The Jews of western Ukraine during the interwar period

Historian Maksym Gon (Copyright: Hromadske Radio).

The historian Maksym Gon talks about the Jewish community against the background of the [post-First World War] Ukrainian-Polish confrontation, Ukrainian-Jewish cooperation during elections in Poland, and the Jews of Bukovyna and Transcarpathia in the interwar period.

Andriy Kobalia:  We know that a Ukrainian-Polish conflict broke out on the territory of Galicia in the fall of 1918. The Ukrainians were trying to establish the Western Ukrainian National Republic [ZUNR], and the Poles were seeking to create their own state. What strategy did the Jews adopt in this conflict? 

Maksym Gon:  To put it succinctly, the Jews tried to keep aloof from this conflict, as it concerned the strivings of two nations to create national states out of the wreckage of the [Austro-Hungarian] empire. And you did not have to be a brilliant analyst to realize that this would be accompanied by bloodshed. Thus, on 1 November 1918, when the battles for Lviv began, the Jewish Civic Committee was formed, and after a brief debate a declaration about neutrality in the Ukrainian-Polish conflict was proclaimed unanimously.

Andriy Kobalia:  In speaking about neutrality, did absolutely all the Jews support this position, or were there other views? This strategy lasted throughout 1918 and part of 1919? Did this tactic change?

Maksym Gon:  I think we should understand the sociopolitical atmosphere of that period. This is the end of the First World War. A number of pogroms were carried out, first and foremost, by the [Imperial] Russian army. This was an uncertain period when empires were falling, and who knew which states would remain on the political map. That is why the primary reflex of the Jewish political milieu in response to these events was to avoid bloodshed and the tragic destiny that often befalls national minorities when they are turned into “scapegoats.”

In time, especially after the November pogrom in Lviv, during which several dozen Jews were killed and great material damages were incurred, a pro-Ukrainian current began to form very slowly within the Jewish political milieu. This was spearheaded by Israel Waldmann, who at one time was appointed by Yevhen Petrushevych, the then dictator of the ZUNR, as the representative of the Jewish community in the government. Of course, there were sympathizers for the Ukrainian idea. One can mention the military unit comprised of Jewish youths known as the Jewish Battalion of the Ukrainian Galician Army, which numbered 1,200 men. However, it was more of a minority that openly inclined toward the Ukrainian side.

Andriy Kobalia:  Could you talk about the Jews who supported the Polish side in this conflict?

Maksym Gon:  Of course. We should consider that during this period Jews were mostly urbanites, although, by the way, Galicia had the largest percentage of the rural Jewish population in Eastern Europe. But the majority of Jews were urbanites. Therefore, they lived in a Polish-German cultural milieu. This orientation on the culture of the city also made itself felt. There were Jews fighting on the Polish side, with the Polish army. Although the dominant line was neutrality, there were examples of Jewish sympathy for the Poles and for the Ukrainians.

Andriy Kobalia:  You mentioned the pogrom in Lviv, when many Jews died. We should remind listeners that Lviv at that time was predominately populated by Poles and Jews.

Maksym Gon:  Of course.

Andriy Kobalia:  Let’s expand on the topic of the Jews and the ZUNR. If one relies on the programmatic documents of the ZUNR, what role were the Jews supposed to play in this state?

Maksym Gon:  Without a doubt, there are such references in the documents. We should understand that Galician society was a polyconfessional and multinational society at the time. That is why both the ZUNR and the UNR were destined to take into account the factor of national minorities. And the ZUNR offered a very beautiful line of understanding with the Jews, Poles, and Germans. Perhaps the finest proof of this is that the Diet of the ZUNR had designated places for national minorities. Elections to the Diet were carried out according to national quotas, districts. In other words, Jews were guaranteed their own places, and they elected representatives. This is a very brilliant page, and I am surprised that we harness so little of this example of Ukrainian-Jewish cooperation, this beautiful, tolerant policy on national minorities. I think that these storylines should occupy a much larger space in history textbooks for students and pupils.

Andriy Kobalia:  In speaking about programmatic documents, the fact is that always in history, especially in the twentieth century, we often encounter a situation where programmatic documents talk about one strategy, but in reality something a bit different ends up taking place. Did the ZUNR’s activities correspond to what was written in their documents?

Maksym Gon:  Any declaration is first and foremost a declaration of intentions. It is another question altogether to what extent political elites are prepared to implement these intentions, especially when speaking about ordinary citizens. Manifestations of impropriety in local areas undoubtedly occurred. This was an era of war, which had its own ethics and morals. But in general we speak most often about the fact that those two pogroms that took place were accompanied by punitive governmental sanctions against those who instigated them. After a minor pogrom in Ternopil, the instigators of these events were shot.

Andriy Kobalia:  During the period of the ZUNR’s existence, did the Jews manage to take part in the work of the republic’s representative bodies?

Maksym Gon:  During the ZUNR’s existence, which lasted less than a year in wartime conditions, the Jews managed to take part in this process. They elected their representatives to the Diet. The Ukrainian political elite was very loyal, although there were some among its ranks who said that since the Jews had opted for a policy of neutrality, some fiscal taxes should be levied on them for the war. There were such discussions. Fortunately, things did not reach this point.

Supreme Command of the UHA in Khodoriv, 1919 (Copyright:

Andriy Kobalia:  We have mentioned the ZUNR government’s attitude toward the Jews, and I would like to compare it with Jewish life in the Polish state—the Second Polish Republic—on the territory of Western Galicia, and not just there.

Maksym Gon:  The analytical constructions are identical. The Second Polish Republic rises from the ashes. It has tasks similar to the ZUNR’s, but it has conflicts not just with the Ukrainians but with others as well. Poland declares the equality of citizens regardless of religion and nationality. It has major problems in Western Galicia, where a very large-scale wave of pogroms had broken out. According to some estimates, there were nearly a hundred pogroms. We can speak definitely about dozens of pogroms in Western Galicia. The Poles attempt to integrate Jews into their state with national-personal autonomy, once the government recognizes the right of national minorities to create their own associations and organizations, which will champion their rights in the sphere of culture, etc.

After the pogroms in Lviv the instigators were also punished, but whenever a pogrom was underway and the Polish police arrived at the place where the slaughter was taking place, it would simply observe for a long time without intervening. The same happened in Western Galicia. The government simply did not manage to prevent pogroms. It meted out punishment. Investigations and court hearings were held. But from the vantage point of the twenty-first century we know that a government’s task is to prevent violence, not to mete out punishment after it occurs.

Andriy Kobalia:  We know that the ZUNR did not last long. It ceased to exist in 1919. We see that Polish troops captured the territory of Eastern Galicia, and afterwards Polish power is established here. What were relations like between the Ukrainians and the Jews after 1919—in the 1920s and 1930s?

Maksym Gon:  There are several levels here. If we are talking about the political level, then the first elections to the Polish Senate were held in 1922. I am referring to the elections in which the inhabitants of Galicia were involved. There is a very interesting story here. Leon Reich, who was a prominent figure during this period, wrote a letter to Petrushevych in which he emphasized that the Jews’ participation in the elections did not mean recognition of the Polish government. Galicia’s status was not yet defined by international treaties at the time. This happens only in 1923, and the elections are in 1922. For that reason, the Jews were governed by their own considerations. They wanted to attain a seat in the Senate in order to protect their rights. But they send this interesting letter to Petrushevych where they state they are pursuing their interests but do not recognize Polish rule in Eastern Galicia.

Andriy Kobalia:  This appears a bit odd. The Jews did not recognize Poland’s rule, yet they took part in the work of its bodies. If you participate in the work of a certain body, you legitimize it.

Maksym Gon:  I would consider this is a continuation of neutrality. There are two leitmotifs here. In effect, if a person goes to polling stations, he recognizes this power. On the other hand, the above-mentioned Leon Reich, the leader of the Jewish parliamentary faction that was formed later in the Sejm, says that we do not recognize Polish rule, but we want to gain a platform for protecting our rights.

In 1925 that same Leon Reich would become the initiator of a document that Ukrainians would call the Polish-Jewish agreement. At that time the Jews had numerous problems with integration in Poland. And Reich succeeded in concluding an agreement with the prime minister that a declaration of intentions would be signed. The Jews recognized Poland’s right to the disputed territories, and Parliament adopted fourteen to fifteen points that it promised to implement in order to grant Jews real—not just declared—equality.

The Ukrainian political milieu reacted painfully to this document. From that point on relations between Jews and Ukrainians in this region became significantly more tense. Then Symon Petliura was murdered. There was an extraordinarily harsh polemic in the press about the Jews’ role in the Ukrainian Revolution, not only in Galicia but also in Eastern Ukraine. Henceforth, attempts were made to seek an understanding. In general, Ukrainian-Jewish relations on the political level in Galicia after 1925 were strained but there were attempts to find a compromise. On the level of ordinary people, there was normal, good-neighborly co-existence. Old-timers who had survived the Holocaust recounted that on Shabbat, when orthodox Jews could not light even a candle, Ukrainian neighbors went to their homes to light a fire in the house, so that the Jews could heat up something for themselves.

There is a somewhat different story in Volhynia. Starting in 1922, Ukrainians and Jews cooperate in the bloc of national minorities and achieve a colossal victory, because their representatives entered the Sejm, whereas not a single Pole made it in. [This was] the territory of Poland, yet not a single representative of the titular nation was elected from Volhynia. The same bloc functioned in 1928, no longer so triumphantly, but the trend to cooperation was manifested more intensely in Volhynia, the Kholm region, and Pidliashia. It was somewhat different in Galicia.

Andriy Kobalia:  We have discussed Galicia, the ZUNR, and the Second Polish Republic. But Western Ukraine is not only Galicia, and I would like to touch on Bukovyna and Transcarpathia. What percentage of the Jewish population lived there?

Maksym Gon:  I know that the percentage of the Jewish population within Ukrainian ethnographic territories prior to the Holocaust stood at ten percent. Here eight percent, there eleven percent, but ten percent was the average figure. The situation was very similar in Bukovyna. A Jewish representative body was established there, which recognized the desire of all peoples for the creation of their own state. There was a certain declaration of intentions concerning cooperation with Ukrainians as well, but, as is well known, the Ukrainian state was unable to create powerful political institutions, and the leitmotif of this story, in fact, is similar to what was happening in Galicia. The difference was that in Bukovyna there were no Jewish units that supported the Ukrainians.

Andriy Kobalia:  What was the story in Transcarpathia? This territory became part of Czechoslovakia. What were Ukrainian-Jewish relations like there?

Maksym Gon:  Inter-ethnic dialogue is defined by the very spirit of an era and by the dominant moods in society. The Second Polish Republic, for example, had one of the most democratic constitutions in Europe. Despite this, in the late 1930s Polish nationalism plagued the Jews greatly. This was a country where Jewish culture was flowering. Schools were operating, and there were representatives in Polish bodies. But on the other hand there were colossal crackdowns on the Jews. The same was taking place in the majority of Eastern European countries.

The late 1930s saw the rise of authoritarianism and a crisis of democratic values in Romania. Life was complicated there for the Jews, to put it correctly. There were even cases where people were thrown out of the compartments of moving trains. By the late 1930s a sharp radicalization by titular nations vis-à-vis national minorities takes place, and Jews often became “scapegoats,” a people who were the first to experience the disappearance of tolerance.

Andriy Kobalia:  So the Jewish communities in Northern Bukovyna, then part of Romania, and those of Transcarpathia, then part of Czechoslovakia, had quite different experiences?

Maksym Gon:  Without a doubt, Czechoslovakia, thanks to Tomáš Masaryk, preserved its democratic values, and it is thus an exceptional story in Central Eastern Europe. In contrast, [those tendencies] in states where the image of Benito Mussolini and fascism were popularized were also present in Western Ukraine. A part of the Western Ukrainian political milieu was openly stating…including Yevhen Malaniuk who openly declared, “I am a fascist.” This meant I am a state creator, I am a patriot. The basis of fascism at that time was “the state above all.” The fascistization of society took place first, and later authoritarian tendencies intensified, as did the willingness to kneel before a leader. These attitudes affected very many people. Perhaps I have jumped into another topic, but there was the Third Reich. Hitler was able to reformat German society within some six years. In 1933 he came to power, and by 1939 the majority was supporting revanchist aggression in Europe.

Andriy Kobalia:  We have been talking with the historian Maksym Gon about the Jews in Western Ukraine during the interwar period. This has been the program Encounters. This program was made possible by the Canadian non-profit organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter. Andriy Kobalia has been at the microphone. This is Hromadske Radio. Our motto is, “Listen. Think.”

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated by Marta Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.

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