The chaotic, brutal and often murderous aftermath of World War I in Eastern Europe and the Balkans is largely unknown, indeed unwritten about, in the English-speaking world. Here are extracts from an article at the NY Review of Books on three books that point out precursors to the Holocaust in Poland and Ukraine:
Rehearsal for Genocide
Three recent books conclude that the anti-Jewish pogroms following World War I help to explain what would take place a generation later.
Legacy of Blood: Jews, Pogroms, and Ritual Murder in the Lands of the Soviets
by Elissa Bemporad
Oxford University Press, 238 pp., $78.00
International Jewish Humanitarianism in the Age of the Great War
by Jaclyn Granick
Cambridge University Press, 404 pp., $39.99
In the Midst of Civilized Europe: The Pogroms of 1918–1921 and the Onset of the Holocaust
by Jeffrey Veidlinger
Metropolitan, 466 pp., $35.00
The war in Ukraine has simultaneously forced to the surface and upended the memory of a history that had fallen into oblivion. The past, we see once more, can be reinvented and reinterpreted. In 2014 Slava Ukraini became the slogan of an independent, westward-looking Ukraine, when the Euromaidan protests resulted in the ousting of its president, Viktor Yanukovych, and his flight to Russia. In 2018 it became the official greeting of the Ukrainian army. Since February 24 of this year it has become a worldwide cry of solidarity.
Yet its roots lie in post–World War I violence. Ukrainian nationalists hollered “Glory to Ukraine” not only in their fight for independence but also during horrific massacres of Jews in 1918–1921 that killed over 100,000 people, possibly even as many as 200,000, sometimes wiping out entire Jewish populations in towns and villages. The shout was then taken up in the 1930s and 1940s by far-right Ukrainian nationalists, who were implicated in anti-Jewish and anti-Polish attacks and in collaborating with the occupying Nazi forces. Although banned by the Soviet authorities, it survived among émigrés in the West…
Three recent books excavate this century-old story and shine light on its lasting importance. Elissa Bemporad’s Legacy of Blood: Jews, Pogroms, and Ritual Murder in the Lands of the Soviets looks at the memory and consequences of this violence in the Soviet Union. Jaclyn Granick’s International Jewish Humanitarianism in the Age of the Great War examines the rise of nongovernmental humanitarian mobilization in response to World War I and its savage aftermath—a mobilization aided by the ascendancy of the United States and its Jewish community. Jeffrey Veidlinger’s In The Midst of Civilized Europe: The Pogroms of 1918–1921 and the Onset of the Holocaust offers an account of the brutality in the years that followed World War I in Eastern Europe and argues that it created conditions for the mass murder of Jews a generation later during World War II.
What all three books show is that the Great War did not end in November 1918. In the east, in the territories that are now in Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus, bloodshed not only continued but intensified, as multiple factions sought to establish new countries on the ruins of empires that “in a stunning development,” Veidlinger says, “had crumbled in just a few days.” Ukrainian nationalist groups fought for an independent Ukraine while clashing over their visions of what it would be, having to face both Bolshevik and White Russian forces from the east and, from the west, Polish troops seeking to reestablish an independent Poland. As each group embraced different ideas of loyalty, belonging, and citizenship, Jews were caught in between—trapped as permanent outsiders, unable to fit into the newly fashioned nation-states [emphasis added].
Just days after the armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, Polish soldiers arrived in Lviv, a multiethnic city with significant Polish and Jewish populations, and a Ukrainian minority amounting to just under 20 percent, to claim it for Poland. The city, whose name changed according to the political powers that controlled it—Lwów, Lemberg, Lvov, and Lviv—was, as Veidlinger puts it, “the linchpin of the multinational state” envisioned by Marshal Józef Piłsudski. He dreamed about reinstating Poland to “the historic borders of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth,” a vast multicultural polity that had been wiped off the maps of Europe in 1795, after its final dismemberment by the Habsburg Empire, Prussia, and Russia. But on November 1, a few weeks before the Polish troops’ arrival, one of the Ukrainian national groups had already announced in Lviv “the establishment of the West Ukrainian People’s Republic,” raising the blue-and-yellow flag over the city hall, to the ire of the Polish population.
Faced with a conflict between Poles and Ukrainians, the Jewish community in Lviv sought to remain neutral, a move that rendered it vulnerable to attacks from both sides. On November 22, soon after the Polish troops had taken control of the city, Jewish self-defense groups were disarmed, shops were looted, and, according to a 1919 report, “all who resisted were brutally assaulted or shot, and many women and girls were outraged,” an early-twentieth-century euphemism for rape [emphasis added]. The violence lasted three days, leaving at least seventy-three and perhaps as many as 108 Jews murdered and 443 wounded.
The Lviv/Lwów pogrom was a turning point. It targeted a specific group that had been uninvolved in the struggle; it was organized and destructive, and, Veidlinger shows, militarily sanctioned—“instigated by armed soldiers in the line of duty rather than by roaming gangs of ruffians or local discontents.” Most importantly, the massacre took place “not during the three-week conflict between Polish and Ukrainian forces over control of Lviv but rather after Polish soldiers had secured the city.” Jews thus were not “collateral damage” of a military operation but rather “were deliberately slaughtered [emphasis added].”..
The pogroms of 1918–1921 differed significantly from previous pogroms: these massacres were approved and largely perpetrated by troops and people in positions of authority. Moreover, since the Ukrainian People’s Republic had proclaimed support for minority rights (a model later adopted by the Allied powers in the treaties with Poland and other newly emerging countries), including the recognition of Yiddish as one of the country’s official languages, the attacks were especially alarming. They demonstrated “to the Jews of Ukraine and to the world that even a government established on the principle of minority rights and national autonomy could not protect Jews from violence.” Finally, pogroms in towns like Dubovo (near Cherkasy), Fastiv, and Proskuriv, where whole communities were wiped out in a matter of hours or days, made it possible to imagine genocidal murder.
In Proskuriv, the forces of the Directory, headed by a twenty-five-year-old former agronomist named Ivan Semosenko, were told to protect the Ukrainian army’s reputation so it would not be “sullied by looting and theft” and take an oath, promising that “they would kill ‘from the old to the young’ but not steal.” They were good to their word. When Jews offered money to save their lives, they were reportedly told that, having “received an order not to rob, but to kill,” as one witness recalled later, “they didn’t need money, just Jewish souls.” Within four hours, between nine hundred and 1,200 Jews were killed. The events in Proskuriv were so shocking at the time that they were compared to the Armenian genocide of 1915–1916 [emphasis added].
In Fastiv, over a few days in September 1919, nearly two thousand Jews were said to have been murdered—some burned alive, trapped in locked homes and synagogues that were then doused in kerosene and torched. Others fled the town, and still thousands of others were wounded or died of disease. Later estimates put the death toll at eight thousand.
…“At the end of World War I and in the midst of the Polish-Soviet war,” Ukrainian nationalists, Poles, the White Army, and the German armies “equated the Bolsheviks and the Jews,” Bemporad writes, “labeling Bolshevism as a quintessentially Jewish doctrine”—that is, “‘foreign,’ ‘other,’ and ‘evil.’” In Pinsk, which was, as Granick writes, “in the combat zone between Poland and Russia, Polish soldiers stormed a gathering of Jews who were organizing the distribution of Passover food provided by [the] JDC [Joint Distribution Committee],” a Jewish American relief agency formed in 1914. The soldiers, assuming it was “a meeting for subversive, Bolshevist purposes,” shot thirty-five Jews and arrested many others.
The belief in Judeo-Bolshevism held by all these anti-Bolshevik forces, each fighting to realize its distinct and clashing political goals and ideologies, was galvanizing and deadly [emphasis added]. The fact that the Bolsheviks did indeed stop anti-Jewish massacres only deepened this pernicious conviction and, Bemporad shows, was what “ultimately enticed so many Jews to fight on the side of the world Revolution, to wage a war against counter-revolution, and to forge an alliance with the Soviet state. The pogroms made Jews Soviet.”..
Thousands of Jews moved to major cities across Eastern Europe, making small-town, traditional Jews more visible and alien. Many cities could not sustain the influx. Jews and their status became an issue in the negotiations in Paris. According to Granick, “The refugee problem became a Jewish problem”—one that was exploited, in the interwar period, by xenophobic nationalists and demagogues like Hitler.
So although the anti-Jewish atrocities of 1918–1921 may be a forgotten genocide, absent “from history textbooks, museums, and public memory,” they were widely known at the time, both in the region and in the West. The Soviet authorities designed their commissions to research and prosecute the perpetrators, and on September 8, 1919, The New York Times said an American commission would go to Ukraine to report to President Woodrow Wilson on the pogroms; the ominous lede stated that “127,000 Jews have been killed and 6,000,000 are in peril.”..
Approaching the history of World War I and its aftermath from three different vantage points, Bemporad, Granick, and Veidlinger each conclude that the shocking anti-Jewish assaults of 1918–1921 help to explain what would take place a generation later. The “unprecedented” scale of destruction and “the performativity of violence against Jews” can now be seen, Granick argues, as a “bridge” to the Holocaust. According to Veidlinger, the pogroms and what they stood for became “an acceptable response to the excesses of Bolshevism,” leaving a heritage of social tolerance for killing Jews. In 1941, therefore, when the Nazis invaded the territories of what is today Ukraine, they were able to mobilize the local population to do their dirty work, since it “had become inured,” he says, “to bloodshed and primed to target Jews in ethnic violence [see this post: “Hitler’s Ukrainian Executioners“] .” Furthermore, the connection between Bolshevism and Jews, as well as the nexus of anti-Semitism and opposition to Soviet rule discussed by Bemporad, made the atrocities of World War II less shocking…
The stories Bemporad, Granick, and Veidlinger tell in their very different books remind us how much our world is an heir to the violent legacy of World War I. Yet they also show, as the war in Ukraine underscores, that perhaps we do not have to be trapped in this past. Slava Ukraini is no longer a slogan of the perpetrators of anti-Jewish violence; it is a slogan of a country defending liberal democratic values, whose president is a descendant of Holocaust survivors.
Magda Teter is a Professor of History and the Shvidler Chair in Judaic Studies at Fordham. She is the author, most recently, of Blood Libel: On the Trail of an Antisemitic Myth. (June 2022)