By Charlotte Adelman, Special to Chicago Jewish News
The year 2019 marks the 100th anniversary of the Kiev Pogroms of 1919. Unleashed by the Russian Civil War (1917-1921), pogroms spread to other regions and countries but Ukraine remained the epicenter of anti-Jewish violence. The Russian Red Cross Committee to Aid Victims of Pogroms estimated that between 1917 and 1920, one million Jews in Ukraine had suffered from pogroms and their consequences. One of the victims was my father.
Considered unprecedented, the thousands of barbarous, brutal, savage pogroms engulfing the Jewish populations living in the hundreds of towns and cities in the former Tsarist Empire peaked in 1919. The violence of 1919 is considered a cause of the migration crisis that led to hundreds of thousands of Jews, including my paternal grandparents and my father, fleeing Russia and Ukraine. Some scholars conclude these pogroms, with their death toll, their intentional focus on killing and annihilation, their degree of destruction, and their scope of sexual violence, in their extent and impact, are overshadowed only by the Holocaust, and were a factor in the causes of the Holocaust.
The hundredth anniversary of the unspeakable events of 1919 is nearing its end and should be remembered and commemorated. Unlike prior pogroms, composed of poorly armed peasant mobs, the 1919 malefactors were soldiers operating with military violence. Frequently in league with local peasants, the soldiers were often part of nation-wide political programs. The perpetrators’ motives for damaging Jews ranged from plunder and extortion, to retribution for supposed endorsements of communism and the Soviet cause, or for being secret opponents to Ukrainian or Polish national causes.
Many pogroms went undocumented. In contrast, the June 16, 1919 pogrom in shtetl of Kitaigorod, Podolia region in Ukraine was documented. A medical team prepared an official report and sent it to the nearby larger Jewish community of Kamenets-Podolsk. The report, which described high casualties and unusual brutality, emphasized this pogrom’s alleged “uncommonness” by noting families entirely massacred, children killed before their parents’ eyes, and buildings emptied of everything, even things with no value. The report concluded, “There is blood everywhere… Kitaigorod is literally covered in blood.” “We have reached the tragic conclusion that the carnage in Kitaigorod is unparalleled, even in the history of anti-Jewish pogroms.”
As revealed by documents collected by the Red Cross, Kitaigorod was not “unparalleled” but was typical of thousands of the “Kiev Pogroms of 1919”. “Marked by looting, mass rape, and indiscriminate killing, these military pogroms often aimed at (and succeeded in) ethnic cleansing of an area of its Jewish population. In some areas, the systematic violence unleashed against the Jews led to the Jews’ near total disappearance. This practice warrants historians’ classifying these pogroms “within the framework of genocidal violence.”
Describing a typical pogrom, Russian writer Sergei Gusev-Orenburgskii wrote, “Armed men storm through a city or town, scatter through the streets, divide up in groups and break into Jewish homes, kill without distinction of age or sex, brutally rape the women and then murder them, extort money […]. Then each group proceeds to a second house, then a third, and so on, until there is absolutely nothing left to take…..Both the murdered and the survivors were left undressed, often in their underwear, and sometimes naked.” Revelations about the 1919 horrors inspired international attention. On September 8, 1919, The New York Times reported, “127,000 Jews have been killed and 6,000,000 are in peril.”
Survivors of the Kiev Pogroms of 1919 included my late father, Jack J. Adelman. (He became a Chicago public high school physics teacher.) Several of the 1919 pogroms occurred in June. “On the 15th of June the bands were in Brussilov; on the 20th in Khodorkov; on the 24th in Cherniakhov then in Kornip. On the 17th of June a pogrom was again made in Dubovo, Obykhov was plundered at the same time, and on the 25th of June, Kagarlyk.”
Though my father lived both in Brusilov and Khodorkov, he did not specify the town he was in during his “last pogrom.” It may have been the June 13 pogrom in the shtetl of Brusilov, or – 16 miles away – the June 15 pogrom in the shtetl of Khordokov, both in the Kiev region. In an undated, untitled, handwritten autobiography, my father stated:
“I was born in August 1907. My sister is 3 years older than I. My parents were probably married in 1903 after my father served 4 years in the Russian army. During the Japanese-Russian war he dodged a military draft, left town, and was brought back in chains. Bribery and influence obtained his release and he stayed with us until 1913 when he left for America. Economic and probably political reasons induced him to take this very drastic step.
“Soon after father left, my mother, sister and I left Brusilov and moved to Khodorkov, in order to be near mother’s parents, sister and brother. We returned to Brusilov for occasional visits to our father’s parents. We received money and letters from my father and were hoping to join him when WWI interfered. As the war progressed all contacts came to an end and hard times began. Mother baked bread for sale, sold soap and other commodities and had great difficulty supporting us. Mother’s relatives gave us financial aid.
“The war came to an end after the 1917 Revolution and we began hoping that our contacts with father will be resumed. A new secular school called gymnasium was established. I quit the religious Yiddish cheder and attended this new school for 2 years where I studied Russian language, Hebrew, geography, math, German, French, history and art. These two years were exhilarating.
“The civil war and the pogroms put an end to this short lived idyllic period. Armies and small groups of armed men invaded our town or passed through it and invariably robbed and killed. We tried to escape but always came back. The last pogrom was the most terrible one. Hundreds were killed and the town was burned. Only half a block was left intact. The home of my grandparents was in that unburned section. They stayed on, but the rest of our family, including almost the entire population of our town left, walked about 15 miles to the nearest railroad station and traveled by train to Kiev. In this pogrom my aunt was killed and two daughters were slightly wounded.
“Life in Kiev was extremely difficult. We almost died of starvation. We tried to make a living by selling second hand underwear, leather, sugar and firewood. The raging inflation made our attempts at business almost impossible. We received a letter from father at the Hias office. He informed us that he sent food packages to us and our relatives. My uncle received a package but our condition was practically hopeless. At this point my mother found an ‘enterprising man’ who offered to take us to Poland for a promised fee. We traveled at night and stayed in peasants’ homes during the daytime. We crossed the border safely and came to Russia in February 1921. The ‘enterprising man’ helped us obtain lodging and credit. A few months later we came to Warsaw where we contacted the American embassy. Somehow we got passports and came to Chicago in April 1923.”
My father described his “last pogrom” in the following short essay:
“My Last Pogrom”
“We were awakened in the middle of the night by a lot of shooting. At first we hoped that nothing really bad would happen, but then we heard the shouts of people outdoors and soon found out that our gallant protective home militia panicked and ran. Our town was attacked again by a group of bandits who succeeded in invading our Jewish community.
“My mother, sister and I quickly dressed and ran. My grandparents refused to leave. We joined hundreds of other Jews who quickly left town and walked or ran into the countryside. It soon got light and we saw several armed men on horseback come closer and closer. When they reached us they ordered us back and lined us up near a sugar factory on the outskirts of the town. They separated the men from the women and children. I was thirteen years old, but very small and was left with the women and children. The men were driven back into town and locked up in a synagogue. This and adjacent buildings were set on fire. The men perished in the fire. One person survived. He was thirteen years old, but tall for his age. I never found out how he managed to survive.
“The whole town burned down. Many people were killed and more were wounded. One aunt of mine was badly wounded and died a few days later. Two of her daughters were wounded by swords, but survived. I saw a teacher of mine sitting in the ditch off the road. I realized he was shot and killed while trying to hide in that ditch. I never really learned how many people died in this pogrom.
“Around noon the bandits left after the entire town was destroyed. We headed toward the nearest railroad station, about twenty miles from our town. We finally came to Kiev a day or two later and there learned that my aunt was dead.”