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[Page 181]

The Events of 1919

The Pogroms in Zhvil in 5679 – 1919

by Mordkhe Buna (Biber)

Translated by Tina Lunson

Sunday, the 8th of Tamuz, sav–reysh–ayin–tes.

Because of their holidays, Sunday, there is no movement in the town. Actually the shops are closed now and have been closed on the weekdays too, from the time the Red powers occupied the town. There was a great deal of noise and movement in those days. The new rulers, various administrators, walk around, run up and down the streets for whole days, each with his brief case, hurrying like the angels in “u'neteanu teykef” to their “REVCOM”, “ZAVKOM”, “PRODKOM”. But today is quiet and calm. The various “KOMS” are resting today, and a stillness reigns in the town.


Shul Street after the big fire in 1919


And suddenly some movement begins. Not far from our house, in the plaza near the church. Earlier I had barely noticed it. It is the peasants living around, who gather here every Sunday. But when I notice that the movement is stronger, the masses become larger, I become uneasy; I have already heard about the beginning of peasant revolts in places around here. Who knows what this signifies?

And the next moment someone calls me to the telephone and it is a familiar gentile, a Ukrainian, and he asks me to come to him quickly, he has a very important matter that he cannot tell me over the telephone.

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When I arrive there I find several other familiar persons besides him in his house. The host lets us know that the new announcement from the Red powers to separate the religious service from the republic has very much agitated the Christian population because it is clear to them that the decree brings the domination of the Jews to the religious service. They maintain that the further registration of the births and deaths that have until now have been carried out by the rabbis and the priests, will be turned over from now on to the “REVKOM”, that is to “Mashke” and “Yaske”. He also announces to us that for them, the Christian residents, there has been a gathering in which he also took part and it was decided to spill Jewish blood if the “REVCOM” would not change the decree. He then laid this out: The Jews must now prevail upon the “Itske” so that he will abolish the decree just mentioned.

The “Itske” he mentioned was a Jewish youth who managed to attain the position of secretary of the REVKOM. And the Zvhil Jews mention his name with hatred and scorn for his “revolutionary deeds”. We knew well that he will not even listen to our appeal – nevertheless we elected a delegation of three persons who hurried to see him. He met them with derision and answered in Russian that would send out a few machineguns and drive away and control all the gangs.”

We knew well the great danger that weighed on us and we tried to deal with the respected Christians but everywhere we met with a poisonous atmosphere, and they did not want to listen to our complaints.

Four in the afternoon. At the Russian Orthodox church and the Catholic church masses of goyim gather and among them are many Christian intellectuals who incite the masses and scream that the Jews were to blame for everything.

In the distance “Itsikl” and his group accompanied by the military guard detail can be seen riding on horses. Within minutes they fall upon the masses and as a cry of “Itsikl” begins, they carry out his promise.

Tuesday, 10 Tamuz. Heavy shooting from the west side of the town. The Reds answer. And the reciprocal shooting is even stronger. The mass that “Itsik” and his company had driven apart, as he had said, has inflamed the peasants from the surrounding area and they are attacking the town.

Many in the Jewish population want to believe that no harm will come to the Jews; that the goyim know the town Jews and know very well that there are very few Jews mixed up with the Bolsheviks, and they had already fled from the town. What did the other Jews have to be afraid of?

Nevertheless the depression grows. Reports reach us that the military guards from the Reds have gone over to the side of the rebels. The Jewish communists are also inclined to fight and the Chinese who are individually

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beaten up on the streets. And there in the middle of the street lay the son of Nokhum Tverski – one of the Makarev Rebi's grandsons – a well–known communist.

The shooting stops for a while. One of the neighbors invites me in to a minyon. I walk over there. Not one of us knows why the shooting has stopped. Through the window I see four people with white bands tied to their sleeves, crossing the street. It looks as though the town is in the hands of the rebels. I relate this to the minyon members and each one hurries to finish the prayers and go home. I stay a little longer and visit with the neighbor, knowing that I have some “sins” on me, I am afraid to appear on the street because the goyim may turn me over to the rebels. A half hour later I see through the window that my father's house is surrounded by the “white” soldiers, who are knocking on the door. My father and other household members come to the door and in a minute I see that my brother is being beaten up. My sister who tries to protect him is shoved aside, a rifle is aimed at my father, my mother faints and falls down. The little children roll on the ground and scream horribly. I try to jump out the window but my legs are heavy and will not move. A strong hand, I do not know whose, holds me fast and drags me away, and I do not remember anything else.


The site of the mass murder at the destroyed Zhitomer Bridge


I hear my sister's voice telling me that my parents and the children are not harmed. But four young men from our house were taken. A decree was issued to arrest all the youth and they were investigating those who belonged to the communists. There was a separate investigation commission on which good goyim served. I could not get any more from my sister. In the evening I gathered my courage, stood up and went home. My sister had spent the whole day

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searching all the jails to find our arrestees and had found out nothing.

Jewish blood had been spilt in every street, and the wounded were taken to the hospital together, no one was admitted. Jewish groups were sent away. Where to? No one knew. The tormenters laughed a wild laughter and ridiculed them. The gangs broke into all the houses, robbing and ruining everything. Our house had no rest. New gangs were always breaking in and after each group I had to clean up: as I had not shot up the church and not deposed Nikolai from his tsarist throne, had never taken part in the “commune” nor hung portraits of the zhides [Jews] Levin (Lenin) and Libe Trotsky in their Russian Orthodox church. And at each investigation I was held at the point of a revolver.

Finally they took me too. And me alone, and they also ridiculed me in the Ukrainian style, and were going to do away with me… but at the last minute a gentile I knew came by and after a beating they took me to jail, which was full of beaten and wounded Jews. After a while there was an investigation commission and I was freed with a few others. I headed for home. Tears of joy and a deep inner sadness accompanied me: Where was M and where was Y? And we did not know, that early that morning their blood had covered the earth.

Unfortunate women, mothers, orphaned children wander around the streets and with horrible pleading they ask, does any one know which of ours, has anyone heard, what happened to their dear ones, where are they?



Night. A dead silence all around. And suddenly – a terrible scream splits the silence. It is still again and then another scream. My old father buries his heavy thoughts in the “Zohar”. It appears as though a terrible pain, that of the sufferings that humanity must endure just before the arrival of the Messiah, has been poured over his face. My mother sighs. Like a heavy stone she squeezes out the thought, Where is M? And after a while her face brightens again with hope and the belief that she will see him again. My little brother, a boy of eleven years, recites psalms in a whinny voice. The young children lie in a dark corner curled together like cats.

We hear a knock on the outside of the door. It is not the knock of Esau. We open the door and in push the Rov and two respected householders, pale faces, and the trembling Rov explains: the Ataman called him and demanded, full of scorn at the zhides–komunistn, that the Jews must surrender any weapons that they possess. There is a polemic in the slaughter house. A gentile woman certified that she herself had seen that we had set up a machine–gun and shot into the rebel crowd. In the morning there would be a search. The Rov finished his narrative and left. What will happen to us in the morning?

Very early. The slaughter does not end. Jewish youths are taken from their

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homes and killed in front of everyone without cease. Gangs of pogromists attack our house and grab me to kill me. By chance some Russian youths are passing by and confirm that I was not among the communists and I am rescued from death for the second time. At that moment I heard a shot and another Jew was killed right before my eyes.



After the appeals by the rabonim the Christian priests issued a call to the people to stop the slaughter “in the name of the holy church”: stop the killing and assemble in the church to confess for spilling innocent blood. The call calmed the Jews somewhat and negotiations began with the new powers. Earlier the powers would not even listen to the speech of the Jewish representatives, who called on them and brought bread and salt to them, but in the end they agreed that the Jews may openly swear in the shul that they did not have any weapons and would subjugate themselves to their power.

Four o'clock in the afternoon. Under stormy thunder from the skies and a flowing rain that mixes in the streets with Jewish blood, the shul shames goes out with a white flag in his hand, accompanied by the rabonim, holy men and esteemed Jews. The shames walks with dignity at the front and calls out, “Idn, in shul arayn.” [Jews, go to the shul.] And the Jews hurry from their homes and join the delegation and march to the shul.

But where did the delegation turn in? Woe to the eyes that saw this. The whole large congregation of Jews stops at the Russian Orthodox church. A delegation of rabonim and holy men go inside of the priest's house. In a while they come out with the priest in the lead and he, the priest of Esau, dressed in his priest's clothing, stands and scolds the Jewish crowd!

In the great shul. The whole crowd waits impatiently for the Ataman, in order to swear their subjugation to him and listen to his merciful, comforting talk. And now here he comes, the powerful Ataman of the small republic. And he begins to speak in his thick basso voice about the great destructive spirit that is rooted in the Jewish people even from Avrom avinu's, Meyshe's and Dovid's times. But he is certain in his strength and in our – current – Jewish will to erase that evil spirit from us. The speaker emphasizes his speech with a question – and waits for an answer – and the whole crowd responds him: Yes, make it so! The swearing ceremony begins. Sighs, shouting, and weeping accompany the vow. The Ataman feels touched by the zshidovski outcry and tells them to quiet down the noise. And they know how to quiet down.



The slaughter lasted ten days. Afterwards came the permission to gather the murdered, pulled from the pits, and to bring them to a proper Jewish grave.

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Friday, 20 Tamuz. The subjugators rush us to finish the work and do not allow us to look at the faces of the dead so as to recognize them. All day wagons running with blood and brains wend their way between the cemetery and the places of slaughter with the other victims. From five in the morning we dig the graves and we hurry to finish before shabes. Crowds of men and women stand by the dead and search for their loved ones. My father calls me to him and signals me with his hand toward a corpse. I stand up and look at him and keep quiet. Has my heart become stone? Was that piece of clay that looks like a pile of overturned earth or black slaked lime actually the body of a living person a few days ago? I lean over and look. It is not a body, does not even look like a body. Some cut–up flesh.

But, my father says in a trembling voice, just look at the cloth on it, see, isn't that your shirt? And a horrible shudder runs through my body and I bend over closer, my hand touches the hunk of flesh and a painful fire encompasses me. I shake all over and a terrible scream breaks out of my heart – my brother.



On Tishe b'ov the Reds took the town again, but it is clear that they had not come to town to stay. The Polish military was chasing them. Their whole intention was to stop until their troops retreat from Zhitomer, and then they will also leave Zvhil.

And that same day gangs rushed into the town and in a few hours had killed fifty Jews. By night the Petlura troops had driven them out and in the morning the town was on fire from the incendiary shrapnel that the Red military had shot into it. Within three hours the central streets were on fire, the market, all the shops, shuln and study houses.

Five days later the Petlura troops began to retreat from the town. And the remaining Jews were again afraid to stay with the gangs around and fled from the town almost naked to the nearby town of Yarun.

In total 1,200 souls were killed in the town itself, and in the surrounding villages some 600 souls.

In Kheshvan 1919 the Polacks again took the town. Many of the refugees returned to their desolated houses. But in that time a terrible typhus epidemic broke out and also lung inflammations, and in that plague about one thousand souls perished in the space of three months.


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