On 8 September 1919, the New York Times reported on a convention being held in Manhattan to discuss the atrocities then taking place in Ukraine. ‘Ukrainian Jews Aim to Stop Pogroms,’ the headline announced. ‘Mass Meeting Hears that 127,000 Jews Have Been Killed and 6,000,000 Are in Peril.’ Six million: we know that number too well. Could it be that the Holocaust wasn’t, in fact, a singular and unprecedented event of unfathomable human evil but simply the predictable outcome of a dynamic already well entrenched in the killing fields of Eastern Europe – an area Timothy Snyder called the ‘bloodlands’?
To Jewish historians the question is less than surprising. Anyone who researches the history of Jews in late 19th and early 20th-century Europe will sooner or later experience a moment of similarly heart-stopping resonance. For me the moment came when I read a letter written by the Jewish politician Adolf Fischhof in 1886. ‘Death by fire is not what [modern antisemitism] has in mind for us,’ he wrote to his friend Ludwig Frankl in Vienna, ‘rather the death of Ugolino [by starvation].’ For Jeffrey Veidlinger, it came when he found a memorial book commemorating ‘the memory of the holy souls who perished during the terrible slaughter that befell the Jews of Proskuriv’. The book’s iconography is indeed eerily familiar: Hebrew lettering framed by lilies, a memorial candle, and a rose whose thorny stem evokes barbed wire. As Veidlinger notes, however, the book was written in 1924, and the slaughter it commemorates was a different khurbn (catastrophe), a different Holocaust. ‘Or, perhaps’ – and this is the nub of his argument – ‘the real beginning of the same Holocaust’.
What happened to Jews in Ukraine between 1918 and 1921 was, by any measure, appalling. At least a hundred thousand were murdered, the lives of many more shattered beyond repair. Six hundred thousand fled the country altogether; around two-thirds of the Jewish houses and more than half of the Jewish businesses in the region were looted or destroyed. A generation of children grew up as orphans. In 2009 Veidlinger met an old man, Nisen Yorkovetsky, who still cherished a scar left by the bullet that had killed his mother when she held him – a baby – in her arms. He would have died too, had it not been for a Polish priest who noticed the child moving in the mass grave that held the rest of his family.
To Veidlinger these events were, if not an untold story, then a story that historians take for granted. In the Midst of Civilised Europe is firmly framed by its subtitle as a book about ‘the pogroms of 1918-21 and the onset of the Holocaust’, with Ukraine relegated to a map on the inside cover. Yet reading this book in 2022 it is impossible not to contemplate the significance of place. The Holocaust was a European phenomenon with many different starting points. Veidlinger has produced a riveting and nuanced account of developments in one very specific location: the area claimed by the Ukrainian People’s Republic in the aftermath of the First World War.
For Jews, this area has a difficult history. In 1648-49, the Khmelnytsky massacres, which suppressed Cossack and peasant uprisings, prompted the earliest large-scale Jewish refugee crisis in Eastern Europe. Many thousands of Jews were murdered, tens of thousands fled, and Ukraine’s Jewish population fell by nearly half. ‘Wherever they found the szlachta [Polish nobility], royal officials or Jews, they killed them all, sparing neither women nor children,’ Nathan ben Moses Hannover wrote in Yeven Mezulah (1653), a purportedly eyewitness account designed to tug at the heartstrings. ‘It was a rare individual in those days who had not soaked his hands in blood.’ Jewish contemporaries compared the events to the destruction of the Temple; even after the Holocaust, Jews in Ukraine would continue to commemorate the episode with a day of fasting and prayer on 20 Sivan. Yet this infamous moment in Jewish martyrology has not stopped subsequent generations of Ukrainians from celebrating Bohdan Khmelnytsky, progenitor of the massacres, as a popular hero – his face still adorns the five hryvnia banknote. Oddly, Veidlinger leaves out this backstory, obscuring any connection between the events of 1918-21 and a deeper, still contested Ukrainian past. Readers of his book could be forgiven for thinking that anti-Jewish violence in this part of the world was effectively a modern phenomenon.
Veidlinger’s story opens in 1881 in Elizavetgrad, with the first in a series of deadly ethnic riots that spread throughout the south-western provinces of the Russian Empire and gave the English language a new word: ‘pogrom’. Precipitated by the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, the pogroms of the late 19th century are best understood as a brutal manifestation of deep-seated social, economic and religious tensions. They established a new pattern: from this moment on, political unrest in Russia would be associated with mass anti-Jewish violence. At the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese war, the right-wing press spread conspiracy theories about Jews financing the enemy. Newly mobilised peasant recruits ransacked Jewish-owned businesses, and Ukrainian Christians turned on their Jewish neighbours. Then, in 1905, the apparent prominence of Jews in the revolutionary movement prompted veterans of the war and other tsarist loyalists to denounce Jews, again, as agents of subversion. The deadliest of this wave of pogroms took place in Odessa, where rioters killed an estimated eight hundred Jews in four days. In subsequent years the scale of the violence grew, even before war broke out in 1914.
The Eastern Front included parts of Russia and Austria-Hungary that were heavy with Jewish settlement. As Yiddish speakers, Jews were assumed to be sympathisers with Germany. They weren’t the only population caught in the crossfire but they were among the most profoundly affected. ‘It all began with whispered accusations, secret allegations and libels depicting the Jews as enemies of Russia,’ the Belarus-born ethnographer S. Ansky wrote during the Russian advance into Austrian Galicia. ‘Jews served the enemy as spies – they communicated with him through secret telephones, conveyed the best-kept secrets through light signals and bonfires, sent him millions of rubles of gold etc.’ The whispered allegations heralded a wave of atrocities, followed by a series of escalating deportation orders as the Russian advance halted and then crumpled. When the Austrians launched their counter-offensive in 1915, the Russians began packing trainloads of Jews into cattle cars to carry them away from the front. By the summer of 1917, between five and seven million refugees were on the move in the Russian Empire, half a million of them Jews. In Kyiv Province, officials in railway towns like Korosten and Sarny believed that the Jewish Committee to Aid Victims of War was ‘the main leader of the Jewish revolutionary movement in Russia’. They refused to allow locals to help the new arrivals: Jewish men, women and children who were hungry, sometimes naked, always exhausted and suffering.
For Jews – along with many of Russia’s minority populations – the February Revolution represented a new beginning. Or, as it transpired, a false start. Many believed that the end of tsarist absolutism would bring with it an end to pogroms. They had similar hopes of Ukrainian nationalism, as the socialists’ Central Rada began to reconceptualise the ‘Ukrainian people’ as ‘citizens of the Ukrainian Land’. Once news of the October Revolution reached Kyiv, the Central Rada rejected the authority of the Bolsheviks and proclaimed the establishment of a Ukrainian People’s Republic. This new, socialist Ukraine was conceived as an explicitly multinational territory in which Russians, Jews, Poles and others would enjoy the ‘autonomy to guarantee their own self-government in all matters of their national life’. It was a brief but genuine moment of harmony. Ukraine’s first prime minister, Volodymyr Vynnychenko, a peasant-born writer with a revolutionary background, even had a Jewish wife. Then it all fell apart.
Within days the Red Army was marching on Kyiv, confirming Vynnychenko’s view that ‘the Bolsheviks were in essence the same Russian chauvinists and imperialists.’ Young Jewish radicals threw themselves into the defence of their new state, with some even joining the forces led by the secretary of military affairs, Symon Petliura – later notorious for overseeing the murder of tens of thousands of Ukrainian Jews. Others had reservations. Traditionalists felt the pull of a religious and cultural community that transcended these new borders and identities, while many of the upwardly mobile continued to look to Russia.
It didn’t really matter which side they chose. Jews weren’t the only minority targeted in this complex, ethnically and religiously diverse territory: the whole population suffered heavily. But unlike other groups they suffered at everyone’s hands. The Jewish activist Arnold Hillerson, who had started investigating pogroms in the tsarist period, looked into the events in the northern town of Ovruch in late December 1918, after a detachment of partisans recaptured the town from the Reds. ‘In this case, the pogrom took place under the slogan “Beat the Jews because they are Bolsheviks,”’ Hillerson concluded. ‘But the attitude of the masses in Ukraine towards the Jews is such that any other slogan would be suitable for a pogrom as well.’
Veidlinger is careful to put this assessment in context. It’s true that the mayor of Ovruch had looked the other way when a group of Cossacks beat an old Jew with whips, striking out his only eye and shooting his son on the spot – and Christians were certainly less vulnerable to the kind of ritualised humiliation that involved being driven to your death while dancing and singing a Sabbath table song. At this stage, however, the real problem lay not with the peasant masses but with a military leadership brutalised and corrupted by its experiences in the Russian army. It was in this institutionally antisemitic environment that the religious prejudices officers and soldiers had imbibed in their childhood became political and poisonous.
Ovruch was no isolated incident: there were 85 attacks on Jewish lives and property in the next two months alone, almost all carried out under officers serving in the army of the Ukrainian People’s Republic. Each had a unique character. Still, there was a pattern of increasing violence. Zhytomyr, in north-west Ukraine, saw two pogroms in the space of two months; the town had sustained a brief period of Bolshevik occupation, and local opinion identified Jews – sometimes correctly – with the brutality of the Cheka. But the inhabitants of Zhytomyr conflated the Cheka’s savage suppression of ‘counter-revolutionaries’ with older libels when they asserted that the Jews ‘had caused the death of six hundred gentiles by selling them poisoned blood and meat’. Hundreds fled pre-emptively when the Bolsheviks withdrew in late March 1918, amid rumours that ‘all the Jews would pay for the deeds of the Bolsheviks.’
The violence of 1918-19 was only the beginning. The dissolution of the Ukrainian Directorate, the territory’s executive council, in 1920 created a power vacuum that lasted until the Bolsheviks’ victory in the civil war. Each wave of terror in the years that followed affected everyone, and each was worse than the last. Take Tetiiv, a small town in Kyiv Province of four thousand inhabitants, half of them Jewish. To begin with, the town was led by a local Bolshevik, a Jew known to the peasants as ‘the Yid Tsar’. Next came the Cossacks of the volunteer army, who stayed a brutal 24 hours, leaving many dead and the shops on the market square in ashes. Now the pendulum swung back towards the Bolsheviks, and this time they were led by Gregorii Vynnychenko – not a Jew, but a man of legendary brutality whose inclination was to defend Jews and tyrannise the peasants.
After toppling him, however, a band of peasant insurgents resolved to hold Tetiiv’s Jews accountable for the crimes of the so-called ‘Jewish commissar’. They soon set the Jewish section of the town alight. ‘Corpses were lying around like garbage,’ one survivor recalled. ‘Dogs and pigs were pouring in from everywhere. From some of the corpses, only a half remained. The majority of houses had been burned down … You heard frightful stories. Many people were burned and could not be saved.’ This time, the dead could no longer be counted in the hundreds. When a Jewish woman returned later in search of her parents’ bodies, almost nothing remained. ‘It was impossible to recognise anyone,’ she reported. ‘There were no complete corpses, only skeletons and bones. Everywhere lay human hands, feet, torsos.’
At some point during these terrible months, the balance shifted and the pogrom became, in some places, a more explicitly eliminationist practice. When Jewish relief agencies finally reached what was now Soviet Ukraine in 1922, they saw at once how these events had scarred the whole population. Crowded together in orphanages, emaciated and filthy, Jewish children were characterised by an ‘extraordinary timidity … Fear was in their eyes and they lay motionless.’ Elsewhere, the dynamics were reversed. As one American-Jewish humanitarian reported on a visit to Proskuriv in western Ukraine, ‘the Jews who had been the oppressed were now the rulers of the town, holding the principal offices, and they loitered in and about the town hall with an air of familiar possession … Where the portrait of the tsar once hung they had placed an image of Trotsky.’ In this environment, there was some truth to the antisemitic fantasy we know as the ‘Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy theory’. But in fact most Jews suffered terribly as the economic niche they had traditionally occupied was torn apart.
The upshot was a refugee crisis of unprecedented proportions. Some Ukrainian Jews chose Russia, and more headed West. Emerging states like Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Poland were overwhelmed; soon they imposed restrictions and organised expulsions. Jews were a minority of the refugees who settled in Germany, but there they served as scapegoats for the lot. In 1920, the Völkischer Beobachter, published by the newly formed Nazi party, began to rail against the ‘Ostjuden’, urging: ‘CLEAN OUT THE JEWS, ONCE AND FOR ALL.’ In the chaotic and nasty atmosphere of the time the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism fell on fertile ground, seducing even such observers as Winston Churchill. Hitler, of course, repeatedly linked the flood of Jewish refugees into Germany with the fear of Bolshevik expansion, warning the Nuremberg Rally in 1937 that ‘Jewish Bolshevism is an absolute alien body in this community of European culture-nations.’
These connections have been traced elsewhere, most recently by Paul Hanebrink in A Spectre Haunting Europe (2018). Whether we can really describe the events of 1918-21 in Ukraine as ‘the real beginning of the same Holocaust’ is a different matter. They were certainly catastrophic for Jewish-Ukrainian relations, as would become apparent in 1926 when the Yiddish poet and watchmaker Sholem Schwarzbard shot Symon Petliura, who had been living in exile for several years, when he chanced on him browsing in a Paris bookshop. ‘I have killed a great assassin,’ he declared with pride. The Schwarzbard trial drew international attention to anti-Jewish violence, whereas in 1918-21 most of the world had looked the other way: first at a similar wave of violence in Poland; then at the geopolitical realities that led the western Allies to prioritise the defeat of Bolshevism over the matter of dead Jews.
The Soviet government saw the assassination of Petliura as an opportunity to disseminate its own narrative. Their willingness to punish the perpetrators of antisemitic violence – and the opportunities that joining the Soviet security apparatus presented for revenge and restitution – had prompted many Jews to embrace the new order. Between 1929 and 1931, Jews remained a small minority in the Ukraine, but they held around 38 per cent of leading positions within the state security apparatus, and an estimated 67 per cent two years later. ‘When I went to Ukraine they told me many Jews worked there,’ Nikolai Ezhov, one of Stalin’s henchmen, joked. ‘But they deceived me – only Jews worked there.’ The purges would redress this imbalance dramatically by 1939, but it was too late to change local perceptions.
Within six months of the German invasion in June 1941, more than five hundred thousand Jews in Ukraine were dead. Two years later, the death toll approached 1.4 million. The vast majority were shot at close range. Pogroms preceded these massacres too. Survivors did not distinguish between those led by locals (but instigated by Germans) and those perpetrated by Germans while their neighbours watched – and lent a helping hand. The role of a now nominally independent Ukraine in all this was far from benign. Take the events of 26 July in Lviv, when German Einsatzkommandos rounded up more than a thousand Jews. As one survivor reported, ‘Ukrainian policemen swooped down on Jewish houses, removed young Jewish men and women, and marched them to Lecki Street … until the prison was packed with people … From time to time gangs of Ukrainian policemen burst into the place, dealt blows with rifle butts and screamed: “This is for our hetman Symon Petliura.”’ In places like Lithuania – spared the worst of the violence in the civil war – the Germans would find it harder ‘to set in motion an extensive pogrom against the Jews’.
Place matters. To those living through the Second World War, the connection between 1918-21 and 1941 was obvious. Taboos had been broken, and anti-Jewish violence now seemed to many an acceptable response to Bolshevik excesses. Ukrainians in their thirties and forties had witnessed – and sometimes participated in – much the same kind of action when they were adolescents, perhaps even as soldiers in the insurgent armies. Others, a little younger, had been among the children who ran after convoys of Jewish prisoners in the festive atmosphere of the pogroms. But to note this is to repeat a familiar truth: that each country made its own Holocaust. There were Italian as well as German ‘executioners’. The annihilation of Europe’s Jews may have been conceived in Germany, but the entire continent was awash with perpetrators. What happened in Ukraine was so appalling, it’s easy to conclude that this part of ‘civilised Europe’ was fundamentally different. Easy, but not necessarily right.