America is grappling, among other things, with a rise in good old-fashioned antisemitism. The notion of Jews as an alien, insidious disease infecting a righteous Christian society has been taken up fervently by a variety of far right groups inspired by Nazi ideology and history. But these ideas have a 1,500 year old history in Europe, where America’s white people come from. And long before the Nazis, these ideas fueled significant genocidal violence, violence that still casts a shadow through the generations.
This month marks 100 years since a deadly pogrom in which thousands of Jews were slaughtered over several days in the Ukrainian town of Fastiv. It’s not a famous moment in history. I only know about it because it changed the course of my family. But it’s hard not to think that this obscure moment in history actually has a lot to do with where the world is today.
My father’s family came from this town, then part of Tsarist Russia. My grandfather first emigrated in 1912, hoping to save money in America to bring over the rest of the family. My father was the only one in his generation born here and the rest preferred to forget the past. My aunts and uncles spent their early childhood in Russia and had a child’s understanding of that world.
Beyond that, their story is hard to piece together. There are the barriers of language, alphabet (Ukraine and Russia use Cyrillic characters) and calendars (in those years, Russia still followed the old Julian calendar, about 13 days behind our modern Gregorian one. All dates I refer to are modern Gregorian.). Even our actual name is in doubt: was it Schlack, or Sklak, or less likely, Stone? All three were assigned at Ellis Island to various members, but none are likely to have been the families actual name, likely closer to Shlyak. Looking backward, their story ends just as they left Ukraine. I came away feeling that the same forces that made my ancestor’s lives hard effectively stole my past from me.
But I wanted to collect what bits I could. I knew that they had come from Fastiv (that’s the Ukrainian form – in Russian, it’s known as Fastov and transliterated also as Fastow), near Kiev. I was also assured by my father and his family that bad things had happened there to Jews. It was, after all, part of the Pale of Settlement, the western edge of the Czarist Empire into which the government had forced the vast majority of Jews from 1791 to 1917, and within which it further restricted their movement, which jobs they could have, who they could marry and their civil rights in general. This was not a trivial matter for Jews: in 1900 the majority of Jews in the world lived in Russia, and 93% of those 5.2 million people were crammed into the Pale. My ancestors had a hard life there, that I knew.
And yet it was still shocking to discover, quite by accident, that 100 years ago on September 22, 1919, Fastiv was the site of a brutal pogrom that left at least 1,800 Jews dead and as many as 8,000 homeless and destitute. The details were appalling, but only a small part of the genocide that occurred during the the Russian Civil War, the greatest genocide against Jews in history other than the Nazi Holocaust.
To set the scene, Russia had fought in World War I on the side of the Western allies. Germany had occupied parts of Western Russia. Resentment over those losses, the general hardships of that brutal war, and the long simmering cauldron of oppression that was Tsarist Russia had boiled over by 1917 into two revolutions in short order — first a democratic one, then the socialist revolution that created the Soviet Union. By 1919, the Bolsheviks had some control of the country, but a civil war raged on in various areas, including the Ukraine.
It was there that General Anton Denikin, a career Tsarist officer who became a leader of the Whites – the anti-Bolshevik, pro-Tsarists. His Volunteer Army of Cossack troops was the main opposition to the Red Army. The Cossacks began as a self-ruling agrarian ethnic group in the Russian steppe but were subdued by the Russian Empire around the 18th century. In the process of subjugation, they gained a favored place in the imperial order as something like knights, and later, horse cavalry, in the border regions. Lenin called Russia a “prison house of nations,” with its dozens of oppressed ethnic minorities; the Cossacks were used to keep the prisoners in line.
Denikin’s was one of only several armies, armed bands and outright gangs that were fighting in Ukraine. There was an anarchist army that fought the Reds and the Whites. There were armed peasant bands that fought mostly against the Reds, but not always with the Whites. There were armed gangs that mostly were in it for pillage and rape. And of course, there was the Red Army itself, a somewhat rag-tag if determined bunch.
That was the setting when in the spring and summer of 1919, Denikin’s army was roaming the Ukraine. In village after village, White troops marauded through the Jewish ghettos, raping girls and women and seizing anything of value from Jewish residents. In some villages, they also burned the Jewish quarter, leaving the residents homeless and destitute. In many of these villages, some protested and were shot. But in some places, the Cossacks went further.
Throughout the summer of 1919, Jews from the areas surrounding Fastiv funneled into the town, seeking refuge from the chaos of the pogroms. The Jewish population seems to have swelled from under 8,000 to around 10,000 or more. The leaders of the Jewish community were well aware of the reputation of Denikin’s army, and of the Cossack forces in general. When Denikin’s army came to the town in early September, those families who could afford it offered to house the officers and pay them 10,000 rubles per night (about $140 in 1919). This was an established way to shield oneself from the rank and file troops – they would not attack the town if their officers were staying there.
Still, the Cossacks rioted for days, their general rallying cry being “Kike, get us money or we are going to hang you!” The same pattern of rapes repeated itself as well. But the Reds were closing in, and the army withdrew. For the time being, the violence ceased for a few days. But on September 22, 1919, Denikin’s army returned to Fastiv after defeating the local Bolsheviks. For six days, they ran amok, raping, pillaging and killing in an orgy of violence. Some Jews were burned alive in their own homes. Others were shot in the synagogue, where they had gone for sanctuary. Still, others were hung in public. Some reports say that the Cossacks buried some people alive in the streets, with only their heads sticking up, while soldiers ran over them with horses.
And then there were the children. My uncle Al, who was only seven at the time, told me only once what he had witnessed. More than 50 years after the events, he could still recall soldiers on horseback riding down the street. Just in front of him, a soldier swooped down with his sword, catching a small boy, perhaps five, with the point and lifting him off the ground, throwing him over his shoulder by the sword as he rode on. Contemporary accounts confirm that such deeds were rampant during the pogrom.
After six days of this, about 1,800 Jews had been killed. And in the following weeks and months, more than 4,000 Jews, perhaps as many as 8,000, were left to die from wounds, famine and general hardship.
So it was a minor miracle that my family escaped at all. From what I can piece together from the scraps my cousins heard from their parents, my grandmother hid her daughters (under a house?) to keep them from being raped. At some point, she got herself and her four children into a rowboat and travelled down a river (likely the Unava) to the countryside. They may have been hidden by a farmer (likely a Gentile one) for a time in haystacks or perhaps on a hay-covered wagon; not all Ukrainian Christians took part in the pogroms and some did what they could to help.
From there, the family somehow made their way to Bucharest, and by 1922, to Cherbourg, France, where they boarded the S.S. Berengaria. On May 27, 1922, they arrived at Ellis Island. My grandmother and Al were deported back to France because the bad haircut Al got on the boat was interpreted by customs officials as evidence of having had his head shaved for head lice. Or maybe it really was lice, who knows? By October they had somehow made their way back to New York. The entire family was reunited with my grandfather Morris in a tenement near the railroad tracks on East 105nd St. in Manhattan. Today, a housing project, inhabited largely recent Latin American immigrants, occupies the spot.
A year later, my father was born. He became the only member of his family to go beyond middle school. After graduating high school, his first significant act was to join the Army Air Corps the day before Pearl Harbor. He was motivated by the stories that already circulated in the Jewish community and beyond about the concentration camps. They had not yet become the mass, industrialized death camps, but those who cared to already understood that they posed a grave threat to those interned there. He wound up flying 49 combat missions against the Third Reich.
I had started on a quest to learn more about my family tree. In the process, I learned something much bigger. The details of my father’s family history in Ukraine probably had nothing at all to do with how their life their turned out. The thousands that were slaughtered there each had their own tales and yet all wound up with the same end. History, it turns out, happens to real people. So when I read about the plight of migrants both here and around the world I am haunted by how much their stories have in common with my family. I am white, and that’s a real difference in today’s world. But 100 years ago, Jews were every bit “the other” that some want to make Hondurans or Muslims.
Americans tend to see the Holocaust as an aberrant moment in European civilization. As I’ve learned more about my family’s history and antisemitism in general, nothing could be further from the truth.
What my family survived in Fastiv was, horribly, only about 1% of the wave of pogroms in Russia in 1921. While all sides participated, historians agree that the White Army and its Cossack troops were overwhelmingly responsible. As the tide turned against them on the battlefield, they became more ferocious in their terror. By the time of their defeat, the pogroms had killed more than 160,000 Jews in less than a year. Later the Nazis would, of course, kill 50 times that number, including wiping out the last remaining Jews in Fastiv (although a few resettled after the war and live there now).
Fastiv, Denikin and Hitler were part of a thousand-plus-year tradition of open antisemitic brutality in Europe. Sometimes it was encouraged by the church and state, sometimes tolerated, rarely opposed. The litany is long and largely unknown in the modern world, even to Jews: the expulsion of all Jews from England in 1290 (not to return until the 17th century), from Spain and Portugal in 1492, the burning of 10,000 copies of the Talmud in Paris in 1242, the endless lynchings of Jews for imagined blood libel (the myth of Jews killing Christian children to use their blood in making matzoh for Passover) in virtually every Christian nation. No Jew was allowed citizenship of France until about 1800, no Jew voted in England until the late 1800s (unless they converted first, as did Benjamin Disraeli). The list goes on in Germany, Poland, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and virtually everywhere else in Europe. The word ghetto itself refers to the Venetian neighborhood where the city’s 900 Jews (out of 160,000 residents) were confined in 1512, able to leave only during the day and required to return each night.
Germany does not deny its antisemitic past (to its credit), but Russia is a different story. This has been brought home to me on a number of occasions. One that sticks in my mind happened about 25 years ago. I got into a cab at the airport and the driver was a Russian immigrant. He came from Kiev and was familiar with Fastiv. I mentioned that my family came from there and that at one time there had been a mutual aid society of more than 100 families from the town in New York City. He was puzzled by this: Why would so many families come from so small a town?
When I told him that more that nearly 2 million Jews had left Russia around that time and that most had come to the US, he was hearing that for the first time. And when he found out I was talking about Jews, he said that he thought I had said they were Russian. Modern Russians seem to learn as little about the genocides in their past as I learned about Jim Crow and the Native American genocide in my school years.
Denikin is the heritage that many Russians and other Europeans now want to embrace. In 2005, Vladimir Putin had Denikin’s body exhumed from its grave in Ann Arbor, Mich., and reburied as a hero of Russia in a Moscow military cemetery. Putin has cited passages in Denikin’s diaries that say Russia and Ukraine should always be one to justify the Russian occupation of Crimea.
Just as troubling was Putin’s revival of the Cossacks as armed agents of the Russian state, which came to light during the 2016 World Cup when they carried out attacks against protesters, including the well-known Pussy Riot group. Reporting suggests that these Cossacks are not always or even mostly actual Cossacks, some of whom seem to resent this appropriation. But what matters to me is that the Russian state wants to evoke this past and re-establish paramilitary forces to carry out its own repressive acts. This time the victims are likely to be other ethnic minorities, gay people, and dissidents. The words will change, but the music will be the same.
This pattern has repeated itself in many parts of Europe. Poland wants to abolish any discussion of antisemitism in its own past; Hungary’s Orban actively campaigns against the Jew Soros; Austria’s far-right government until recently was in coalition with neo-Nazis and may well join with them again. France, Denmark, Italy also number among those countries where there is surging neo-Nazi activity.
Today, Ukraine has a Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky. But he is the target of the usual antisemitic drivel. And just recently, Ukraine has had a spate of desecrations of Holocaust memorial sites. The same happened at Bogdanovka, where a concentration camp held about 54,000 Jews in the 1940s, tens of thousands of whom perished.
All these movements call on a long tradition of anti-Jewish myths, superstitions, and lies. Many of them rely on the most retrograde elements with Europe’s various Christian traditions, few of whom have had an honest reckoning with their own culpability in past atrocities, including the Holocaust. In fact, other than Germany, few European societies have seriously examined their role in the Holocaust or their antisemitic histories. A friend who is Holocaust educator just returned from Lisbon, where she went to a memorial site commemorating a massacre of Jews there in 1506. The memorial wasn’t erected until 2006, five hundred years later.
It is, of course, true that many non-Jewish Europeans over the ages did oppose at least some of the most virulent antisemitic acts. But when we remember the family that hid Anne Frank, we should also recall that 75% of Dutch Jews perished in the Holocaust, and this in a nation that had a long history of relatively open arms for Jews stretching back to at least the 17th century. As my friend the Holocaust educator points out, many of these acts of courage and defiance are so because they are set against the overall failure of Christian countries to prevent, let alone discourage, genocide.
So when I hear the Steve Bannons, the Nigel Farages, and their more respectable apologists talk about the proud tradition of European civilization and nationalism based in ethnic identity, I know too well what the outcome of this will be. Whatever else this ideology may yield, it has always fed and been fueled by violence against Jews and other ethnic minorities. In fact, if pogroms were to return in Europe, it would be precisely these forces that would drive them, not intellectuals who support the BDS movement. This is one specter that haunts Europe today: that Hitler and his antecedents may be dead, but far from buried.
But the new Nazis won’t stop there. There simply aren’t enough Jews or Roma to go around in Europe even all these years after WWII, so the list will have to include “other people” of all sorts: Africans, Arabs, Turks, South Asians, you name it. Add in gays and any other group deemed “degenerate.” And of course, “other” Europeans who haven’t gotten the memo to stay where they belong. Wasn’t this the twin engine of Brexit: no more Poles taking our jobs, no more Eurocrats telling us refugees are human beings with human rights?
These arguments about national and ethnic purity reverberate for me as I contemplate my own history. A year after my father was born on a kitchen table in the Bronx, the US passed the Immigration Act of 1924. This law – which was to endure until 1965 — forbid Asians (again) and set quotas for other regions based on the US population of 1890, a time when white Americans were largely from Western Europe. Because Jews at that time came primarily from Eastern Europe, their immigration was drastically reduced.
This was the legal framework that kept Jews from escaping to the United States during the 1930s and ensured their deaths during the Holocaust. In other words, had my family not escaped Europe in 1922, it is likely that they would have had to remain there and would probably have been killed by Hitler. This is what I think about when I read about Central American migrants escaping violence or poverty in their countries to come here, many of whom are fleeing from conditions that would not have been alien to the Jews of Fastiv 100 years ago.
Ironically, the Immigration Act of 1924 allowed unrestricted immigration from Mexico, Central America and South America – the xenophobes of the day did not anticipate today’s immigration flows. Instead, they wanted to ensure a largely Protestant America was not overrun by Italians, Poles and other Slavs; Greeks; and Jews. How many anti-immigrant white Americans today come from those ethnic groups? How many of them know that history as they support measures to “correct” America’s growing Hispanic population?
In the coming decades, climate change-induced flooding and drought alone will produce tens of millions, perhaps hundreds of millions or even billions of refugees. They will be accused of many spurious things, but their only crime will be that they live somewhere that will become unlivable due to our collective failure to stem carbon emissions. The very survival of the human race (and many other species) hangs less on our technical prowess than on our ability to overcome these divisions that have been constantly stoked for centuries.
Today we live in the most competitive and hierarchical societies in human history. We are taught to view life as a harsh winner-take-all contest. But the history of humanity is quite another story. For more than 200,000 years, modern humans (and archaic ones before them) shared knowledge, innovations and even food and shelter. Yes, they sometimes also killed each other. But the fact that we survived for all of this time and in all of these places is testament to the power of collaboration and recognition of our common will to survive together.
If we cannot grasp that, then events like the Fastiv pogrom will become commonplace as we tear each other and the planet in general apart.