Sonoma County Chicken Farmer Joe Rapoport on the War & Revolution That Led Him to Petaluma

This is another post in the Raucous Rooster’s series on war and revolution in the early 20th century, and how the extremely consequential events of 1914 – 1918 helped shape the world we live in today. The excerpt below is from Kenneth Kann’s oral history of the life of labor organizer and radical Sonoma County chicken farmer, Joe Rapoport.

Joe Rapoport

The Life of a Jewish Radical by Kenneth Kann

Temple University Press, 1981

Chapter 2: War and Revolution

 

I first saw the Cossacks when I was thirteen years old. After my bar mitzvah I went to work as a printer’s apprentice in Bar, a nearby provincial city where my father was born. That year marked the third century of rule by the House of Romanov, the Tsars of Russia. Throughout the land there was celebration, the establishment of monuments, and especially military demonstrations. It was in Bar that I saw the Cossacks on parade, a sea of soldiers on the march. I was fascinated by the beauty of those tall mountain people. They wore red and black uniforms sewn to shape. They carried hand-designed daggers, long sabres, and cavalry rifles. Every horse seemed like a fiery beast ready to take off into space, but they were marching by the hundreds in perfect precision. I was awed by the power of that demonstration. Little did I know that it was part of the Tsar’s preparation for the First World War. And little did the Tsar know that he was digging his own grave.

The actual declaration of war in August 1914 hit the Jewish people, as it hit the entire Russian people, like a lightning bolt out of a clear sky. A few people may have seen it coming in the newspapers, but we did not read newspapers in Stanislavchik. Our main source of information about the world was from the merchant who returned from a trip to the big city. What did we know about international affairs?

We started to learn when the war broke out. All young men of age were drafted immediately. Many resented going, especially among the Jews. Why should the sons of a people who were insulted and degraded by the Tsar willingly give their lives to defend that system?

It was no wonder that some Jewish boys from Stanislavchik maimed themselves to avoid being drafted. They did it under the pressure of parents. My aunt Rivka took my cousin Itsik to another shtetl, where there was a man who specialized in such things. Even my aunt Rivka, who had a very strong character, was sick to see what was done to Itsik.

Back cover of Joe Rapoport The Life of a Jewish Radical, by Kenneth Kann, Temple University Press, 1981

She said, “Two men pinned him down on the floor. The ‘specialist’ was poking his finger into the internal parts of the belly to create a hernia. He was tearing Itsik’s guts with nothing to deaden the pain! The cries are still ringing in my ears!”

I was several years younger than Itsik and not expected to be taken into the army. But she turned to me and said, “I am happy I have prevented him from going into the army and possibly never seeing him again. But I beg you, never let be done to you what I did for Itsik.”

Very few, however, avoided the army. There was a tight control over the population by the Tsar’s military machine. I heard the cries of relatives and neighbors for their sons who were taken.

Everything went smoothly the first winter of the war. The Tsar had a large army ready to march and a huge reserve to draw upon. Russia was a giant country with almost endless human resources. The peasants used to say, “Shapkami zabrosim, with our caps we will route them.” There was confidence that Russia would be victorious in a short time.

In the early spring of 1915, when my father began preliminary work on the sheep farm, the shepherds had been drafted into the army. I was learning the printing trade in Bar. It was an exciting place, a city with ten thousand Jews. There were cobblestone streets, cement sidewalks, schools, businesses, even a movie theater. On a hill there was a beautiful park where I gathered with young people to sing and play and forge friendships. I wanted to remain there, but I had to return and help my father on the sheep farm.

In Stanislavchik we followed the war closely. The men would discuss the military strategy in shul. After the official prayers, they would gather round the stove to map out movements of armies and argue about strategies. They would go on and on, from one thing to another, but inevitably they would look to the Jewish books of learning to interpret the war.

At that time I read War and Peace more than once. It helped us younger boys understand the war. We saw how Napoleon’s invasion had been unsuccessful against the defensive Russian strategy. In this war, however, Russia began with an offensive strategy. The overconfidence and bumbling of Russian generals is described in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914. Solzhenitsyn’s writings on Russia after the revolution are questionable – he is anti-Soviet and antisocialist – but his August 1914 gives a good description of the rot and corruption of the Tsarist armies at the beginning of the war. Numbers alone could not do the trick. Russian Army after Russian Army was cut down by the Germans. First we heard rumors of it in Stanislavchik. Then the evidence started to come back with news about lost lives and with returning soldiers who were maimed.

Working on the sheep farm gave me intimate contact with the peasants of nearby villages. Instead of spinning the yarns of the past, they told stories of how the army took their young men, then their livestock and feed, leaving the plow stuck there in the ground. It was like a locust descending upon the body of Russia. The hurt was cutting deep.

Our lives were interwoven. As the peasants produced less, it affected the Jewish people. Any livelihood based on exchange was hurt. The merchant could not get manufactured goods, the blacksmith could not get iron, the tailor could not get cloth. Prices soared and we had to start trading valuables for food. The supply ran short on both sides. As the months passed, the shtetl began to go hungry.

With the battlefield slaughter and the hunger came epidemics. Soon there were almost daily funerals in Stanislavchik. Several of my friends died from typhus. I caught it and was bed-ridden for months. I didn’t know what hit me. I attribute my survival to my sister Sorke, who looked after me through it all.

The shtetl was never the same again. The children who left, the economic hardships, the deaths …. our way of life was disturbed forever. We continued to celebrate the holidays, but without the gaiety of the past. A woman could light the candles on shabes, into the home. But finally we had to exchange our candlesticks for bread. And then came the day when we didn’t have candles.

More and more we were living close to the results of the war. I still remember the railroad station at Zhmerinka, in the winter, with trainloads of soldiers’ bodies packed one on top of the other. Those bodies were frozen through and through. When they fell, they sounded like glass. The bodies had been returned for burial in Ukraine, but they remained at the railroad station. When the spring sun started to thaw those frozen corpses, the stink and disease were released.

It reached a point where the people would not take it any longer. In the army there was grumbling; in the factories there was dissatisfaction; among the peasantry there was resentment. Intelligent leaders started to talk about the futility of feeding the Tsar’s system with the lifeblood of the people. In Stanislavchik we heard reports of discontent across Russia. Strangers passed through with leaflets asking how long we would tolerate the slaughter, the starvation, the epidemics. People like Mitka Dobrovoloskii returned to Stanislavchik and worked underground. Hundreds and thousands of leaders across Russia pointed out that the people had to get rid of the Tsar.

Even liberal minded landlords started to see the futility of the war. Thinking people of the middle class – industrialists and bankers and merchants – saw the disaster that befell Russia. They too concluded that the Tsar had to go. It was in the March of 1917 that the agitation culminated in the overthrow of Tsar. The leader of the movement was a lawyer by the name of Alexander Kerenskii. We heard by proclamation that the Tsar was under arrest and that Russia was on the way to becoming a republic.

There is an old folk saying: “Ven a vorm krikht arayn in khreyn denkt er as s’iz gornisht ziser oyf der velt, when the worm creeps into the horseradish, he thinks there is nothing sweeter in the world.” Despite all the pain and oppression under the Tsarist system, there still were segments of the population reluctant to make such a radical change. This was true among the Jews as well as the peasants.

After the prayers in shul there were heated discussions about the new development. Some remembered when Alexander II, the Tsar-Liberator who emancipated the peasants, was assassinated. His son Alexander III instituted a bloody repression of everything liberal. Then, as in every period of restlessness, the Jews became scapegoats and there was a wave of pogroms. Now people questioned whether the Tsar could be removed so easily, and if he was removed who would replace him?

The Jewish people feared any disturbance in which the shtetl would be ravaged. But the majority of people in the shtetl greeted the new government with hope. Most of the Jewish population was elated by the establishment of a liberal democratic form of government. The majority of the Jewish people were poor and had the feeling of good riddance to the Tsar.

With the removal of the Tsar there were hopes for immediate peace. Kerenskii made the mistake of his life when he called upon the people to continue the war till a victorious conclusion. At the same time, Kerenskii established a republic and allowed free expression of opinion against the war he perpetuated. All kinds of political parties suddenly came to life with programs of peace and democracy. Some brought forth slogans from the 1905 Revolution. Within a few months the people started to see that there was no basic change. The political parties appealed to the people to get rid of Kerenskii.

Things were happening too fast for us to understand in Stanislavchik, but we tried. Public meetings began to occur in the marketplace. A peasant would come to buy a pound of salt or to sell a rooster, and he would ask, “Did the war stop yet?” The peasants thought the Jewish people had more knowledge of what was happening. The stores were practically empty, so the storekeepers would walk into the streets for a discussion. A few people  would start talking, soon there would be ten, and before you knew it there were a hundred. There was expression of opinion, there was argument, and the people became acquainted with the various approaches to new developments.

One of the most influential speakers was Mitka Dobrovoloskii. I grew up with the story of how  he saved the shtetl from a pogrom in 1906. Now he spoke in the marketplace when he came to visit his family in Stanislavchik. I would drop everything when I heard that he was speaking. I did not know his political affiliation, but I liked what he stood for. He would tell us, “The day is past when a landlord can sell three hundred souls – three hundred serfs – for a hunting dog.” He wanted to push the revolution much further, and he did just that. (Later we heard he perished fighting with a partisan detachment. In New York I wrote an article on him as a Stanislavchik hero.)

I remember one meeting in the marketplace where there was a Jewish speaker, a provincial lawyer from Bar. He got up on a wagon and talked about freedom of conscience and freedom of speech. He spoke perfect Russian. I was proud to see him up there. A Jewish person speaking to a gathering of peasants and Jews was a revolutionary development in our area. It showed a growing fraternization of all the people.

A peasant mounted the wagon after that learned Jewish man. He was one of the poorer peasants, but he had a gift of thought and speech. He said, “We need more than the nice phrases of the previous speaker if we are to live better. We must end the war. We must have more land. Kerenskii is serving the rich and the powerful. We got rid of the Tsar. We must get rid of Kerenskii. We must get rid of the landlords and the church too! We’ll be our own landlords! We’ll have real freedom!”

This peasant showed how leaders come forth from the people. He received the greatest applause. That lawyer with his brilliant tongue and university expressions certainly was put in place!

In a short period of time in the days of Kerenskii, the boundaries started to break down for the Jewish people. Suddenly, a Jew could pick himself up and travel anywhere, even to Moscow! The Zionist movement came to life with the message that Jews should go to Palestine. The Jewish Bund preached that Jews should join the fight for socialism. Almost overnight there was a hunger for Jewish culture. Now you opened a Jewish book, you read Jewish poetry, you learned a Jewish folksong and it sounded good. Suddenly the shul in Stanislavchik was being used for a lot of cultural and political meetings.

There was a double process all across Russia. On one side was democratic expression and appeal to the will of the people. On the other side was pressure against further change and for continuation of the war till victory. In the confusion of that double pull, the Bolshevik Party came forth with the clearest antiwar position. It was during this period that Lenin, Trotsky, and other Bolshevik leaders returned from exile. They built a coalition of revolutionary groups around a minimal program: “peace, bread, land.” Details, it seems, they left for later.

The Bolshevik program started to vibrate in the big cities, in the industrial centers. Their slogans inflamed the imagination of millions in the countryside. Their message reached the soldiers on the battlefields, who were bitterly disappointed by the continuation of the war. Even though Kerenskii weakened the machinery of the Tsar, he could not get a firm grip on the soldiers. When the Bolsheviks issued a call to establish soviets, councils of workers and peasants and soldiers, the soldiers on the battlefields held meetings, elected delegates, and sent them back to confer in the cities.

A neighbor, the son of a Jewish tailor who had been inducted into the Tsar’s army, returned to Stanislavchik with a red armband on his army uniform. It meant that he had been elected as an army representative to the soviet. He walked with pride. This boy who had been nothing in the life of the shtetl returned a leader, a military leader, a military representative to the soviet. Only yesterday no Jew could even be an army officer.

The beginning of the Bolshevik Revolution came without disturbance in our area. In October of 1917 we simply heard a declaration that the Bolsheviks had assumed power in Petrograd, Moscow, and other cities. At first the people of our area remained neutral. But as the revolutionary struggle developed, as opposition to the revolution developed, there was a new round of discussions about where people stood and what was ahead.

When the Bolsheviks took power, they had the problem of holding the battlelines against the Germans until a peace could be negotiated. At that same time, there developed a bloody civil war in the interior, not only between the Bolsheviks and the military machine of the old system but also with the nationalist movements fighting for their own independence.

The Ukrainians had nationalist aspirations from long ago. They too were an oppressed people whose language and culture were discouraged by the Tsar. During the Kerenskii period, and especially after the Bolsheviks took over, the Ukrainian nationalist movement came to life. It was not only teachers starting to glorify Ukrainian culture, but it was a Ukrainian nationalist independence movement. They built armies before our eyes with soldiers who returned from the Tsar’s army. Under the leadership of their own ruling classes, the Ukrainian people began to establish their own government.

At first it was peaceful when a Ukrainian Nationalist Army took over our area. But then the Bolshevik Armies came with promises of land for the peasants and Ukrainian national autonomy in a federation of Russian peoples. When the Bolsheviks came, there was fighting with the Ukrainian nationalists. The situation was never static. An area could be under the Bolshevik system one day, Ukrainian nationalists another day, and the Tsarists yet another day. There were foreign occupations too – the Germans, the Poles, the Romanians.

In my own memory, this is the hardest period I have lived through. Whenever there was an upheaval in Russia, the Jewish people paid the biggest price, and this was no exception. The changes in armies brought disaster. In the beginning, the people of my shtetl were sympathetic to the national aspirations of the Ukrainian people. Some Jewish artisans were more sympathetic to the Bolsheviks, but the richer Jewish people opposed the Bolshevik attack on private property. The Jewish people, even in Stanislavchik, were not one solid group. But when we did take guns in hand to join the Ukrainian Nationalist Armies, the entire Jewish people were declared enemies and Bolshevik collaborators.

This harkened back to the tragic experience of the Jewish people with Bogdan Chmielnitskii, who led the Ukrainian people against Polish domination in the seventeenth century. When the Jewish people did not join with Chmielnitskii, and when some Jewish merchants collaborated with the Poles, it was interpreted that the Jewish people opposed the Ukrainian independence struggle. The result was a massive slaughter. To this day we remember with a shudder “in Khmelnitskis tsaytn, the days of Chmielnitskii.”  (Yet, up to the present under the Soviet system, Bogdan Chmielnitskii is considered a national liberator in the Ukraine without a word of criticism against his slaughter of the Jewish people. You can still see a statue of him in Kiev.)

There was a similar experience in the revolution. When the Jewish people did not join against the Bolsheviks, the Ukrainian nationalists tried to raise the ire of the peasantry against us. There was a long history of anti-Semitism and pogroms in the Ukraine and in the Ukrainian nationalist movement. , but this was something new. This was an organized onslaught by Ukrainian nationalist military forces joined by parts of the general Ukrainian population.

The advance detachments of the Ukrainian Armies usually started the pogroms. They came in ahead of the armies and they found the shtetl helpless. Small bands of robbers, who traveled near the Ukrainian Armies, also used the chaos to violate the shtetl. Once it started, peasants from the villages would join in.

The Jewish people were an easy target since we were concentrated together in the shtetl. Over the years we could accumulate only goods and money, not land. Even in the homes of the poor, they could find something valuable to steal and some woman to violate. There was ravaging, there were degradations, there was murder.

We soon developed a sense of impending danger. With the approach of a Ukrainian Nationalist Army, we hid our valuables. The young people would hide in the basement, in the fields and woods, or with friends among the peasants. The robbers invaded like locusts and took what they could. When it was over, we came out from underground as if a new world opened before us. Coming out of hiding, still alive, still able to stretch full length and reach for the sky, was a renewal of life. You must go through such an experience to understand.

If the Jewish people had some sympathy for the Bolsheviks in this period, it was because we felt our lives were safer with them. This was in spite of losing property through the Bolshevik program of confiscation and nationalization. With the Bolsheviks there was greater respect for our dignity, greater security for our lives. And when you live, you hope!

It has been said that the Bolsheviks also committed atrocities against the Jewish people during the revolution. We had such an experience in Stanislavchik. An advance detachment of a Bolshevik Army came in and made a pogrom as good as the Ukrainian nationalists. In fact, it began at my house. In the old part of the building, there was a walled-up room, a hiding place, that had not been discovered through all the pogroms. Even the neighbors began to hide their remaining valuables in that room. I was not there at the time, but I knew exactly what happened when I came home later. I saw the handwork from Sorke’s dowry scattered in the street.

This pogrom was especially disturbing because it was done by a Bolshevik detachment. We had started to believe that although the Bolsheviks would not honor private property, they opposed robbing and killing civilians. This attack gave us a feeling of hopelessness that we would be exposed to pogroms from the Red Army too.

But in a short time, when the larger units of the Bolshevik Army came into Stanislavchik, we learned that detachment had been part of a defeated Ukrainian Army. They had promised to fight under Communist leadership, but they still carried the poison of Ukrainian anti-Semitism. Those soldiers were dispersed into other units and the Bolshevik officers of the detachment were tried for failing their responsibility. They were found guilty and shot before our eyes.

The period of change from one power to another always was the most dangerous time. Since our area was a strategic point, near the huge railroad junction at Zhmerinka, there were frequent battles and changes of power. The armies would fight all around Zhmerinka, shooting at everything but the railroad station in the middle. One time there were candles flying over our heads from armies on both sides of Stanislavchik.

There were periods of tranquility when an army held power for weeks and even months. After they arrested any active sympathizers of their opponents, they would institute their own policies, confiscate what property they wanted, and introduce their own money, which was just a legal way of robbing the people.

The money came in all sizes. First the Tsar’s ruble was replaced by Kerenskii money. It was on 2”x 2” squares because of the paper shortage, but it was printed by the ton. The Ukrainian nationalists, to show they were stronger, had big pieces of paper with large denominations….beautifully printed and completely worthless. The Bolsheviks had their money too. Our area reverted to barter – I once saw a peasant waiting in line to pay for a theater ticket with a piglet – but we had to give an occupying army what they wanted for their money.

Despite the insecurity over property, these longer occupations did not carry that pogrom character of murder, rape, and insult. You couldn’t really call these periods “normal,” but you could adapt. My mother used to say, “Defend us dear God from what we get used to.” 

It was just a matter of time before the Bolsheviks confiscated the sheep farm my father rented from a landlord. That prized flock of Persian sheep was simply distributed among the peasantry to be bastardized. My father knew how to live by exchange of goods, like buying some salt in Zhmerinka to exchange with a peasant who had an extra sack of grain. We still had some valuables for barter, and we had produce from our tiny vegetable garden.

Despite all the hardships, life did not stop for me. From the early days of the revolutionary period, Jewish culture blossomed in Stanislavchik. Instead of going to pray at shul, the young people began discussing Jewish literature, Russian literature, and even Ukrainian literature. The vast churning of people during the war and revolution brought a new teacher of Yiddish into Stanislavchik. Although he was not much to look at, he was able to marry one of our most beautiful girls because of his education and worldliness. He brought a lot of knowledge into the shtetl. He set up groups for the study of Yiddish literature. He organized a Yiddish dramatic group that staged several shows. There were a couple of young people who began to write their own poetry. We had regular cultural evenings for the recitation of literature and the singing of folk songs. That is when I experienced my first real urge for learning.

The older folks ridiculed us. They asked what more is there to learn than the talking of Yiddish and the study of the Torah in Hebrew. But one evening, after a tongue lashing from my father for wasting my time at Yiddish cultural meetings, I discovered something else. When I happened to walk out of the hall during a performance, I found my father listening outside. He said, “I just wanted to know how you spend your time.” Education was on!

During this time, Zionists came through Stanislavchik preaching that the Jewish people should leave Russia and establish a homeland in Palestine. One Labor Zionist came to recruit me at home. He said that the Jewish people, like every other people, needed their own nation and their own working class fighting for socialism. He argued that the security and dignity of the Jewish people required it.

This was something new to me. It was a political Zionism, not the belief of my grandfather – the belief of the Jewish people through the centuries – that the Messiah will come to take the Jewish people to Zion. I was more sympathetic to the ideas of this Zionist, but after my grandfather I was annoyed by any ideas of returning to Zion. With two brothers and a sister in New York, America was more attractive. I did not join this group, but he did recruit some friends who later went to Palestine and pioneered in the establishment of Israel.

One period of tranquility came when the German Army occupied large parts of the Ukraine. They were correct in their dealings with the population. They didn’t steal, they didn’t confiscate, they didn’t carry out pogroms. Since Yiddish was close to the German language, some of the Jewish merchants acted as middlemen for them. The Jewish workers and the Jewish young people who had returned from the war were not in sympathy with this counterrevolutionary occupation force. But the broad section of the Jewish population, while they played no role in the German occupation, appreciated that no one bothered them. (Twenty-five years later, when the Soviet government warned the Ukrainian Jews to flee the invading Nazi armies, many remembered the Germans as civilized conquerors. That mistake cost many Jewish lives, including part of my own family.)

During those periods of calm, Stanislavchik was less isolated from nearby villages and towns. It was dangerous to travel, but you would take a chance. You were prepared for danger. But one of those times something hit my family, something we lived through for twenty-four hours, which reflects those tragic days for the Jewish people.

My sister Sorke had a chance to visit her fiance in a nearby shtetl. The balegole, the wagonman, was traveling there with an empty wagon. He offered Sorke a ride and she accepted with pleasure. They went, but they did not return that evening as planned. The following day a peasant came into Stanislavchik with a report that the balegole was found murdered in a wheat field. The body was there. The wagon was there with its cargo. The horses were there. Nothing else.

This report was devastating to my family. We were convinced that Sorke was murdered or taken off with the murderers. The sorrow of my parents is indescribable. She was the youngest girl, the closest to my mother. There was a special warmth, a special devotion between them. The grief that hit my mother, that hit all of us, broke my heart. I still can’t talk about it calmly.

The lucky conclusion was that the parents of Sorke’s fiance had insisted she remain with them overnight. When the balegole was leaving, they said it was too late for her to travel safely. She stayed with them that night and returned later the next day, a few hours after the report. The joy of reunion I don’t have to describe.

The murder of that balegole without any robbery was a warning to the shtetl. It meant the Jewish people. It meant the Jewish people could be killed without any material benefit to the murderers. At the time the word “genocide” was not known to me, but I saw an indication that the Jewish people were in line for complete destruction.

My personal reaction to the attacks – in addition the loss of nearest and dearest – what was eating my gut, was the insult! It was the insult that anybody might violate my sister, rob us, or shoot us. It was the insult of being afraid! This, to a great degree, influenced me at the age of eighteen to take the gun into hand.

There was another influence on myself and the other young people. That was the Kishinev pogrom, a bloody massacre in the capital of Bessarabia in 1903. It aroused the great Jewish writer Chaim Nachman Bialik to write his monumental poem “Shkhite Shtot, City of Slaughter.” We interpreted that poem as a warning: don’t be murdered without resistance. Although I later learned there had been Jewish resistance in the working-class quarters of Kishinev, at this time I took it as a message to mobilize. Take arms! Fight the pogrommakers!

With this in mind we organized a group for self-defense of the shtetl. To me this was a restoration of dignity and self-respect. If we are to die, let us do it fighting!

We organized the self-defense group at a meeting in the shul. We met in secret because our parents would be opposed. They believed that a Jew with a gun would be a provocation for punishment…that if one Ukrainian was killed in a skirmish there would be an attack on the entire shtetl. We saw that our parents were depending upon prayer to God. We felt that prayer was not the most effective weapon against the pogrommakers.

There were about a dozen of us sixteen to nineteen years old. We had free picking of guns and ammunition left by retreating armies. We did not organize to fight the marching armies, but to drive out the advance detachments and the bandits that made pogroms. Our defense group was quite effective against small groups that could not exact revenge upon the shtetl.

We always kept a lookout in the center of town, the marketplace, especially at night. Whenever we expected Ukrainian nationalist armies to occupy the area, we would be ready for the advance detachments. When seven or eight riders would come into town and start to break into a home, we would drive them off with gunfire. They deserved to be shot.

There were times when the Ukrainian Army was as dangerous to us as the advance detachments. When they broke through the rear guard of the Red Army and went through Stanislavchik looking for Bolsheviks, they came with guns blazing. With the excuse that people might be hiding Bolsheviks, they would raid homes, steal, shoot anyone on sight. Those raids were pogroms.

Once when that happened, I ran to hide in the deep grass of the valley with my friends Nokhem and Mayer. A Ukrainian soldier came and took aim at our rabbi, who also was hiding out there. The three of us fired and cut down that murderer. We rescued the rabbi and ran for our lives. We knew where to hide. We knew every bush, every tree, every twist and turn of the area. It was home ground.

Nokhem, Mayer, and myself drew together within the self-defense group. We had been close friends as boys growing up in Stanislavchik, and as we matured during the war and revolution we became even thicker than under normal circumstances. We each had sisters: all our talk about defending our families meant our sisters, because girls were most endangered by attacks. Nokhem’s younger sister, Rose, was quite attractive. We used to spend time together walking and talking. If I had remained in Stanislavchik, she was the girls I wanted to continue my life with. After I went to the United States, my nearest friend Mayer married her.

Nokhem, Mayer, and myself were together constantly. We saved each other’s lives on several occasions. Once Ukrainian nationalist soldiers arrested Nokhem and demanded to know where I was hiding. He knew, but he would not tell. They beat him to a pulp with the steel cleaning rods of their rifles. After the soldiers got tired of beating him, he made his way to our hiding place and collapsed. It was a demonstration of devotion which is cemented only during such a period of danger.

I had a taste of that steel rod on my own back. Once I was arrested by Ukrainian nationalists when I was in Zhmerinka buying kerosene to exchange with the peasants for food. The soldiers were rounding up all the young men in the streets. When I gave them my name, expecting to be released, they singled me out with a few others and took me back to their barracks. They kept me overnight for questioning.

There is no heroism when you face severe punishment or death. I was scared. In the morning they questioned if I participated in the struggle for Ukrainian independence. They were searching for some connection to the Red Army. But it was not just questioning – it was a beating with fists and rods. Finally they went off for food: “Leave the Jew on the floor. He’ll not run.”

When I heard the outside door slam, I slowly made my way to the inside door, then the outside door, then the bushes and over the barracks fence. Half running and half crawling, I made my way home across the fields. To my parents, who heard I was taken by the soldiers, I was just returned from the dead.

The Ukrainian nationalists may have singled me out because someone in the village gave them my name. There were a couple of young Ukrainian nationalists, sons of the landlord’s manager, who were stool pigeons reporting people they held grudges against. They were vicious anti-Semites who liked to beat up Jewish young people. Our self-defense group fought them anytime, on any level.

During one fight I ran home for my rifle. It was on a Saturday afternoon. After the shabes meal, we would go for a stroll along the road leading out to Zhmerinka. Boys and girls would walk together, sing songs, brag about adventures. On one side of the road was the landlord’s estate and on the other were homes of the richest Jewish merchants. Further out you reached a well with water that bubbled out of the earth. When the sun shone through the trees surrounding the well, the water had all the colors of the rainbow. That water was crystal clear, ice cold, with a special sweet taste. It was a public area where we would sit, talk, play games. It was a part of our lives.

On this particular Saturday afternoon those two Ukrainian fellows, tall and strong and handsome, came marching through that area with canes. They singled out a couple, insulted the girl, and started to beat up the boy with their canes. Mayer, Nokhem, and myself came over and a fight broke out. I thought they had a pocket gun and I was afraid the peasants would come to give them more help … so I went a-runnin’ to get my gun. But my mother got a hold of me first: “You want to fight? Fight! But no guns! I want you back.” To my mother I listened.

(During a period of occupation by the Red Army, those two anti-Semites were arrested and taken away. They never returned. Rumor had it that they were shot as counterrevolutionaries.)

At the beginning my father objected to our self-defense group, but there was nothing he could do to stop my participation. Arguing did no good and soon the parents realized that our protection allowed people to sleep at night. Everything will fight for its life and we were no exception.

Our self-defense group did lay low when the Ukrainian Army itself would be taking over our area. They would be looking for young people who sympathized with the Bolsheviks or who fought in self-defense groups. One time when there was great danger, we were forced to leave Stanislavchik. We followed the Red Army to Vinnitsa, which was a large city forty miles from Stanislavchik.

In Vinnitsa we heard about a Red Army detachment that was being organized to fight a bandit group that was threatening a nearby shtetl. The Bolsheviks considered pogrommakers to be enemies of the people. Although we were fleeing danger, we volunteered for another danger. We didn’t want to join the Red Army, but we did want to save that shtetl. So Nokhem, Mayer, my cousin Itsik, and myself joined up.

That new Red Army detachment was entirely Jewish. Some were members of Jewish self-defense groups from other shtelekh who came to Vinnitsa for the same reasons we did. There also was a group of Jewish city ruffians with city dress and city ways who laughed at those of us from the backwoods of a shtetl. It was my first contact with this type of city Jew.

At the railroad station in Vinnitsa, where our detachment was to board a train, a Ukrainian bandit leader – a pogrommaker – was being held. As we stood there on the station platform, we heard a yell: “The bandit is escaping!” We saw him running across the tracks toward the wheat fields. Five of us leveled our guns, fired, and shot him. Automatically! This was the kind of reaction you would have to a pogrommaker in times of restlessness. It was “either-or”….either you were ready to respond or you never would be ready.

We took the train to the area where that shtetl was under attack. After a night’s fight in the woods, we broke up the bandit group, which was composed of local peasants, and we rescued the shtetl. On the train back to Vinnitsa, however, I heard stories that some of those Jewish city ruffians committed wrongs upon the Ukrainian peasants where we had fought. There were rumors of robbery and rape. They bragged: “We gave the bastards a taste of their own.” I did not personally see anything, but such things happen in the process of war and retaliation. When we returned to Vinnitsa, the leader of our detachment was arrested. I met up with that guy twenty years later in New York, and he would not say a word about the entire incident.

In Vinnitsa we found the Red Army preparing to retreat before the same Ukrainian Army that was taking over Stanislavchik. The volunteers in our punitive detachment were ordered to be distributed among the regular Red Army units. My cousin Itsik decided to retreat with the Red Army. Nokhem, Mayer, and myself snuck away and returned to Vinnitsa. We landed at an inn, where we hid until the advancing Ukrainian Army established control over the city.

At that inn I was amazed to run into an old neighbor from Stanislavchik – Sasha the bagelmaker, the young socialist who ran away from the Tsar’s police in 1906. I was not conscious enough to inquire about his political beliefs and there was not time to exchange much information. But he was glad to find me in a self-defense group in Stanislavchik.

I saw another familiar face at that inn. There was a family from another shtetl who also came to Vinnitsa for a better chance to survive the invasion. I recognized one of their teenage daughters as a kid who had visited her aunt in Stanislavchik years ago. Any stranger walking in the shtetl was noticed. But now she was a beautiful young lady and I noticed her all the more. I tried to start a conversation about recognizing her, but I did not get anywhere. This, however, was not the last time I met up with her.

It took three days of disturbance before the Ukrainian Army established order in Vinnitsa. During that entire period the three of us were hiding in the attic of that inn, living on a few cucumbers. Then we crossed the forty miles of fields and forests back to Stanislavchik.

When I returned home, my aunt Rivka demanded to know what happened to her son Itsik. No matter how much I explained, she cried, “You saved yourself and let him go down! Where are his bones? Where is his grave?” Then she sat down on the floor of our house, in the Jewish tradition of men sitting on the ground for seven days mourning for a dead person. She said, “You are responsible for Itsik’s death. I will sit seven days of shive in your house!”

Itsik returned a few months later. He had retreated with the Red Army to Kiev, and there he stayed with a family until it was safe to go home. After the joy of reunion, Itsik started to brag about his adventures with the daughter of that family. He showed us a picture of a beautiful girl. “She was very human, very friendly,” he said, “She was good to me.”

We were envious until one day my aunt Rivka walks in, very disturbed, screaming, “Oy, what a disaster! What a tragedy! You should see her!”

“What are you talking about?”

“You don’t know? Itsik didn’t tell you? That ‘beauty’ came here to marry him. Look at me,” she said. She was old, with a face like a prune. “I am a beauty compared to her! I had to hide him and pay her a ransom to go away!”

I was not politically alert during the revolution, but my respect for the Bolsheviks was growing. I temporarily joined with that Red Army detachment because of the Bolshevik opposition to anti-Semitism and pogroms. Even the richer Jews in Stanislavchik began to appreciate the Bolsheviks after the ravaging of the Ukrainian nationalists. Those were the days when Lenin gave real leadership. He understood how to win people over to a just cause. It became clear that it was just a matter of time before the Red Army would prevail in the Ukraine. The peasants were turning more and more to the Bolsheviks.

The Ukrainian nationalist made a great mistake by opposing distribution of the landlords’ land and goods to the peasants. They made a great mistake by tolerating mistreatment of the peasant population. This was reflected in a local uprising of the villages near Stanislavchik against a Ukrainian Nationalist Army. There already were deep grievances against the Ukrainian nationalists. Whenever they took over our area they would promise the peasants a glorious Ukrainian national culture and then they would demand every head of livestock, every last piece of bread. The peasants did not take too kindly to that.

Once a Ukrainian nationalist detachment began robbing a nearby peasant village and mistreating the women. When a peasant found a soldier raping his wife, he picked up the soldier’s rifle and killed him. The gunfire brought the rest of the soldiers and they arrested the peasant. Someone sounded the alarm, the church bell, and the peasants from all the nearby villages came running from the fields. They took that detachment as prisoners.

With the Ukrainian Army a few miles away in Zhmerinka, there was a danger of reprisal. The peasants called together the entire population of the villages for a meeting in the marketplace in Stanislavchik. The wise men of the villages warned the men to arm themselves and to brace for an army attack.

The Jewish people immediately understood that our lives were in danger. To join the fighting villagers would expose us to retaliation by the Ukrainian Army. Not to join might mean retaliation from the peasants. What to do? When the peasants gathered in the marketplace, the Jewish people met at the shul.

The older people advised the younger people to flee. The younger people insisted that we must live together with the peasants, even if it meant falling together. Most of us went to join the peasants in the marketplace. We found a crowd armed with pitchforks, scythes, threshing sticks, and a few rifles. We entered with our weapons and we were accepted.

A stranger was addressing the crowd. He said, “I come from the Ukrainian Army at Zhmerinka. It is retreating before an advancing Bolshevik Army and there will be no attack upon you. I suggest that you hide in the thicket of woods along the road outside the village. I will give you a signal if the Ukrainian Army plans to attack. If they retreat, I will give you another signal and you can march into Zhmerinka.”

Someone yelled out, “It doesn’t smell good. Why should we trust you?”

He identified himself as a Bolshevik assigned to the Ukrainian Army to do just what he was doing. He gave all kinds of logical explanations why he was with the people. He convinced us to advance to that thicket.

At the time for the signal, there was a cannon shelling of the thicket. It was a total betrayal! That speaker in the marketplace was a provocateur of great skill who succeeded in misleading us. Several were killed and wounded by that bombardment. We all started running back to Stanislavchik.

There was a quick meeting of peasants and Jews in the marketplace. Everyone felt the danger. With the record of the Ukrainian nationalists, we knew the young people would be shot on sight. It was decided that all the young people should leave the area.

The next morning I joined a group of Jewish youngsters fleeing into the unknown. We didn’t dare travel by road for fear of meeting a Ukrainian Army detachment. The September rain made for hard walking across the soaked fields. Finally, after hours of walking, we came to a village. We were exhausted and hungry and soaking wet. We were scared for ourselves and for those we left behind. The peasants of this village knew through their grapevine what happened. They gave us the most honored spot to sleep – on top of the oven. It was the only time I saw such a warm reception of a Jewish group in a Ukrainian village.

The next day we marched on to a shtetl that was miles and miles farther from Stanislavchik. The Jewish population housed and cleaned and fed us. Their young people accepted us like returning relatives. In fact, when I returned to the Soviet Union in 1934, I found that one of the boys in our retreat married a girl he met in that shtetl.

After two weeks the Ukrainian Army was forced to retreat, and we returned to our families. The Ukrainian Army had come into Stanislavchik the day we fled, but they were mild with the population. They accepted the explanation that the young people fled, and there was no punishment. They did not want to cause another revolt. It seems they felt the breath of the advancing Red Army. When that Red Army took power in our area, it was greeted as a liberator.

The Red Army was our only real contact with the Bolsheviks during the civil war. As it drove out the armies of the Tsar and the Ukrainian nationalists, it began to institute the Bolshevik program. There started a slow change of life and beliefs.

There was confusion at the beginning of the transformation, before clear guidance and new leadership came forth. First, we had to get rid of the petty functionaries of the Tsar’s bureaucracy. They were a cancerous growth on the body of the people. They were removed from leadership. Those who were zealots, who were oppressors of the people, were called to account with beatings and even shootings.

There was great confusion over the question of land in the beginning. When the landlords or their managers disappeared, it was just a matter of time before the peasants took over the property. At first the division was chaotic. No peasant had use for the big house of the landlord, but animals, machinery, even parts of machinery were grabbed. The peasants were hungry for wood and suddenly you would see them driving out of the landlord’s forest with as much as they could carry in a wagon. The richer peasants, who were more audacious, began to claim large chunks of the landlord’s estate.

The Bolsheviks slowly began to institute orderly confiscations instead of robbery. Then the livestock and machinery and land could be used collectively and efficiently later. Under the Bolshevik occupation the big house of the landlord was turned into a people’s center for information and redistribution. That’s where you went to get more land or to get your ration of salt. That’s where my family went, under the supreme guidance of my aunt Rivka, to get a larger plot of land for a vegetable garden.

There was an outcry of protest by the Jewish people when the Bolsheviks began their program. We did not have the implements or the experience to take a piece of land and make a living. Most Jews remained in the shtetl, but we were impoverished by the confiscation of our goods for the Red Army, for the workers in the city, and for redistribution. Homes and personal possessions were not taken, but that accumulation of goods had been the basis of our livelihood. Now there was not even freedom for the Jewish people to exchange goods in the marketplace. We had to depend upon the Bolshevik government for food it appropriated from the peasants. At first there was very little.

The redistribution was done under Bolshevik guidance through our own committees of poverty. Those committees were selected publicly in the marketplace. Poor people were chosen on the basis of honesty and good relations with their neighbors. If there was no objection from the crowd – and sometimes there was – the person was elected. It was not a well organized method of selecting leadership, but it perfectly suited the needs of the times.

I served on one of those committees for distribution of goods in the shtetl. It was done very well. The change was crude at first, and sometimes it was too severe. But at the same time there was the humanism of equal shares of food for all. The committees knew who needed what.

There always was resentment from the wealthy Jews. They continued to curse the Bolsheviks, even after the Red Army stopped the pogroms of the Ukrainian nationalists. Those who had carried the power of leadership, who had the prestige of the seat near the western wall of the shul, who were looking at Jewish life from the top down, they never made peace with the Bolsheviks.

There also was resentment from the religious people. Bolshevik education – or propaganda, if you wish – linked the Russian church, and to a lesser degree the Jewish shul, with the old Tsarist system. The Bolsheviks denounced religion as the opium of the people. It was a blow to the life of the older Jewish people, but for the first time I felt that no one could pick on me for not going to shul. I felt liberated!

The majority of the Jewish people had good reason to support the Bolsheviks. We lived a life of oppression, of pogroms, of fear under the Tsarist regime. It could not be compensated for by the accumulation of gold in the hands of the rich. The wealthy merchant had a lot to lose, but the majority of the Jewish people was poor. They had everything to gain with the promise of redistribution of wealth. And the Jewish intelligentsia, who understood more deeply the transformation of Russia, welcomed the new society as a promise for Jewish culture, for education, for freedom. There was great Jewish support for the Bolsheviks.

As time passed I came to admire two giant figures among the Bolsheviks. I learned that under the leadership of Lenin the struggle for peace and the struggle for reorganization of Russian life was taking place. I learned that under Trotsky’s leadership the Red Army was resisting the forces of the Tsar. For a split second, in fact, there was in my own mind a question over whether to join the Krasnaia Gvardiia, the Red Guard, as the Red Army was then called.

There was a Jewish doctor who came to Stanislavchik from the city to serve the health needs of our area. He took a liking to me and he once told me, “Things are settling down. You need an education, a career. I advise you to enter a Bolshevik military school. I can arrange it for you.”

I consulted with Nokhem and Mayer. We concluded that I should not rush, that I should not join yet. We consulted again when I had a sudden chance to leave Stanislavchik with a family that was going to America. My friends feared that I would join the Red Army. The regarded America as a great opportunity for me and my family. I finally did cast my vote for leaving.

By the time of my departure in 1919, I was beginning to learn about the new Soviet society. First, things had to be taken apart before rebuilding. I was there long enough to see the abolition of landlordism and banking, the redistribution of land and goods, the transformation of the police into a grievance militia, and the emergence of local leadership responsible to the people. I did not stay long enough to see the accomplishments after the civil war, to see the pieces put back together. I learned that story from a distance.

My own future was different, but before I left Russia I had seen human lives mowed down to maintain privilege. I was not class conscious, but I had an understanding of the division between rich and poor, oppressor and oppressed. Even before I came to the United States, my sympathy was with humanism, with the struggle for justice and equality.

 

Reply to the Rooster

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.