Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February, many Americans probably didn’t know much about Ukraine.
A slender book, recently published in English, zeros in on the politics and pogroms in a long-ago two-year period in the historic Podolia region of southwest Ukraine.
Pogroms were organized acts of violence, sometimes massacres, especially against Jews, in Russia and Eastern Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The book is titled “A Ukrainian Chapter: A Jewish Aid Worker’s Memoir of Sorrow (Podolia, 1918-20).” It was originally published more than 100 years ago in Yiddish. A blend of Hebrew, German and Slavic tongues, Yiddish was the lingua franca of many Eastern European Jews.
The author was Eli Gumener, an aid worker for Jewish victims of pogroms in the region. Gumener was the uncle of historian Michael Eli Nutkiewicz, an Albuquerque resident.
Nutkiewicz, 73, translated Gumener’s book into English, but he never met his uncle. Gumener died in the Holocaust.
Nutkiewicz said Jews in Podolia suffered in some of the bloodiest pogroms at the hands of different armed forces vying for control of all or part of Ukraine in the Russian Civil War, right after World War I.
The forces included Russia’s Red Army (Bolshevik) and White Army (anti-Bolshevik), soldiers of the short-lived, independent Ukraine National Republic, Ukraine peasant militias and Poland’s army. The Red Army eventually dominated, incorporating what is now Ukraine into the Soviet Union.
“The Jews were the largest minority in Ukraine,” Nutkiewicz said in an interview.
Anti-Bolshevik forces were against Jews who associated with or sympathized with Bolsheviks, he said. Another reason they targeted Jews was because historically Jews precariously served as the economic middle men between landlords and peasants in Ukraine. Often during periods of crisis, Jews were exploited.
Yet another reason for anti-Jewish sentiment was that some Jews living in urban centers such as Kyiv “looked to Russia as a higher culture rather than identifying with Ukraine’s indigenous culture,” Nutkiewicz said.
Growing up in Los Angeles, he heard Yiddish at home and also studied the language at a Yiddish school he attended after a full day of public school classes.
“But I never used Yiddish as a functioning language until I discovered this book,” he said. “My parents had a large Yiddish language library. I looked through the books after they died and came across this small volume. I saw that it was written by (my mother’s) brother. My mom had never mentioned that he had written a book,” Nutkiewicz said.
“I started to translate the book as a kind of family memento, a family legacy for my five kids. As I began to translate it, I realized it had important historical value.”
Gumener details Jewish communities as victims of these attacks and describes his challenges as a pioneering relief worker and as a Jewish socialist.
Nutkiewicz found parallels with his uncle’s work. Nutkiewicz had headed the Program for Torture Victims (in Los Angeles) that helped refugees seek political asylum in the United States, and had served as director of the refugee resettlement program at Catholic Charities New Mexico.
Nutkiewicz sees the 2022 Russian invasion as part of the third of three phases of Russian aggression against neighboring Ukraine.
The first phase, he said, was the incorporation of Ukraine into what had been the Czarist empire. The second phase was the 1917-1920 period of the Russian Civil War.
The third started with the fall of the Soviet Union and extends to the current war.
“Russians want a replay back to Czarist times. A replay in that (President Vladimir) Putin wants Ukraine so he can expand Russia’s borders,” he noted.
Nutkiewicz wrote a lengthy introduction for the book. It gives readers extensive background to comprehend the shifting geopolitical currents and allegiances of the players in the region.
On the front cover of “A Ukrainian Chapter” is a pen-and-ink drawing by Mojzesz Lejbowski. The translator said it’s an image of “a Jewish man – perhaps a prophet – lamenting over” the body of a dying woman and her child.
Gumener’s book is the seventh and latest volume in Slavica Publishers’ New Approaches to Russian and East European Jewish Culture Series.