Updated: Jan 14, 2021
Buried in the heart of Manhattan’s Lower West Side, behind the unassuming façade of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research lies a treasure. It does not sparkle or shine. But to Jewish scholars of WWI and the Russian Civil War era pogroms – and the filmmakers of Feiga’s Choice – it is more than worth its weight in gold. It is a vast collection of documents and photographs known as the Tcherikower Archive.
Elias Tcherikower was a Russian Jewish intellectual, writer, journalist, and political activist, who cared deeply about Jewish culture, history, and nationalism.
“In his life time, he did everything,” says Irina Astashkevich, a Brandeis University scholar who has spent years studying the Tcherikower Archive. “He was the Leonardo of Jewish history. He was producing, and producing, and producing.”
When the Great War began, Tcherikower and his wife Riga were visiting Palestine. Worried about returning to Russia, they settled briefly in Egypt, then the U.S., where he was a prolific writer. He and other Jewish nationalists hoped the end of the war would bring East European Jewry their longed-for civil and national rights.
To that end, he joined other Jewish leaders calling for the collection of documentation about anti-Jewish pogroms during the war. They hoped to eventually present this documentation to the war’s victors to support their claims for rights. That opportunity died with the Russian Revolution and the ensuing civil war.
“There is no way to study the pogroms without looking at this archive,” says YIVO archivist Marek Web. “It contains eyewitness accounts, thousands of eyewitness accounts about probably every single pogrom that happened.“
The Russian Revolution
In February 1917, the hated Tsar Nicholas II abdicated. The new Provisional Government abolished the Pale of Settlement to which the majority of Jews had been confined. And, Jews received full civil rights. Jewish leaders were ecstatic.
Excited, Tcherikower left New York for Petrograd. But hope soon turned to despair. In October, the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, overthrew the Provisional Government. Russia collapsed into chaos and civil war, and a period of anti-Jewish pogroms erupted. It was violence such as the Jews had never seen before.
Pogroms in Ukraine
By this time, Tcherikower was in Kiev. As reports of the atrocities grew, several Jewish groups joined to form the “Editorial Board for Gathering and Researching Materials regarding the Pogroms in the Ukraine.” They issued an appeal in the Yiddish press:
Jews! A terrible pogrom curse has befallen Jewish cities and towns, and the world does not know; we ourselves do not know, or know very little. It must not be silenced! Everything must be told and recorded. It is an obligation upon every Jew who comes from the unfortunate cities, to report everything that he has seen, so that the news should not be lost. We implore [you] to report to the commission that gathers and researches all the news regarding the pogroms. (4)
As secretary of the new board, Tcherikower began meticulously collecting evidence. Emissaries or zamlers were sent out to collect what they could. In a matter of months, Tcherikower amassed a collection relating to some 2000 pogroms in 800 Jewish communities in Ukraine. It included accounts from victims, eyewitnesses, aid workers, and doctors who treated the victims, reports from the zamlers, original appeals and proclamations calling for pogroms, biographical information about the perpetrators, photos, and newspaper clippings. It even included Ukrainian currency on which was printed “Beat Jews, save the Ukraine.”(5) Everything that could be copied was copied three times and stored in separate locations.
“Tcherikower was a consummate historian of Jewish history,” says YIVO’s Web. “He felt the need, that he was obliged to do his job, meaning getting together all possible evidence and saving it, rescuing it.”
But Tcherikower soon realized the collection was not safe.
Escape to Berlin
Kiev was changing hands, and each successor regime wanted the archive. The government of Ukrainian nationalist Symon Petliura wanted it to suppress evidence of pogroms committed by his troops. The Soviets wanted it to suppress evidence of Red Army pogroms but also to use against the Ukrainians. In 1921, the Soviets solidified their control of Kiev.
“Tcherikower’s hopes were dashed,” says Lisa Leff, associate professor of history at American University and author of the upcoming book The Archive Thief. “There was not going to be justice, and, even worse, the Soviet Union is not going to be safe.”
Tcherikower and his wife fled to Moscow where he secured the help of Lithuanian diplomats. After eight months of planning, they managed to smuggle the archive to Berlin via Moscow and Kovno, Lithuania.
His plan at that point was to publish a seven-volume analysis of the pogroms based on the archive. His colleague Simon Dubnow described the project as an effort to ensure that “the rivers of Jewish blood and tears…will not disappear in the sea of the worlds’ misfortunes.”(3) But the plan failed for lack of funds. Only one volume appeared in Russian and Yiddish in 1923, and a second was not published until 1965, more than two decades after Tcherikower’s death. The archive sat in Berlin, ready to prove to the world what had happened, and hopefully, someday, bring justice to East European Jews.
“This is documentation ready to send to the court if such a court would convene,” says YIVO archivist Web. “There wasn’t. The only act of revenge was the Schwartzbard trial.”
The Schwartzbard Trial
Sholem Schwartzbard was a Russian Jew who in 1926 assassinated Ukrainian leader Petliura in retaliation for his alleged role in pogroms committed by his troops during their fight from 1918-1922 for independence from Russia. Schwartzbard held Petliura personally responsible for killing 14 members of his family in a 1919 pogrom.
Schwartzbard learned Petliura was living in Paris as the head of the Ukrainian government-in-exile. He tracked Petliura down and shot him in broad daylight on the streets of Paris. The archive suddenly had a vital and practical importance.
Tcherikower took part of the archive to Paris, joined the defense team, and testified at Schwartzbard’s trial. Using archive documents, the defense was able to shift focus from Schwartzbard’s act to the atrocities that motivated him. He was acquitted after an eight-day trial.
“It was the first time that a nation group got its victimization acknowledged in a court of law,” says Leff.
Escape to Paris
By the 1930s, Tcherikower and his archive faced new threats in Berlin from the Nazi party and growing anti-Semitism. In 1933, Tcherikower sent more than 1000 pounds of documents to YIVO headquarters inVilna, Lithuania and took the rest with him to Paris. But in 1940, the Germans invaded France, reaching Paris on June 10th. The next morning, Tcherikower and his wife joined some 100,000 Jews and fled to the unoccupied south. They took what they could carry but left more than a ton of documents in their apartment.
To New York via Marseille
After an arduous journey to a transit camp at the border of the Pyrenees Mountains, the couple made it to Portugal, then finally New York. Tcherikower’s student and colleague Zosa Szajowski took over as the archive’s main protector. With the help of French friends, Szajowski managed to smuggle the archive to Marseille where he hid it in the offices of the Thomas Cook travel agency. Szajowski himself then left for New York, and the safety of the archive remained uncertain until the war’s end. By then, Tcherikower had died unexpectedly at the age of 62. He died not knowing if his archive had been saved.
“Everything was lost,” he wrote before his death in New York. “The entire archive. Thousands of volumes. Rare historical collections. Thousands of volumes for the encyclopedia. However, we will republish it. We will re-create it. We must.” (4)
After France’s liberation in 1944, Szajkowski returned to Marseille and found the collection intact. With YIVO’s help, he shipped the bulk of the documents to YIVO’s New York office. The Vilna portion of the archive was destroyed during the war. Another portion, consisting largely of newspaper clippings, is in Jerusalem at the Central Archives of the History of the Jewish People.
The Value of the Tcherikower Archive
Historian Alexandra Garbarini has done research in both the Jerusalem and New York collections and calls them “hugely important.”
“This archive bears witness to the unimaginable years of violence,” says Garbarini. “Without this archive, we wouldn’t understand the extent to which the Nazi genocide doesn’t come out of a vacuum.”
Despite its importance, the archive is relatively unstudied given that the documents are in Russian, Hebrew, Yiddish, Polish, Ukrainian, and French. Brandeis scholar Astashkevich, whose language abilities make her one of the few to whom the archive is fully accessible, says the firsthand accounts are invaluable.
“There is nothing compared to it,” says Astashkevich. “We’re dealing with a unique situation when we can hear the voices of the victims of the violence, and you cannot put a value on that. It’s priceless.”
More than worth its weight in gold.
Astashkevich, Irina, “The Pogroms in Ukraine in 1917-1920: An Alternate Universe.” Diss. Brandeis U, 2013. Proquest Dissertations and Theses. http://gradworks.umi.com/35/62/3562247. Brandeis University, May 2013
Budnitskii, Oleg, Russian Jews Between the Reds and the Whites, 1917-1920, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2012
Jockush, Laura, Collect and Record!: Jewish Holocaust Documentation in Early Postwar Europe, Oxford University Press, New York, September 2012
Melamed, Efim, “‘Immortalizing the Crime in History…’: The Activities of the Ostjüdisches Historisches Archiv (Kiev–Berlin–Paris, 1920–1940).” Russian Jewish Diaspora and European Culture. Wagstaff, P., Schulte, J. and Tabachnikova, O., eds. Leiden & Boston MA: Brill, 2012, pp. 373-386.