“Your rabbi was taken as a hostage”: Accounts of Russian Tactics in WWI

Hostage-taking and forced migration were just two methods used by Russian forces in Ukraine and Poland a century ago

Jewish burial near the Galician theater of war, 1915 (Public domain)

Following Russian advances into portions of Ukraine and Poland in 1914, stories of atrocities quickly spread throughout Europe and beyond. At first, the accounts from Jewish communities were almost too horrific to believe: Packs of Russian Cossack and Chechen soldiers stealing whatever they liked, raping women and girls in the streets in front of their families, cutting off limbs for sport, even crucifying men who dared to speak out against their beastly acts. Others were hung by their tefillin.

The veracity of the stories was sometimes questioned, especially, for example, when promulgated by Ukrainian nationalist elements, though the sheer number of reports and diversity of sources soon dispelled any doubt that war crimes were being committed.

“Wild Charge of The Most-Feared Troops in the Army of the Czar, The Cossacks” photo published in the Evening Public Ledger, March 1, 1915 (Library of Congress / Public domain). Click image to enlarge

In many cases, Russian authorities opted for hostage-taking instead of murder or forced expulsion. They would identify and detain prominent Jews from each community – rabbis, businessmen, civic leaders – and then warn the local community that the hostages would be killed should any acts deemed disloyal be committed.

“Your rabbi was taken as a hostage. If we hear again that Jews have talked to Germans the rabbi will be hanged,” a resident of the Polish town of Myszyniec (“Mishenitz” in Yiddish) recalled being told. Just two days later, the orders changed and all of the Jewish residents of the town were forcibly expelled, with only about half a dozen Jews, including a few over the age of 90, staying behind. In many cases such decisions were made at the field commander level, yet patterns and similar methods were certainly seen throughout the conflict zone.

When the Russians conquered Czernowitz (“Chernivtsi” in Ukrainian), the capital of Bukovina, they demanded that the Jewish mayor, Dr. Salo Weisselberger, hand over prominent citizens to be held hostage. Weisselberger reportedly refused, saying that he had no control over anyone but himself. He was subsequently sent to Siberia where he remained even after Austro-Hungarian forces recaptured the city, though he ultimately returned home following a prisoner exchange and was knighted by Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph.

Main Street, Czernowitz, 1903. From The Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection
Czernowitz during the 1917 visit of Emperor Franz Joseph’s successor, Karl I (Austrian National Library / Public domain)

Bukovina and neighboring Galicia – multi-ethnic regions that straddle today’s Ukrainian, Polish and Romanian borderlands – saw especially fierce fighting during the war. Hotbeds of Ukrainian culture and education, Ukrainians in these areas were accused by the Austro-Hungarians of being pro-Russian, while the Russians cracked down on local Ukrainian nationalists by mean of imprisonment, expulsion and murder.

Meanwhile, deep-seeded antisemitism, mistrust and geopolitical interests, ensured that accusations of treason and disloyalty against Jews persisted across Europe. The realities of Jewish life and loyalties at the time, though, were far from clear or predictable. Jews, in fact, served and sacrificed on all sides, despite such allegations. The Russian, Austrian and American armies each had hundreds of thousands of Jews among their ranks, not to mention the numerous other nations engaged in the conflict.

German Jewish soldiers and their families, 1914. From The Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Nevertheless, the Jewish civilian population suffered greatly, especially at the hands of Russian commanders who often expelled Jews from the towns and cities they called home simply because of their communal affiliation. They were generally forbidden from bringing their possessions with them into forced exile. With no truly comprehensive statistics available, scholars estimate that during the course of the war, between half a million and one million Jews in the Russian Empire were forcibly expelled from their homes. Scholar Jonathan Frankel has even estimated that some 1,000,000 Jews were already expelled by the end of 1915.

In an excerpted letter published early that year, one exile from the town of Skierniewice recalled his personal experience:

“We were not even permitted to leave behind us the sick and the women in childbirth. Only the Jewish bakers, blacksmiths and a few contractors were allowed to remain. But they did not care to stay and prepared to leave with the rest of us…

The Poles did not even wait for the Jews to leave town before they started plundering our homes and shops. They met with no resistance. The Jews, of course, were powerless…

It was the Sabbath, but the rabbis declared it lawful to set the children, the feeble old men and the women in childbirth on wagons, which we hired at unheard of prices. We took the scrolls of the law in our hands and, amid savage cries of the Poles and the soldiers, we left the town in silence and despair… Even the children cried with us…

The worst part of our experience was, however, that all along the way we were continually joined by ever new hosts of Jews who were even more destitute than we. The livelong day we dragged ourselves along the hard, rutty roads. Besides us moved long lines of Russian soldiers. They were coming to ‘redeem’ the land from the hands of the enemy and it was these redeemers who inflicted upon us the most excruciating woes. Wherever the Russian troops went they were accompanied by a crowd of Poles, men and women and children, who would point at us and shout: ‘There go the traitors!’… ‘Go to Palestine, you accursed Jews!’ the Poles and the soldiers would taunt us…”

A report published later in 1915 described forced expulsions deep into Russian territory as far as the Ural Mountains and Siberia as “an awful picture of the most abject misery”. Train cars packed mostly with Ukrainian Jews, Lithuanians and “other inhabitants of the war zone,” were “filled beyond their capacity… the people are heaped indiscriminately in piles, old men and women, children, sick people, all of them worn out and exhausted by a long journey lacking all human comfort… all of these people are in rags…”

The reporter further described the prisoners as “hav[ing] been shipped like merchandise or worse, like cattle. They are numbered and each one carries his bill of lading. They are not human beings they are treated like a shipment of freight.”

This heap of humanity had been traveling for weeks, having no idea where to go. “It matters little where we are sent to, as long as it only brings us nearer to death,” one of the prisoners bemoaned.

Jewish refugees from Poland head towards safety across the Austrian border, October 6, 1915 (Library of Congress / Public domain)

While many of their brethren were sent eastward, thousands of Jewish refugees descended upon major cities across Europe. Just a few months into the war, the Vienna Jewish community, for example, was already feeding kosher meals to some 8,000 refugees each day. In Warsaw, thousands arrived daily, packing communal institutions. Hundreds of people, mostly women and children, even slept in the Zamir literary club, founded and headed by legendary Yiddish author Y.L. Peretz, who cared for them personally. Wall-to-wall beds stuffed the club’s main hall, which looked like an “ant colony that had been destroyed,” according to S. Ansky, the famous scholar and author of The Dybbuk, in his book The Destruction of the Jews of Poland, Galicia and Bukovina. The refugees had come “mostly by foot, robbed, naked, starving, faded by fear and helplessness,” Ansky recalled.

According to historian Peter Gatrell, “for decades the only publication of note in Russian relating to population displacement in the era of the First World War was a brief and tantalising encyclopedia entry on ‘refugeedom’ by Abram Kirzhnits in the first edition of the Soviet historical encyclopedia.”

Kirzhnits termed concerted Russian efforts to massively displace diverse civilian populations a ‘bacchanalia of forced migration’. While “Jews in particular suffered from widespread antisemitism,” according to Gatrell, the forced migrations “ensnared Poles, Jews, Latvians, Lithuanians, Belarusians and Ukrainians… targeted on account of their presumed disloyalty to the empire.”

This “bacchanalia of forced migration” deeply impacted 20th century history, while its effects – and causes – continue to echo in Ukraine and well beyond its borders.


This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

The Pope and Haman in Renaissance Italy

The only known manuscript of The Chronicle of Pope Paul IV is at the National Library in Jerusalem...

Like the traditional Purim story, The Chronicle of Pope Paul IV recounts a terrible period in Jewish Italian history, as well as an ultimate redemption from tyranny.

Purim is undoubtedly a time of joy. It is the time set to celebrate Queen Esther and the miraculous salvation of the Jewish people from the hands of the evil Haman. People wear costumes, give food and drink to friends and neighbors, eat the traditional hamantaschen. People attend comical Purimshpil performances and raucous Adloyada parades.

However, Purim is much more than that: it is a time to defy evil and pursue social justice. In addition to donating charity to the poor, Jews observe the commandment of reading the Scroll of Esther (the “megillah“) aloud, so that everyone will know about Haman’s downfall, when he was hanged with his sons on the very gallows he had prepared for Mordecai the Jew.

Puppets representing Haman and his ten sons on the gallows near the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, 2021 (Photo: Martina Mampieri)

The image of Haman has been one of the most common epithets used to identify the contemporary enemies of the Jews over the centuries, including Pope Gregory I, Tsar Alexander III, Adolf Hitler, and Yasser Arafat.

The Hebrew chronicle Divre ha-yamim shel ha-apifior Paolo ha-revi’i ha-niqra Teatino (The Chronicle of Pope Paul IV, Known as the Theatine) also features Haman. The work is contained in a nineteenth-century manuscript in Italian cursive script, today held at the National Library of Israel. No other examples of the work, including the original, are known.

The Chronicle of Pope Paul IV, Known as the Theatine was formerly owned by German collector Sigmund Nauheim of Frankfurt (1874-1935), who bequeathed his collection of manuscripts and books to the Jewish National and University Library, today’s National Library of Israel. From the National Library of Israel collection (Ms. Heb. 8°984)

The author of this remarkable work was the moneylender Benjamin Neḥemiah ben Elnathan (also known in Italian as Guglielmo di Diodato), whose family had settled down in the city of Civitanova in the March of Ancona, after the expulsion of the Jews from the Kingdom of Naples in 1540-41.

The chronicle retraces the four years of Pope Paul IV’s pontificate (1555-59), which caused a radical change in the attitude of the Church towards the Jews. Soon after rising to power, the pope, whose given name was Gian Pietro Carafa, unleashed a number of cruel impositions and restrictions. They were published in the July 1555 papal bull known as Cum nimis absurdum, and included the establishment of ghettos and the requirement that Jews wear yellow badges.

Painting by Palma il Giovane of Paul IV handing down a statute, ca. 1587 (Public domain)

Under the rule of Paul IV – the former cardinal-inquisitor, who, among other things, played a fundamental role in the burning of the Talmud in Campo de’ Fiori in Rome in 1553 – the Roman Inquisition was substantially expanded and strengthened.

In 1556, one of the darkest chapters in the history of Italy Jewry was written when twenty-six Portuguese Jews, who had been baptized in Portugal in the late fifteenth century and who then returned to Judaism after moving to Italy, were declared heretics and burned at the stake in Ancona.

In 1559, the same Benjamin Neḥemiah ben Elnathan, his brother Samuel, and four other Jews from Civitanova were arrested by the Roman Inquisition, accused of having tried to convert a Franciscan friar to Judaism and having thrown stones at certain sacred Christian images. The chronicler recounts that a number of slanderers were behind the accusations, including Aharon ben Menaḥem, a Jewish man who had converted to Christianity and became known as Giovan Battista Buonamici.

Benjamin compares this apostate to the evil Haman, because like the latter, he used his eloquent manner of speaking to destroy the Jews. According to the account:

“…in the first days of his conversion, he made himself seem like a man who loved the people of Israel […] but his heart was full of abominations, then he became an enemy of the Jews and injured them with his speech. He was an evil man and an enemy like Haman who used his speech in a deceitful manner.”

This is not Benjamin’s only mention of Haman. Indeed, Benjamin associates Haman with the pope’s nephew and counsellor, Cardinal Carlo Carafa, who, in another passage of the chronicle, is accused of committing murders, raping virgins, steeling goods and perpetrating other shameful deeds.

Portrait of Cardinal Carlo Carafa in Receuil d’Arras, a 16th century collection of portraits copied by Jacques de Boucq (Public domain)

In the chronicle, Benjamin recounts the cardinal arriving at his dead uncle’s bedside, and curses the two evil men with clear reference to the death of Haman and his sons on the gallows: “Both of their burning bodies may be hung on a tree and their souls roasted in the fire!”

Echoing the story of Haman’s downfall, following Paul IV’s death, his successor arrested Carlo Carafa and dragged him through the streets of the Vatican. Moreover, there was a custom to free prisoners following the death of a pope, and so Benjamin and other Jews were released from the Inquisition prisons. According to his own account, Benjamin and his compatriots went to meet the Duke of Civitanova to ask for his permission return home. He granted their request and before they returned to Civitanova, they witnessed the destruction of the previous pope’s statue on the Capitoline Hill in Rome.

The manuscript generally depicts Paul IV as evil, and even something of a devil, with the author often cursing him and including him “in the company of the evil”, along with Balaam – the non-Israelite prophet who cursed the people of Israel (Numbers 22-24). Benjamin also links Paul IV to Amalek, the eternal enemies of the Israelites who were first encountered during the forty-year trek in the wilderness following the exodus from Egypt, and who, according to tradition, were among Haman’s ancestors. In the biblical account, Amalek’s attack was the first war Israel experienced, and the victory marked a shift in the history of the Jewish people. God ordered Moses to “Inscribe this in a document as a reminder, and read it aloud to Joshua: I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven!” (Exodus 17:14).

In this sense, the writing of a detailed chronicle on the “evil pope” and his reign was perceived by Benjamin as a moral commandment. Like the Scroll of Esther, The Chronicle of Pope Paul IV narrates the miraculous salvation of the Jewish people from the evil plots of their enemies, who are ultimately defeated.


Martina Mampieri is the author of Living Under the Evil Pope: The Hebrew Chronicle of Pope Paul IV by Benjamin Neḥemiah ben Elnathan from Civitanova Marche (16th cent.), published in 2020 by Brill.

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

Poems and Stories by the Jewish Children of Kharkiv, Ukraine

A booklet labeled “The Lives of Children”, preserved at the National Library of Israel, contains Hebrew stories and poems written a century ago by Jewish high school students in Ukraine

Cover page of the booklet “The Lives of Children” composed by students at the Tarbut high school in Kharkiv

The National Library of Israel’s Rare Items Collection contains a special booklet of poems and stories written by boys and girls in the city of Kharkiv, Ukraine, ahead of the Passover holiday in the year 1920.

A language in the process of revival needs speakers, young speakers most of all: nursery, kindergarten and school age children, who will grow up speaking the language fluently and freely. Apart from speakers, such a language also needs tools for teaching it, and the main early tool developed by the Zionist movement to teach its young followers Hebrew was a compilation of stories, songs, poems, and rhymes. In 1887, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and David Yellin published the first Hebrew “Reader for Jewish Children” (המקראה לילדי ישראל).

In the last few decades of the nineteenth century and until after World War II, teachers, students, and writers contributed hundreds of original Hebrew texts for the benefit of the young learners in the many Hebrew schools established in Europe. It was a huge project in both its scope and importance, and yet, anyone who has ever studied a foreign language knows that even that it is not enough.

The first stage in language learning is passive absorption; the second stage is practice. The booklet “The Lives of Children” is a vivid example of this second stage: the transition from reading to writing, from passive absorption to spontaneous creation. The truth is that students of the “Tarbut” school (tarbut is Hebrew for “Culture”) in the city of Kharkiv in Ukraine could not have chosen a more appropriate theme for their reader: the renewal of spring and the commemoration of the liberation of the Israelites from slavery to freedom on Passover.

The Tarbut organization, which aimed to establish a network of Hebrew schools across Eastern Europe, was founded only three years before the publication of the booklet, in April 1917, in Moscow. It was a fateful year that saw the fall of the tsar and which ended with the establishment of the Bolshevik government, hostile to both Zionism and the Hebrew language. Following the Russian Civil War and especially due to the Bolsheviks’ anti-Zionist policy, the Tarbut organization was forced to close its Moscow headquarters and start again from scratch in Kiev, Odessa, and Krakow in mid-1918. At first, Tarbut’s Ukrainian branch received short-term funding from the independent Ukrainian government, but this ended when the communists took over that country as well. It also spelled the end for the short-lived flourishing of Hebrew in Ukraine. The booklet from the Tarbut school in Kharkiv was published during that small window.

The booklet “The Lives of Children” offers us a glimpse into the world of Kharkiv’s Jewish children in their own words, in clear and elegant Hebrew. Each piece of prose or poetry is accompanied by the writer’s name, and all the writings, as mentioned, deal with the coming of spring and the festival of Passover. It is in fact a collection of “songs, stories, memories, impressions, and imaginings,” by first and second division Tarbut students. From the texts, it is clear that these are not first or second graders, but most likely boys and girls around the age of 14 or 15.

Following the table of contents is an illustration of a peaceful landscape with the caption, “On the shores of the Dnieper”— that is the Dnieper River, which flows from Russia through Belarus and Ukraine to the Black Sea.


The first work is a poem by Daniel Prakhabmek called Winter is Over. The poem is even dated – 5th of Nisan, 1920:


Winter is over, the cold is gone,

The universe is filled with joy.

The southerly winds slowly blow

Repairing a gloomy soul.


Young sun, spring sun,

Shining in the sky,

Casting a wealth of light on the Earth,

Blinding eyes.


The naked trees,

Are awakened again,

The noisy city,

Dons a new face.


Everything is joyful, alive, and glowing,

The spirit of spring washes over all

Happy are the tall buildings,

Crowned by high mountains.


Still, there remains a glassy film of ice,

Over the swamps, over the streams,

Still, the trees are bare,

The leaves not yet budded.


The birds not yet returned,

Singing their joyful songs,

But spring is already felt,

In every corner and square.


The sky has changed

The sea foam is different,

And spring is already seeping,

Into the depths of the soul.


This is not the world,

This is not as the heights of Creation,

Everything is alive, fresh, happy

Everything returns to life!



Student Sarah Aspel writes about trees blooming in spring:


How awful is winter’s great cold

How beautiful spring’s pleasant winds,

The trees, have you seen, how beautiful they are in the spring,

In winter, they stood, mourning and asleep,

And here, spring is come, they have woken, risen,

They begin to look around, around,

-“Thank God, winter is over!”

The trees begin to whisper among themselves

-“Now we will grow with the coming of spring!”


After nine poems devoted to the end of winter, the coming of spring and the Passover celebrations, comes the first in a series of stories. Eliezer Aharonov writes about preparations for Passover:

In our house, work is at full speed. All the members of our household are preparing for the great holiday, the Feast of the Redemption of Israel, which is Passover. My father takes the Haggadot from the closet, my mother and aunt turn over the rooms, clean the tables, chairs, and beds: I wanted to help them but mother shoos me out for a walk. I went outside, the air was clear, the sky was pure and as if the whole world had cleansed itself, to meet the great feast. And here is my sister calling me in for lunch. How hard it was for me to leave the shore and go home, but I comforted myself with this thought: maybe my mother would let me go out after lunch. I went home, ate, and went out again. It’s hard to describe what pleasure I felt in that moment!!!

In all the stories (with one exception), the writer is also the main character, and many make mention of the authors’ parents, especially the mothers. Eliezer’s mother sent him for a walk outside so he wouldn’t interfere with the cleaning, while Chaim Sheingald’s story begins with a question he asks his mother: “Why is it bright today? Why are there no clouds like yesterday?”

Contrary to the Zionist myth that the Diaspora Jew was disengaged from his or her surroundings, it is clear that the students in Kharkiv feel an affinity for the nature around them. They experience spring as a vivid and glorious time of the year, a time of incredible changes and beautiful transformations. The cold departs and the rain clouds give way to the warming sun. To these young poets and writers, the association of burgeoning nature with the approaching Passover holiday is clear.


How wonderful to read and reflect on these scenes from the lives of Jewish children in Ukraine—not for the distance in time (more than a century has passed), but rather for the similarity between the students who lived and wrote Hebrew a hundred years ago and the children we were once ourselves. Who cannot relate to the scene of sitting in the classroom and feeling that itch for the school day to end? To finally be released into the great outdoors to roam about in freedom…As David Lomzov writes in his story, “Spring is Come”:

I’m lying in my bed. I’m already awake, but I don’t understand why the light has such a reddish hue? I opened my eyes and here was the sun warming me while I lay on my bed! Happily, I jumped across the bed and saw: the little snow that remained had melted. Spring is come! A thought crossed my mind what a wonderful word is spring! How many thoughts it conjures in my heart! I’ll go to the parks, maybe we’ll go to summer camp, I’ll pick mushrooms, and walnuts and more and more…

I took my book and went to school with a happy face, where I met the cheerful faces of my friends. “Maybe we should go on an excursion today?” one child said to me. Suddenly the bell sounds and I run to our classroom. There they explain all sorts of lovely things and we are not at all interested in the things they are explaining to us, and we pretend to listen, but our hearts are outside.


Most of the texts share three main locations: The home – where preparations for Passover are taking place and the Seder night is celebrated; The outdoors – where nature is awakening from its winter hibernation; the synagogue – where the community meets together with the rabbi. Some of the stories, such as the one above, mention a fourth location as well – the classroom.

So, how did Kharkiv’s children spend their Passover? The evidence certainly shows that not much has changed, which is what is so beautiful and moving. Mordechai Halevi Izgur writes:

A few days before Passover, my mother and I carried our Passover utensils to our cousin, because we celebrated the holiday with him in his house. There they began to prepare the utensils and clean the rooms. At nine o’clock in the morning on the eve of Passover, we hurried to eat the chametz [leavened bread] and remove what remained from the house. In a word: we tried to make “Passover” in all the rooms.


Most of the passages in the booklet were written by boys, but Hannah Brik’s story is unique in that it is included in the section called “Imaginings.” This is the only text not written in the first person. The protagonist is little Sarah, who, feeling tired on the eve of Passover, falls asleep just before her father returns from synagogue.

Sarah proceeds to dream of a joyful venture into the forest – she joins the birds in song as time passes among the trees. Later, as evening falls in the dream, Sarah’s mood shifts – “My old tree,” she sadly asks one of her woodland companions, “where is my home?” – “I know not,” the tree replies, “go and ask the birds”. Yet the birds are unable to help as well. Just as Sarah breaks down in anguish, she is awoken by her mother’s kisses, urging her to rise from her bed and come to the Passover table. Father has returned…

We cannot do justice in such a short space to the writings of all the students at the Tarbut school in Kharkiv. But we are happy to tell that the entire booklet has been scanned and uploaded to the National Library of Israel website as part of the “450 Years of the Hebrew Book” project. You can read the booklet here. Incidentally, this booklet is numbered 12, which means that there were at least 11 previous booklets, and presumably more.

We conclude with a prayer for the end of the current war in Ukraine and for the quick return of peace and quiet to the region.


Further Reading:

Kenneth B. Moss, Bringing Culture to the Nation: Hebraism, Yiddishism, and the Dilemmas of Jewish Cultural Formation in Russia and Ukraine, 1917-1919, Jewish History 22,3 (2008) 263-294

The Man Who Tried to Redefine Ukrainian Jewish History

For Ilya Galant, the myths of eternal hatred between Ukrainians and Jews were just that, myths

Galant emphasized that Jews and Ukrainians actually had much in common, including their love for the land and shared struggles against oppressors (Image: Skole, Ukraine, ca. 1914. From The Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection)

Ilya Galant was an important (but little known) Jewish-Russian-Ukrainian historian and political liberal, who wanted to legitimize the rights of Jews in Russia and “normalize” their presence in Ukraine. In order to do this, he interpreted history creatively, showing Jewish-Ukrainian friendship as well as Jewish contributions to Ukraine. He also appealed to the Russian intelligentsia to foster a liberal coalition of forces in favor of Jewish rights. Galant depicted a Ukrainian-Jewish synthesis, giving a portrait of mutual friendship, codependency, and binational unity. For Galant, the myths of eternal hatred between Ukrainians and Jews were just that, myths. A fresh examination of historical documents showed him that the two nations actually had much in common, including their love for the land and shared struggles against oppressors.

Almost nothing has been written about Galant’s historical work. He was born in Nezhin, Ukraine in 1867 and likely died at the Babi Yar Massacre in 1941. As a boy he received a religious education. In Nezhin, he became close with history professors at the local university and spent several years studying in the university library. In 1890, he moved to Kiev and taught history in high schools. As a historian, he published a number of important documents and studies regarding accusations of ritual murder, violence in 1648, and Russian-Jewish relations in the 19th century.

Synagogue in Nezhin, built around 1900. From the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Galant would perhaps have become a familiar name in Eastern-European Jewish historiography if Jewish autonomy had succeeded in Ukraine and throughout Eastern Europe. But things did not work out that way. While the loosening of central power at the end of World War I led to the fall of tsarism and the rise of an independent Ukraine, by 1921 most of the former Russian Empire, including Eastern Ukraine, had reconstituted itself as the Soviet Union. Characterized by a Communist ideology and a strong central government, the state coopted Ukrainian nationalism and forcefully oppressed Jewish religious and national identity (with a few exceptions).  In East-Central Europe, in Poland, Romania, and the Baltic states, Jewish nationalism was shown as politically powerless. Galant’s politics and his readiness to link Jews with other subalterns against the central power had lost, and instead of serving as a model for a new type of historiography focused on united minorities, his version defined him as a hold-over, a bourgeois, and expendable.

For us today, he represents one of those “paths not taken,” a Jewish historian who ran aground on the shawls of the history that he himself had tried to shape differently.

During his career, Galant managed to gain access to rare documents in Russian archives: the Kiev city archive, the archives of the state governor, and even police files. Clearly he had connections in high places; he befriended the academic elite in Nezhin and Kiev, and for a time in the 1890s, he served as the private secretary to Samuil Brodsky, the well-known Kiev industrialist. In addition, with his knowledge of Hebrew, he had access to pinkasim (communal ledgers), rabbinic manuscripts, community metric books, and other Jewish documents.

The Kreshchatik, the main thoroughfare in Kiev, ca. 1900. From the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

He embraced a Ukrainian-Jewish identity that broke with other Jewish historians who spoke of Jews as a unified community throughout the empire. A unique figure, Galant focused exclusively on Jewish Ukraine and he sympathized with Ukrainian nationalism. An essential assumption through all his work is that, as a concept, “Ukraine” included the Jews who lived there. In this way, Galant was situated at a unique intersection, where the birth of the national struggles in the Russian Empire – Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Jewish – was announced and liberalism – the values of a multi-cultural democratic Russia – was growing in popularity.

Perhaps the most innovative dimension of Galant’s work is his portrayal of a Jewish-Ukrainian synthesis because it runs against the grain in Russian and Jewish historiography. In nineteenth-century Russian historiography generally, Jews, if they are depicted at all, are depicted overwhelmingly as profiteers who play a nefarious role exploiting the hard work of the peasant. Such was the case with the influential Ukrainian historian Mykola Kostomarov. Rarely did non-Jewish historians depict Jews positively, with the exception of Sergei Bershadsky, who in his studies of Jews of Russia’s Northwest showed the value of Jews for economic and cultural progress in Russia.

As one would expect, in Jewish history, tackling the subject of Ukraine is complicated. To be sure, many leading historians such as Heinrich Graetz and Simon Dubnov emphasized violence and antisemitism, focusing on the Khmelnitsky Uprising. In contrast, an unconventional line emerged that emphasized the propitious conditions that attracted Jews to Ukraine and had permitted a dynamic civilization to form and flourish despite intermittent violence. Historians such as Avram Harkavy, Mikhail Kulisher, and later Saul Borovoi belong to this group.


Blaming others

As mentioned, Galant perceived a unity of Ukrainian-Jewish interests where others found discord. For example, he set the blame for anti-Jewish violence firmly at the door of the reigning powers; in one case the Poles and in the other the Russian government. In nearly every case he shielded Ukrainians from blame. This position is indefensible and contradicts the historical evidence, but Galant held firm, marking himself as a friend of the Ukrainian people in their quest for national self-consciousness.

Just as other Jewish leaders did in places where competition over Jewish loyalty had become contested between the central and local powers, Galant was torn. He had great sympathy for Ukrainians and their national goals, but also identified with Jewish political demands. He wondered whether Jewish progress should be yoked to Russian liberalism (multi-national Russia under Russian control), to Ukrainian autonomy, or to the Jewish national struggle.

A Jewish pharmacist with his wife and son, Berdychiv, Ukraine, ca. 1900. From the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Galant’s attempt to be all things to all people inevitably failed. It led to flawed historical writing in the sense that today, when one reads Galant, one must weed out fact from imagination. His ideological problem was that all the parties involved (Russian government, Russian people, Ukrainians, Jews) could not easily be placated and some interests were irreconcilable. For example, Galant did not reject the hope that historical study could contribute to the attainment of rights for Jews in the Russian Empire. However, nothing Jews did could convince the Russian government to loosen control. At the same time, Ukrainians composed a rising nationality seeking to expand their national profile and right to self-administration, including the Ukrainian language in schools and cultural activities. Jews, themselves a persecuted people, also started to formulate separate demands. Desire for Jewish cultural autonomy was spreading and taking shape. For a short time just before 1905, Galant himself even trumpeted Zionism, believing that Jewish national identity would enhance Jewish self-respect and perhaps some part of the Jewish masses could attain gainful employment in Ottoman Palestine, though Ukraine remained the focus of most of his personal and professional attention.

Vasiliy Sternberg’s “Fair in Ukraine”, mid-19th century (Public domain). Click image to enlarge

In an early article entitled, “On the History of the Settlement of Jews in Poland and Ukraine in General and in Podoliya in Particular” (1897), Galant made a claim that he repeated throughout his life, that Ukraine offered excellent conditions for Jewish life because it “did not have that intensive and sharp character, as in Western Europe.” He meant that the persecution of Jews that was constant and unremitting in Western Europe was relatively absent in Ukraine. In Ukraine, there were isolated tragedies, but they were overwhelmingly rare and uncommon. On this point, Galant made sweeping generalizations:

“Only ancient Rus appears a happy exception (relatively speaking) in this regard. Despite arriving at the time of the first Rurik rulers, and perhaps even earlier, Jews were not subject to personal persecution and expulsions, did not experience those physical tortures and spiritual humiliations that their co-religionists in Western Europe had to endure endlessly. But, saying this, I do not believe that Jews were always blessed with total prosperity, but life passed peacefully and was not disrupted by the intrusion of the wild crowd.”

Galant was aware that the most difficult question for a Jewish historian of Ukraine is how to treat the uprisings, the Khmelnitsky Revolt in the seventeenth century, and Haidamaky – the actions of bands of Ukrainian warriors in the eighteenth century. The conundrum is this: Ukrainian historians have lauded the violence against Polish rule as an original expression of Ukrainian national identity, yet for Jews, these events were tragedies. Jews were widely victimized, murdered, raped, enslaved, and their property pillaged. Although Galant acknowledged that Jews owed their livelihood to collaboration, or better, subordination to Polish economic and political needs, he maintained that Jews were collateral victims and not the focus of Ukrainian hate.

According to Galant, sources from the time agreed with him:

“One can only assert that Jews innocently suffered during the Haidamaky, since even in the literature hostile to Jews, there is, it seems, no mention of Jewish antagonistic acts toward the Haidamaks. Even the Archimandrite of Montrenin, Melchisedek Znachko-Yavorskij, whom many consider the leading villain in Haidamak crimes, in his lamentations and complaints against persecutions toward Russian Orthodox Christians and the Russian Orthodox church by Poles hardly speaks at all about Jews.”

In contrast to anti-Jewish sources, Galant explained the strife as a result of a triangular conflict of interests: Russian, Polish, and Jewish. He gave weight to religious, ideological, and ethnic motives:

“However, there can be no doubt that the Russian element in Poland is guilty of the two massive catastrophes in Jewish history, the Khmelnitsky Revolt and the Haidamaky. These catastrophes were rooted in a national, spiritual and economic antagonism between the tragedy’s three participants, the Polish nobility, Jews, and the Russian peasantry.”

It is significant that Galant does not mention Ukrainians or Ruthenians, but calls them “Russians.” Whether Galant wanted to say anything special by using this terminology is difficult to say. In any case one can interpret it as an attempt to portray Ukraine as naturally part of Russia, thereby underscoring Galant’s liberal position in favor of the multi-ethnic Russian empire. However, this position leads Galant into self-contradiction, since, by implicating Russians and saying that Ukrainians are Russians, he inevitably blamed Ukrainians for violence against Jews.

Young Jewish boys in Carpathian Ruthenia (part of modern-day Ukraine), 1918. From The Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Galant consciously pointed out the Jews’ vulnerabilities, their precarious position as the landlords’ agents, as well as the suffering Ukrainians:

“Jews in the socio-economic life of this region worked in a very dangerous and risky position. They found themselves between… a despotic nobility, ignorant and without borders in passions and caprice, and plebians, who are persecuted, forgotten, tortured and left to the whims of chance.”

In contrast to myths regarding the extensive violence against Jews during the Khmelnitsky Revolt, Galant argued that violence was not widespread nor were the consequences long-lived. One way he emphasized this was through his writings on the successful rebuilding of Jewish communities following such disruptions.


Dispelling falsehoods

Galant was not afraid to deal directly with Jewish suffering in Ukraine because he viewed it as minor compared to other countries. Yet, he still did not make an effort to incriminate Ukrainians. He nearly always found a different persecutor. Galant’s research shows that the Catholic Church extorted onerous sums from Jews. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Jewish communities fell on hard times and were unable to pay their tax obligations. In such cases, they were forced to borrow at impossibly high rates of interest and put up their most valued objects as collateral, sometimes even their synagogues! In many cases, the Polish Catholic Church fleeced Jews mercilessly, as Jews had little choice but to borrow from this exclusive source of liquidity.

The St. Joseph Church in Pidhirtsi, Ukraine, built by Polish nobleman Wacław Rzewuski, was consecrated in 1766. (Photo: Сергій Венцеславський / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Galant’s use of documents helped to dispel falsehoods and legends that had gained the status of truth. For example, he explained that many people had come to believe that Ukrainians were indebted to Jews to such a degree that Jews owned Uniate churches and rented them to the congregants. Galant explained:

“Accusations exist, false, unverified, scientifically or documentarily unproved, that however implicate not only those against whom these were originally brandished, but also their distant descendants. These accusations, having been born and come to life in some unknown way, are legends that, having completed their trip through many generations, acquire thereafter the consistency of a true fact, an inconvertible truth not only in the eyes of the ignorant simple people, but also scholarly authorities.”

Galant maintained that there was no evidence for such a claim in all the documentation regarding Jews in Ukraine. Only Cossack chronicles assert Jewish control of churches, and, he remarked, these sources had come under considerable criticism. Acknowledging folksongs, he nonetheless noted that:

 “It is highly risky to draw serious conclusions on the basis of folk songs exclusively.”

Galant gave an explanation for such specious claims, speculating that the sale of alcohol by Jews became associated with churches because Ukrainians held their parties and life-cycle events in churches. Thus, it would have seemed that if they could not afford liquor, then they could not hold their parties. From this, one could conclude that Jews controlled the churches. Galant maintained that these accusations were likely used to agitate the population and motivate the Khmelnitsky Revolt. However, what was first used as propaganda was later interpreted as truth by even the most highly respected Ukrainian historians.

Galant’s attempt to exonerate Ukrainians cannot be left unnoticed. His assertions collide with other treatments of the same events both in his time and today. Of course his reasons are transparent: he wanted to accuse a few individuals or blame later historians for antisemitism in order to preserve in his own mind the legitimacy of a Jewish-Ukrainian political alliance. Although it is impossible to fully agree with Galant, it is possible to sympathize with his desire to break free of stereotypes and revisit anti-Jewish events to check how much of the myth of Ukrainian hatred was true and how much was a subsequent construction. For Galant, most is a construction, yet just because Ukrainians were themselves victimized by others does not exonerate them from also persecuting Jews.


Blood libels

In his studies, Galant treated blood-libel accusations in detail. Examples included his articles, “Victims of a Ritual Accusation in Zaslav in 1747 (According to Documents of the Kiev Central Archive)” and “The Ritual Murder Trial in the City of Dunai in 1748.” It makes sense that he would take an interest in ritual murder, as the phenomenon had reemerged under Tsars Alexander II and Nicholas II, as well as in Europe (the Tisza Eslar case is an example). In Russia in 1879, the government orchestrated a blood-libel trial in Kutais, while in 1898, the Blondes trial was held in Vilna. The notorious Beilis Trial took place in Kiev from 1911 to 1913. Galant’s general contribution in the context of blood libels was to show the patent falsity of such charges, as early as in the fifteenth century.

Images appearing in a rare 1913 Russian-Yiddish publication depicting key figures and events surrounding the Beilis Trial. From the National Library of Israel collection

In his article about Zaslav, Galant portrayed that trial as one of a large number of such actions by Poles against Jews:

“The middle of the eighteenth century was characterized in the history of Polish Jewry by the extreme numbers of ritual trials that would end in the majority of cases with cruel executions.” However, these accusations hardly began as late as the eighteenth century. Relying on the work of Sergei Bershadsky, Galant lists incidents through the centuries: “…it was precisely the Cracow pogrom of 1407 that was caused by a false rumor of a ritual murder.” Then there were cases in 1564, 1576, 1617, 1619, 1636, 1639, and 1690—“all these were brought against Jews with venom and included a transgression of existing laws and legal rules.”

Again Galant showed Poles as the source of Jewish pain. With Jews, the Poles took advantage of their power to construct a convenient scapegoat for the failures of Polish rule, Polish economic problems, and the religious infidelities of the Catholic Church. Galant’s point regarding the Jewish-Ukrainian conflict was that both nations were victims, poor, defenseless, and suffering. Each nation thought the other guilty for its pain. Poles, who in Galant’s view actually bore responsibility for the difficult conditions of life in Ukraine, unleashed Jews and Ukrainians on one another.


Soviet rule and the Galant Commission

Galant’s work in the Soviet period did not differ much from his pre-revolutionary oeuvre. Despite publishing in Ukrainian and with other Ukrainian scholars, Galant took as his subjects the Russian state and Jews, violence against Jews in the nineteenth century as well as the first decade of the twentieth century. He relied on archival materials he had gathered earlier, and was unable or unwilling to draw on the new proletarian sources and approaches to Jewish history. Therefore, he resembled the “bourgeois” historians of the pre-revolutionary era. During the 1920s, Galant published a number of articles in Ukrainian, while also leading the Jewish Historical Archeological Commission, which became known as the “Galant Commission”, which produced two well-known historical volumes. Galant was the commission’s only paid employee, and it is worthwhile looking at his role carefully.

One of Galant’s articles in Ukrainian relating to the Jewish history of Kyiv, which he donated to the Jewish National and University Library (today’s National Library of Israel) in 1928. Click image to enlarge

While many scholars left Russia as soon as they could after 1917, Galant stayed. In fact, he succeeded in winning the confidence of the new powers that be. In 1919, in Kiev, a group of historians that included Galant and Benzion Dinaberg (Dinur), A. Kagan, and Jacob Izrailson asked permission to organize a Jewish Historical Archeological Commission within the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. The group made an appeal:

“Jews in Ukraine have a history many centuries long. The fate of Jews was closely linked with the fate of the Ukrainian people. Jews played a significant role in the economic and cultural life of Ukraine. And despite all that, there still does not exist a systematic history of Jewish history in Ukraine. The absence of such a history has sparked a great deal of confusion and created many false ideas about Jewish activity in Ukraine and interaction between the Ukrainian and Jewish nations.”

According to Victoria Khiterer, Galant was the initiator, and the project won the sympathy of respected scholars including the secretary of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. A program was formulated to collect, describe and publish relevant historical materials, yet the main goal of the academic authorities was to impose the use of Ukrainian as the language of scholarship.

The language issue emerged as a crucial problem for the Jewish Historical Archeological Commission. The two volumes that the Commission published in 1929 and 1930 were replete with the word, “zhid” (kike), which in Ukrainian as well as in Russian had negative connotations. Galant expressed a preference for “evrei,” a Russian word that came from the ancient word for Jew, “ivri,” but he was rebuffed. Saul Borovoi explains the language context:

“A great deal was shocking in the collection; above all, the title, ‘Zhidovsky’ [Kike].  Throughout the entire collection the word ‘evrei’ [Jew] was not used, everywhere one read ‘zhid,’ ‘zhidovsky.’ Galant told me that one of the patriots of the Ukrainian language declared that there is no word ‘evrei’, but only ‘zhid’; that this word, he maintained, does not contain any insulting nuance. ‘To ruin Ukrainain through the introduction of the ‘foreign’ word ‘evrei’ is not allowed.’ (I will note, turning aside for a moment that in the Central Rada [parliament] that the representatives of Jewish parties joined—Zionists, Poale-Tsion, Bundists and others—the Jewish deputies announced that the word ‘zhid’, used by several orators, was unpleasant for them. The head of the Rada, Grushevsky therefore announced that, although the word ‘zhid’ does not contain anything insulting in Ukrainian, he asks the Rada’s orators not to use this word, but say ‘evrei,’ ‘evreiskii’…).”

Since many of the documents deal with Russian matters, the use of “zhid” conveyed disrespect and disdain.

More lethal were objections from Communists on ideological matters. In the mid-1920s, the Commission came under severe criticism as a bastion of anti-Soviet activity. Its critics were orthodox Marxists, especially Nahum Shtif, the linguist who had played an instrumental role in organizing The Jewish Scientific Institute (YIVO) in Berlin in the early 1920s. Shtif secretly posted denunciations with party apparatchiks. While Shtif’s motives are uncertain, it is known that he was unable to find steady gainful employment in Berlin and encountered a difficult situation. As did many émigrés, he was offered good conditions for scholarly work if he agreed to return to Soviet Russia. It is entirely possible that, when he arrived in Kiev, he realized that Galant was an obstacle to the leadership and that it was necessary to remove him.

Poster printed in Kiev celebrating the third anniversary of the victory of communism over capitalism, November 1920. Click image to enlarge

The attacks on Galant proved successful and he was fired from his position in the Jewish Historical Archeological Commission. By the early 1930s, he was also banned from working in archives. His life as a historian was over. According to Saul Borovoi, Galant died as a victim of Nazi murder at Babi Yar, September 29–30, 1941. Little is known about Galant between the years 1930 and 1941.


Legacy of a historian

At least one person wrote caustically about Galant during his glory days in tsarist decadence. Saul Borovoi provided this devastating portrait:

“Ilya Vladimirovich was full of self-respect. He did not walk, but carried himself like a full wineglass which should not spill. The old members of Kiev said that in the pre-revolutionary years he sauntered along the Kreshchatik every day in a top head, finishing his walk in the cafe ‘Samodeni’, where he would drink a cup of coffee and where his admirers waited for him and to whom he would tell his ideas and political prognoses.”

This description of a vain man, who yearned for status and used historical study as a means to attain it, possesses a sense of truth, yet Galant produced serious works of history, and his production appears more than merely a means to satisfy his ego.

It should also be noted that Galant reflected his own time, which was eclectic, unstable, characterized by a rise in national feeling and shifting cultural politics. He tried to hold firm to liberalism, but he swayed with the winds of nationalism, and was ultimately cut down, another victim of Soviet academic life. At the same time, he published important materials and offered his own conception of Ukrainian-Jewish history as an example of harmony, the good life, and, despite all, a rare refuge for Jews in difficult times.

Although the majority of Ukrainian Jews have now left, there is still a chance today that Galant’s reputation will rise in an independent Ukraine, and he will find his place among other “unclassifiables”. It is a place, I think, he would have liked to be.


A version of this article was originally published in Jewish History 34,4 (2021) 361–380 by Spring Nature. It appears here as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.