One century ago this week, a catastrophe struck Jewry.
On the Sabbath day, Feb. 15, 1919, horror came to the Jewish community of the Ukrainian town of Proskurov. The Proskurov pogrom would come to signify the tragedy that befell the Jews of Ukraine during the Ukrainian-Soviet war (1918-1920).
Following the withdrawal of German troops after WW I from Ukraine, Communist Bolshevik troops sought control, as did Ukrainian nationalists. Also involved were the White Russians who wanted to restore tsarist rule.
Proskurov had no historical record of ever experiencing a pogrom despite its location in a terror plagued region that had suffered many violent attacks for hundreds of years. No pogrom since that of Kishinev in 1904 made such an impact upon Jewry. The Pruskoruv pogrom caused great fear and panic which spread throughout towns in Ukraine in early 1919 and alarmed world Jewry to the dire emergency Ukrainian Jewry faced.
In early 1919, Ukrainian nationalists unleashed their fury against the Jews. Massacres were perpetrated in Yekaterinoslav, Zhitomir and other cities in the Ukraine.
Proskurov Jewry, which numbered about 25,000, was soon in great danger. The local Haidamak (Cossack) leader Ataman Semo-senko, of the third regiment, who had assumed command just days earlier, targeted the Jews. At a dinner celebrating his new command, he delivered a speech in which he accused the Jews of being the enemy of Ukraine and the Cossacks. Semosenko called for the elimination of the Jews in order to “save the Ukraine.”
He also evoked the common canard that the Jews were Bolshevik revolutionaries and thus adversaries of Ukrainian independence. The vast majority of Jews were not Bolsheviks and some Jews supported Ukrainian independence.
Furthermore, members of other ethnic groups were also members of the Bolshevik party. The vast majority of the Jews of Proskurov, as shtetl Jews at the time, were not involved in political affairs.
Three days before the massacre, Haidamaks paraded throughout the city on horses with rifles in hand. Their intentions were to intimidate the Jews.
The last day before the massacre, was Friday, the 14th day of the month of I Adar (the first month of Adar in a leap year). The Jews of Proskurov were preparing for the Sabbath.
That Shabbat was a sunny day in Proskurov. The Jews partook of the Sabbath meal, but there was foreboding, a sense of fear.
The pogrom began. Hoards of Cossacks divided into smaller groups and began attacks on Jews in the streets and in their homes. The savagery began. Knives, swords and bayonets were most often used but there were also reports of hand grenades as Jews rushed to cellars and attics to escape.
There are accounts of the slaughter.
According to one survivor:
“They (Cossacks) were divided into groups of five to 15 men and swarmed into the streets which were inhabited by Jews. Entering the homes, they drew their swords and began to cut down the inhabitants without regard to sex or age. . . . Jews were dragged out of cellars and lofts and murdered. ”
Entire families were slain.
One survivor, Haia Greenberg, a nurse, later testified:
“The young girls — repeatedly stabbed. The two-month-old baby — hands lacerated. The five-year-old — pieced by spears. The elderly man — thrown out of a window by his beard. The 13-year-old — deaf because of his wounds. His brother — 11 wounds in his stomach, left for dead next to his slain mother. The paralyzed son of a rabbi — murdered in his bed. The two young children — cast alive into a fire. “
Greenberg added, “I will never forget the reddened snow sleds filled with the hacked bodies going to a common pit in the cemetery.”
Some of the victims were forced to dig their own graves. The cries and screams of those who were tortured, whose body parts were mutilated, rose to the heavens. Many children became cripples from severed limbs.
Some saved Jews at great risk. Dr. S. N. Polozov helped many wounded Jewish children he found in the street. He hid more than 20 Jews in his own home.
There are reports of a few priests who were murdered as they attempted to stop the pogrom.
The massacre was carried out between 2 and 5 p.m.
Estimates place the number of deaths at 1,600, but there are also estimates that place the casualty list as higher. These figures do not include those who sustained severe injury and were crippled for life.
The Jewish hospital and makeshift medical stations were full of the wounded. Victims were brought to the Jewish cemetery by peasants. Most were buried in mass graves.
The following day, the horrors continued. Haidamaks attacked the nearby town of Felstin, perpetrating another massacre where an estimated 600 Jews were murdered.
One century later, the massacre on that Shabbat in Proskurov, which became a symbol of that tragic era, is remembered. May the memories of the many martyrs of that era be for a blessing.