more than 100,000 Jews were murdered in pogroms across Ukraine.
Today's guest is an acclaimed historian who says this targeted violence sowed the seeds for the Holocaust that would arrive two decades later.
He's Jeffrey Veidlinger this week on Story in the Public Square.
(dynamic orchestral music) Hello and welcome to a Story in the Public Square where storytelling meets public affairs.
I'm Jim Ludes from The Pel Center at Salve Regina University.
- And I'm G. Wayne Miller, also from Salve's Pell Center.
- This week, we're joined by Jeffrey Veidlinger, the Joseph Brodsky Collegiate Professor of History in Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan.
He's also the author of a new book, "In the Midst of Civilized Europe: the 1918 to 1921 Pogroms in Ukraine and the Onset of the Holocaust."
He joins us today from Michigan.
Jeff, thank you so much for being with us.
- Thanks for having me.
Pleasure to be here.
- You know, Jeff, I was mentioning this to you before we started taping, but I was talking to my dad on the phone as we were driving here, and I was telling him a little bit about your book and basically concluded that I'm not a historian, I'm simply a student of history.
You have written a masterful work here and we just want to note that from the outset.
I suspect that most of our audience knows what a pogrom is, but for those students who maybe weren't paying enough attention in history class, what is a pogrom?
- It's a term that can mean a wide variety of different types of acts of violence.
Predominantly, it's used to describe acts of violence against Jews.
It could be used to describe acts of violence against any group.
And traditionally, we think of it as a type of race riot.
That's a group of locals predominantly attacking Jewish civilians, attacking stores.
The word is a Russian word itself, which comes from the word meaning to rob, to fight with.
And it's used to describe a wide variety of different types of violence, including not only race riots, but also military actions can be used in pogroms.
So a military coming into a town and rounding up Jews and killing them could be called a pogrom.
And the people that we interviewed did in fact call them pogroms.
- So there's a long history of anti-Semitism in Europe and in Eastern Europe in particular.
Could you give us, you pick up the thread in the last decades of the 19th century.
What is the position of Jews in Eastern European society in those decades before the First World War?
- Yeah, so what we find is that violence seems common in waves.
The first major wave of pogroms against Jews in the Russian Empire, which is where the vast majority of world Jewry was living around to turn the century.
The first wave took place in 1881 and resulted in the deaths of a couple dozen individuals.
And then about 20 years later, between 1903 and 1906, there was another wave of pogroms in the same region in the south of Russia, what is actually now Ukraine.
And in that wave, about 5,000 Jews were killed.
And then the wave that I study takes place about 20 years later, between 1918 and 1921.
In that wave, about 100,00 Jews were killed.
And we of course know that 20 years later was the Holocaust beginning in 1941 in this region, in which in that region alone, about 1.5 to two million Jews were killed.
About 1/3 of the victims of the Holocaust were killed in the territory that I'm studying of what is now Ukraine.
- So generally speaking, what role did Jews play in Eastern Europe and specifically Russia and Ukraine prior to World War I?
What was their status?
What was their standing?
Politically, were they involved?
- Yeah, so it's interesting.
Jews play a wide variety of roles in the region.
And we talk about the causes of this violence.
I think we have to look at some of the roles the Jews were playing in the region because it can be interpreted from a wide variety of different perspectives.
So Jews were targeted by all groups for different reasons.
There were various militaries who were fighting in the region and each targeted the Jews in their own regions.
So the Russians targeted the Jews because they thought that they were allied politically with the Germans, for instance.
And the Germans attacked them because they thought they were allied with the Russians.
The Ukrainians attacked them because they thought they were allied with the Poles and the Poles thought they were allied with the Ukrainians.
And then the Bolsheviks regarded them as capitalist speculators.
And others regarded them as Bolsheviks.
And in fact, Jews were the only group in the region that weren't living in a concentrated geographic area.
Instead, Jews tended to be living in the center of towns, performing jobs like as artisans, as coopers, as shoemakers, as tailors, as blacksmiths.
These are the traditional occupations that Jews played and they worked in the center of town.
As you moved out from the center of town, you came to the Christian Ukrainian population.
So there's a distinction between those two populations not only religiously, but also socioeconomically.
- So you described the circumstances at that time period, but there was a long history that predated that.
Maybe you can just give sort of a summary over the centuries of why Jews were targeted.
So in many ways, anti-Semitism is endemic in Christian European society.
I think we have to think of it as endemic in Christian European society, as part of the basis of Christian European society.
Christianity emerged out of Judaism through a movement sometimes called supersessionism, that it emerged out of Judaism, regarded itself as replacing Judaism.
And those ideas permeated Christian society, particularly the idea of the passion and the crucifixion of Jesus.
Jews were traditionally blamed for that, as a result of which there's a longstanding tradition of violence against Jews in all of Europe, not only Ukraine.
What took place in Ukraine was the instrumentalization of that religious hatred for political reasons that led the type of mass violence that we saw during this period.
- Jeff, sometimes when I'm talking with students, one of them will, in learning more about the Holocaust in particular, ask why didn't the Jews of Europe fight back.
And one of the things that strikes me in reading this history is that in the aftermath of World War II, there were Jewish self-defense brigades that were organized to try to protect those communities.
How did they originate?
Were they effective?
What role did they play in this history?
- Right, so Jews fought back actually in a variety of ways.
They fought back in World War I in particular by forming self-defense brigades.
And Jews were able to acquire arms and to form community brigades that would patrolled through the cities.
Again, the center of the city were often predominantly Jewish.
They were Jewish quarters, particularly in small towns which is where many Jews lived.
The market square was often almost entirely Jewish.
And so Jews would acquire arms and patrol those market squares in order to protect themselves from pogrom mongers who came in from the countryside to attack them.
And over time, they realized that this wasn't all that useful, that the idea of Jews carrying arms really disturbed a lot of Christian peasants who would then elevate their attacks against the Jews because they saw this, what appeared to them, to be an army of Jews coming after them.
So what took place during the revolutionary period that I'm looking at is lot of Jews saw that they were better off (indistinct) one of the armies.
And the only army that was willing to accept them on equal terms was the Red Army, the Bolshevik Red Army, as a result of which, many Jews ended up joining the Red Army.
And in fact, during this period in which different military units are coming into towns one after another, most of the military units would gather up the Jews in the center of town and would march them to the outskirts of town, and harass them, torture them, and even kill them.
And the Red Army would come and they would gather the Jews in the center of town.
They would say, "We have now liberated you from these peasant (indistinct), and now it's your responsibility to join us and help us liberate the Jews in the next town over."
As a result of which, more and more Jews gravitated into the Red Army as a form of self-defense.
- Jeff, headed into the First World War, this part of Ukraine was part of the old Russian Empire.
I remember that history as being basically a century worth of moving from crisis to crisis, and legitimacy being questioned, and the Russian Empire never really capitalizing on all of its potential to modernize.
What is that history really around the collapse of the Russian Empire that leads to the wave of violence that you record in this book?
- Yeah, so I think it's not only the collapse of the Russian Empire, but Ukraine is divided between the Russian Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
And it's the collapse of those two empires simultaneously in the wake of four years of absolute total war.
Much of the First World War is fought on the territory of what becomes Ukraine.
And as those empires break up, new states emerge and vie for sovereignty within that space.
So we have the Polish state declaring independence without any clear borders and debating where its borders are gonna be.
There's a Ukrainian independent state that declares sovereignty.
There's a group that is trying to reinstate the old Russian empire.
That's the White Army.
And then there's the Soviets who are trying to reestablish a multinational empire on the territory of Ukraine.
And all of these different groups, along with other smaller groups, smaller warlord units that are trying to establish sovereignty and little pockets of territory are all competing with each other in the wake of four years of total war, then bringing on yet more war in the same territory.
So there is total chaos with nobody really having any control.
There's a complete power vacuum without anybody having any control over much of the territory in which this violence takes place.
- So Jeff, there's another part of this story and that is Jews in Eastern Europe who were able to escape the violence, and I'm thinking of in 1903, two Jews from Poland left, came to the United States, and they happened to found Hasbro, the toy company.
But there were many others who also came.
They came into New York City.
Can you talk about that, people who were able to leave, and I guess more specifically, who settled on the Lower East Side of Manhattan?
- Yeah, so there's waves of Jewish migration that follow each of these pogroms beginning in 1881, which is where we generally date the beginning of Jewish migration, of mass Jewish migration to the United States.
Between 1881 and 1914, over two million Jews came from the former Russian Empire to the United States.
And many of them settled, concentrated in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Others moved to other northeastern cities and there was even a movement, this is actually the book that I'm writing right now, there was a movement to relocate Jewish migrants from the Russian Empire to the Western United States by re-routing migration through the Port of Galveston in Texas, and then by railroads, sending Jews to places in Iowa, and Minnesota, and Oklahoma, and Texas in order to start communities there to take pressure off the northeast urban centers.
- Yeah, Jeff, so World War I transforms the region.
Empires collapse, lawlessness prevails.
And then you in the book describe the new Polish states attacked on the Jews of Lviv.
Why is that pogrom different than what we had seen before?
- Yeah, so in November, 1918 is the beginning of what I would consider a new wave of pogroms.
This is right after the Ukrainian state has declared itself with the capital Lviv and the Polish state also declares itself and puts its flag in Lviv, in the city of Lviv, which is today in Ukraine.
And this is the first time that both sides blame the Jews for allying with the other.
And the Poles claim that the Jews were siding with the Ukrainians and the Ukrainians claim that the Jews were siding with the Poles.
As a result of which, the Polish military which comes into the town carries out atrocities against Jewish citizens.
And what I find a little bit different from this pogrom versus others is this is not local tufts from the countryside coming in to attack Jewish shops.
This is a military unit of an actual army targeting Jews after the city has already been taken.
There's a fight for the city after the Poles take the city.
It's not in the midst of battles.
It's after the battle is over.
And at that point, the Polish soldiers turn on the Jews and carry out atrocities.
- In our first, what is really so striking to me in this book is the intimacy with which you're able to document who the victims were, but also who the perpetrators of some of the violence was.
And particularly when we start talking about some of the Ukrainian warlords who emerge and have these roving bands of armed killers that are plaguing the countryside.
But in our first year on the air, we had a guest, Omer Bartov, who's another great Holocaust scholar who's written some of his scholarship is grounded in the same part of Eastern Europe as your book, but during the Holocaust itself.
And one of the things that struck us in talking with him was the intimacy of the violence, that neighbors killed neighbors, that people knew who their persecutors were.
You've got a lot of that in this history too.
Are those events related?
- Yeah, when I said that the word pogrom can mean a lot of different things, that's some of what it means.
It can mean on one hand these military units coming into towns and rounding up Jews and massacring them, on one hand, but it can also mean locals from the countryside coming in and robbing the Jews.
And this happens repeatedly.
Often, they are robbing people that they know.
Again, Jews are concentrated in the urban centers and the Ukrainian peasants are outside, generally farmers living in the provinces.
And after four years of total war, the crops have been destroyed.
These young men have had their fathers off fighting in the army, and they're hungry, and there's food in the city.
And they're in need of boots and they're in need of coats and they can't get that in the countryside right now because it's been completely destroyed.
But in the city, there are leather workers and there are leather factories.
So they come into the city and they rob those stores, requisition goods from those stores.
And those stores are often owned by Jews who defend their stores and are killed as a result.
So what for the Jews they see as a pogrom, for the peasants who are coming in from the countryside, they may view it as requisitioning, as taking what they need to survive because of the total power vacuum that's existing at the time.
- So what explains some people's willingness to commit violence against people they know and violence beyond just simply robbing a store?
- Yeah, often, it's desperation.
It is truly desperation after four years of war.
And this is what really galls people.
In the memoirs, the book is based mostly on testimonies that survivors of these pogroms gave.
And in many cases, they talk about what really hurts with seeing people they know breaking into their stores and committing atrocities, killing, and even torturing their neighbors.
And they talk about somebody they may have employed to fix a fence in their house, and so knew where their house was, knew there were Jews living in the house, and that that person would then show others that, oh, I fixed a fence in this house.
I know where they keep the whatever it is and would come in.
So it's often trusted people, trusted friends who are leading this violence against them.
And that, they find very galling and disturbing in the memoirs.
At the same time, people they know often save them.
And this violence can also be seen generationally where the younger people, the younger peasants who have only known war and destruction in their lives are taking out violence or perpetrating violence against Jews, whereas their parents are trying to stop them.
And we have situations in which the parents are saying to the Jews, "Come hide in my basement.
My son will never look for you there."
Or the parents are saying, "I told my son not to go out and bother the Jews, but he did anyway."
So there's a generational aspect to it as well.
In many of these towns, they're small towns where people know each other intimately.
And after the violence ends, they also know who perpetrated the violence against them and they know that their stolen boots are now still in the possession of so-and-so, or their stolen property is still being held by so-and-so, and this also galls them in the years after the violence.
- Jeff, you mentioned a little bit about some of the sources that you had to craft this history.
And really again, this is masterful because you have a level of detail that plugs into an enormous sweep of European history that is incredibly complex.
And for anybody who's ever tried to write a history, just keeping track of the level of detail that you do is just absolutely in incredible.
I'm curious though, you write very passionately and evocatively that this sows the seed for the Holocaust that would come a generation later.
Can you elaborate on that for our audience?
- Yeah, so on the detail.
I think the detail really helps us understand the motivations of both sides.
Instead of caricaturing one side or the other as being inherently violent or being inherently corrupt, this allows us to see the difficult circumstances in which these people were living and how the situation forced them into into violence is what they saw as their only option.
I think that the level of violence was so intense.
I say about 100,000 people were killed, 40,000 thousand directly in the violence then another 60,000 who died subsequently as a direct result of the violence.
That's a lot of people killed in this area.
And the Holocaust, which begins in many cases in the same area 20 years later, I think is related in the sense that the local population becomes inured to violence.
They become used to violence against Jews.
The unimaginable becomes imaginable.
What had seemed to be beyond anybody's ken, the idea that suddenly an army is gonna come in and take all the Jews and kill them would seem incomprehensible to most people.
But by 1941, that's happened already in some cases.
And 1941 then is a vast escalation with central leadership, which is absent in the pogroms I'm describing.
There's no central government ordering the killing of Jews.
But when a central government in Germany does order the killing of Jews in 1941, it doesn't seem so strange.
It seems like an imaginable thing.
So I think violence begets violence and escalates it.
Each time, it becomes a little bit worse.
I mentioned 1881, a couple dozen people were killed.
1903 to 1906, three to 5,000.
1918 to 1921, 100,000.
1941, about 1.5 to two million.
So this vast escalation with each level of violence.
- So Jeff, as we were preparing for this episode and we're taping this in early February, a story came across our desk about a network of families and their Ohio-based leaders who homeschool their children in order to quote, make them good Nazis.
They celebrate Hitler's birthday, they're openly anti-Semitic white nationalists.
How can we possibly be having this conversation 100 years later?
Anti-Semitism has not died by any means.
There's different types of anti-Semitism that I think are around.
I think we need to classify and make distinctions between types of anti-Semitism.
There's incidents of naivete in which people say insensitive things out of ignorance.
There's provocation in which people are provocative and then there's genuine threats.
I'm not sure which of the categories you're describing would belong to.
I'm not familiar with that particular incident, but it is disturbing that people can still believe these things and that we can still have celebrities in our world today celebrating Hitler.
- Yeah, it leaves me speechless.
Jeff, we've got about three minutes left here.
We are, as Wayne mentioned, taping this in early February.
We're approaching the one year anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
And a lot of these place names seem familiar from the news.
There's also been a fair amount of Russian rhetoric about the Ukrainian regime being Nazis.
Are there links between the history that you're writing about in 1918, 1921, and the events that were seeing play out in Ukraine today?
- There's always links, but it's difficult to characterize an entire nation in any way.
But I will say that one of the ironies of the whole story that I'm telling is that the Ukrainian state that was established in 1918 was a truly multinational state unlike any government that anybody had seen before and was celebrated by Jews around the world for giving Jews collective rights.
And the leadership of the government was very tolerant, more than tolerant, but very welcoming to other nationalities.
They even had a ministry of Jewish affairs and they printed currency with the Yiddish language, the language spoken by Jews on it.
They imagined this as being a multinational state, in fact, the first truly multinational state.
And the tragedy is that the leadership wasn't able to gain full control of the military and there were still anti-Semitic elements that circulated through the military leading to this violence.
The other tragedy was that opponents of the state, right wing opponents of the state in particular used antisemitism as a way of getting a wedge into the population by turning the population against the Bolsheviks and against the Ukrainian government through a false wedge, much like Putin is doing right now by claiming falsely that the regime is anti-Semitic in order to rile up the population against them.
Of course, Zelenskiy himself, the President of Ukraine, has Jewish heritage and is not a Nazi, in fact is quite liberal, and tolerant, and pluralistic.
And that's what Putin is most afraid of.
Putin is correct that Ukrainians and Russians have a lot in common, but what's different is the current political culture whereas Ukrainians are embracing liberal democracy and an idealized vision of what they imagine Europe to be.
And I think Putin recognizes that Russians could do the same.
And that's what's a threat to his autocratic regime is liberalism, democracy, and pluralism.
That's what's threatening Putin, not Nazism.
- Jeff, this is just an absolutely incredible piece of scholarship and research.
We're so thankful to you for sharing it with us today.
He's Jeffrey Veidlinger.
The book is "In the Midst of Civilized Europe."
That's all the time we have this week, but if you want to know more about Story in the Public Square, you can find us on social media or visit PellCenter.org where you can always catch up on previous episodes.
For G. Wayne Miller, I'm Jim Ludes asking you to join us again next time for More Story in the Public Square.
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