by Magda Teter
Reviewed in The New York Review of Books – June 9, 2022
Three recent books conclude that the anti-Jewish pogroms following World War I help to explain what would take place a generation later.
Legacy of Blood: Jews, Pogroms, and Ritual Murder in the Lands of the Soviets
by Elissa Bemporad
Oxford University Press, 238 pp., $78.00
International Jewish Humanitarianism in the Age of the Great War
by Jaclyn Granick
Cambridge University Press, 404 pp., $39.99
In the Midst of Civilized Europe: The Pogroms of 1918–1921 and the Onset of the Holocaust
by Jeffrey Veidlinger
Metropolitan, 466 pp., $35.00
The war in Ukraine has simultaneously forced to the surface and upended the memory of a history that had fallen into oblivion. The past, we see once more, can be reinvented and reinterpreted. In 2014 Slava Ukraini became the slogan of an independent, westward-looking Ukraine, when the Euromaidan protests resulted in the ousting of its president, Viktor Yanukovych, and his flight to Russia. In 2018 it became the official greeting of the Ukrainian army. Since February 24 of this year it has become a worldwide cry of solidarity.
Yet its roots lie in post–World War I violence. Ukrainian nationalists hollered “Glory to Ukraine” not only in their fight for independence but also during horrific massacres of Jews in 1918–1921 that killed over 100,000 people, possibly even as many as 200,000, sometimes wiping out entire Jewish populations in towns and villages. The shout was then taken up in the 1930s and 1940s by far-right Ukrainian nationalists, who were implicated in anti-Jewish and anti-Polish attacks and in collaborating with the occupying Nazi forces. Although banned by the Soviet authorities, it survived among émigrés in the West. After being reappropriated as a patriotic salute among Ukrainians in their struggle against Russia, today it serves President Volodymyr Zelensky to rally international support for war-torn Ukraine.
Three recent books excavate this century-old story and shine light on its lasting importance. Elissa Bemporad’s Legacy of Blood: Jews, Pogroms, and Ritual Murder in the Lands of the Soviets looks at the memory and consequences of this violence in the Soviet Union. Jaclyn Granick’s International Jewish Humanitarianism in the Age of the Great War examines the rise of nongovernmental humanitarian mobilization in response to World War I and its savage aftermath—a mobilization aided by the ascendancy of the United States and its Jewish community. Jeffrey Veidlinger’s In The Midst of Civilized Europe: The Pogroms of 1918–1921 and the Onset of the Holocaust offers an account of the brutality in the years that followed World War I in Eastern Europe and argues that it created conditions for the mass murder of Jews a generation later during World War II.
What all three books show is that the Great War did not end in November 1918. In the east, in the territories that are now in Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus, bloodshed not only continued but intensified, as multiple factions sought to establish new countries on the ruins of empires that “in a stunning development,” Veidlinger says, “had crumbled in just a few days.” Ukrainian nationalist groups fought for an independent Ukraine while clashing over their visions of what it would be, having to face both Bolshevik and White Russian forces from the east and, from the west, Polish troops seeking to reestablish an independent Poland. As each group embraced different ideas of loyalty, belonging, and citizenship, Jews were caught in between—trapped as permanent outsiders, unable to fit into the newly fashioned nation-states.
Just days after the armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, Polish soldiers arrived in Lviv, a multiethnic city with significant Polish and Jewish populations, and a Ukrainian minority amounting to just under 20 percent, to claim it for Poland. The city, whose name changed according to the political powers that controlled it—Lwów, Lemberg, Lvov, and Lviv—was, as Veidlinger puts it, “the linchpin of the multinational state” envisioned by Marshal Józef Piłsudski. He dreamed about reinstating Poland to “the historic borders of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth,” a vast multicultural polity that had been wiped off the maps of Europe in 1795, after its final dismemberment by the Habsburg Empire, Prussia, and Russia. But on November 1, a few weeks before the Polish troops’ arrival, one of the Ukrainian national groups had already announced in Lviv “the establishment of the West Ukrainian People’s Republic,” raising the blue-and-yellow flag over the city hall, to the ire of the Polish population.