The Pogroms of 1941

Pogroms may be defined as spontaneous or seemingly spontaneous acts of anti-Jewish violence by local non-Jews. The biggest wave in modern Ukrainian history before 1941 was in in the years immediately after 1917, when thousands upon thousands of Jews were murdered, mainly by Ukrainian or Russian nationalists.

November Pogrom is now often the term for the attacks in Germany in 1938 also known as the Kristallnacht, “Night of Broken Glass.” One of the most notorious wartime pogroms was carried out by Romanians in Iaşi (Ger. Jassy) on 28–29 June 1941. Virtually all other known eastern European pogroms erupting soon after the start of the German invasion, in June and July 1941, occurred in regions recently—and violently—occupied by the Soviet Union. Examples include the Lithuanian city of Kaunas, where the violence began on 23 June 1941, and the village of Jedwabne in the Polish Białystok region, where a murderous attack took place on 10 July 1941. In western Ukraine, thousands of Jews were killed in pogroms in at least three major cities: Lviv, Ternopil (Pol. Tarnopol), and Zolochiv (Pol. Złoczów).

In explaining the pogroms, numerous factors must be taken into account. Recent research points to the difficult political universes inhabited by Jews and non-Jews: pogroms erupted more often in localities were before the war Jews strongly supported Zionism and interethnic solidarity was minimal. The Soviet occupations of these “borderlands” had been violent against Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews, but anti-Soviet sentiments—further inflamed by the discovery of the corpses of prisoners hastily murdered by the NKVD—were less crucial than antisemitism. Many non-Jews looked at the conduct of Jews under Soviet rule from an anti-Jewish perspective and ignored evidence contradicting it. To them, the Jews could not be forgiven. Meanwhile, acts of revenge after the German arrival largely spared Ukrainians who had cooperated with the Soviet regime. The importance of antisemitism also reveals itself in the public humiliation of Jewish professionals in ritualistic spectacles, such as cleaning streets. They were observed by a vicious urban crowd: civilians who did not simply blame the Jews for NKVD murders but who demanded and relished robbery, sexual assault, beating, and murder.

Still, principal responsibility for the pogroms remained with the German (and Romanian) invaders, who wanted and encouraged them. One week after the start of the invasion, Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Reich Security Main Office, ordered his Einsatzgruppen to support and intensify the “self-cleansing” efforts of anti-Communist and antisemitic activists, and this kind of activity can be traced for the pogroms in western Ukraine [Document A03, Document A06]. Less known is the stance of Ukrainian interpreters [Document A08] and non-German Wehrmacht members, such as Dutch members of the Waffen-SS. The 24-page diary written by a Dutch SS-Sturmmann of SS-Standarte Westland, typed out during the war, sheds some light on this. [Document A05]

The OUN-B played a key role in the pogroms in western Ukraine. The Germans occupied Lviv, eastern Galicia’s main city, on 30 June 1941. That very same day, the OUN-B declared the existence of a Ukrainian state and posted an incitement to pogroms on the walls of the city: “Do not throw away your weapons now. Take them in your hands. Destroy the enemy. […] People! Know! Moscow, Poland, the Hungarians, the Jews are your enemies. Destroy them!” [Document A04] The next day, a lethal pogrom did begin, probably with support of the SS. The dozens of Jewish men and women who were arrested were eventually shot by Germans. Still, a militia organized by the OUN took Jews from streets and homes to three prisons, and these militia members were present at their maltreatment and execution at these sites. Vivid descriptions of the attacks appear in the notes of Stanisław Różycki (1902–?), a Jew who in September 1939 had fled Warsaw for Lviv. After returning to Warsaw in the fall of 1941, he wrote down his recollections, and then disappeared without a trace. Różycki’s text was secretly buried as part of the Ringelblum Archive (see "About the Sources"). [Document A02]

The author and reader of the proclamation of statehood had been Iaroslav Stetsko (1912–1986). In 1939, he had defined Jews as enemies because they had allegedly helped Ukraine’s main enemy: Russia and Bolshevism [Document A01]. An OUN-B task force arrived in Lviv at noon on 30 June. At its head was Stetsko with a mandate from Bandera to proclaim a government for western Ukraine and to appoint himself as its head. That evening, addressing a group of Ukrainians, he declared the existence of a sovereign, united Ukraine. The German authorities were displeased. When Stetsko refused to retract this statement, they arrested him on 9 July, took him to Berlin, and ordered him to stay there. Probably that same month, Stetsko wrote a biographical sketch in Ukrainian and signed copies of a German translation (which omitted  a section about Ukrainian-German relations). [Document A07]

The section in this July 1941 document about Jews greatly resembles Stetsko’s 1939 article, but also declares support for “the destruction of the Jews and the expedience of bringing German methods of exterminating Jewry to Ukraine, barring their assimilation and the like.” Matching the general euphemistic tendency in wartime German documents dealing with mass murder, the German translation of Stetsko’s text does not refer to destruction or extermination, stating merely that “German methods are to be employed in the fight against Jewry in Ukraine” (For an annotated publication of both documents, see Berkhoff and Carynnyk, “The Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists”).

Scholars have begun using the recollection of Jews who survived the pogroms and lived to see the end of the war. Those written by Rózia Wagner in 1945 [Document A09] are vivid and, as comparison with other sources shows, quite reliable (For a discussion, see Khymka, Dostovirnist’ svidchennia).

The potentials pitfalls of such testimony if produced under the vigilant eye of the Soviet political police are evident from the earliest recollections of the pogrom by Philip Friedman, which he narrated in 1946 in Ukrainian to a commission of Soviet historians. [Document A10] Here he asserts that Germans had shot the victims of the NKVD, fails to mention Ukrainian nationalists, and claims that civilians did not participate in the pogrom (A publication with commentary is in Kovba, “Filip Fridman”).

Karel Berkhoff