Pogroms in Poland and Ukraine in 1920-21 presaged what was to follow 20 years later

author Jeffrey Veidlinger/
book cover

Review by MARTIN ZEILIG Pogrom is a Russian word meaning ‘‘to wreak havoc, to demolish violently,” says the online Holocaust Encyclopedia on the United States Holocaust Museum website.
“Historically, the term refers to violent attacks by local non-Jewish populations on Jews in the Russian Empire and in other countries. The first such incident to be labeled a pogrom is believed to be anti-Jewish rioting in Odessa in 1821.

As a descriptive term, “pogrom” came into common usage with extensive anti-Jewish riots that swept the southern and western provinces of the Russian Empire in 1881–1884, following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II.

“The perpetrators of pogroms organized locally, sometimes with government and police encouragement. They raped and murdered their Jewish victims and looted their property. During the civil war that followed the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Ukrainian nationalists, Polish officials, and Red Army soldiers all engaged in pogrom like-violence in western Belorussia (Belarus) and Poland’s Galicia province (now West Ukraine), killing tens of thousands of Jews between 1918 and 1920.”

In this rigorously researched, powerful book, award winning historian Jeffrey Veidlinger presents us with, as an earlier reviewer wrote, the first full depiction of the wave of anti-Jewish pogroms that followed the Russian Revolution “and how they laid the groundwork for the Holocaust.”

Veidlinger is a graduate of McGill University and a professor of history and Judaic studies at the University of Michigan. His books, which include “The Moscow State Yiddish Theatre” and “In the Shadow of the Shtetl”, have won a National Jewish Book Award, the Barnard Hewitt Award for Outstanding Research in Theatre History, two Canadian Jewish Book Awards, and the J.I. Segal Award. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
“In the years after the Holocaust, survivors around the globe began compiling memorial books, one for each city and town,” the author writes in his introduction, “‘Will a Slaughter of Jews Be the Next European Horror?’”
But, as he notes, such memorial books are not only histories of the prewar period; they are also histories of the war itself.

“Take, for instance, the memorial book from the town of Proskuriv, located in today’s Ukraine. The book’s title, “Khurbn Proskuriv”, captures the calamity the city endured. The Yiddish world khurbn (‘destruction’), a term derived from the Hebrew word hurban, denotes the destruction of the two biblical temples in the sixth century BCE and the first century CE—and has been used to describe an array of other disasters, from earthquakes to the sinking of the Titanic. After the Second World War, it became widely understood to refer to the fate of European Jewry under the Nazis.”

What differentiates “Khurbn Proskurov” though, is that it was written in 1924—nine years before Hitler’s rise to power and 15 years before the start of the Second World War, Veidlinger writes.
“The destruction of Prokuriv took place a year after the establishment of a Ukrainian state that promised broad freedoms and national autonomy to its Jewish minority, and three months after the armistice of November 11, 1918, that ended the Great War. Delegates from thirty-two nations had just gathered in Paris to work out the treaties that would formally cap what H.G. Wells called ‘the war that will end war.’”

Meanwhile, 1300 miles to the east, on the afternoon of February 15, 1919, Ukrainian soldiers murdered over a thousand Jewish civilians “in what was at the time the single most deadliest episode of violence to befall the Jewish people in their long history of oppression.”
The massacre in Proskuriv was not an isolated event.
“Between November 1918 and March 1921, during the civil war that followed the Great War, over one thousand anti-Jewish riots and military actions—both of which were commonly referred to as progroms – were documented in about five hundred different locales throughout what is now Ukraine, and which was at the time contested territory between Russian, Polish, Ukrainian, and multinational Soviet successor states of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires,” Veidlinger states.

He observes that a closer analysis of the progroms of 1918-1921 shows them not only to be ethnic riots carried out by enraged townsfolk and peasants, but also military actions perpetrated by disciplined soldiers, including some units of the Red Army committing atrocities.
“Thus, what happened to Jews in Ukraine during the Second World War, then, has roots in what happened to the Jews in the same region only two decades earlier,” Veidlinger maintains.

In April 1920, Polish and Ukrainian forces advanced toward Kyiv from the north, beginning what came to be known as the Polish-Soviet War.
“Their goal was to challenge Bolshevik ascendency in the region and reclaim the historic lands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth,” the author writes.

“One study submitted to the Jewish Public Committee in January 1921 on the basis of material gathered by the Society for the Protection of the Health of the Jewish Population blamed Bulak-Balachowicz for the murder of 435 Jews in 17 locations between October and November 1920. The society also counted a total of 617 incidents of sexual assault in seven towns, including the repeated rape of a twelve-year old child by three officers. The report held locals responsible for having actively participated in the progroms, or at least having done nothing to stop them.”

Veidlinger includes photographs and eyewitness accounts of this gruesome sequence of pillage, brutality and murder in Eastern Europe during those years leading up the Second World War. Even, as he intones, in the midst of civilized Europe.
“Life went on in the 20 years between 1921 and 1941:...From the fields of Ukraine to the halls of the world’s parliaments, decent people reached out to their Jewish neighbours, heeded the warnings of Jewish activists and worked to make the world a better, more civilized place,” the author notes.
“The tragedy is that it wasn’t enough.”
At one point Veidlinger quotes US President Bill Clinton during a visit to Kigali, where he acknowledged the historic failure to prevent the 1994 Rwandan genocide: “Each bloodletting hastens the next, as the value of human life is degraded and violence becomes tolerated, the unimaginable becomes more conceivable.”

Lest we forget.

“In the Midst of Civilized Europe: The Pogroms of 1918-1921 and the Onset of the Holocaust”
By Jeffrey Veidlinger (Harper Collins
466 pg. $39.99)