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. After being reappropriated as a patriotic salute among Ukrainians in their struggle against Russia, today it serves President Volodymyr Zelensky to rally international support for war-torn Ukraine.
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.
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. 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.”
Along with others that followed, the Lviv pogrom was “marked by public displays of power,” such as deliberate dehumanization through mocking and “carnivalesque scenes” meant to turn Jews into “creatures devoid of human dignity.” Similar acts of gratuitous brutality and humiliation were also hallmarks of many subsequent pogroms, which Veidlinger describes in disturbingly repetitive detail (perhaps as a deliberate narrative choice). In Ovruch, where Jews were attacked by troops “affiliated with the army of the Ukrainian People’s Republic”—one of whose officers, Oleksii Kozyr-Zirka, declared that he wanted to “exterminate all the Jews in the city”—two victims were “stripped naked, scourged with whips, and made to dance.” Kozyr-Zirka, revolver in hand, “threatened to shoot them if they stopped.”
In Cherkasy—a town of about 40,000 people and a Jewish population of about 13,000—where a pogrom in May 1919 left over six hundred dead, a group of Jews “aged nineteen to sixty” were beaten, stripped “down to their underwear,” and made to “sing songs for the amusement of passersby.” In January 1919 in Zhytomyr, after the forces of the Directory, the provisional government of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, had taken control of the contested city, Jews were struck and forced “to chant slogans like ‘Glory to Ukraine’ and ‘Long Live the Directory.’” A few months later, Zhytomyr was subject to another such violation.
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,1 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.
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.
In Dubovo, according to Bemporad, “only twenty-six of the approximately 1,200 Jews” who had lived there in 1918 were still in town by September 1919, “the bulk of the community having been murdered and the rest of its members displaced as refugees.” With the Jews gone, locals erased their memory by obliterating material remnants of the town’s multiethnic past—the Jewish cemetery was destroyed, its gravestones removed, and the land “ploughed up” and planted.
Wiped out also was the non-Jewish population’s responsibility “as perpetrators or onlookers of the massacre.” But in places where some Jews remained, memorials were built on sites of mass graves, a constant reminder of the towns’ shared violent past. In Trostyanets, in the Podolia region of Ukraine, where in May 1919 between 350 and 650 Jews were murdered, “a massive monument” measuring, Bemporad recounts, “more than a block in length” was built soon after the Soviet forces took control of the town. It commemorated those killed in the pogrom, but it lay the blame on “the enemies of the Soviet state.” Soviet propaganda embraced the fact that Bolshevik forces, and then the state, had stemmed the anti-Semitic barbarity, sometimes even prosecuting the guilty, and that anti-Semitism was a form of reactionary anti-Bolshevism.
This adoption by the Bolsheviks of the idea that anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish propaganda were tools that had been used to “delegitimize” them and “embolden the local population to partake in violence” helped entrench the powerful new canard of “Judeo-Bolshevism.”2 “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. 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.”
A generation later Judeo-Bolshevism, now exploited powerfully by Nazi propaganda, would resonate “harmoniously under German occupation”; the equation continues to vex any reckoning with anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish violence in Eastern Europe. Its complex legacy, no doubt, is also a factor in why this earlier genocide was “never fully excavated” before, as Granick puts it.
Shifting geographic boundaries and political claims make the full scale of the post–World War I mass killings of Jews difficult to establish. Between 1917 and 1921 more than 1,500 pogroms took place, Bemporad notes, “primarily in Ukraine,” with “perhaps as many as 150,000 Jews” slain. Veidlinger says the Soviet Jewish Public Committee, which was set up to investigate the calamities, “estimated that 180,000 to 200,000 Jews were murdered.” According to Granick, “estimates are that well over a million Jews became refugees.” But it is unclear if persecutions on the territories that were later absorbed into Poland were part of those estimates.
The devastation exacerbated the unprecedented refugee crisis already caused by the Great War and the collapse of the pre-war Russian, Ottoman, Habsburg, and Hohenzollern empires—creating, Granick points out, some 14 or 15 million displaced people and making them “not just a humanitarian concern but also a political question,” especially as multiethnic empires transformed into nation-states. Unlike other peoples dislocated by war, Jews often had nowhere to go back to after the violence that had “destabilized the ties between Jews and their neighbors, deteriorating,” Bemporad writes, “the largely peaceful balance that existed prior to 1918.” Their towns and villages were destroyed, and Christian neighbors sometimes took over their homes. “‘Home,’” Granick says, became “an imagined destination, a place wiped off the map in the war.”
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.”
Throughout 1919 the Literary Digest also ran stories about massacres of Jews in Ukraine. And in 1923, Veidlinger writes, “the Russian Jewish historian Daniil Pasmanik warned that the violence unleashed by the civil war could lead to ‘the physical extermination of all Jews.’” During the 1920s reports, protests, and memorial books about the pogroms were published across Europe and the US. At the same time, the American Jewish community rallied its resources to provide aid for the endangered Jews, leading to an unprecedented level, Granick demonstrates, of international coordination and fundraising.
The Great War and the ensuing humanitarian mobilization made the United States a global power and, given the magnitude of the impact on European Jewish communities, also propelled American Jews to the world scene. While the US remained neutral, American Jewish philanthropies, including the American Jewish Committee, founded in 1906, and the JDC distributed aid to Jews on both sides of the conflict through previously existing informal channels. After the US entered the war, the Jewish organizations needed to coordinate their efforts with the Departments of State and War, especially when delivering aid in enemy territories. That meant negotiating American political and military goals along with their own desire to aid Jews affected by the pogroms, even (later) in the Soviet Union, whose regime, unrecognized by the US, was “unwilling to condone sectarian relief” but “willing to fund the victims of counter-revolution.”
This forced engagement with US governmental agencies created a framework for cooperation that became crucial during the peace negotiations in Paris, where American Jews, especially the representatives of “the nascent American Jewish Congress” and the JDC, tried to secure guarantees of minority rights for Jews in the newly formed states. The US government in turn began to see those organizations as conduits to regions with Jewish populations where it was developing increasing political and economic interests.
Granick, in writing of the American ascendancy during and after World War I and, with it, that of American Jews, shows how, among epic political transformations on the world stage, the conflict created both a new type of refugee—one with no home to return to—and a new type of international private relief organization that had to work in concert with governmental agencies. The current Russian war on Ukraine has thrown both phenomena into new focus, as we stand, to use a now resonant quote from a 1920 report, “bewildered at the magnitude of the necessary undertaking.” Now, as then, mass displacement of people has led to global humanitarian and military mobilization, often requiring coordination between the two.
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.” 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.
In the end, of course, the Nazis did most of the killing, but it was in Ukraine and Poland that they first grasped (Veidlinger again) “that the physical extermination of the Jewish population need not remain a utopian fantasy but could actually be realized.” On September 29, 1941, Germans shot to death nearly 34,000 Jews in about thirty-six hours in a ravine in Kyiv called Babyn Yar (more commonly known by its Russian name, Babi Yar). The site, which as a lieu de mémoire has been claimed and contested by many groups, was damaged by a Russian missile on March 3, 2022.
Veidlinger suggests that the pogroms were forgotten because of the overwhelming “horrors of the Holocaust.” But this answer is unsatisfying. Other instances of pre-Holocaust anti-Jewish violence in that region have been remembered, commemorated, and studied—the Khmelnytsky Uprising of 1648, the 1881 pogroms, the Kishinev pogrom of 1903, or the abuses of the 1905 revolution—even though none of them reached the scale of devastation of what took place in 1918–1921.
Far more convincing are explanations offered by Bemporad and Granick. Bemporad’s book, approaching the topic from within Soviet history, demonstrates that this amnesia is the result of the complex Soviet relationship with anti-Semitism—the early pogroms “made Jews Soviet” as the early pogroms forged a bond between Jews and the Soviet regime. But that bond frayed by the 1930s. After World War II, anti-Semitic attacks did not disappear. What did vanish were the decisive measures taken by the Soviet authorities against them. The memory of anti-Jewish violence became “universalized” not as motivated by anti-Semitism but as attacks against the Soviet state. The state itself began to target Jews, embracing the political power of anti-Semitism.
Approaching the events in Eastern Europe from an external, global perspective, Granick’s study of humanitarian relief shows that once Ukraine became part of the Soviet Union and was cut off from the rest of Europe, access to the region became nearly impossible—likely contributing to the forgetting of what happened in Ukraine, shifting focus onto Poland and its Jews. Access to Poland remained open and international aid continued to flow to it, and so too did news about anti-Jewish violence there.
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.
Proskuriv is now Khmelnytskyi, named after a Cossack hero who in 1648–1649 led an uprising against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The rebellion included the massacre of civilians, including enormous numbers of Jews, searing the violence into Jewish collective memory. ↩