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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2013
Number 79
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Cry and Wail: Jewish Suffering in Documents From Ukraine, 1918-1921

A review essay by Brian J. Horowitz

The Book of Pogroms: Pogroms in the Ukraine, Belorus and the European Part of Russia in the Period of the Civil War, 1918-1922, ed. L. B. Miliakova, Moscow: Rosspen (Kniga pogromov: Pogromy na Ukraine, v Belorusii i evropeiskoi chasti Rossii v period Grazhdanskoi voiny, 1918-1922

This volume of primary materials from Russian archives makes available a large bundle of documents about how people experienced pogroms in the Ukraine and Belorus. Although there are now a number of excellent books on the subject of anti-Jewish pogroms in this period — Oleg Budnitsky, Henry Abramson and the classic, Elias Tcherikover — this large tome devotes itself exclusively to reviving the voices of the time. Featuring 364 original documents (or in some cases, groups of documents) in more than 900 pages from Russian archives and rare newspapers, this book could be used as raw materials for writing a monograph. It is impossible not to be enthusiastic about this book and to celebrate the editor and her co-editors who have meticulously collected and published these rare materials.

To give you an impression of the kind of materials contained in the volume, I list of few of the sources:

1) Representatives of the Relief Division of the Russian Red Cross in Ukraine for Victims of Pogroms regarding the Second Pogrom in Grigor’ev, June 24, 1919
2) Record to the Representatives of the Kharkov Jewish Community of the Testimony of Witnesses on Executions by Units of the South Russian Army
3) A Request of the Rovno Jewish Community to the Head Ataman Of the Ukrainian People’s Republic S. Petiura, and The Head Ataman of the Northern Group of the Armies of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, V. Oskilko, on Measures to Stop Pogrom Agitation
4) A Report from The Jewish Week on the Pogrom in Novgorod-Seversk in the Chernygov Region in April 1918
5) A Report from a Witness, F. Krasnaia, to the Representatives of the Kiev Commission of the Jewish Committee on the Pogrom Committed by Robbers from the Town of Tetiev in the Kiev Region in April 1920

In their introduction E. Rozenblat and I. Elenskaia provide a review of the relevant literature and give a short introduction regarding the context. They discuss the conflagrations and break down of central authority that helped create ripe conditions for massive numbers of pogroms. While the editors repeat the claims of the overall killed of between 35,000-200,000, they describe how some places became true hellholes, where pogroms were visited upon the population many times. In Rovno, Uman or Zhitomir, the victim rates surpassed one out of ten. The editors make the claim that it is impossible to pinpoint responsibility since the roving groups of looters and rioters at times were only loosely associated with larger organizations. It is hard to say except in general terms who exactly committed pogroms and who should be punished. Even though the Bolsheviks committed many pogroms, the stringent punishment of pogromists in the Red Army won over the Jewish population and pogrom activity discredited the Whites and the army of the Ukrainian People’s Republic.

The transmission of personal voices from the time composes the exceptional aspect of this volume. Here are the words of Enata Shteinberg about a pogrom in Gorodishche-Vorontsovo in the Kiev District from an unpublished document from the State Archive of the Russian Federation, Moscow — using the word “bandit” in the passage, the author apparently means members of the Ukrainian National forces:

I was with my five children, the oldest was 13 and the youngest was a year old. We hid in an abandoned bathhouse with other Jews. We stayed there until the afternoon. At one o’clock a robber came demanding money. We gave him Soviet money that however he ripped up. The robber fled, after shooting wildly and killing one of the Jews with us, Movsha Burtov. We all ran from the hiding place, but were stopped on the road. My five-year-old boy ran away from us and, as it turned out later, hid in a garbage can where he stayed until morning. We were brought to the commandant. On the way our shoes were taken. At the commandant’s we joined a large crowd of Jews who were being held. They kept us until 5. The bandits, having returned from a raid, led the men separately to Prichepovka. Having settled the score with the men, they again turned to deal with us and, pointing at the chests of the executed bodies, said, ‘That’s what will happen to you.’ My eldest daughter thanked God aloud the whole time that he saved at least one of her brothers who could say ‘kadish’ in mother’s memory. We were brought out into a field, placed down on the ground. I covered all my children with my scarf and set on them. Shots broke out... we were alive. Suddenly I felt a terrible pain. A bandit had thrust his bayonet into me and cut through me. I began to cough blood and that is when the shots of a soldier broke out—the bandits scattered. I don’t remember how I got to the hospital. I was carried from Gorodishe to Korsun. (421)

The book is filled many similar tragic testimonies. Equally important, many of the documents contain statistical evidence about population size, breakdown by gender and age, and numbers of victims.

The flaws of this book are associated with the genre. One may ask why this document was included, but another not included. The choice depended, it seems, mainly on accessibility to archives — materials from Moscow archives dominate. In addition, the question of what the documents mean is not always clear. As Mark Bloch, the famous French historian pointed out, documents don’t mean anything until we interpret them. Although the documents seem straightforward enough, a good deal more annotation would be needed to understand the intricacies below the general level. Finally, it is not clear what the volume wants to say to us now after the Holocaust.

These flaws by no means efface the amazing achievement that is this book. How many times does the historian wish that someone would publish documents in his/her area in order to provide students with primary sources? How many times does one wish that more documents were available so that the material basis of one’s research was larger? The historian and reader (of Russian) interested in the subject of pogroms, this volume is a very welcome tool.

Brian Horowitz is the Sizeler Family Chair Professor at Tulane University and a contributing editor.

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Updated: Jan. 24, 2013

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