This year marks the 90th anniversary of the wave of pogroms that claimed tens of thousands of Jewish lives in the Ukraine in 1919. The purpose of this article is to recount the story of one of those pogroms, the Pogrebishche pogrom of August 1919, an event that played an indelible role in the history of my family.
Pogrebishche is a very small town located about 100 kilometres southwest of Kiev, in central Ukraine. It was also the birthplace of my late grandfather Yancel (Jack) Nachshen, in January 1900.
Earlier this year, I travelled to Ukraine to visit Pogrebishche and a number of nearby towns where my ancestors once lived. My visit was first and foremost a journey of personal and family discovery. However, it also spoke to some larger issues, most particularly the changing nature of the fraught Jewish-Ukrainian historical encounter and the means by which historical memory is or is not transmitted between generations.
In the early 1900s, Pogrebishche and most of the rest of the Ukrainian lands formed part of the Russian Empire. The region fell within the infamous Pale of Settlement, the zone to which Czarist decree confined the empire’s five million Jews. Jews represented anywhere from 20 to 80 per cent of the population of the pale’s various shtetls. Most of the rest of the population was ethnic Ukrainian, Russian or Polish.
The family in which my grandfather grew up was part of Pogrebishche’s Jewish minority. His father was a devoted follower of the chassidic rebbe who led the Boyaner dynasty in the nearby region of Bukovina, but with the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the Civil War that followed, their world of peace and piety fell apart.
By early 1919, order had broken down throughout Ukraine. Anarchy reigned as countless military forces advanced and retreated throughout the land. Broadly speaking, the principal contending civil war forces could be divided into four groups.
First, there was the Red Army of the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin and Trotsky, who had seized power in Russia proper to the north in October 1917 and were seeking to impose Communism in the remainder of the former Russian Empire. Second, there was the White Army, led by General Anton Denikin, which aimed to restore Czarist rule. Third, there was a nascent independent Ukrainian regime, the Directory, led by the self-styled military commander Simon Petliura. Finally, there were any number of local atamans (warlords) professing various forms of socialism, anarchism or Ukrainian nationalism and varying degrees of loyalty to Lenin, Petliura or others.
As the year 1919 wore on and military discipline grew ever weaker, all of these forces engaged to a greater or lesser degree in bloody pogroms against the civilian Jewish population. While pogroms had been common in the Pale of Settlement since at least the 1880s, the earlier waves had been marked more by damage to property than loss of life. This was not so in 1919 – the death toll in a single pogrom in early 1919, perpetrated by Directory forces in the town of Proskurov, totalled some 1,500.
This fresh wave of pogroms struck terror in the Jewish population. In Pogrebishche, 19-year-old Jack Nachshen and many other youths resolved to form a Jewish self-defence unit to protect their homes and families. Decades later, he recounted to me how Bolshevik leaders in the nearby city of Berdichev put out the word that they were prepared to distribute weapons to Jewish self-defence groups as a way of bringing the Jewish population of the region over to their side in the struggle for control. Indeed, the Red Army had a number of Jewish officers, and its troops engaged in many fewer pogroms than did its adversaries, so this “offer” had the ring of plausibility to it. My grandfather and 120 other boys from Pogrebishche thus eagerly set out to collect their weapons so as to defend their homes.
But the offer turned out to be only a cruel trick. When they arrived at the Bolshevik headquarters in Berdichev, the boys found themselves unwittingly inducted into the Red Army itself and sent out as cannon fodder in the civil war raging around them.
My grandfather’s military career didn’t last very long. Most of his cohort of 120 were dead within weeks, and the remainder, including him, were stricken by the typhus epidemic then raging through the Red Army. Of no further use to the Bolsheviks in his severely weakened state, he was discharged and sent home.
Which is how Jack Nachshen found himself back in Pogrebishche in August 1919. Shortly after my grandfather’s return, the Ukrainian nationalist leader Petliura passed briefly through Pogrebishche as his army raced east to occupy Kiev before the White Army’s General Denikin could advance into Kiev from the south. Now the role of Petliura in either condoning or combating the pogroms of 1919 has long been a matter of tremendous contention between Jewish and Ukrainian activists and historians, especially after a Russian Jewish refugee assassinated Petliura in exile in Paris in 1926 to “avenge” the pogroms and was then tried for murder by a French court. (The jury eventually acquitted him in what could be seen as an early case of jury nullification by a panel that was shocked by the bloody evidence of the pogroms put before it.) But when recounting these events to me many decades later, my grandfather was categorical: at least in August 1919 in Pogrebishche, Jews remained safe while Petliura was present.
After Petliura left later that month, though, circumstances changed dramatically for the worse. A local warlord who went by the nom de guerre Zeleny – he was not much older than my grandfather and spouted a vague mixture of anarchism and nationalism – occupied Pogrebishche, and his band of marauders fell upon the local Jewish population. Two of Zeleny’s men found the typhus-ravaged Jack Nachshen and his closest friend hiding in an attic. One of the men was about to shoot my grandfather when the other stopped him, saying “Why bother? He’s so sick, he’ll be dead soon anyways.” And so as fate would have it, they left the boy who would become my grandfather alone while slaying his friend in cold blood before his very eyes.
Some 375 Jews were massacred in Pogrebishche by Zeleny’s men in just two or three days in late August 1919. Estimates of the total number of pogrom victims in 1919 across Ukraine vary widely, but a range of 50,000 to 100,000 dead would probably not be too far off the mark.
At the time, this wave of pogroms was considered perhaps the greatest spilling of Jewish blood in recorded history. A Red Cross official published a book titled The Slaughter of the Jews in the Ukraine in 1919, and thousands rallied and marched around the world in protest. But of course the death toll from the pogroms of 1919 was eventually dwarfed by the millions of civilian Ukrainians and Jews who died in the Holodomor (famine) and Stalinist purges of the 1930s, and the Nazi Holocaust of the 1940s. And so it is that the pogroms of 1919 in Pogrebishche and dozens of other Ukrainian towns are all but forgotten today.
Jack Nachshen eventually recovered from typhus, and in 1920, he escaped the chaos of wartorn Ukraine into Romania, where he spent four years before securing a Canadian visa and immigrating to Montreal in 1924. During his later years there until his passing in 1996, he told and retold his story to us, thereby preserving by a slender oral thread the narrative of the Pogrebishche pogrom, which has otherwise effectively slipped from living memory.
My visit to Pogrebishche earlier this year had a bittersweet quality. On the one hand, while a spare and poignant memorial to the 2,000 local Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust has been erected, nothing comparable can be found to mark the 1919 pogrom. Indeed, the Nazis and their henchmen all but wiped out the town’s Jewish population – only five Jews survived World War II and returned to live in Pogrebishche in 1945. Today, just a single Jewish resident remains.
Yet all the people I met and to whom I introduced myself as the grandson of a former Jewish resident greeted me warmly, right up to the mayor himself. Pogrebishche’s Jewish cemetery has been well tended and preserved over the years by several generations of a kindly local Ukrainian family. And if the town gives off a somewhat forlorn vibe after nearly a century of war, turmoil and Soviet oppression, at least today it stands at peace.
Gary Nachshen practises law in Toronto and Montreal.