In the Shadow of War: When Stan Lee and Dr. Seuss Battled Fascism
After serving together in the US Army's Training Film Division during World War II, the two parted ways: Stan Lee went on to create immortal superheroes, and Dr. Seuss used his talents to try to atone for his anti-Japanese propaganda through a new and compassionate children’s book
Stan Lee (left) and Dr. Seuss (right) during their WWII army service
With the world at war in the early 1940s, Stan Lee, of Marvel Comics fame, wound up in the US Army’s Training Film Division almost by chance, after the military found out that he could both draw comics and write scripts. When Lee showed up at the unit, he encountered the beloved children’s author Theodore Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, though he wasn’t actually a medical doctor at all. We will tell you all about this World War II-era story, but let’s begin a few years earlier…
Stan Lee (1922–2018), who would come to personify the American comic book industry, started out in the field in 1939 at Timely Comics. His initial connection with the company was through his cousin, who was married to the firm’s publisher. Throughout his life, Lee testified repeatedly that he never really wanted to work there in the first place. This Jewish-American comic book icon had dreams of writing the next “Great American Novel” that would immortalize his name in the pantheon of world literature. In fact, Stan had given himself the penname “Stan Lee”, reserving his real name, Stanley Lieber, for that great and elusive masterpiece he would one day write, when he was finally able to give up his tedious work creating comic books. Ultimately, Lee’s name did enter the global pantheon, but in a slightly different category than he had anticipated.
On his first day at Timely Comics, Lee met two other giants of the American comic book world: Jack Kirby and Joe Simon. His first credit under his new penname Stan Lee appeared in issue #3 of Captain America. When Kirby and Simon left in 1941, the 19-year-old Lee was appointed “temporary” editor, a position he would continue to fill (“temporarily”, of course) for decades to come, that is, until his promotion to publisher. The Marvel Comics brand was established in the early 1960s as part of his decision to remain in the field and at last give up his literary dream.
Just as Lee’s career in the world of comics was taking off in New York, war was raging in Europe. In 1942, Lee was drafted into the US Army. At first, he was slated to serve overseas in the Signal Corps, but the Army very quickly recognized the new soldier’s writing talents and assigned him to the rare position of screenwriter. Lee would later claim that he and only eight others were assigned to this coveted position during the war. He was sent to the army’s Training Film Division unit, where Lee met some great talents, among them the director Frank Capra and the illustrator Theodor Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss.
In his new role, Lee was tasked with writing scripts for films intended to raise the morale of combat troops, propaganda posters for the American public, and from time to time even propaganda comics. It was at this stage that Lee’s commitment, both to the comic book profession that was almost foisted on him as well as to the position he was appointed to at such a young age, was seriously challenged for the first time. Despite being far away from the Timely Comics office in New York, he kept up a weekly correspondence with the staff, suggesting ideas for comics, and reviewing and correcting scripts. His commitment stood the test.
After the war, Lee returned to his job as a comic book editor. In the 1950s, he experienced a professional crisis, becoming dissatisfied with his own work and the traditional limitations of the genre. But in the 1960s, with the encouragement of his wife, Lee decided on a radical change – he would finally make the comic books he had always wanted to make, as a last ditch effort, with nothing to lose, before handing in his letter of resignation. He envisioned a different kind of superhero – imperfect, troubled, human.
The comic book he created, together with illustrator Jack Kirby, was “The Fantastic Four.” Together, Kirby and Lee created the great pantheon of Marvel Comics superheroes: the Hulk, X-Men, Iron Man, Doctor Strange, and more. Oh, and of course their most familiar and beloved character, the amazing Spider-Man. When Lee passed away in 2018 at the age of 95, the US Army was among those who paid tribute to this great American artist, for his contributions during wartime and later on in life.
We turn now to Dr. Seuss, Lee’s cohort in the Training Film Division, who underwent a profound change of conscience following World War II.
Like Stan Lee, the writer and illustrator Theodor Geisel (1904–1991) adopted a penname under which he published his stories for children, with the intention of one day writing a great adult literary work under his real name. The alias combined his mother’s maiden name, Seuss, with the title of Doctor – a reference to his doctoral studies at Oxford, which he left in order to focus on writing. Throughout the 1920s, he worked for various magazines, before shifting to writing books of children’s poems and accompanying them with illustrations. It was at this point that history knocked on the door, and Dr. Seuss answered.
After publishing his first successful children’s book, Horton Hatches the Egg in 1940, he took a forced break from writing for children. This pause lasted for seven years, during which time he created hundreds of caricatures depicting the brutality of Hitler and Mussolini. He lent his pen to the struggle against fascism while also criticizing isolationist political tendencies within American society. He did not preach war, but sensed its coming and believed that America had a duty to protect and save the world from murderous fascism.
With the United States’ entry into World War II, the American military sought to exploit these talents for its own needs. In the service of the war effort, Dr. Seuss moved to Los Angeles. There, Hollywood film director Frank Capra teamed up Dr. Seuss with animator Chuck Jones—the legendary creator of Bugs Bunny and Duffy Duck—and the two composed a series of animated propaganda films for American soldiers. Among other things, the two produced a series of animated shorts about “Private Snafu”, a soldier who does just about everything wrong. Later on, Dr. Suess came under sharp criticism for the anti-Japanese propaganda posters he created during the war.
Looking at the books today, it is difficult to connect the racist posters with the compassionate children’s book author. During the war, Dr. Seuss rejected any personal criticism, claiming at the time – “If we want to win, we’ve got to kill Japs”. After the war, he had a complete change of heart, and this led to the creation of one of his most beloved books.
In 1953, Life Magazine invited Dr. Seuss to visit Japan in order to write about the effects of the war on Japanese children. Accompanied by the Dean of Doshisha University in Kyoto, the beloved children’s illustrator and author traveled around Japan and met with the country’s children. He asked the children to draw what they wanted to be when they grew up. These drawings made a great impact on him and when he returned to the U.S., he expressed his deep regret for the biased image of the Japanese he had helped to instill during the war.
He chose to express this remorse in the best way he knew: an illustrated book titled Horton Hears a Who!, which tells the story of Horton the elephant, who attempts to save the tiny town of Whoville, which rests on a speck of dust. As in his previous book on Horton, the elephant’s efforts encounter slander and giggles from his animal friends. When some of them attempt to harm Whoville, Horton and the mayor band together to rescue it. The book contains subtle hints and references to World War II. The most notable example is the black-bottomed eagle that drops the tiny of town of Whoville from the sky —a clear allusion to the two atomic bombs dropped by the United States on Japan.
Dr. Seuss’s humanistic spirit is expressed in the most famous sentence from the book: “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”
The book was adapted for the cinema a number of times and is still considered one of Dr. Seuss’s most loved and well-known books. Dr. Seuss himself is still one of the most beloved and popular children’s authors in the world. His books offer a combination of humor, intelligence, and love for humankind. At a time when artists and creators are (rightly) judged for their ideas and actions, the case of Dr. Seuss and his treatment of the Japanese reminds us that – a person’s a person — and a writer’s character is sometimes more complex than that which is portrayed to their readers through their books. So, the next time you read Dr. Seuss, remember that change can happen only when we want it to. While fear can lead to hatred, the way to overcome it is through love, compassion, and understanding of those who are different from you.
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,
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Cultivating a Jewish Literary Legacy
Author Lisa Leff, winner of the 2016 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, offers her thoughts on the significant role played by Jewish research libraries, which she believes serve as "a kind of portal to the past"
An employee of the National Library of Israel sifts through a small fraction of the Library's collections back in 1960, during the long, complicated process of transferring books to the NLI's current location on the Givat Ram Campus. Photo taken by David Harris, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel.
As a Jewish historian, I’ve spent decades traveling across the world to read old and rare Jewish books in the research libraries that house them. Physical books are fragile things, and for people in my profession, there is nothing quite like them. These bundles of paper, sewn or glued together and bound between covers, contain writing that, once deciphered, connects us to voices from the Jewish past in a way that can feel eerily direct. So direct, in fact, that it’s easy to forget that without the librarians who have cared for the books over the years, we would not be able to access the voices they contain.
It used to take some detective work to figure out where a long-out-of-print book might be held. But today, thanks to the massive catalog digitization projects of research libraries such as the National Library of Israel, that information sits at the fingertips of anyone with an internet connection. One thing that remains as mysterious as ever is how books like the ones I pursue– written by Jewish writers centuries ago in Europe– survived through the years. Just as mysterious is the question of why so many of these European books have found their way into the collections of the National Library of Israel and other major Jewish research libraries outside of Europe, far from where they were written and published.
The fact that these books survived at all is truly amazing, given the massive destruction of Jewish life and property by the Nazis and their allies, and the fact that Jewish libraries had been singled out for looting. The books’ survival was no accident. During the Holocaust, Jews in Europe did whatever they could to protect their libraries and archives, sometimes at extreme risk to themselves and their families. This was the case, for example, of the heroic slave laborers of Vilna’s Paper Brigade, who hid precious books from the Nazis to save them. Similarly, in France, the leaders of the Paris Consistory are purported to have protected their archives from Nazi looting by hiding them in the walls of the Rothschild family’s chateau.
Despite these efforts to protect Jewish collections, the Nazis laid their hands on millions of European Jewish books and papers and brought them to Germany. When the Allies stumbled on them at the end of the war and proposed to return only the books whose owners could be easily identified, Jewish cultural activists in New York and Jerusalem were horrified. Knowing the scope of the destruction, they knew such a restitution would be very partial, since so many of the original owners had perished and most of the great Jewish libraries of Europe had been destroyed. Knowing the Allies’ policies, they feared the worst: that these books would remain in Germany, where few Jews remained.
To ensure that Jewish books would be preserved for future use in the new centers of Jewish population, Jewish cultural activists mobilized. On behalf of the Jewish National and University Library (the NLI’s predecessor), Gershom Scholem traveled to Allied-occupied Germany and returned with many rare books and manuscripts. Through Scholem’s work and that of many others, Jewish research libraries today serve as a kind of portal to the past, where contemporary Jewish writers can, in some sense, commune with Jewish writers from bygone centuries through the act of reading old books.
The Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature shines the spotlight on emerging writers because its founders understand that over the course of their careers, these writers will play a critical role in interpreting and transmitting Jewish culture for new generations. Without libraries like the National Library of Israel, institutions dedicated to the preservation of voices from the Jewish past for use by future generations, Jewish writers could not do this important work.
Together, the National Library of Israel and the Sami Rohr Prize are working to preserve voices from the Jewish past while nurturing talent that will ensure the future of a vibrant, global Jewish literary culture.
The Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and the National Library of Israel recently announced a new collaboration that will promote their shared vision to further cultivate a vibrant international Jewish literary culture and community. Read more here.