or accidentally re-recorded with pop music (my brother and I were teenagers, we wholeheartedly apologise), but enough remained to ensure that my grandmother’s stories were not lost.
Until about 15 years ago I had never listened to these cassettes. They were recorded in Yiddish, a language I don’t understand, and as a youngster I was never sufficiently interested to ask my father to translate them. I had no idea what a rich and fascinating history they would reveal. Even Dad had not revisited the tapes for years.
When my father reached his 70s, I began to fear that the stories would be lost. It was a labour of love for the two of us to listen to the cassettes one by one and piece together a story. Hour after hour Dad translated while I typed. These transcripts eventually became the basis for my book, A Forgotten Land.
After we had finished translating and transcribing the recordings, Dad put the cassettes away and I did not see them again until I came across them tucked away in a drawer when we cleared Dad’s flat after he died in 2012. I brought them home and put them away in a box with some other items of Dad’s that I kept – some photos, newspaper clippings and the family Kiddush cups. And there they stayed for the next six years.
Before my trip to London, I needed to identify the sections of the recordings that would go out on air. First I had to borrow an old tape recorder, and cross my fingers that it didn’t chew up the audio tape. I spent several days listening to the cassettes, digitising them and trying to work out which story was which, listening out for names and places (Bolsheviki, Kerensky, Kiev, Libau), family members, familiar Russian words and anything in Yiddish that my rudimentary knowledge of German was able to pick up. Thankfully I found some of my early transcripts, which were a great help. But as Dad didn’t number the tapes as he recorded or replayed them, everything was utterly jumbled.
Eventually I managed to pick out the four short segments that the radio producer wanted to use. At the recording studio, I talked around these stories, filling in background and adding details. When I had finished, an actress arrived to record voice-over translations. She began talking with a theatrical flourish and a mild Russian accent. “No, no,” the producer said. “This is a very simple woman, an uneducated woman, recounting events to her family. Tone it down!”
The final result will be broadcast on the BBC World Service in the coming weeks. I wait with bated breath!
I have spent several days over the summer sitting in at art exhibitions where my paintings are on display. An article about two Soviet cartoonists recently caught my eye, reminding me that many artists over the years have not had it so easy.
Boris Efimov was born in 1899 to a family of Jewish petty traders from Kiev. This makes him just a couple of years older than my grandmother, and from the same neck of the woods. In 1922 Efimov was persuaded by his brother Mikhail, a publisher and journalist later known under his pen-name Koltsov, to move to Moscow and earn a living from his art. He became the most lauded Soviet graphic artist of his time, and swung with the tide of official Soviet opinion, meaning that he was well treated by a succession of governments, from Lenin all the way to Putin.
Efimov work consisted mostly of flattering caricatures of Soviet celebrities and contrastingly harsh images ridiculing the regime’s enemies. Thanks in part to his brother, he became acquainted with many important personalities including politicians, publishers and critics. In 1924 he was described by Leon Trotsky (before the latter’s political downfall and exile) as ‘the most political of our graphic artists’. Trotsky wrote the preface to Efimov’s first album of drawings published in 1924 and the artist repaid him with subtle compliments (see illustration, left: ‘British Military Expert Repington is Trying to Define the Exact Size of the Red Army’, 1924. Every soldier is shown with the face of Leon Trotsky, alluding to the fact that he was a founder of Red Army. David King Collection, Tate Archive).
In 1926, after the British and Polish governments approved the shooting of four communists in Lithuania, Efimov published a cartoon showing Austen Chamberlain, the British foreign minister, and Polish premier Jozef Pilsudski applauding the execution. The British Foreign office issued a diplomatic memorandum to the Soviet Union, which was seen as something of a coup for Efimov. Pilsudski did not react.
Victims of political persecution became key targets for Efimov’s cartoons, even though many were former contacts and patrons of his. He attended the show trials of 1937 and 1938, which destroyed Stalin’s political opponents, sketching defendants that often he knew personally. These included the Soviet diplomat Christian Rakovsky, the Troskyite and journalist Karl Radek, and Nikolai Bukharin, one of Stalin’s leading rivals. His cartoons sometimes appeared on the same day as their subjects’ executions.
Efimov’s brother Koltsov was arrested in 1938 and executed two years later, leaving Efimov fearful for his own arrest. Luckily for him, his reputation within the regime was strong enough to save him. Stalin considered him useful and personally forbade anyone from harming him. Naturally, in return, Efimov was unable to refuse to undertake work in support of the regime.
Throughout the war years he specialised in drawings of Hitler and other Nazis, images that proved popular among the Soviet forces. Efimov was awarded the most prestigious state honours, including several Stalin prizes and an Order of Lenin. He became the most celebrated cartoonist in the Soviet Union and, probably, the country’s richest artist. Albums of his caricatures were printed in their millions in the USSR and abroad.
Efimov died in 2008, at the age of 108. During his long life he created more than 700,000 pictures, and until his final years he continued to attack enemies of the state. When asked how he managed to live for so long, he replied, “I don't know. Maybe I have lived two lives, one of them for my brother”.
Efimov’s life contrasts sharply with that of fellow Soviet cartoonist Konstantin Rotov (1902–1959), who was loved by the people, but was sentenced by Stalin to fourteen years of prison and exile.
Rotov had been extremely popular in the interwar years, indeed he was better known in his time than the now famous artists of the era Kazimir Malevich, Aleksandr Rodchenko and Marc Chagall. His mildly humorous cartoons appeared on an almost daily basis. In 1939 one of his drawings provided the image for a large mural in the Soviet pavilion in the World Exhibition in New York. He also produced the occasional political caricature, ridiculing so-called enemies of the people, but only did so reluctantly.
In 1940 Rotov was arrested for a cartoon titled ‘Closed for Lunch’ depicting a horse and sparrows, that he had drawn in 1934 but was never published. The sparrows are shown patiently waiting for their lunch (horse’s dung) while the horse is eating from the nosebag. The hint at the hunger in the USSR was obvious to his contemporaries. A fellow artist saw the picture and reported Rotov to the secret police. He was charged with ‘defamation of the Soviet trade and cooperation’, tortured and sentenced to eight years in a labour camp.
When his term came to an end, Rotov was sentenced again, this time to exile in Siberia. He was able to return to Moscow only in 1954, after Stalin’s death. He immediately resumed drawing, producing illustrations for fairy tales and fantastical stories, such as Adventures of Captain Vrungel and Old Khottabych. These became (and still are) very popular, although few remembered his name and past fame. He died in 1959, his health damaged during his years of imprisonment.
This blog post is taken from an article by the historian and Tate Library Cataloguer Andrey Lazarev. View the full article here: https://www.tate.org.uk/research/features/two-soviet-cartoonists
Konstantin Rotov, ‘Traffic in Two Years According to the Promises of Moscow Authorities: So Many Buses and Taxis that a Simple Horse can Startle’, 1927.
David King Collection, Tate Archive
I was in Warsaw earlier this month to give a talk at the IAJGS conference on Jewish genealogy, which provided an opportunity to visit this fascinating country. Agonising glimpses of once vibrant Jewish communities abound, but it is the sense of what has been lost that is palpable everywhere.
I cannot remember when I first became aware of the Holocaust. Most likely it was when, at the age of 13 or 14, my mother gave me a second-hand copy of The Diary of Anne Frank. Later, at 19, I visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial museum in Israel. Strangely I don’t remember being shocked by either of these (although I do recall a feeling of nausea at the piles of shoes at Yad Vashem); perhaps I felt that they confirmed information I had already absorbed.
As an adult, books by Primo Levi and other survivors, including an absolutely chilling account of the workings of Treblinka by Chil Rajchman, broadened my knowledge. Yes, the details are sickening, but familiarity with the events of the Holocaust has become so universal that I’m not sure it is ever possible to really imagine the enormity of what happened in Europe in the early 1940s.`
Visiting Poland certainly brought the horror home to me. One day my husband and children went to the Wieliczka salt mines, while I visited Auschwitz. Beforehand, I tried to explain to my eight-year-old daughter why I was not going with them. I only told her the most basic elements, but her face wrinkled up and she told me to stop. That night, frightened by my stories, she was unable to sleep.
The tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau, conducted by a guide whose great-grandfather had survived the camps, was haunting. Appalling, gruesome, sickening….there are no words that can do justice to the horrors perpetrated there. The visit is something everyone should experience. It records events that should never be allowed to happen again. And yet humanity does not seem to learn. Since then, ethnic cleansing has been perpetrated in former Yugoslavia, in Rwanda, in Darfur, in Myanmar and elsewhere. And the far right has experienced a resurgence across much of Europe.
Most shocking though, was the sense of absence. In Krakow and in Warsaw, both cities with large pre-war Jewish communities – around 60,000 in Krakow and 400,000 in Warsaw, around a quarter and a third of the population, respectively – the loss is palpable. In Krakow, several vestiges of the old Jewish quarter remain – synagogues turned into museums; a cemetery where one wall has been built using fragments of gravestones shattered by the Nazi occupiers; shop fronts adorned with the names of their Jewish former owners. Indeed there is something of a revival of Jewish culture and heritage, with concerts of klezmer music, a Jewish festival and the Israeli ‘Hummus and Happiness Bar’, as well as a museum of photographs documenting the area’s Jewish life and loss.
In Warsaw it is the dearth of remnants of the Jewish community that is so chilling. The Germans razed the city to the ground as they fled the approaching Soviet troops. This makes the tiny fragments that remain all the more shocking: a single street that survived the demolition of the ghetto, pockmarked with bullet holes; a narrow fragment of ghetto wall; a synagogue that miraculously survived – one of over 400 that used to exist in the city; metal strips traversing the pavement at intervals, marking where the wall stood from 1940 until the ghetto was liquidated in 1943, when its inhabitants were herded onto cattle trucks and sent to the death camp at Treblinka.
And, in the sparkling new Jewish museum, exhibits marking hundreds of years of Jewish life in Poland come to an end not during the war, but afterwards, when the remaining few Jewish survivors returned to their villages to be welcomed not with sympathy and understanding, but with rampant anti-Semitism and fresh pogroms. The foundation of the state of Israel provided the escape that the remaining Jews needed, and they fled, en masse, in 1948.
Only in recent years have a few Jews begun returning to Poland, to rebuild their lost culture and commemorate those who have been long forgotten. Of course anti-Semitism is still rife among some sections of society, indeed a recent law making it a crime to accuse the Polish nation of complicity in Nazi war crimes prompted international condemnation. But there is a sense that many are now celebrating and commemorating Poland’s Jewish past, rather than smothering it.
Until this year, I had never been to Canada. It had never even made it onto my bucket list. With hindsight, it seems a strange omission from my extensive travels. After all, my father came from Winnipeg, Manitoba, and I have a plethora of relatives dotted across this vast country.
Just a few months ago I knew almost none of my Canadian relations. But they all knew me, for I am the family historian, the depository of our family’s stories. Five years ago my book was published, based on my grandmother’s recollections of growing up in Russia: a Jewish girl living through pogroms, World War I, the Russian Revolution, Civil War and the famine that followed, and her eventual escape to Canada in 1924. Thanks to this book, I am a seen as something of a celebrity, but only among my own family.
This year’s trip came about thanks to some cousins from Toronto who were visiting London last December and wanted to meet up. Have you ever had that experience when you meet someone for the first time and it’s as if you’ve known each other forever? Well, it was just like that.
They invited me to a family celebration in Toronto in May, where I would have the chance to get together with several of my Dad’s first cousins, among myriad other relatives. Some of them I had been in touch with for many years during my research for the book, but had never met. I took the opportunity to organise some talks and media publicity about the book while I was there, and also to visit Winnipeg.
Dad never talked much about Winnipeg, except to tell me repeatedly that it was the coldest city on the planet. He left as a teenager, without finishing high school, and as far as I know, he never went back.
I never visited Canada when I was growing up. Childhood trips to see Dad’s family were to Los Angeles, to where his parents, sister and several cousins had all relocated in the 1950s and 60s, escaping the snows of Winnipeg for the Californian sun. Dad himself had settled in LA in 1955, where he picked up his education again after several years of bumming around, studying at Santa Monica City College (Dustin Hoffman and James Dean were fellow alumni from the same era, Dad used to say) then UCLA. From there he won a scholarship to Cambridge, where he met my Mum, and that’s the reason I turned out to be English.
Although I had researched my family’s Russian origins in great depth, I had never paid much attention to the Canadian part of our story. But since Dad died in 2012, his life experiences too have become part of our family history.
On arrival in Winnipeg I was welcomed like a visiting dignitary. From the airport, I was thrown straight into an interview with a journalist from the Winnipeg Free Press, had time just to jump in the shower before the press photographer arrived for a photo shoot, then was whisked away for an evening reception held in my honour in the very luxurious home of a distant cousin.
One of my publicity events in Winnipeg took place at the city library. Afterwards, the curator of the library’s historical collection showed me its copies of Henderson’s Winnipeg Directory, an amazing resource that was published annually from 1882 listing all the city’s inhabitants by name, along with their address and place of work.
I found my grandfather and great-grandfather listed, initially under their Yiddish name, Kuperschmidt, then later Coopersmith and finally Cooper, living at 303 Flora Avenue, the house where my father would later grow up. My grandmother was listed from 1925, living on Euclid Avenue and working at the Globe Bedding factory.
Dad’s cousin Adele later took me on a tour of the area where the family had lived. That section of Flora Avenue was demolished many years ago, but on my return home I dug out a photo of my grandmother with my father as a little boy, taken around 1935, which I’m guessing shows the house in the background. On Euclid Avenue, we couldn’t find my grandmother’s first Winnipeg home, but came across that of her great-uncle, who had immigrated to Canada in 1914 with his family so that his sons could avoid conscription to the Russian army.
Winnipeg, at the confluence of the Assiniboine and Red rivers, was the first permanent European settlement in the Canadian West and grew rapidly in 19th and early 20th centuries as the gateway to the new frontier land of the prairie regions. Town planners designed the city with wide boulevards and grand buildings, aiming for it to become the Chicago of the North.
But, as happens in gateway cities, new immigrants came, and then they left – to settle the prairies or to move to Toronto, Vancouver, or the US – places with a less hostile climate and greater opportunities. Winnipeg never lived up to the dreams of its early pioneers and town planners. Knowing my Dad's cosmopolitan tastes, I can see why he wanted to leave. But in finally visiting Winnipeg, a little part of me definitely felt like it was coming home.
From and article in Argus Offline, Summer 2018.
A Forgotten Land by Lisa Cooper is available on Amazon.com, Amazon.ca and Amazon.co.uk.
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.