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’ve had a copy of Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate taunting me from my bookshelf for several years. I’ve been meaning to read it, really meaning to, ever since my Dad gave it to me. But at nearly 900 pages, somehow I’ve never found the time.
I have read other, less hefty, works by Grossman in the meantime, and have found them fascinating. Now a new biography of the writer by Alexandra Popoff, a former Moscow-based journalist now based in Canada, is finally goading me into action and I plan to devote the coming summer to finally reading Life and Fate.
Grossman is an intriguing character, a celebrated Soviet writer who later turned against the regime. His conscience forced him into the tormented double life of a Soviet intellectual, trying to express his doubts about the Soviet system in ways that would not lead to his arrest.
Life and Fate, however, was an incendiary work by Soviet standards. A panoply of characters and sub-plots centred around the events of World War II, it is often compared with Leo Tolstoy’s monumental War and Peace, which shares a similar structure based on an earlier war – Napoleon’s unsuccessful Russia campaign. But what made it so controversial to the Soviet censors is its comparison of the USSR with Nazi Germany and Stalin’s persecution of the Jews with Hitler’s holocaust.
Mikhail Suslov, the chief Communist party ideologue, told Grossman, “Your book contains direct parallels between us and Hitlerism…Your book defends Trotsky. Your book is filled with doubts about the legitimacy of our Soviet system.” Its publication was out of the question.
Grossman was born in 1905 to a Jewish family in Berdichev, Ukraine, a town with one of Europe’s largest Jewish populations. His early novels, published in the 1930s, were mostly typical of Soviet literature at the time and Grossman was promoted by the regime’s most influential writer Maxim Gorky. But even then, some of his short stories were banned and he could be considered lucky for avoiding arrest during Stalin’s purges of the late 1930s.
During World War II, Grossman worked as a journalist for the army newspaper Red Star, reporting from the front line on the battle for Stalingrad and the fall of Berlin. He gained access to the Nazi death camp at Treblinka, near Warsaw, shortly after it was destroyed. This chilling experience formed the basis for his article ‘The Hell of Treblinka’, published in September 1944, which was one of the first accounts of the true horror of the Holocaust to reach the outside world.
In it he writes: “It is infinitely painful to read this. The reader must believe me when I say that it is equally hard to write it. ‘Why write about then?’ someone may well ask. ‘Why recall such things?’
“It is the writer’s duty to tell the terrible truth, and it is a reader’s civic duty to learn this truth. To turn away, to close one’s eyes and walk past is to insult the memory of those who have perished.”
Grossman completed Life and Fate in 1960, at a time when Soviet literature was enjoying a period of relative liberalism during the post-Stalin Khrushchev ‘thaw’. But like Boris Pasternak’s better-known work Doctor Zhivago, the novel could not be published in its homeland. Suslov told Grossman that there was no question of Life and Fate seeing the light of day for another 200 years.
Every copy of the manuscript was confiscated by the KGB in 1961, with orders to take not just the typewritten pages, but any sheets of used carbon paper and even the typewriter ribbons used to write it. It is thanks to the emigré dissident Vladimir Voinovich that the book made its way to the West on microfilm. The Russian text was published abroad in 1980 and in English five years later. Life and Fate was finally published in the Soviet Union in 1988, some 24 years after Grossman’s death.
In a couple of months or so I will write my own thoughts about the novel, once I’ve completed the monumental task of reading it.
Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century by Alexandra Popoff is published by Yale University Press
Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman is published by Vintage Classics
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/
In the wake of Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, I came across this wonderful and heart-warming story of a holocaust survivor who after nearly 80 years has discovered the identity of the man who saved her from the fate of 6 million other Jews.
Janine Webber was born in 1932 in Lviv, which at that time was in Poland but became part of Soviet Ukraine following the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939. When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, she and her family were rounded up and forced to abandon their home and move into a room together with three other families on the outskirts of the city, ahead of the formation of the Lviv ghetto.
Janine’s parents created a hiding place for her, her brother and mother, but the Nazis shot her father. Her mother then died of typhus aged 29, shortly after being forced into the ghetto. Later her brother was shot by the SS while the children and their uncle and aunt were in hiding on a farm. Other members of her extended family died of disease or were deported to Belzec concentration camp. Janine wandered the countryside in search of new hiding places and worked as a shepherdess until the Polish family she lived with learnt of her Jewish identity and sent her back to Lviv.
By 1943, Janine was 11 years old. Her uncle and aunt gave her a piece of paper with the name Edek written on it, and an address. They told her to find Edek if she needed help.
“I told him who I was and he said, ‘Follow me – at a distance’. He took me to a building. He put a ladder against the wall and told me to climb up. I opened the door and that’s where I found my aunt, my uncle…13 Jews. I was the only child.”
The building was a convent, where Edek worked as a night watchman and his sister Floriana was Mother Superior. As the situation became more dangerous, the group dug an underground bunker beneath the building and remained hidden there for nearly a year.
As the group struggled with the cramped conditions and related health problems, Janine’s aunt arranged false papers for the girl and sent her to a convent in Krakow. She later moved again to work as a Catholic live-in maid with an elderly couple until the end of the war.
All 14 of the Jews that Edek had protected survived the war, but they never saw him again. All they knew of their saviour was his name. And Edek was a common Polish name.
Janine moved to the UK in 1956 and lives today in north London. In the 1990s she determined to try to find Edek. She approached a BBC documentary team, which spent six months trying to track him down, but with no luck. Last year she took part in a short feature film for the UK’s National Holocaust Centre and Museum, produced by one of the centre’s trustees, Marc Cave.
With help from the Polin museum in Warsaw and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, he was able to track down Edek’s true identity. Edek’s real name was Franciszek Rzottky, a 19-year old Catholic and a member of the Polish resistance. He survived internment in a labour camp and concentration camp, but never betrayed the Jews he had rescued.
Rzottky later entered the priesthood and died in 1972 at the age of 49. In 1997 he, alongside Janina and Tadeusz Lewandowski who had organised food and money for the 14 Jews, were named as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. This year, the National Holocaust Centre will plant a white rose in Rzottky’s memory. The centre’s chief executive Phil Lyons said he hopes the small ceremony will “help transform fear and persecution of ‘otherness’ into mutual acceptance at this time of rising antisemitism and Holocaust denial”.
Click here to read the full story in The Telegraph https://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/life/finally-found-catholic-teenager-saved-nazis/
The election of Volodymyr Zelensky as president of Ukraine has baffled most casual observers. That a comedian best known for his TV role as a schoolteacher who accidentally becomes president has been elected as the actual president is a bizarre example of life imitating art. And that a Jew, in a land with a long and brutal history of anti-Semitism, should win a landslide victory is puzzling in itself. It also makes Ukraine the only country apart from Israel to have both a Jewish president and prime minister.
As the Russian-Israeli columnist Avigdor Eskin put it in a Regnum news agency article, “Imagine, a pure-blooded Jew with the appearance of a Sholom Aleichem protagonist wins by a landslide in a country where the glorification of Nazi criminals is enacted into law”.
Zelensky’s election may be an example of how celebrity and populism have displaced serious political debate in the era of Donald Trump. Indeed, citizens of Ukraine’s capital Kiev already elected the celebrity ex-boxer Vitali Klitschko as mayor back in 2014.
That a man with no experience of politics should become president is perhaps less surprising in Ukraine than elsewhere. Politicians have given themselves a bad name here. Since its separation from the Soviet Union in 1991 the country has been ruled by a series of corrupt leaders, mostly super-rich oligarchs who made their fortunes by dubious means in the anarchic aftermath of independence.
Indeed, many of those protestors who braved the cold and the bullets during the Euromaidan revolution of 2013-14 were motivated not only by then-president Viktor Yanukovych’s volte-face on European integration, but also by the engrained corruption in Ukrainian political life which Yanukovych’s excessive wealth – and poor taste – exemplified. Incumbent president Petro Poroshenko, an oligarch who made his fortune in confectionary giving him the moniker the Chocolate King, has done little to address the political graft in spite of his promises.
But it is well known that Zelensky is promoted and supported by one of Ukraine’s most controversial oligarchs, Igor Kolomoisky. Kolomoisky lives in self-imposed exile in Israel owing to an investigation into his financial affairs and is a political rival to Poroshenko. He owns the TV channel on which Zelensky’s TV comedy airs and the two men apparently have business partners in common, although both insist their relationship is purely professional.
Zelensky’s election manifesto was almost entirely blank. He avoided interviews and campaign rallies in favour of comedy shows, and promoted himself by means of social media and YouTube. It is unsurprising, therefore, that Zelensky has proven particularly popular among the young. But he also garners support among native Russian speakers in this divided society, partly because of his lack of involvement in the 2014 revolution.
Russian president Vladimir Putin will no doubt be delighted to see the back of Poroshenko, a pro-Westerner who has had an antagonistic relationship with Russia. But the few clues that Zelensky has offered indicate that his foreign policy will follow a similar trajectory. Ukraine is expected to continue to drift towards the EU and not to accept the annexation of Crimea and the occupation of Donbas, although critics have accused Zelensky of too soft a stance towards Russian aggression. The President-elect has talked of a referendum on whether to join the EU and NATO when the time is right.
Zelensky was the subject of a Russian investigation in August 2014 after he performed for Ukrainian troops on the frontline in eastern Ukraine and donated 1 million hryvnia ($37,000) to fighting the Russian-backed separatists. More recently, he has stated that his “number one task” will be to try to bring home 24 Ukrainians held in Russia since their capture in a naval incident near Crimea in February. He has also endorsed the deployment of UN peacekeepers in the Donbas, as well as ruling out the granting of special status to the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Ukraine is a country with serious problems. In addition to its tricky relationship with its powerful neighbour – which manifests itself in the well-known divisions between ethnic Ukrainians and Russians, the ongoing conflict in the Donbas and Russia’s annexation of Crimea – Ukraine’s economic performance is pitiful and its politics and society rife with corruption. It needs a serious politician to deal with such essential issues. Whether an actor and comedian will be able to play that role remains to be seen.
I recently received as a gift a stunning book of photographs by the Jewish photographer Roman Vishniac. The photos were taken in the shtetls of eastern Europe in the 1930s, just before those communities were wiped out forever.
A Vanished World was published in New York in 1983. It is difficult to get your hands on a copy of it now, but the photographs it contains serve as an important historical document.
Vishniac was born in Russia, but was living in Germany in the 1930s. He took the photographs between 1934 and 1939, when the Nazis had already taken power, and when anyone with a camera was at risk of being branded a spy – and in communities where observant Jews did not want to be photographed for religious reasons.
But he had the foresight to see what few others could possibly imagine, that the Nazis would systematically wipe out the shtetls and Jewish communities that had existed and maintained the same way of life for hundreds of years. He made it his mission to not let their inhabitants, along with their occupations and preoccupations, be forgotten.
“I felt that the world was about to be cast into the mad shadow of Nazism and that the outcome would be the annihilation of a people who had no spokesman to record their plight. I knew it was my task to make certain that this vanished world did not totally disappear”, he says in his commentary on the photos.
Vishniac used a hidden camera, at a time when photography was in its infancy and equipment was bulky and unsophisticated. He put himself at great risk, and was thrown into prison for a time, but still he persisted in his mission, constantly running the risk of being stopped by informers or arrested by the Gestapo. He managed to take around 16,000 photographs, although all but 2,000 were confiscated and, presumably, destroyed. He chose to include around 200 in this book, the images that he considered the most representative.
He travelled from country to country, taking in Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania, from province to province, village to village. He captured images of slums and markets, street scenes and school houses, from the wrinkled faces of old men and careworn mothers to pale religious scholars and hungry, wild-eyed children.
The images are far from anonymous. Vishniac got to know the people he photographed, he often availed of their hospitality and spent time working and living among them. He slept in a basement that was home to 26 families, sharing a bed with three other men. “I could barely breathe, Little children cried; I learned about the heroic endurance of my brethren,” he wrote.
He spent a month working as a porter in Warsaw, pulling heavy loads in a handcart, in one of the very few occupations still open to Jews during the Jewish boycott in the late 1930s, which forced tens of thousands of Jewish employees out of their workplaces. It was cheaper to have a Jew pulling a cart than a horse, for the horse had to be fed before it would work, while Jews were forced to carry the goods first and eat later, only once they had been paid.
As one reviewer, the American photographer and museum curator Edward Steichen, wrote, “Vishniac took with him on this self-imposed assignment – besides this or that kind of camera or film – a rare depth of understanding and a native son’s warmth and love for his people. The resulting photographs are among photography’s finest documents of a time and place”.
Vishniac emigrated to New York in 1940 and became an acclaimed photographer and professor of biology and the humanities. His only son Wolf died in Antarctica while leading a scientific expedition, and his grandson Obie died at the age of just 10. The book is dedicated to them, as well as to Vishniac’s grandfather. He writes: “Through my personal grief, I see in my mind’s eye the faces of six million of my people, innocents who were brutally murdered by order of a warped human being. The entire world, even the Jews living in the safety of other nations, including the United States, stood by and did nothing to stop the slaughter. The memory of those swept away must serve to protect future generations from genocide. It is a vanished but not vanquished world, captured here in images made with hidden cameras, that I dedicate to my grandfather, my son and my grandson."
I recently came across the story of the Ochberg orphans, nearly 200 Jewish children rescued in 1921 from the ravages of the Russian Civil War, pogroms and the subsequent typhus epidemic and famine. The rescuer was Isaac Ochberg, a Ukrainian Jew who had emigrated, penniless, to South Africa in 1895 and went on to become a successful entrepreneur. By 1920 he was one of South Africa’s richest men and leader of the Cape Town Jewish community.
Horrified by the news of the pogroms, which together with war, disease and hunger left an estimated 300,000 Jewish children orphaned, Ochberg turned to the South African Jewish community for help in financing a rescue mission to bring Jewish children to South Africa for adoption.
Ochberg left for eastern Europe in March 1921, travelling by road and rail through Ukraine, Lithuania and Poland in search of the neediest children, visiting synagogues where orphans had gathered and orphanages funded by Jewish foreign aid.
This was no easy journey. Civil war was still raging in some areas, pitting against one another numerous marauding bands of soldiers – from Ukrainian Nationalists to Communists and Anti-Communists, Germans and Poles to Anarchists and local warlords – all of them anti-Semitic to a degree.
The area was filled with people on the move – refugees, the hungry, the sick and the weak. As well as war and pogroms, typhus and famine had ravaged the population.
By August 1921 he had assembled a group of 233 children in Warsaw, ready for the train journey to Danzig (Gdansk) and onward journey to London then Cape Town. Some of the group fell ill and were forced to stay behind. Others ran away, scared off by stories of Africa and its wild animals.
The task of selecting the children must have been heart-breaking, given the number he had to leave behind. The South African government, under Prime Minister Jan Smuts, had matched the funding Ochberg managed to raise, but laid down certain conditions. Two hundred orphans could come, but no sick children, nor any with mental or physical disabilities. No child could be selected if there was a living parent, nor any child over the age of 16. Under no circumstances could families be broken up; if one member of a family did not qualify, the siblings had to remain behind.
But Ochberg had no qualms about ignoring these rules. Siblings aged 16 or over became accompanying ‘nurses’, and several whose parents were still living, but had chosen to give up their children in the hope of offering them a better life, were included in the group. Some 165 children and 25 accompanying adults made the journey to South Africa, where they were divided equally between Jewish orphanages in Cape Town and Johannesburg and offered for adoption.
A 2008 film made by South African film maker Jon Blair entitled Ochberg’s Orphans tells the children’s story, interspersed with harrowing images of the pogroms, and interviews with some of the last remaining orphans still alive at that time. “When we arrived we thought we were in Fairyland,” one recalled. And of Ochberg, the same old lady said, “We called him Daddy, because for most of us children he was the only daddy we ever knew”.
The film includes footage shot by UK camera crews while the group spent two weeks at an orphanage in London before heading to Southampton to board the ship for Cape Town. The children briefly became minor celebrities, having captured the imagination of the British media.
The story of the Ochberg orphans also features in a new film by US filmmaker LeeAnn Dance, My Dear Children. I have not managed to see the film yet, but it has been broadcast on TV across the US and at film showings at Jewish centres. I have been in touch with the filmmaker and look forward to seeing it at the first opportunity.
The film centres on Judy Favish’s 2013 pilgrimage to trace her grandparents Feiga and Kalman Shamis’s route from their shtetl in Ukraine to Warsaw with their 12 children.
Two of Feiga’s children, Mannie and Rose, joined the group that travelled from Warsaw to Cape Town with Isaac Ochberg. Feiga’s other children were dispersed – two were sent to New York, while five survived the pogroms only to die later in Nazi concentration camps, and one ended up in Palestine.
Mannie was adopted from one of the Jewish orphanages in South Africa, but Rose refused to let herself be taken by another family, never giving up hope that her mother would come for her. But she never did.
Feiga did maintain contact with her children, however. Years later she settled on a kibbutz and Mannie was able to visit her there while serving as a soldier in North Africa during World War II. She gave him two copies of a 40-page letter, handwritten in Yiddish, which contained the story of her life.
Neither Mannie nor Rose could read or speak Yiddish, and although Mannie eventually had the letter translated, he couldn’t bear to read it. It wasn’t until after he died that one of his children had it properly translated and edited, and made into a small book, a copy of which she gave to each family member.
Although both Mannie and Rose felt that their mother had abandoned them, for Feiga it was a case of doing what she could to ensure her children would survive. Little could she know that for those who escaped from Europe, her decision also spared them the horrors of the Holocaust twenty years later.
More information about My Dear Children is available here: www.mydearchildrendoc.com/
The film of Ochberg's Orphans is available to view here:
This month marks the centenary of one of the worst pogroms in history, an attempt at genocide against the Jews of the town of Proskurov in present-day Ukraine. In February 1919, local Cossack leader Ataman Semosenko assumed command of the nationalist forces in the region and called for the elimination of the Jews in order to “save Ukraine”.
As the town’s Jews, who numbered around 25,000, prepared to celebrate the Sabbath, hoards of Cossacks descended on the town and began attacking Jews in the streets and in their homes with knives, swords, bayonets and even hand grenades.
The following are accounts from survivors:
“They [the Cossacks] were divided into groups of five to 15 men and swarmed into the streets which were inhabited by Jews. Entering the homes, they drew their swords and began to cut the inhabitants without regard to sex or age… Jews were dragged out of cellars and lofts and murdered.”
Entire families were slain. One survivor, a nurse by the name of Chaya Greenberg, later testified:
“The young girls – repeatedly stabbed. The two-month old baby – hands lacerated. The five-year old – pierced by spears. The elderly man – thrown out of a window by his beard. The 13-year old – deaf because of his wounds. His brother – 11 wounds in his stomach, left for dead next to his slain mother. The paralysed son of a rabbi – murdered in his bed. The two young children – cast alive into a fire….I will never forget the reddened snow from sleds filled with the hacked bodies going to a common pit in the cemetery.”
Some of the victims were forced to dig their own graves. Around 1,600 Jews are estimated to have been killed, although some put the death toll higher. Many more sustained terrible injuries and were crippled for life having had limbs severed.
The Jewish hospital and makeshift medical stations were filled with the wounded as relatives and local peasants brought in the victims. Most were buried in mass graves.
Some gentiles risked their lives to protect their fellow townsfolk, in a community that generally experienced good relations between those of different faiths. A doctor named Polozov helped many wounded Jewish children he found in the street. He hid more than 20 Jews in his own home. Priests were murdered as they attempted to halt the pogrom.
The Proskurov pogrom was just one of hundreds that took place in Ukraine in 1919 during Russia’s chaotic and bloody civil war that followed the Bolshevik Revolution. The pogroms followed the withdrawal of German troops after World War I, when Communists, Ukrainian nationalists, the anti-Bolshevik White Army and numerous smaller factions vied for control, all of them engaging in anti-Semitic violence to a greater or lesser degree.
The words of historian Orest Subtelny in his mammoth Ukraine: A History are worth repeating, “In 1919, total chaos engulfed Ukraine. Indeed, in the modern history of Europe no country experienced such complete anarchy, bitter civil strife, and total collapse of authority as did Ukraine at this time”.
My own ancestral village of Pavoloch, where like Proskurov relations between Jews and the rest of the community were generally amicable, suffered wave after wave of attack by different groups of fighters, who my grandmother referred to collectively as ‘banda’. The most vicious was the White Army under General Anton Denikin.
The following is an extract from A Forgotten Land describing just one of many, many horrors that my family suffered in Pavoloch in 1919:
“The Whites weren’t like the anarchists who burst in and began smashing the furniture to pieces. They had brains and intuition that they used to figure out just where their victims might be hiding money or jewellery or hoarding food. The soldiers sniffed around like dogs, tapping at walls and floor boards, listening for a hollow echo that might indicate a hiding place.
“‘Money! Give us your money, old man!’ the first giant demanded in Russian, prodding Zayde [Grandpa] with his bayonet.
“Zayde’s carefully learnt Russian seemed to desert him and he mumbled something incomprehensible, his eyes fixed on the scuffed leather boots of his interrogator.
“While his companions continued to search the house, kicking down the door to the warehouse, the leader of the group dealt my grandfather a swift blow with his rifle butt and watched poor Zayde crumple to the floor like a rag doll. Then he kicked him in the stomach with his huge leather boots until Zayde curled into a ball on the hard kitchen floor as pitiful as a tiny child. Again and again he beat him with his gun and kicked him.
“By that time the other four soldiers had returned. Zayde wasn’t a big man so it didn’t take them long to hustle him onto the table, pull his scuffed leather belt from around his waist and force his head into the noose they made with it. Then they hanged him from the hook on the kitchen ceiling that we used for drying meat.”
My great-great grandfather survived the ordeal, but only because the belt that was used to hang him snapped in two, dropping him to the floor with a great thump. But he was never the same again.
A state of total chaos reigned in Ukraine a century ago. The Canadian-Ukrainian academic Orest Subtelny described it thus:
“In the modern history of Europe, no country experienced such complete anarchy, bitter civil strife, and total collapse of authority as did Ukraine at this time. Six different armies-– those of the Ukrainians, the Bolsheviks, the Whites, the Entente [French], the Poles and the anarchists – operated on its territory. Kiev changed hands five times in less than a year. Cities and regions were cut off from each other by the numerous fronts. Communications with the outside world broke down almost completely. The starving cities emptied as people moved into the countryside in their search for food.”
The prime targets for much of the violence that engulfed the region were Jews. Historians estimate that between 35,000 and 50,000 Jews were killed in Ukraine’s pogroms in 1919-1920 – the greatest modern mass murder of Jews before the Holocaust.
But unlike the Holocaust, these earlier attempts at ethnic cleansing are largely forgotten, even in their centenary year. However some fascinating footage of the pogroms has emerged on the Russian website net-film, an organisation that is digitising film archives in cooperation with Russia’s state cinema archive, Gosfilmofond.
The first of the two short films covers just a small number of the hundreds of pogroms that took place in Ukraine in 1919-20. It shows still shots of shops and apartments pillaged by peasant insurgents or povstantzy in Bohuslaff (Boguslav) and by the Ukrainian army in Shitomir (Zhitomir); Jews murdered by Ataman Grigorieff in Kamenskoje (Kamianske) and by Ataman Strook in Tshernobil (Chernobyl); and rows of victims lined up in common graves. The second film shows moving images of a hospital in Ukraine treating victims of the pogroms, from the very young to the very old; several of the scenes make you wince and look away.
Most interesting for me was the inclusion of victims of a pogrom in Khodorkoff (Khodorkov). Members of my family lived in the town and escaped a vicious pogrom there. Here is how I describe it in my book A Forgotten Land:
“The Cossacks rounded up all the Jews and accompanied them to the sugar beet factory that stood beside the lake. Then they herded them past the plant to the water’s edge. To terrified screams and cries for mercy, the soldiers forced the Jews to continue walking into the lake until the icy water entered their bones and froze them to death or pulled them down into its depths. Bloated bodies could be seen bobbing on the lake’s surface or washed up on the shore for days.
“At last a letter arrived from Kiev to tell us that our relatives had survived. Leah, Babtsy, her husband Moishe and the children had hidden in the cellar beneath Moishe’s watch shop. Babtsy had stuffed her young children’s mouths with rags to stop them from uttering a sound when they heard the Cossacks destroying the shop upstairs. Moishe winced at the noise of his precious display cabinets being beaten to splinters, panes of glass being smashed into tiny shards and his valuable clocks hitting the wooden floor above their heads.
“At last the heavy thump of hob-nailed boots above them receded and they dared to breathe again. But they weren’t yet ready to risk emerging from their shelter. They listened carefully and heard the sounds of distant screams. They sensed the sweetness of the lilac that drenched the town in springtime being overpowered by the smell of fear and the stench of burning houses. They remained in the cellar all night and the next day rose to witness the devastation. Their town lay in ruins. Houses were smouldering all around them and the lakeside was littered with pale corpses. Barely stopping for a moment to grab a handful of belongings, Moishe and Babtsy fled to the railway station, a young child in each of their arms and a third running by their side, while Leah, over seventy years old now and much less vigorous than she used to be, stumbled along behind them holding onto the belt of Babtsy’s coat. They took the first train to Kiev and remained there with Moishe’s parents and sisters, who harboured them through the years that followed.”
My dad and I visited Khodorkov in 2005, where we met a 95-year old woman who had lived there all her life. Her daughter, no youngster herself, shooed out the chickens and invited us into her modest home to talk with this impossibly old lady. She spoke in Ukrainian and I couldn’t understand everything, but I got the gist.
“What do you remember from before the Revolution,” I asked her (in Russian).
“Pogrom,” she said. “They took them to the lake.”
“Who did they take?”
“Who took them?”
This word banda was the same one that my grandmother had used to describe the warring parties that had passed through her village during Russia’s civil war, spoken with identical intonation. Grandma passed away back in 1988, but my father had recorded her many years earlier telling stories, in Yiddish, of her early life in Russia. It sent shivers down my spine hearing this old lady talking of the same events that Grandma had described, and even using the same word, despite the fact that she spoke a completely different language.
You can view the films here:
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.