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To acquire wisdom, one must observe

Blood and smashed silver: A review of Jeffrey Veidlinger’s ‘In the midst of civilized Europe: The pogroms of 1918-1921 and the onset of the Holocaust’

 

This book is not for the faint of heart. Neither, however, is its triggering subject matter, the decentralized yet procedural murder of over one hundred thousand Jews in Ukraine between 1918 and 1921. In his 2021 historiography, Dr. Jeffrey Veidlinger from the University of Michigan puts into grim focus the series of vicious pogroms, violent attacks against Jewish communities, that swept across Ukraine during and after the First World War’s close. More than that, Veidlinger through excellent historiographic research masterfully delineates these tragedies’ causes and how they laid the groundwork for what would occur a mere 20 years later. Through his work Veidlinger argues that names like Zhytomyr and Proskuriv, while not equaling the historic resonance of Masada or Kishinev, nor the raw numbers of Dachau or Belsen, should nevertheless stand beside them for atrocity alone.

 

“Midst,” besides for narrating in painful detail the numerous riots and pogroms within Ukraine during the Russian Civil War, also articulates that same conflict’s history. Contrary to what is taught in many Western schools, the Russian Civil War was not a simple war of unification by the emergent Soviet Union (the Reds) against tsarist remnants (the Whites). In reality it was an ever-expanding, multipolar free-for-all with each side possessing wildly disparate objectives. The Reds sought the genesis of a worldwide Soviet internationale. The Whites strove for tsarist Russia’s resurrection. The Ukrainians desired an autonomous, pan-Ukrainian nation state, either under the Directory’s liberal democracy or the Hetmanate’s oligarchic leadership.  Austrian Galicia and newly-formed Poland both yearned for the restoration of their historic borders, irrespective of the Ukrainians, Russians and Jews living there. Numerous warlords and bandit juntas prowled the countryside while paying lip service (or not) to any of the aforementioned factions. 

 

In towns and cities, oftentimes spurred by Zionist leaders, Jewish communities would form self-defense brigades to combat these numerous threats, yet almost always in vain. Again and again Veidlinger details chilling accounts of how, amidst this stasis of endless civil conflict, advancing armies would enter these communities, insist the Jews disarm themselves, and then execute them for imaginary crimes. To the Reds the Jews were bourgeoisie pigs. To the Whites they were an insular cabal of devils serving the Jew “Trotsky Bronstein.” The Ukrainans “took the Bolsheviks and the Jews to mean the same thing,” while simultaneously labeling Jews as war profiteers. While it is true that notable Soviets, namely Trotsky, Yakov Yurovsky (murderer of the tsar’s family), and numerous Cheka officials were all Jewish, this didn’t stop Bolshevik troops from pillaging Podil and Hlukhiv while chanting phrases such as “we will slaughter all the Yids” and “we were ordered to kill all the Yids.” A 1917 graffitio perfectly encapsulates the paradoxical Antisemitism each of the rival factions possessed: “Down with the Jew Kerensky, up with Trotsky!” Kerensky was, in fact, not Jewish.

 

        Whether for social, political, or economic reasons, the various factions warring over Ukraine were all united by two things: their belief that the Jews had no place in the new political order. On Feb. 15 1919, after a failed Bolshevik coup in Proskuriv, Directory commander Semosenko gathered his troops, served them vodka to signify the coming “battle,” and released them with their orders. Minutes later troops fighting for a sovereign, democratic Ukraine went door to door in Proskuriv’s Jewish quarter, claiming “that they didn’t need money, just Jewish souls.” After butchering each family with their sabers, the Directory’s soldiers would relieve the Jews of their valuables as well. Four days and four thousand Jews later, the pogrom ceased. According to the survivor Sofia Gershgorin, “I cannot understand why they killed innocent women who knew nothing more than homemaking.” 

 

The Whites proved equally horrific, believing the Jews an obstacle to restoring a tsarist state founded on the pillars of Christianity, the Tsar, and the Russian army. When they liberated Kastiv from Bolshevik rule, the Jews met them with cheers and celebrations, hoping for a return to antebellum normalcy. Instead, White Cossack forces led a pogrom which turned even the Jews’ Christian neighbors against them. As with the others, Veidlinger through survivor and witness testimony captures each pogrom’s unique flavor of atrocity. In Kastiv’s case it was genocidal rape. 1,800 Jews died, their houses burned and their community’s Torah scrolls ripped apart. Like most places, the governing bodies were either too busy or uninterested in punishing the attackers–especially when they themselves were active participants. 

 

In the face of extermination Jews had few options, articulated by the phrase “go to Palestine” shouted even before the revolution. While some Jews stayed and some fled south in what would become the Third Aliyah, many also fled west toward the urban centers of Eastern and Central Europe. While the local Jewish communities welcomed them, their governments didn’t, characterizing the refugees as social leeches, Christ-killers, foreign operatives and vampires carrying the disease of Bolshevism. In other words, the same Antisemetic slurs used for generations. The ensuing stress on local labor markets and social resources thereby led in the 1920s to a rise in isolationist, anti-immigrant rhetoric and right-wing political parties. Some you might’ve heard of.

 

Veidlinger’s message is one of historic patterns and their ramifications. The breakdown of political order creates millions of refugees, normalizes an entire generation towards violence, and engenders reactionary political movements at home. The modern parallels to this narrative are all too apparent. Beyond the atrocity, however, Veidlinger repeatedly reminds the reader that, no matter how brutal the Russian Civil War was for the Jewish people, it pales in comparison to what came next. An institution of murder which the pogroms of 1918-1921 pioneered by showing how a government can “justify” the wholesale slaughter of its populace. By understanding the cycle, the causality between these events, Veidlinger hopes we can prevent such atrocities in the future. Besides for being excellent historiography full of interesting characters and harrowing moments, I recommend “In the midst of civilized Europe: The pogroms of 1918-1921 and the onset of the Holocaust” for that reason alone.

 

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