New Book on Pogroms Offers Lessons for Today

March 16, 2020

A new book about a horrific chapter of Jewish history offers lessons for today on how government policies can impact ethnic violence. 

A Jewish community in Trostenets, Ukraine, after the destruction of a pogrom. (Photo courtesy of Professor Elissa Bemporad)
A Jewish community in Trostenets, Ukraine, after the destruction of a pogrom. (Photo courtesy of Professor Elissa Bemporad)

By Beth Harpaz
Editor of SUM

Legacy of Blood: Jews, Pogroms, and Ritual Murder in the Lands of the Soviets by Professor Elissa Bemporad (The Graduate Center/Queens College; History), is a deeply researched account of anti-Jewish violence in Russia and its borderlands in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The book documents the carnage, its aftermath, and how and why Soviet authorities successfully outlawed pogroms in the 1920s and ‘30s.

The Jewish Book Council selected Legacy of Blood for a 2019 National Jewish Book Award in the category of Modern Jewish Thought and Experience.

Elissa Bemporad

Bemporad’s research – bolstered by news accounts, testimonials, photos, memorials, and other evidence – puts the toll of these rampages at 150,000 Jews murdered and a third of all Jewish women in the region raped. The term genocide was not in use in that era, but Bemporad believes it’s an appropriate term for what transpired.

Among Bemporad’s most shocking findings was “the scale of sexual violence against Jewish women and girls,” she said. Jewish women had been raped in pogroms before, but there was an “escalation of violence” as the White Army, loyal to the czar, and the Red Army of the Bolsheviks faced off during the Russian Revolution.
“In the beginning, the violence is mostly about looting and pillaging,” she said in an interview with the Indoor Voices podcast. “But as the community no longer has anything to give, it is the women that are taken, meaning that the women become what is being looted. The rape is used as an instrument of war and ethnic cleansing because in many places, in many towns, the goal is to to kick out the Jews. The goal is to create this kind of uniform area that belongs only to Ukrainians or that belongs only to the Whites. Jewish men are being punished also through through the rape of their wives or their daughters.” The attacks were often public gang rapes.

Until now, little was known “about this rape because of the silence, because of the shame that the victims of rape experience,” she said. Girls who had been raped in that era were not marriageable; and compared to the murder of entire families, rape trauma was considered low on the “hierarchy of victims.”

The book also details how the new Soviet state put a stop to anti-Jewish violence. Suddenly, instead of Jews being persecuted, Soviet authorities investigated, imprisoned, and sometimes even executed their tormenters. The Soviets did this not out of any great sense of humanity toward Jews (indeed, Bemporad says, they tamed “popular anti-Semitism … with a tinge of ambivalence”) but for other reasons. Pogroms were rooted in an ancient “blood libel” – a bizarre claim dating to the 12th century in which Jews were accused of murdering Christian children and using their blood in religious rituals. There was no room in the Bolsheviks’ new, modern, aetheistic society for pogroms born of religious superstitions and old czarist traditions.

Neither was there room in official Soviet dogma for ethnic divisions amid the “brotherhood of the peoples.” Moreover, in the Soviet Union, Bemporad said, only “the state controls violence. … Something that originates from below (like a pogrom), something that is not orchestrated from above, cannot be tolerated.”

The Nazi invasion of Soviet territories rekindled mass slaughter of Jews. Often those killings were carried out by local non-Jews whose anti-Semitism had been controlled by the Soviets but by no means stamped out.

Bemporad says the history and trauma of the pogrom era was “completely overshadowed by the Holocaust, which took place some 20 years later in the same area.” Most Jews who survived pogrom violence were murdered during World War II, so their stories were lost. And the Soviets had no interest in memorializing Jewish tragedy. Instead, they sought to “universalize the memory of all who fought on behalf of the revolution.”

What lessons does Bemporad see from her book for today, as minorities, immigrants, and other marginalized people are demonized and targeted around the world?

“Any book that deals with anti-Semitism should be considered as a book that informs our present political moment,” she said. “Governments have a responsibility to prevent anti-Semitism, racism, the othering of members of different ethnic or religious groups.” In the postwar period, she notes, the Soviet Union promoted Russian chauvinism, and anti-Semitism resurfaced.  “And in present-day America, the current administration promotes white supremacism. So the consequence in both cases is the growth or the return to the surface of anti-Jewish stereotypes or stereotypes against people of color, stereotypes against refugees.”

Beth Harpaz is the editor of SUM. Follow her on Twitter at @literarydj.