The Pogroms: Prelude to the Holocaust

Most people have no idea about the runup to the Holocaust or the antecedent cultural, religious, and socioeconomic circumstances which the Jewish people have suffered for centuries.  Most have heard of anti-Semitism but few if any, even amongst Jews themselves, recognize that the Holocaust did not occur in a vacuum or that European anti-Semitism wasn’t invented in Germany.  

Over the centuries, during good times the Jews of Europe were tolerated and in some cases even allowed to rise to positions of power.  But rarely if ever were accepted as equal citizens in a host country.   

Amid times of woe, which were more often than not, they became victims of persecution and in many cases mass murder.  Stateless people from time immemorial, Jews have been prey for xenophobic populations throughout Europe.  Often these riots or pogroms as they became known were precipitated for a myriad of reasons:  

  • Economic:  Christians forbidden to take part in lending industries early in the Middle Ages turned to Jews for such practices.  Often there was resentment when settlement of loans came due.  
  • Religious:  Accusations of deicide.
  • Blood Libel:  Jews used Christian blood for ceremonial practices.
  • Scapegoating: Monarchs and nobility blamed Jews during time of national and local deprivation.
  • Natural Disasters: The plague which broke out in 1348 (The Black Death) was blamed on Jews.

The month of April, when Easter and Passover are typically celebrated have been a particularly vexing time for Jews.  Religious passions ran particularly high during this time of year.  

But despite the massacres, looting, and general deprivation Jews have suffered throughout the centuries, none matched the hatred and ferocity wreaked upon them in Russia and the Ukraine.  Between 1881 and 1922, more Jews were slaughtered and brought low than during all the prior centuries combined.  The pogroms of this period set the stage for the Holocaust by convincing rulers and subjects alike that there were no consequences for spilling Jewish blood.  Voltaire summed it best: “It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.” 

Within the three aforementioned periods of incessant anti-Jewish rioting in the Ukraine and Russia, none exceeded the savagery and intensity of the year 1919.

In his seminal work The Slaughter of the Jews in the Ukraine Elias Heifetz states:  “The terrible massacres in the Ukraine in the year 1919 set the whole land aflame and cannot compare with the pogroms in the eighties or during the first decade of the 20th century.”

Whereas the earlier epoch of anti-Jewish violence and debauchery were limited to robberies, destruction of property, and assault, 1919 ushered in mass violence heretofore unheard of.  By 1919, full-fledged massacres of Jews embraced not only the cities but spiraled from one village to another.  Robbery and property destruction gave way to wanton killings for killing's sake alone.  Large cities such as Odessa and Kiev saw Jews being indiscriminately murdered.  Reportedly, over 1,326 pogroms took place during this year across the Ukraine alone with an estimated 30,000 to 70,000 Jews being butchered.  On February 15th, 2019 the Jewish people memorialized the 100-year anniversary of possibly the most macabre massacre in Jewish history preceding the Holocaust, the Proskurov Pogrom. 

According to Stanislav Tunis in his book Pogroms in Ukraine 1919, the Proskurov pogrom set a new phase in the way these anti-Semitic riots were conducted.  Whereas Jews had become accustomed to limited violence and destruction of property, Proskurov was new, its intended goal was the entire destruction of the Jewish population in that town. An act of genocide, a word the world would become all too familiar with two decades hence.  The pogrom itself began in January 1919 and waxed and waned until August of that year.  

As background, following the fall of the Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, a dual set of revolutions took place both in Russia and in the Ukraine.  A nationalist provisional government took the reins of state power and wished to continue fighting the Germans.  They were opposed by a coalition of leftists led by the Bolsheviks under Vladimir Lenin, whose main support came from the village peasants and workers.  Adding to the tumult, within each side there were revolutionary gangs of marauding armies vying for control of state and local power as well.  Seemingly the only thing each side had in common was their hatred for the defenseless Jewish population that was scapegoated for every respective setback either had.  So it was on the eve of the Proskurov Pogrom.

On February 15, 1919 a nationalist group of Cossacks led by a General Ataman Semosenko got word that Bolsheviks were planning a coup against the local government in Proskurov.  Describing Jews as the “eternal enemies” of the Ukrainian people, Semosenko ordered his troops to exterminate as many Jews as possible but forbade them to touch property belonging to them.  No doubt a message of hate to surviving Jews, ‘the massacre wasn’t about property and pillage.’  Within a few hours Semosenko’s troops murdered some 1500 Jews.

From there, they went on to a nearby town, Filshtein, where they killed another 600 of the town’s 1,900 Jews.  This time without any restrictions on robbery, rape, or looting.

This entire period of pogroms, between 1917-1922 particularly Proskurov in 1919, was a wakeup call to many Jews in Eastern Europe. It was time to leave.  Those wno saw the handwriting on the wall heeded the Zionist calls of Theodore Herzl and later Ze’ev Jabotinsky and headed for Palestine.  Others found their way to the United States, where personal safety was protected by law and they were free from fear of genocide. Unfortunately, for the vast majority that didn’t leave Europe, their fate would be sealed 20 years later.

Most people have no idea about the runup to the Holocaust or the antecedent cultural, religious, and socioeconomic circumstances which the Jewish people have suffered for centuries.  Most have heard of anti-Semitism but few if any, even amongst Jews themselves, recognize that the Holocaust did not occur in a vacuum or that European anti-Semitism wasn’t invented in Germany.  

Over the centuries, during good times the Jews of Europe were tolerated and in some cases even allowed to rise to positions of power.  But rarely if ever were accepted as equal citizens in a host country.   

Amid times of woe, which were more often than not, they became victims of persecution and in many cases mass murder.  Stateless people from time immemorial, Jews have been prey for xenophobic populations throughout Europe.  Often these riots or pogroms as they became known were precipitated for a myriad of reasons:  

  • Economic:  Christians forbidden to take part in lending industries early in the Middle Ages turned to Jews for such practices.  Often there was resentment when settlement of loans came due.  
  • Religious:  Accusations of deicide.
  • Blood Libel:  Jews used Christian blood for ceremonial practices.
  • Scapegoating: Monarchs and nobility blamed Jews during time of national and local deprivation.
  • Natural Disasters: The plague which broke out in 1348 (The Black Death) was blamed on Jews.

The month of April, when Easter and Passover are typically celebrated have been a particularly vexing time for Jews.  Religious passions ran particularly high during this time of year.  

But despite the massacres, looting, and general deprivation Jews have suffered throughout the centuries, none matched the hatred and ferocity wreaked upon them in Russia and the Ukraine.  Between 1881 and 1922, more Jews were slaughtered and brought low than during all the prior centuries combined.  The pogroms of this period set the stage for the Holocaust by convincing rulers and subjects alike that there were no consequences for spilling Jewish blood.  Voltaire summed it best: “It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.” 

Within the three aforementioned periods of incessant anti-Jewish rioting in the Ukraine and Russia, none exceeded the savagery and intensity of the year 1919.

In his seminal work The Slaughter of the Jews in the Ukraine Elias Heifetz states:  “The terrible massacres in the Ukraine in the year 1919 set the whole land aflame and cannot compare with the pogroms in the eighties or during the first decade of the 20th century.”

Whereas the earlier epoch of anti-Jewish violence and debauchery were limited to robberies, destruction of property, and assault, 1919 ushered in mass violence heretofore unheard of.  By 1919, full-fledged massacres of Jews embraced not only the cities but spiraled from one village to another.  Robbery and property destruction gave way to wanton killings for killing's sake alone.  Large cities such as Odessa and Kiev saw Jews being indiscriminately murdered.  Reportedly, over 1,326 pogroms took place during this year across the Ukraine alone with an estimated 30,000 to 70,000 Jews being butchered.  On February 15th, 2019 the Jewish people memorialized the 100-year anniversary of possibly the most macabre massacre in Jewish history preceding the Holocaust, the Proskurov Pogrom. 

According to Stanislav Tunis in his book Pogroms in Ukraine 1919, the Proskurov pogrom set a new phase in the way these anti-Semitic riots were conducted.  Whereas Jews had become accustomed to limited violence and destruction of property, Proskurov was new, its intended goal was the entire destruction of the Jewish population in that town. An act of genocide, a word the world would become all too familiar with two decades hence.  The pogrom itself began in January 1919 and waxed and waned until August of that year.  

As background, following the fall of the Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, a dual set of revolutions took place both in Russia and in the Ukraine.  A nationalist provisional government took the reins of state power and wished to continue fighting the Germans.  They were opposed by a coalition of leftists led by the Bolsheviks under Vladimir Lenin, whose main support came from the village peasants and workers.  Adding to the tumult, within each side there were revolutionary gangs of marauding armies vying for control of state and local power as well.  Seemingly the only thing each side had in common was their hatred for the defenseless Jewish population that was scapegoated for every respective setback either had.  So it was on the eve of the Proskurov Pogrom.

On February 15, 1919 a nationalist group of Cossacks led by a General Ataman Semosenko got word that Bolsheviks were planning a coup against the local government in Proskurov.  Describing Jews as the “eternal enemies” of the Ukrainian people, Semosenko ordered his troops to exterminate as many Jews as possible but forbade them to touch property belonging to them.  No doubt a message of hate to surviving Jews, ‘the massacre wasn’t about property and pillage.’  Within a few hours Semosenko’s troops murdered some 1500 Jews.

From there, they went on to a nearby town, Filshtein, where they killed another 600 of the town’s 1,900 Jews.  This time without any restrictions on robbery, rape, or looting.

This entire period of pogroms, between 1917-1922 particularly Proskurov in 1919, was a wakeup call to many Jews in Eastern Europe. It was time to leave.  Those wno saw the handwriting on the wall heeded the Zionist calls of Theodore Herzl and later Ze’ev Jabotinsky and headed for Palestine.  Others found their way to the United States, where personal safety was protected by law and they were free from fear of genocide. Unfortunately, for the vast majority that didn’t leave Europe, their fate would be sealed 20 years later.