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Maurice Wolfthal

© 2019 Maurice Wolfthal, CC BY 4.0

The signing of the armistice formally ending World War I did not end the bloodbath in Ukraine, which continued to be ravaged by the Civil War between the Soviet regime and the ‘Whites’, by Polish attempts to seize the former Austrian province of Galicia, and by Ukraine’s campaign to maintain its independence from both Poland and the USSR. Organized armies, partisan units, and peasant gangs — with political objectives that were at times opposing and at times overlapping — devastated the land. As is often the case, unarmed civilians bore the brunt of the suffering. These military forces — the Ukrainian National Army headed by Symon Vasylyovych Petliura,1 the Tsarist Volunteer Army2 of Anton Ivanovich Denikin,3 the Army of the Second Polish Republic, the gangs of such leaders as Nestor Makhno4 and Nikifor Grigoriev,5 and the Bolshevik Army — were guilty of specifically targeting Jewish communities.

Scholarly estimates of the number of Jews killed, wounded, or tortured range between 100,000 and 120,000. William Henry Chamberlin6 cites Sergei Gusev-Orenburgsky, who calculated that ‘no fewer than 100,000 people perished.’7 Hundreds of Jewish communities were burned to the ground. Zvi Y. Gitelman estimates that more than 1,200 pogroms were committed in Ukraine in 1918 and 1919.8 The homeless numbered in the hundreds of thousands, including thousands of orphans living on the streets, rummaging for food, begging and stealing.

Working from large documentation that had been collected in Kiev and brought to Berlin, Nokhem Gergel published ‘Di pogromen in Ukrayne in di yorn 1918–1921’ in 1928,9 in which he conservatively estimated the total number of murdered and maimed in those three years at 100,000. He also reported the horrific mass rapes of Jewish women and girls during these pogroms in Ukraine, noting several thousand documented cases, but indicating that there were probably many more, because ‘The victims took pains to conceal their disgrace.’10

A number of local and international relief organizations struggled to provide the pogrom survivors with food, lodging, and medical care. The situation was desperate not only for those who had been maimed, blinded, or raped, but also those who were falling prey to deadly epidemics. In the course of their work, some of the Jewish agencies attempted to document the atrocities to encourage donations for their relief work and to mobilize world public opinion against the pogroms. To that end, they contacted news agencies and diplomats, especially those of the Western powers that were supporting the ‘White’ anti-Bolshevik armies with funding and weapons.

In what was one of the earliest efforts to systematically record human rights atrocities on a mass scale, the Central Committee for the Assistance of Pogrom Victims in Kiev combined the efforts of three relief agencies into a single Redaktions-kolegye oyf zamlen un oysforshn di materialn vegn di pogromen in Ukrayne,11 composed of prominent Ukrainian Jews, with the scholars Nokhem Shtif and Elias (Elye) Tcherikover at the helm. The Editorial Board also added documentation that had been collected by other organizations, like the All-Ukrainian Relief Committee for the Victims of Pogroms under the auspices of the Red Cross.

But in 1920 and 1921 the Bolsheviks in Kiev began to suppress other political parties, including the Yidishe folks-partey12 and its publishing house, the Folks-farlag.13 This impelled Dubnow, a founder of the party, Shtif, Tcherikover, and other folkists who had compiled the archive to leave Kiev. They eventually made their way to Berlin, by way of Kaunas, Minsk, or Moscow, and brought the documents with them.

This was now known in English as the Eastern Jewish Historical Archive, in German as the Ostjüdisches Historisches Archiv, and in Yiddish as the Mizrekh-yidisher historisher arkhiv. The documentation was so large that a multi-volume series was planned for publication. The Board itself published only two volumes. Tcherikover’s 1923 Antisemitism and the Pogroms in Ukraine: The Period of the Central Rada and the Hetman, 1917–1918 came out in Yiddish and Russian.14 Joseph B. Schechtman’s The Pogroms of the Volunteer Army in Ukraine appeared later, in Russian and German,15 in 1932. A second book by Tcherikover was only published in 1965. Nokhem Shtif researched the archive materials to write The Pogroms in Ukraine: The Period of the Volunteer Army in 1920, and published it in 1923 in Berlin with Verlag Wostok, in Yiddish and Russian. Tcherikover and Shtif deliberately published their works in Yiddish both to reach a Yiddish-reading audience and to signal the arrival of Yiddish as a serious academic language.

The archive received worldwide attention in a sensational trial a few years later. Sholem-Shmuel Schwarzbard was a young Jewish watchmaker from Balta who survived the 1905 pogrom. Drawn to radical politics, he served time in prison due to his activities. He left Ukraine for the neighboring provinces of Austria-Hungary, where he worked as a watchmaker but continued to move in Socialist and Anarchist circles. He was arrested in Vienna and Budapest for robbery, left for Switzerland and then moved to Paris. Schwarzbard enlisted with his brother in the French Foreign Legion, then fought in the French Army in World War I. He was shot through the lung and was left with only one good arm, and was decorated for heroism with the Croix de Guerre. After his discharge he traveled back to Russia, where he joined a unit of Red Guards in Petrograd, then an Anarchist unit in Odessa. In 1919, when Schwarzbard saw the atrocities being perpetrated in pogroms by the ‘Whites’, he enlisted in an ‘International Brigade’ to fight against the forces of Petliura and Denikin. But his unit was routed, and he eventually managed to make his way back to Paris.

In 1926 Schwarzbard learned that Petliura, now the head of the Ukrainian government in exile, was living in Paris. He followed him and assassinated him. Arrested and charged with murder, Schwarzbard took full responsibility for killing Petliura to avenge the thousands of pogrom victims. There was a long, tumultuous trial, and Tcherikover, who was now Director of the History Section of the YIVO,16 testified for the defense,17 marshaling the harrowing atrocities that the Editorial Board had documented. The names were read aloud of fourteen of Schwarzbard’s family members who had been murdered in the pogroms. Schwarzbard was acquitted.

Shtif’s book The Pogroms in Ukraine: the Period of the Volunteer Army illuminates the Schwarzbard trial. Petliura’s supporters made much of the fact that Schwarzbard was Jewish and had served in the Bolshevik Army. Shtif concludes that the primary cause of the Denikin pogroms was the anti-Semitism of the Volunteer Army officers, all of whom were Tsarists. He notes that during World War I, the Tsarist regime had already falsely accused the Jews of espionage and of betraying Russia to the Germans. Hundreds of thousands of Jews had been deported into the Russian interior on suspicion of treason, far from their villages and towns near the front lines. Even earlier, Russians loyal to the monarchy had alleged that Jews were conspiring to bring the Bolsheviks to power. On top of the vicious stereotype of Jews as rich and greedy, there was now the canard that Jews were Communists. A common refrain was ‘Kill the Jews and save Russia!’

Shtif pinpoints the anti-Semitic vitriol of the two ideologues of the Volunteer Army, Vasiliy Vitalyevich Shulgin and Konstantin Nikolayevich Sokolov. Shulgin had been a member of the last Russian Duma and a leader of the Black Hundreds,18 and was editor-in-chief of the anti-Semitic newspaper, Kievlyanin. Sokolov had helped write the Constitution of the Volunteer Army and was head of Denikin’s propaganda department, Osvag.19 Both of them promoted paranoid delusions about an imaginary Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy. In the 1920s and 1930s those same delusions were to permeate Nazi pathology and helped pave the way to the Holocaust. They continued to fuel pogroms even after the end of World War II, and they persist in some quarters today.

Shtif had been named on the Editorial Board because he was a leading Jewish intellectual and activist. Raised in a Yiddish-speaking home, he had received a traditional religious education from private tutors, and then attended the Real-Gymnazium as a teenager in Rovno. He immersed himself in the study of Hebrew. He later studied engineering and chemistry at the Kiev Polytekhnikum and became active in Socialist and Zionist causes. In 1902 he attended the Zionist conference in Minsk.

The bloody pogrom at Kishinev in 1903 prompted Shtif to join a Jewish self-defense unit in Kiev. He helped start the Vozrozhdenie20 movement, which later evolved into the Sejimist Party.21 He was jailed for his political activities and went into exile in Switzerland, where he was influenced by the thinking of Chaim Zhitlowsky, Yiddishist, advocate of Jewish Territorialism, and founder of the Socialist Revolutionary Party. Shtif began to contribute numerous articles and literary reviews to Yevreyskaya Zhizn,22 Dos naye lebn,23 Di folksshtime,24 Der fraynd,25 and other newspapers.

When Shtif returned to Russia he engaged in political work in several cities. He also volunteered at the Khevra Mefitsei Haskalah,26 which fueled his academic interest in the field of Yiddish language and literature, and moved him further towards Yiddishism. He worked at the Jewish Colonization Association27 and was an editor for the Vilna publisher, B. A. Kletzkin. Shtif attended the Law Lyceum in Yaroslavl and received a law degree in 1914. During World War I he worked at the Evreiskii Komitet Pomoschchi Zhertam Voiny.28 After the revolution of 1917 he campaigned to revive the Yidishe folks-partey.

Shtif’s first major scholarly work appeared in 1913 in the pioneering academic volume, Der pinkes: Yorbukh far der geshikhte fun der yidisher literatur un shprakh, far folklor, kritik, un bibliografye,29 published in St. Petersburg, in which he wrote30 a scathing review of Meyer Pines’s History of Jewish Literature, which had been written in French as a Ph.D. dissertation at the Sorbonne and then translated into Yiddish. Dozens of reviews, articles, and essays were to follow in the next twenty years on literary history and criticism: Yiddish grammar, spelling, phonetics, linguistics, Socialism, and the Yiddishist movement.

After the Russian Revolution Shtif moved to Kiev and worked in journalism and politics. The Central Rada of the Ukraine People’s Republic proclaimed Yiddish as one of its official languages, to be used in official documents and on national currency. It established a Ministry of Jewish Affairs, in addition to those for Polish and Russian affairs. It officially recognized a kind of ‘Jewish autonomy’. Jews served in a variety of government positions. In 1919 Shtif developed many of his ideas in Yidn un yidish, oder ver zaynen ‘yidishistn’ un vos viln zey?31

Shtif immersed himself in the medieval Yiddish holdings of the Asiatic Museum in St. Petersburg and the archives in Kiev. Years later in Berlin he would study early Jewish manuscripts from Germany, Italy, and England. He contributed to the journal Yidishe filologye32 and later edited Di eltere yidishe literatur: literarishe khrestomatye, mit an araynfir un derklerungen tsu yeden shrayber.33

Passionately committed to Jewish civil and cultural rights in Europe, and to the future of Yiddish — the vernacular34 for nearly 11,000,000 Jews — Shtif disseminated an influential memoir, Vegn a yidishn akademishn institut,35 in which he advocated the founding of a university-level institution whose courses and research publications would be in Yiddish, and whose focus would be the full range of Ashkenazic Jewish culture. Leading Jewish intellectuals discussed the possibilities, and the YIVO was founded in Berlin, but almost immediately moved to Vilna in 1925.

Shtif’s lifelong devotion to Jewish affairs had moved him to take time and effort away from his academic interests; he worked with pogrom victims in Kiev, helped lead the Editorial Board, moved to Berlin with the others on the Board, and wrote Pogromen in Ukrayne: di tsayt fun der frayviliger armey.

Shtif does not aim to catalogue all the horrors of the Denikin pogroms. He attempts, rather, to discern their common pattern and to determine their military, historical, and ideological roots. He points out that the Volunteer Army was badly fed and equipped, and it relied on constant plunder for upkeep. He maintains that since most of Denikin’s officers were Tsarist officers whose anti-Semitism was endemic, they either encouraged violence against Jews or tolerated it. He notes that during the war years immediately preceding the pogroms, the Tsarist regime had already falsely accused Russian Jews of espionage, of betraying Russia to the Germans, and of conspiring to bring the Bolsheviks to power. The old regime had severely curtailed their civil rights and had effectively wiped out dozens of Jewish communities by deporting hundreds of thousands of Jews far from their homes near the front lines on suspicion of treason. Furthermore, the regime had secretly supported the brutal, anti-Semitic Black Hundreds.

Shtif is at his most ‘academic’ when he brings to bear the tools of textual analysis on the writings of two prominent ideologues of the Volunteer Army, Vasiliy Vitalyevich Shulgin and Konstantin Nikolayevich Sokolov. Shulgin had been a Tsarist member of the last Russian Duma and was a close advisor to General Denikin. He was editor-in-chief of the anti-Semitic Kiev newspaper, Kievlyanin. Sokolov had been a jurist and law professor who had helped write the Constitution of the Volunteer Army. In 1919, when Sokolov was named by Denikin to head the Army’s propaganda department, Osvag, he immediately fired all its Jewish workers.

Indeed, hatred of the Jews pervaded the top ranks of the Army. Peter Kenez has described this obsession with the myth of ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’ this way: ‘Reading secret reports which were obviously not meant as propaganda, it is clear that this anti-Semitism, full of paranoid delusions, bordered on the pathological.’36 In the 1920s and 1930s those same delusions of a Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy permeated Nazi pathology and helped pave the way for the Holocaust. They continued to fuel pogroms even after the end of World War II.

Though Shtif enjoyed immense esteem as a scholar and a founder of the YIVO, he did not feel financially secure. In 1926 he and a few other Yiddishist academics returned to Ukraine, attracted by the Soviet Union’s official ideology of respect for all its nationalities, by the funding of Yiddish scholarship, newspapers, literature, and theater, and by the promise of a decent salary. The following year he was named head of the Department for Jewish Proletarian Culture at the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences in Kiev, and he founded and edited its official journal, Di yidishe shprakh.37

One of the aims of YIVO’s founders was the systematization of Yiddish orthography, and great efforts had been made towards that end. The Soviet government, through its Jewish institutes, promoted the phonetic spelling of Yiddish words of Hebrew/Aramaic origin, which made reading easier and furthered its ideological aim to disguise those origins, which were denounced as being ‘nationalistic,’ ‘bourgeois,’ ‘religious,’ and ‘Zionist.’ Nokhem Shtif and his journal embraced Soviet Yiddish orthography.

The stage was being set for Stalin’s Great Purge. Tens of thousands of Soviets were falsely accused of treason, espionage, ‘Trotskyism,’ ‘rightist deviation,’ etc. Many were coerced into ‘confessing’ their crimes. Thousands were fired from their jobs, expelled from the Communist Party, imprisoned, deported to undertake slave labor, or murdered outright. The Jewish victims were primarily rabbis, Zionists, Bundists,38 and other non-Communist intelligentsia.

Shtif was suspect. He had belonged to a Zionist organization in his youth. He had maintained contact with the YIVO in capitalist Poland, many of whose leaders were anti-Soviet Bundists, and he had been an activist for the now-banned Yidishe folks-partey. He was soon demoted. His department was replaced by the new and much larger Institute for Jewish Proletarian Culture, with Yoysef Liberberg — a member of the Communist Party — named as its head, though Shtif continued to lead its Philological Section. In 1928 both he and Liberberg were publicly reprimanded by the Party for inviting the eminent historian Simon Dubnow to attend the opening of the Institute.

In 1929 Shtif went even further than the campaign for Soviet Yiddish orthography by publishing in his journal Di sotsyale diferentsiatsye in yidish: di hebreyishe elementn in der shprakh,39 in which he derided the Hebrew/Aramaic component of Yiddish as a useless reactionary relic of the religious and upper classes. In 1931 Max Weinreich, one of the founders of the YIVO, and an equally eminent philologist, wrote a blistering rebuttal to Shtif in 1931, Vos volt yidish geven on hebreyish?40 in the journal Di tsukunft41 of New York. Shtif defended his position with Revolutsye un reaktsye in der shprakh42 in his journal (now re-named Afn shprakhfront43) in 1931 and 1932.

But Shtif died in his office in Kiev the following year at the age of 54, and Weinreich wrote a generous obituary in Di tsukunft, praising Shtif’s scholarly contributions and passionate idealism. As for their recent public clash of ideas, Weinreich made only passing reference to Shtif’s articles, asking rhetorically whether they had really been the result of Shtif’s own thinking or of some sudden political pressure.

1 Symon Petliura: Supreme Commander of the Army of the Ukrainian National Republic that was established in 1917, and head of the Directorate formed in 1918.

2 The Dobrovolcheskaya Armiya was organized in late 1917 by Gen. Mikhail Alekseyev and Gen. Lavr Kornilov to oppose the Bolsheviks.

3 Anton Denikin: A general in the Russian White Army fighting the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War, who took command of the Volunteer Army in April 1918, fighting mostly in Ukraine.

4 Nestor Makhno: Leader of anarchist revolutionary groups sometimes allied with the Red Army, sometimes with the Whites.

5 Nikifor Grigoriev: Nickname of Nychipir Servetmik, self-styled ataman, who first served in the Russian army, then led military groups allied variously with Petliura, Makhno, and others.

6 William Henry Chamberlin, The Russian Revolution 1917–1921 (New York: Macmillan, 1954), II, p. 240.

7 Kniga o evreiskikh pogromakh na Ukraine v 1919 g. (Petrograd: Ispolneno izd-vom Z.I. Grzhebina, 192–?), p. 14.

8 Zvi Y. Gitelman, Jewish Nationality and Soviet Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972), p. 161.

9 Nokhem Gergel, ‘The Pogroms in Ukraine in the Years 1918–1921’, in Shriftn far ekonomik un statistic, I, 1928, English translation in YIVO Annual of Jewish Social Science (New York: Yivo Institute for Jewish Research, 1951), pp. 237–52.

10 Ibid., p. 252.

11 Yiddish: Editorial Board for the Collection and Investigation of Materials Concerning Pogroms in Ukraine.

12 Yiddish: Jewish People’s Party, founded in 1906 by the historian Simon Dubnow and Yisroel Efroykin, was dedicated to the achievement of full civil and political rights for the Jews of the Russian empire. Its supporters saw it as a more realistic response to European anti-Semitism than the possibility of a Jewish state in Palestine.

13 Yiddish: People’s Publisher.

14 Elias Tcherikover, Antisemitizm un pogromen in Ukraine, 1917–1918 (Berlin: Yidisher literarisher ferlag, 1923).

15 Joseph B. Schechtman, Pogromy Dobrovolcheskoi Armii na Ukraine (Berlin: Ostjüdisches Historisches Archiv, 1932).

16 Yiddish acronym for Yidisher visenshaftlekher institut [Jewish Scientific Institute], founded in 1925. Its prime mover had been Nokhem Shtif. It is now in New York, known as the Institute for Jewish Research.

17 Simon Dubnow also attended the trial.

18 Russian: Chornaya sotnya. A violent ultranationalist, tsarist organization that called for the expulsion of Jews from Russia and for the suppression of Ukrainian political and cultural rights.

19 Russian acronym for Osvedomitel’noe-agitatsionnoe otdelenie [Propaganda and Information Department].

20 Russian: Renaissance.

21 Also known as the Jewish Socialist Labor Party.

22 Russian: Jewish Life.

23 Yiddish: The New Life.

24 Yiddish: The People’s Voice.

25 Yiddish: The Friend.

26 Hebrew: The Society for the Promotion of the Jewish Enlightenment.

27 Founded in 1891 by Baron Maurice de Hirsch to help Russian Jews leave Russia after the pogroms of the 1880s. It bought agricultural land in North and South America and set up communities of Russian Jews as farmers on those lands.

28 Russian: Jewish Committee in Aid of War Victims.

29 Yiddish: Annals: Yearbook for the History of Jewish Literature and Language, Folklore, Criticism, and Bibliography.

30 Under the pseudonym bal-dimyen [Master of the imagination].

31 Yidn un yidish, oder ver zaynen ‘yidishistn’ un vos viln zey? (Kiev: Onheyb, 1919; Warsaw: Nayer ferlag, 1920).

32 Yiddish: Yiddish Philology.

33 Yiddish: Old Yiddish Literature: a literary chrestomathy with an introduction and explanation for each author (Kiev: Kultur-lige, 1929).

34 The Czernowitz Conference of 1908 had declared Yiddish to be ‘a national language of the Jewish people.’

35 Yiddish: On a Jewish Academic Institute. First circulated as a memorandum, later published in Di organizatsye fun der yiddisher visnshaft (Vilna: Tsentraler Bilding Komitet, 1925).

36 Peter Kenez, Civil War in South Russia, 1919–1920 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977), p. 172.

37 Yiddish: The Yiddish Language.

38 Members of the Algemeyner yidisher arbeter bund in lite, poyln, un rusland [The General Union of Jewish Workers in Lithuania, Poland, and Russia], founded in 1897.

39 Yiddish: Social Differentiation in Yiddish: The Hebrew Elements of the Language.

40 Yiddish: What Would Yiddish Be Without Hebrew?

41 Yiddish: The Future.

42 Yiddish: Revolution and Reaction in Language.

43 Yiddish: On the Language Front.