- Gendered Violence: Jewish Women in the Pogroms of 1917–1921 by Irina Astashkevich
Sixty thousand Jews were murdered in hundreds of pogroms in Ukraine between 1918 and 1920. The pogroms took place against the backdrop of a bloody civil war between the Bolsheviks and their various enemies: Ukrainian nationalists, German and Polish troops, Denikin's White Army, local partisans and Ukrainian farmers. The warring sides took advantage of the chaos and anarchy to massacre Jews. Shtetls were burned, communities were destroyed, Jewish property was plundered, Jews were killed viciously, women were raped, beaten and humiliated, and tens of thousands of orphans required the assistance of Jewish aid organizations. It was a national catastrophe on an unprecedented scale. Delegations that investigated the reasons for the pogroms, documented them and provided material and emotional aid to the survivors left no room for doubt that the slaughter of Ukrainian Jewry during the civil war was one of the most violent and brutal episodes in the history of the Jewish people since Bogdan Khmelnitzky in 1648–49.
Irina Astashkevich's book focuses on one shocking aspect of the pogroms: the rape of Jewish women by (almost) all sides in the civil war in Ukraine. Although a great deal of scholarly literature has been written about the pogroms in Ukraine after World War I, this is the first book on their gender-related aspects. Astashkevich's book has six chapters: Chapter 1 is an overview of the civil war and a description of the main players. Unfortunately, it leaves out the sociodemographic dimension and ignores Gergel's important, pioneering statistical study of mortality in the pogroms,1 which could have shed light on major gender issues that are crucial to Astashkevich's arguments. Chapter 2 focuses on the pogroms, and more precisely on their brutality. The mass killing of the Jews of Ukraine was preceded by sadistic acts of abuse by soldiers and locals. Reports published after the pogroms and the testimony of the survivors emphasize again and again that the murderers did not merely kill Jews and loot their property; they were satisfied only by viciously and mercilessly torturing the Jews to death. Chapters 3 to 5 deal with gendered aspects of the pogroms: rape as a public spectacle, the "invention" of vengeance, and gender [End Page 226] differences in descriptions of the rapes from the perspectives of women and men. Chapter 6 discusses rape trauma years after the civil war.
Astashkevich's book is written fluently and clearly. Her writing style is almost literary, and the work makes for fascinating reading, despite the horrific, shocking and distressing descriptions of rape. Most of the study is based on the contents of the Tcherikower Archive at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York. Tcherikower arrived in Ukraine from the United States shortly after the civil war and soon began gathering documents and testimony about the pogroms. His archive was an important resource during the trial of Sholom Schwartzbard, who assassinated the Ukrainian nationalist Symon Petliura in 1926. Additional sources available to Astashkevich were the monumental collection of documents edited by Lidia Miliakova, Kniga Pogromov: Pogromy na Ukraine v Belorussii Evropeiskoi Chasti Rossii v Period Grazhdanskoi Voiny 1918–1922 gg (Moscow 2007), the Poalei Zion Archives, and the State Archive of Kyiv Oblast in Ukraine.
One important corpus of primary sources, published in Palestine in the 1920s, was not used in this book. The Scroll of Slaughter (Megilat hatevaḥ), by Eliezer David Rosenthal, is, as far as I am concerned, one of the most important works written about the pogroms in general and about the rape of women in particular. The book describes, without embellishment, acts of rape, murder, abuse and plundering in some 400 Ukrainian towns and cities during the civil war. Its main objective is to document the pogroms from the victims' perspective and to serve as a memorial to the tens of thousands of Jews murdered in Ukraine during the civil war. It is a chronicle of blood and a shocking testimony about Ukrainian Jewish communities that...