Pogroms in the Ukraine, 1917-1920
Rapes, beatings, burnings, mutilations and slow death through indescribable mental and physical torture were the lot of an estimated one hundred thousand Jews in the Ukraine from 1917 to 1920 as Ukrainian forces fought for independence against the Bolsheviks and Poles. “Chaos and lawlessness” ran rampant and the pogroms perpetrated at this time were the most extensive massacres of Jews prior to the Holocaust.
Despite “peaceful and neighborly relations” between Ukrainian peasants and Jews, the tsarist regime in Russia represented Jews as “the exploiters of the people, as leeches, who sucked the blood of the peasant and robbed him of the fruits of his economic activity.”2
When the Soviets were in power in Ukraine they placed Jewish officials in the villages as representatives of state power, even though Jews weren’t legally allowed to hold state or public office.3 The Christian peasants viewed the Jews as representatives of a foreign government and thought they were attempting to dominate them.
„Dante’s Inferno pales besides the realities of every day life [for Jews] in the Ukraine“– Report of the Federation of Ukrainian Jews from 1921 –
Jewish officials also were split on the issue of separating Ukraine from Russia, which led to threats from the Ukrainians against them. “The purpose of these threats was to frighten the wavering elements… by calling attention to the coming retribution from the indignant masses” who felt their feelings of nationalism had been outraged.4
The Jews became scapegoats for all that was wrong in Ukraine, and pogroms were used as a political weapon.
The YIVO encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe website encapsulates the situation:
“The absence of any strong central authority [in Ukraine] ensured that the entire civilian population was victimized by one military force or another. All the contending armies, regular and irregular, conducted pogroms against Jewish communities.” According to the encyclopedia, “only the commanders of the Red Army occasionally punished troops guilty of pogrom-mongering.”
Jews saw their homes sacked and pillaged, their possessions stolen, their relatives raped and killed in front of them. Orphaned Jewish children flooded the cities.
When the Hetmanate, or the Ukrainian State, an anti-socialistic and anti-Bolshevik (anti-Soviet) government, collapsed in December of 1918, the Ukrainian People’s Republic formed the Directory or Directorate, led by Symon Petliura, and helped to unify most of Ukraine inside its contemporary borders. The forces of the Directory fought the Bolsheviks, the White Army, and briefly the Romanians and the French.
Among the groups that established territories in the Ukraine following the Russian Revolution were the Ukrainian People’s Republic, the Directory, and the pro-Bolshevik Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.
At other times, anarchists in the “Free Territory” in southeast Ukraine, Bolsheviks, the Central Powers forces of Germany and Austria-Hungary, the White Russian Volunteer Army, the Second Polish Republic forces, the French and the Romanians all played a hand in the fight over Ukraine. Local atamans, or warlords, with varying degrees of loyalty to different factions often roamed the countryside.
Petliura is most closely associated with the Ukrainian independence movement. He is also the subject of debate as to how much responsibility he bore for the pogroms perpetrated by troops under his control, which are blamed for the most pogrom-related deaths. The Directory issued statements against pogroms and sometimes executed those it caught who initiated violent acts against Jews, but its power over its army was limited — Jewish groups said the “anti-pogrom” statements were “window-dressing.” and that the Directory didn’t control the troops fighting for it.
Petliura’s Directory army was made up insurrectionist and regular troops. A majority were radical, while a minority wanted a national military dictatorship. The pogroms carried out by these troops “followed a certain common general plan.”5 When the Directory felt “especially threatened by the Bolsheviki,” the pogroms intensified in number and violence as the troops tried to take revenge on the Jews for their setbacks, calling them communists. The pogroms were less intense when “the Bolsheviki were driven out of the Ukraine” by Anton Denikin’s troops.
Denikin was a former officer in the Russian Imperial Army who helped lead the White Army (loyal to the Tsar) against the Bolsheviks. Denikin regularly blamed the Jews for Russia’s troubles and incited violence against them, calling them communists and believing the Jews conspired with the Bolsheviks.
Besides being labeled “communists,” Jews were accused of causing the occupation of Ukraine by German forces. When Petliura reclaimed Kiev with the help of Polish forces in April 1920, the “hate and desire for revenge of the Ukrainian soldier against the Jew flared up in a hot flame.”6.
Nahum Gergel, who wrote The Pogroms in the Ukraine in 1918-1921, studied the atrocities against the Jews and was known for his thorough statistical analyses. He documented more than 880 pogroms in more than 500 locations, with a total estimated death count of nearly 100,000. Of the 124 cities and towns in Kiev province where Jews lived before World War I, 85 to 90 of the towns were completely destroyed.7
Distribution of Affected Places, Pogroms and Excesses by Provincea
|District||Number of Affected Locations||Number of Pogroms||Number of Excesses||Total Events||Average per Location|
Excesses constitute events that were less systematic and more random than a pogrom, and did not assume a “mass character” that affected the entire Jewish population of a place.
bTetiev is located in Kiev province.
Most of the pogroms occurred on the right bank (the western side) of the Dnieper River, where Petliura’s followers were based. Denikin’s army operated mostly on the left bank, in Kiev and also partly in Podolia.
Of the pogroms in the Ukraine, Gergel8 attributes:
- 493 pogroms in 289 places to Petliura’s armies, which included his followers directly linked with his military or political organization, including Voliniets, Shepel, Sokolovsky and Mordalevich,
- 307 pogroms in 210 places by bands of insurgents that include unidentifiable parts of the army and disorganized parts of the Russian Army in their flight from the front at the end of 1917.
- 213 pogroms in 164 places, the third-highest count, to Denikin’s anti-Bolshevik Volunteer Army.
|Month and Year||Pogroms||Excesses||Total||What happened, who did it|
|To Dec. 12, 1918||21||25||46||Starved deserters, Petliura, Haidamak Armies. The Ukrainian National Council, led by Petliura and Vinichenko, oust Skoropadski. Bolshevik agitation is initiated and the Soviets and Ukraine go to war. Pogroms against the Jews are organized to fight Bolshevism.|
|Dec. 12 – 31, 1918||9||25||34|
|January 1919||24||27||51||Semosenko (Petliura’s ataman) commands the Zaporozhian Cossacks, 3rd Haidamack Regiment and organizes massacres in Proskurov and Feltshin (now Hvardiyske). Semosenko blames the Jews for a revolt incited by Bolshevik sympathizers. The Proskurov pogrom is one of the earliest to be remembered for its systemic killing and high murder rate; it symbolized this era for many Jews. (Abramson). From January to April 1919, pogroms average 50-60 per month.|
|May 1919||120||28||148||Nikifor Grigoriev’s army carried out 52 “exceptionally brutal” pogroms in a few weeks when Grigoriev, a Soviety army officer, rebelled against the Soviet government. The Polish Army carried out 12 pogroms and 20 other “excesses.”|
|July 1919||109||29||138||Denikin’s White Army marches on Ukraine and occupies most of the country until September, devastating Jewish communities in its path. Petliura marches on Kiev, pogroming through July and August.|
|August 1919||127||32||149||The highest number of pogroms in any month is documented.|
|September 1919||68||17||85||Denikin’s officers and soldiers perpetrate at least 85 incidents.|
|November 1919||8||2||10||Foreign governments intervene and Denikin’s pogrom activities decrease.|
|December 1919||33||10||43||Denikin begins to evacuate Ukraine and renews its pogrom activities in the half-ruined Jewish settlements.|
|January 1920||8||4||12||The Soviets occupy all of Ukraine. Denikin’s Army remains active on the border, particularly near Podolia in southwest Ukraine.|
|April 1920||16||4||20||Petliura, now in an alliance with the Poles, marches on Ukraine, perpetrating some of the worst pogroms of the period in Tetiev, Khodorkov, Zhashkov and elsewhere.|
|June 1920||11||9||20||Soviet forces drive out Petliura and the Poles.|
|July 1920||1||2||3||Ukraine is under Soviet control.|
|August 1920||9||0||9||Soviet forces retreat; the Poles cross into Ukraine and resume pogroms.|
|September 1920||23||5||28||Some of Budeny’s Soviet cavalry, formerly regiments of Denikin, perpetrate more pogroms in Bolhynia and Kiev provinces.|
|October 1920||25||3||28||Soviets and Poles reach a preliminary peace agreement|
|November 1920||6||1||7||Jewish self-defense forces help prevent pogroms.|
|January 1, 1921 to April 1, 1921||15||1||16|
Collectively, these groups were responsible for more than 80 percent of the pogroms. This includes 52 pogroms perpetrated by Nikifor Grigoriev’s army in only a few weeks time. Grigoriev was a Soviet army officer who rebelled against the Soviets.
The irregular forces fighting in the name of the Directory, the Otamans, were particularly notorious for anti-Jewish murder, torture, and rape.
The 106 pogroms carried out by the Soviet army were different. Many times the Soviet army tried to protect the Jews. Gergel said the pogroms made by Soviet soldiers were exceptions and were made mostly by detachments of other armies that had gone over to fight with the Soviets. During the civil war, these troops broke military discipline and made pogroms the same way they had under anti-Soviet authority.
An investigation of 7,876 homeless families9 found more than 60 percent had experienced three or more pogroms. Several families underwent more than 20. Jewish families fled from place to place as violence struck. Despite fleeing to larger population centers, the refugees were often re-victimized when new waves of violence directed at Jews came through the larger towns. Even Jews who made it to the train station were often thrown from the windows and then shot.
Of those killed, 76 percent were men and 24 percent were women. Infants and children were not spared, with Gergel10 documenting more than 1,000 deaths of Jews under the age of 16. Of all the pogroms, the largest numbers killed were in Tetiev and Fastov in Kiev province, in Proskurov in Podolia province, and in Elisavetgrad (now Kirovohrad) in Kherson province.
Not counted were those Jews who died while wandering in search of asylum, who were drowned in rivers, murdered in forests and other lonely, sequestered places.11
In some cases, Jews were able to ransom their lives, but still lost all their property. In others, no lives were spared and there was no regard for age or gender in the killings. Sometimes, only the fathers of families were killed, like in Belomitza. Or only men were killed, as in Trostianetz. Or everyone who didn’t run was killed, as in Volodarka from July 9 to 11, 1919.
The methods of killing varied greatly, as well. Shooting was most common, with the victims often taken to a forest or cemetery first. Bayonets and swords were also used, as in Proskurov, where Samosenko’s men (Samosenko was an ataman (headman) of Petliura’s Zaporog Cossack brigade) took four hours to murder 1600 Jews.
Other means of murder included:
- Drowning in Tschernobyl district, where Jews were driven to the river and forced into the water. Rifles were used if they succeeded in swimming across.
- Jews were sorted from the passengers of steamboats on the Dnieper River and thrown into the water.
- In Poltava and Kherson, Jews were thrown from trains running full speed.
- In Elisavetgrad (now called Kirovohrad), hand grenades were thrown into cellars where Jews were hiding.
- Burning homes to the ground was also common.
Damage to property was devastating and most of the Jews victimized were financially ruined. In many towns, the houses of Jews became heaps of smoking rubbish – when they weren’t burned they were left in ruins with smashed windows and everything inside broken or carried off.13
Gergel called the pogroms a “political barometer” of the events in Ukraine, with complete order restored only after the civil war ended around 1921 and the Soviets controlled the country.
Map of Ukrainian Pogroms in 1918-1920
- The Ukraine Terror and the Jewish Peril, A report by The Federation of Ukrainian Jews, in Aid of the Pogrom Sufferers in the Ukraine, (London, Dec. 16, 1921), p. 6.
- Heifetz, E., The Slaughter of the Jews in the Ukraine in 1919. (New York, 1921), Thomas Seltzer, p. 1.
- Heifetz, p. 9
- Heifetz, p. 16
- Heifetz, p. 26
- Heifetz, p. 18
- Gergel, N. (1951). The Pogroms in the Ukraine in 1918-21 (K. Pinson, Ed.). YIVO Annual of Jewish Social Science, VI, 237-252
- Gergel, p. 244
- Gergel, p. 243
- Gergel, p. 251
- The Ukraine Terror, p. 11
- The Ukraine Terror, p. 13
- Gergel, p. 242
Abramson, H. (1999). A prayer for the government: Ukrainians and Jews in revolutionary times, 1917-1920. Cambridge, Mass.: Distributed by Harvard University Press for the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute and Center for Jewish Studies, Harvard University.
Batchinsky, J., Margolin, A., Vishnitzer, M., Zangwill, I., The Jewish Pogroms in Ukraine and the Ukrainian People’s Republic, Issued by the Friends of the Ukraine. Washington, D.C. 1919.
Gergel, N. (1951). The Pogroms in the Ukraine in 1918-21 (K. Pinson, Ed.). YIVO Annual of Jewish Social Science, VI, 237-252.
Heifetz, E. (1921). The Slaughter of the Jews in the Ukraine in 1919. New York: Thomas Seltzer.
The Ukraine Terror and the Jewish Peril, A report by The Federation of Ukrainian Jews, in Aid of the Pogrom Sufferers in the Ukraine, London, Dec. 16, 1921.
“The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe.” YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. Accessed at http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org. Web. 6 Oct. 2015.
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