Tuesday, February 18, 2014

I will be the last one to leave this city

I’m doing research this week for a couple of presentations to highlight our work with post-Soviet Jewry. For some of the depth, I’ve been using our amazing 100-year old archives and our extremely helpful archival researchers.

I’m not exactly sure what I’m looking for. I know that there are so many stories in the archives that sometimes I just send a query through the system because, odds are, I’ll find something just fascinating and worth reading.

This is one of those examples.

A colleague passed on this incredible transcript. It’s part of an oral history project from 1981, interviewing Boris Smolar, who dedicated much of his life to reporting on the situation of Jews, and in many places saw the work of the Joint. He’s being interviewed about JDC’s role in Poland in 1920 … and this piece really struck me …

“In 1920 JDC started to work in Poland after the war, and sent a unit of more than 30 people - Americans, social workers and leaders of various groups - to conduct their work there. They were all in para-military uniform for protection, because the situation in Poland
at that time was so chaotic. The Polish Army, which secured Polish independence from Russia after Poland being Russian for many generations, was so drunk with victory that they celebrated their victory by assaulting Jews in the street and cutting of their beards, like in Hitler's time. They would even throw Jews off of running trains. It was dangerous for
a Jew to travel on a train at that time.

Petlura's regime [the independent anti-Bolshevik leader] fell, and the [Poles] simply intended to go all the way to Warsaw. But they didn't succeed long. They remained in the Ukraine for only a short while, several months, until they met the Red Army. They were no longer dealing with bandits, but a regular Soviet Army. So, it was the Polish Army facing the Russian Army, and the Russians gave them such a beating that they began to retreat. They retreated so fast that I saw them running. They had no cars, no trucks, nothing. All they had were horses and wagons. And if a wagon lost a wheel, it ran on three wheels.

During this retreat, they reached Rovno. When they were about to retreat from Rovno, JDC's Abe Shohan put as many Jews as didn't want to, remain under the Bolsheviks or fall under the Soviet regime in trucks with reserves of food, intending to open a JDC office in the next city after we left Rovno. The entire JDC staff was evacuated in trucks with food to Lutsk(?), a city about 60 miles from Rovno, thinking we would be able to open a JDC office there. Before leaving, Shohan said to me - you and I are going to be the last to leave. I am remaining, you can remain here if you want, or you can go to Warsaw, but I am staying here to be the last to leave. As the JDC representative, I want you to go with me as translator to the military commandant in Rovno, to make sure he issues an order that no pogroms take place.

He went to the commandant and said: Look. You are, by military law, the last of the military units to leave the city. You have no automobile, and you will have to leave like all the other retreating soldiers, by horse and wagon. The Russians are driving you back fast. You can never tell, they may surround the city. Then you will be stuck in Russian hands, and you know what that means. Now, I have an automobile with an American flag on it, and I will be the last one to leave this city, watching in my automobile whether Jewish stores and homes have been looted, raided, whether there have been pogroms, and so on. 1 will wire a report to the American Jews as to whether the Polish Army behaves during their last minutes in the city. I don't want to see any pogroms; it wouldn't be good for the reputation of the Polish Army. And frankly, it wouldn't be too good for you either. If you promise to issue an order to the retreating officers of your unit, to see that discipline is maintained, and that there will be no pogroms in the city, I will pick you up in my automobile and we will be the last to leave. The military commandant had no choice anyway so he said sure, we don't like pogroms, and there will be an order issued that there should be no pogroms by the retreating Polish Army.

And there were none.”

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