Sunday, March 14, 2010


It was probably six months ago that I came across a translation of eyewitness accounts of the pogrom which killed most of my paternal grandfather's family in 1919. It was then that I learned that the Jews of the town had formed an armed militia to protect themselves against the marauding bands - in Yiddish they called it Zelbshuts (self help)

This weekend, as often happens to me, I randomly came upon a website which documented the deaths from spotted typhus among the Mennonites in the Ukraine.

Mennonites in the Ukraine?? Of course I had to learn more about this. It turns out that after Catherine the Great defeated the Turks, in the late 18th century, she invited Germans to come to Russia and settle in the newly acquired lands. Among those who accepted her invitations were Mennonites from Prussia and other northern European lands.

The Mennonite colonies prospered and all went well until the unrest of the early 20th century. The prosperous Mennonite farmers were targeted by both Communists and the anarchist bands of Nestor Makhno. Facing extinction, the Mennonites begrudgingly abandoned their pacifist religious beliefs and with the help of the retreating German forces in the Ukraine formed a Selbstchutz, an armed self-defense force.

It is hard to say whether ultimately these militias did more bad than good. Much like the Jews, the Mennonites really could not hold out against the onslaught of the murderous bandits, and the reprisals of the angry mobs, angered by resistance from their victims may have been worse than if they had not fought back. On the other hand, the pogromschiks were intent on killing, raping and pillaging, so it was probably a lose-lose situation altogether.

The Mennonites survived the violence of the Civil War, but they were decimated by Stalin's collectivization drives. Many Mennonites wound up killed or exiled as part of the struggle against the Kulaks.


Blogger Nechama said...

My Great Uncle was killed in Petlura's pogrom in Zhitomir in 1919... I would love to read the eyewitness accounts you mention. Would you send me the link?

Last summer my Mom took my son and me to Ukraine. For the kid (who has always been very interested in his roots and his Yiddiskeit) it was a part of a Bar Mitzvah gift from his Grandparents. For me it was a sentimental and at the same time uplifting journey...but I digress. The reason I wanted to post a note is to say on the flight from JFK to Kiev I sat next to a Mennonite woman who was a part of a missionary delegation to Ukraine. We talked a fair amount and she explained that she and her friends (all from Lancaster County, PA)were taking a trip (for her it was no. 4, for most of the 10 or so others with her it was also a return visit) to deliver the message of their faith to the Mennonite community in Ukraine. I was stunned - I had no idea! She named the towns that they were planning to visit and they all sounded unfamiliar to me - all small and fairly remote locations. She mentioned that the Mennonites had lived there in greater numbers but through the Soviet era those numbers dwindled no next to nothing (no surprise there). I grew up in South Central Pennsylvania. Mennonites are not exotic to me. It was amazing to learn that these people also lived next to my ancestors as well.

March 15, 2010 6:27 AM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

Nechama, here is the link.

Yes, 1919 was not a good year. On my mother's side of the family, my great grandfather was killed by Petlyura's men somewhere north of Zhitomir. I wrote about it here. Actually, you can read about all the crazy stuff that happened to my family here.

But of course, it is the same kind of stuff that happened to so many families... Yet, I think it deserves to be written down and not forgotten.

March 15, 2010 7:14 AM  

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