Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Of Cossacks and Jews: A Curious Letter to Israel's President

We have previously posted content drawn from the diverse and rich archives of the second Israeli president, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi. Another item, no less interesting, is the following picture, a reproduction of a larger one entitled "Betrayal of Cossacks at Lienz".

The picture shows British soldiers (Scots, per the Tam o 'Shanter caps) beating a group of civilians as well as unarmed uniformed men, and forcing them to get on the trucks. In the foreground on the left, we can see a poster with the writing: "Better death here than being sent to the SSSR".

This is a picture of an event that took place in Austria on May 28, 1945, just over two weeks after the end of World War II in Europe, in which the British army expelled 32,000 Cossacks of Soviet origin into the hands of the Soviet authorities. The expulsion was carried out as part of the agreements signed between the Allies (mainly the US and the UK) and the Soviet Union at the Tehran (November 1943) the Yalta Conferences (February 1945), in which it was agreed to return all Soviet citizens who were deported by the Nazis to areas under Soviet control. Cossack leaders, Generals Krasnov, Shukro and others, as well as the German General von Panwitz (who aided the Cossacks in the German Army units), were executed and thousands of Cossacks were deported to Siberian labor camps.

The uniqueness of this picture is its address – it was sent to President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, the second president of Israel. The senders of the picture, according to the assessment of a worker in the archive (who translated the caption beneath the photo from Russian), may have thought they would receive a sympathetic hearing in the state of Israel, an anti-communist country.

This was an odd choice, to say the least. What shared history exists between Jews and Cossacks is a bloody one filled with persistent hatred. One must remember the systematic murder of the Jews of Ukraine and Poland during the Bohdan Khmelnitsky rebellion (1648-9), in which Cossacks massacred more than 300,000 Jews. This event and many other riots, in which Cossacks murdered and abused the Jewish population in Russia, cemented the image of the Cossack as evil and bloodthirsty in the historical memory of the Jewish people. Indeed, Ben-Zvi himself had organized self-defense units in Poltava, his hometown in Russia, in preparation for possible pogroms - pogroms in which the Cossacks were frequent participants.

During World War I and the Russian Civil War, Cossacks stood out for their brutality towards the Jews. Note that in the picture, we can see in the first row three Cossacks wearing German Wehrmacht uniforms. This is because the Cossacks expelled from Lienz to the Soviets were members of the 15th Cossack Corps – a Wehrmacht Unit (although some sources identify them as an SS unit). The 15th Corps was notorious for the atrocities it committed against civilian populations in Yugoslavia and northern Italy. Here you can find more details about Russian Nazi collaborators, from a site dealing with the German armed forces during World War II, including the Cossack units.

On the other hand, the Cossack also had romantic associations in the Jewish imagination. In his book Cossack and Bedouin, historian Prof. Israel Bartal describes a widespread perception among immigrants of the Second Aliyah of the Cossack as a free man, defending his land and protecting it from assailants. As Bartal writes, "The local Israeli fighting for his country was 'translated' into the consciousness of the olim from Eastern Europe to the most feared enemy the Jewish collective memory knew since the terrible slaughter of 1648-1649. This enemy, whose essence was the polar opposite of the traditional Jewish society, was the role model for the lives of the young immigrants!" (Israel Bartal, Cossack and Bedouin. Am Oved publishers 2007, p. 77 – my translation). There are also many songs, translated from Russian, on the heroism of the Cossacks - "On the Banks of the Dnieper ", "On the Steppes of the Don (river)", and others. There is even a Hasidic dance, based on a Cossack dance - Kazak of Chabad.

It doesn't seem those who sent the above picture to President Ben-Zvi were answered. In 1958, just a little more than a decade after the Holocaust, there was probably no place for dialogue between Jews and Cossacks. Today, however, there are signs of Cossacks attempting to find a common language with the Jews in Russia.

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