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Deconstructing the Tcherikower Archive

Updated: Jan 14, 2021

The Tcherikower Archive is enormous to the point of being overwhelming.

I remember the day in August about 10 years ago, when I went to the beautifully restored YIVO building on W. 16th street in New York City, entered the reading room, opened the archive description, loaded the first reel of microfilm into the machine, and then went outside to take a breath. My only thought was – I simply cannot do it. It is an impossible task; the archive is so big, and I am here for a mere three days, and I don’t even know where to start.  I took a short walk, had a cup of coffee, and I went back, determined to give it a try and start somewhere. Almost 10 years later, I confess, I haven’t read every single page in the collection, and I haven’t ordered every reel either, but I did discover something that has changed my life completely.

This is an excessively emotional statement for a scholar, but I have to admit that I went to the archive seeking to write about something almost entirely different from what I have done. But once I started to discover the history of the pogroms and the mass rape of Jewish women as a crucial part of the pogroms in Ukraine in 1919, I found my true calling.

The document translated below is from a collection I researched during one of my last trips to the Tcherikower Archive. I knew exactly what I would find in the file – a catalogue, compiled by Riva Tcherikower, of all the pogroms documented in the archive with a brief summary of what happened.  Understanding that not every pogrom was recorded by Elias Tcherikower and the Editorial Board, the list of more than 400 pogroms carried out in the first half of 1919 by Petlyura’s Army (the Ukrainian People’s Army) and various armed gangs, plus the comparable number of pogroms during the second half of 1919 perpetrated by the Denikin Army(also known as the White Army), draws a very gruesome picture of the violent abyss that consumed Ukraine and Ukrainian Jewry in 1919.

Each page of the catalogue was meticulously typed by Riva Tcherikower (Elias’s wife) and contains standard data: the geographic location, the pogrom perpetrators, the date, and the number and description of casualties. The catalogue card has another field – “raped.”  Considering there were actual numbers listed for the wounded and murdered victims of the pogroms, despite the fact that the data was often very approximate, I wondered if any rape statistics would even be listed.  My doubts were well founded.  Rape was considered extremely shameful for the victim and damaged her reputation beyond repair.  I found not a single number for rape victims in the catalogue, but the descriptions based on the personal narratives of both male and female pogrom survivors are revealing.

Let me translate here one random catalog card. I chose this one without looking, since every instance of a pogrom was tragic regardless of where it happened – in the small shtetl, where just a few Jewish families lived, or in a big city with tens of thousands of Jewish inhabitants.

(Translated from Yiddish) Page 25646 Kholopkov (Podol Region) Number of Jewish inhabitants before pogrom: 400 families When the pogrom took place: May 25, 1919 Who were the pogrom perpetrators: Petlyura’s gangs (Cossacks) Murdered: 57 Wounded: Yes, but number is not certain Raped: A lot Was there a self-defense: — Ruined and destroyed houses: The whole shtetl is destroyed Burned: —________________________________________________ Notes:

Kholopkov apparently was a medium-sized shtetl in the Western Ukrainian region of Podoliye. Based on the number of Jewish families, it was not strictly an agricultural community but rather a local center where Jews had small businesses or worked as artisans and shopkeepers. The pogrom happened at the end of May when Petlyura’s Army retreated, and the Bolsheviks advanced. It is unknown whether it was the first pogrom in Kholopkov, but it is very probable.

Petlyura’s Cossacks were not the “real” Cossacks – members of the closed militarized communities that served Russian Tsars and in the Russian army, and who later joined the Denikin Army. In the first half of 1919, the term “Cossacks” was very often used to refer to the soldiers of the new Ukrainian People’s Army. They were sometimes also called “New Cossacks.”  Those soldiers were Ukrainian recruits and volunteers, often local peasants.

The fact that most of the houses were destroyed suggests that the local non-Jewish population, including peasants from nearby villages, participated in the pogrom. The local population was known to loot not just movable goods and big items like furniture, but also take apart and remove Jewish houses, pull down walls, etc.

The number of raped was never known or disclosed. The term “a lot” – the most commonly used throughout the catalog – described, based on my research, a wide range from 30% to nearly all the women in the shtetl. During the Civil War pogroms in Ukraine, particularly in 1919, mass rape of Jewish women gained momentum and was increasingly used to humiliate, torture and degrade Jews. Young girls as well as older women fell victim to mass – and often public – rape. Survivors and witnesses almost unanimously were silenced by the shameful experience, and most of the available statistics are secondhand. One of the major objectives of my research was to decipher the available evidence, such as the catalog card shown here, and reconstruct the history of the pogroms.  We will never know how many girls and women were actually raped in Kholopkov, but I can confidently estimate that at least half of all the females were victims.

The lack of self-defense efforts in Kholopkov was not unique. An organized and armed self-defense existed only in a few larger towns and cities, and even there was only moderately successful. In the early stages of the pogroms in 1917-1918, there were attempts by the Union of the Jewish Soldiers to organize Jewish self-defense forces, but this never happened.

In sum, this very brief catalog entry records the end of this particular Jewish shtetl. Because their houses were completely destroyed, the remaining Jews escaped or at least tried to escape to larger cities or towns or abroad. On the modern map of Ukraine, there is no village or town named Kholopkov. Nor, can I find any reference to it.

Irina Astashkevich is at Brandeis University as a visiting research associate of the Tauber Institute and holds a PhD from Brandeis. Her dissertation is titled “Pogroms in Ukraine 1917-1920: An Alternate Universe.” Astashkevich received her MA in History, Jewish History and Archives from the Project Judaica – a joint project of the Russian State University of Humanities, Historical Archival Institute, Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and the YIVO Institute of Jewish Research in New York. She has worked in various archives in Russia, Lithuania, and the US, as well as in Jewish philanthropic organizations, such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Moscow.

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