Why They Left is an ongoing exploration of why groups flee their homelands. In addition to the documentary photos and personal testimonials of survivors and descendants of the Jews of Ukraine, we are making video interviews with survivors of modern day conflicts, beginning with the Lost Boys and Girls of South Sudan.
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Erasing The Pogroms
In the decades prior to the Holocaust, roughly two million Jews fled Ukraine and Eastern Europe. Why? What made them uproot their families and leave everything they had known behind? They left because of the pogroms - ferocious mob attacks on Jews by their neighbors, by marauding militias, or by the State. In desperation, families hid in cellars, in the woods, and in fields, hoping the murderous mob would pass. The perpetrators had obvious reasons for erasing this history. And the victims had more subtle reasons to forget the past. They may have wanted to start over, in a new country, without the violent memories of the life they had escaped. They may not have wanted to burden their children with stories of tragedy. They may not have wanted to frighten them.
The result is silence about the pogroms.
Memorandum to the Jewish Department of the People’s Commissariat of Nationalities of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (NKN RSFSR) from the representatives of the Borisov Revolutionary Committee, Barnai and Oksiuchits, on the aid to the inhabitants of Borisov, Minsk Province.
November 17, 1920.
To: Moscow, Commissariat of Jewish Affairs, Comrade Mandel’shtam
The Polish White Guardist bands, pressured by the valiant Red Army to leave Borisov, staged a most cruel pogrom in the city. A considerable part of the city was annihilated by fire, but even that part of the city which was spared by the fire consists of nearly destroyed shacks; there is not a single unbroken window, nor a single leakproof roof. Moreover, every household item, clothing, footwear, kitchenware, and nearly the entire population fell victim either to the fire or to plunder.
My Father (November 6, 1922 - December 24, 2010) His grandparents fled Europe when his mother was a little girl. He grew up hearing about the Cossacks and entered adulthood as the Holocaust was unfolding. Antisemitism troubled him throughout his life. He could never understand it.
The text on the bottom of the image reads: View of the two rooms of the Sultan's Menagerie of which one is occupied by lions and the other by the Israelites
This image comes from a 1912 postcard provided to me by Stephanie Comfort. In 1912, in Fez, Morocco, there was an attack on the Jewish Quarter by residents of the Arab Quarter. The Sultan offered the Jews sanctuary, on the grounds that they agreed to live in his zoo. This photograph of the Jews living beside the lions in the Sultan's zoo was widely distributed at the time. The Jews were dehumanized, forced to live in a zoo, treated like animals. We see this theme again and again when we look at antisemitism. Ms. Comfort was kind enough to provide examples of Jewish people being depicted as animals in drawings and...
Jewish Factory Worker
"...If we assume that 120,000 deaths were due directly to the pogroms, we shall not be guilty of exaggeration. To these must be added the injured and wounded, those suffering from nervous and mental shock and the violated women. The pogroms swept the Ukraine like a hurricane... So also the number of victims who suffered material loss. It may be said that in all of the places which were visited by the pogroms the possessions of the Jews were completely destroyed. ..."
The plunderers rushed at the Jewish houses... Here they were helped by the whole Russian population. Everything was loaded on wagons and carried away. After they had completely emptied the houses and squeezed out in every possible way the last savings of the Jews they proceeded to destroy the houses and the shops. Shutters, window panes, doors were taken out, roofs were torn off, and so on.