How did Jews serve in the Russian, Austrian, and Soviet armies?

The historian Vladyslav Hrynevych spoke on the topic of Jews serving in the armies of the Romanovs, Habsburgs, and Bolsheviks.

Historians often call the First World War the “Great War,” as it was the first large-scale conflict involving millions of mobilized servicemen and several fronts located in various parts of the world. Nearly every country took part in this war, including Austria-Hungary and the Russian Empire, both of which were multiethnic states. In previous centuries Jews lived, as a rule, in closed ghettoes, where they could separate themselves from other nationalities. Vladyslav Hrynevych, Sr., Candidate of Historical Sciences, recounts how Jews became soldiers in the Habsburg and Romanov empires, and later in the Red Army.

Vladyslav Hrynevych:  Everything was changing very rapidly, especially in the second half of the nineteenth century. In Russia there was a “Pale of Settlement,” whose inhabitants could not leave. But in the late nineteenth–early twentieth centuries Jews, who lived, as you mentioned, in closed ghettoes, were swept up in other processes. The process of emancipation had started in Europe. Jews began involving themselves increasingly in cultural, economic, and political life, and became assimilated, particularly in the German-speaking countries, where Jews switched from Yiddish to German. In the 1920s and 1930s it was already difficult to distinguish a Jew from a Gentile. They spoke the language well and worked in various spheres.

Andriy Kobalia:  But did they preserve their self-identification as Jews?

Vladyslav Hrynevych:  It depends. In Austria-Hungary Jews felt freer. Incidentally, there was philosemitism in Hungary, meaning, a positive attitude toward Jews because of various circumstances. The largest synagogue in Europe was located in Budapest, which was attended by all Jews. In the Honvéd, the Hungarian land forces, there were Jewish generals, who could permit themselves to attend synagogue in uniform. Jews were also drawn into the orbit of democratization and emancipation in Austria-Hungary.

As for the Russian Empire, Jews also ended up in the army, but only by a very specific route: the so-called “cantonists,” Jewish boys, who were taken away from their families for various reasons and then became converts to Christianity. Later they served in the Russian army during the First World War, when masses of people were mobilized, countries suffered great losses, and governments needed “cannon fodder.” It became necessary to remove certain restrictions that had existed earlier. For that reason, Jews began to be recruited for military service both in Austro-Hungary and Russia.

In Austro-Hungary, as a result of emancipation, which I mentioned already, as a result of a higher level of education compared to other nationalities, Jews comprised the largest share of non-commissioned officers. In other words, these were officers who were later recruited to military service. There were significantly fewer of them among cadre officers. There were more Jews compared to Ruthenians (Ukrainians) because the latter were peasants, for the most part. Similar processes took place in the Russian army.

Hertsel Tsam, a native of Volyn Gubernia (

Andriy Kobalia:  What numbers are we talking about—thousands, tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands?

Vladyslav Hrynevych:  Tens of thousands of officers, and hundreds of thousands in total.

Andriy Kobalia:  The first battles of the war began in August 1914. The Russian Empire was mobilizing people. In your article you mention that the Jews of Odesa organized a rally in support of the tsar and the empire. “God Bless the Tsar” and other Russian patriotic songs were sung in a synagogue—all this after the pogroms of 1905, the Beilis Affair, and the antisemitic moods that marked the beginning of the century. How can this be explained?

Vladyslav Hrynevych:  They demonstrated their loyalty precisely through the above-mentioned events. Whenever a war starts, there is always a danger that you will be accused of a lack of patriotism and other mortal sins. Therefore, it was necessary to show loyalty. It is interesting that the Jews of Austria-Hungary knew about the pogroms in the Romanov Empire, and, outraged by this, they flocked to the Austrian army as volunteers, in order to fight against antisemitic Russia. This situation is characterized by special features. There were Jews who fought as patriots for the Russian Empire, while Austrian Jews fought as patriots against Russia.

Andriy Kobalia:  Austria-Hungary laid claim to the Ukrainian gubernias of the Romanov Empire. Did Austrian Jews, perhaps, want to liberate their countrymen from antisemitic Russia?

Vladyslav Hrynevych:  A complex situation arose there. Galicia, for example, was very densely populated by Jews. When this territory was occupied by the Russian army, antisemitic moods spilled out against these Jews. I’m talking about accusations of espionage, arrests, and even pogroms.

Andriy Kobalia:  During extreme situations in a country, during a war, for example, you can often hear that “someone” is to blame for failures. Did the antisemitic moods within the army have some sort of impact on the attitude toward Jews in the military?

Vladyslav Hrynevych:  The situation here was very bad, in fact. In Russian propaganda, it was forbidden to talk about Jewish heroes. For example, the names of Jews awarded the Cross of Saint George—and there were quite a few—had to be indicated by their initials. The propaganda chiefs did this in order not to incite antisemitic moods among the soldiery. It was forbidden to talk about the heroic exploits of Jews.

The situation in the Russian Empire and the USSR was both similar and different. It was different in that the main ideology in the Soviet Union was the idea of proletarian internationalism, but there was a specific system in the USSR. People said one thing, did another thing, and thought a third thing. All these masks were removed when the war began in 1941. In reality, the ethnic factor was extraordinarily important both for the army and the USSR in general.

During the Civil War, or in the 1920s and 1930s, many Jews joined the Soviet army; they were generals, corps commanders, district commanders. In the late 1930s–early 1940s ethnic purges—antisemitic ones to a significant degree—took place. In the Ministry of External Affairs, in Beria’s ministry, quite a few Jews were purged during this period. During the Soviet–German war antisemitism did not disappear. Approximately 450,000 Jews served in the Red Army. Up to a hundred generals were Jews. I have already said that it was difficult to be a Jew in this army.

Volodymyr Vaiser, born in Khmelnytsky, was named Hero of the Soviet Union (Wikimedia Foundation)

When we examine documents today, we see that there were many antisemitic jokes, sayings, and problems, to the point that an antisemitic pogrom nearly took place in Kyiv in 1944. And this was after the liberation, under Soviet rule. Propaganda claimed that “in the Soviet army no one cares to which nationality you belong.” This was not the case. Purges were carried out in the Red Army, starting in 1941. There were purges of Germans, the Crimean Tatars in 1944, as well as Chechens, and Kalmyks. Specific treatment was meted out to the western Ukrainians. The ethnic question existed.

During that period the element of Russian nationalism and chauvinism began to intensify in Soviet ideology. Russians began arriving in those areas that had become free as a result of great repressions. They were no strangers to this nationalism.

Andriy Kobalia:  You mentioned that roughly 450,000 Jews fought in the ranks of the Red Army. In 1941 a large number of Red Army units surrendered, they were encircled, they ended up in the camps. There were Jews among them. What happened when a Jew ended up in these camps?

Vladyslav Hrynevych:  They were shot right away. Unlike other soldiers, Jews were shot on the spot; plus, they could be betrayed by friends, with whom they were captured. That’s what happened frequently. Being captured meant a death sentence for a Jew.

Even if someone’s outward appearance did not suggest their being Jewish, the Nazis were effective in finding their victims. I read documents that mentioned that the Germans mistakenly identified as Jewish members of the Caucasus Mountain region nationalities, who have no connection to Jews, and they also were shot.

Andriy Kobalia:  In the Russian Empire, Jews could climb the career ladder in the military. How did lower-ranking Jews reach key positions in the Red Army?

Vladyslav Hrynevych:  When we were talking about Austro-Hungary, we mentioned that there were Jewish generals. In this empire it was definitely easier to forge a career for oneself, and it was not mandatory to become a Christian; although many who retired did convert to Christianity, because then they could receive a pension. I don’t recall there being any generals of Jewish background in the Russian Empire. A proportion of officers from this army joined the White or Red armies. Some emigrated. In Kyiv there was a Council of Jewish Fighters who had been awarded the Cross of Saint George. After the Revolution and the disappearance of restrictions, quite a few Jews attained high political positions as political commissars or held military ranks in the Red Army. Jews made successful careers for themselves until the late 1930s. Later, it became more difficult. Some even changed their surnames to Russian ones. During the Second World War up to a hundred generals of the Red Army were Jews. They were engineers, physicians, but also pilots, tank-drivers, and generals of the infantry.

This program was made possible by the Canadian non-profit organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.
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