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1918: Anti-Jewish Pogroms End in Poland

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As the head of of the American Relief Association, Herbert Hoover pushed for an impartial investigation of the violence.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On November 23, 1918, three days of anti-Jewish pogroms came to an end in Lemberg, in eastern Galicia (today Lviv, Poland). During the unrest, the city’s large and influential population of Jews found itself caught in the middle of a national struggle between Poles and Ukrainians. Up to 150 Jews were murdered and many others had their homes and property looted and destroyed.

Following the end of World War I and the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, long-simmering ethnic tensions between Poles and Ukrainians in Galicia came to the fore. Although Ukrainians made up two-thirds of the region's population, in the capital city, Lemberg, the proportions were almost reversed. On November 1, the West Ukrainian People’s Republic declared independence in Eastern Galicia and made Lemberg its capital, taking the city’s Polish population by surprise. Fighting broke out between Polish and Ukrainian forces there and in other towns, and on November 21, what was now the Polish army conquered Lemberg, a city of some 200,000 residents.

Although there were some isolated instances of Jews fighting with Ukrainians, the Jewish community declared its official neutrality in the conflict and even organized its own defensive militia. The Poles, however, disarmed the militia upon their arrival in Lemberg, and rumors of Jewish collaboration with the Ukrainians spread among their forces, which included a number of released criminals. To top it off, Polish commanding officer, Czeslaw Maczynski helped spread anti-Semitic tropes and put off an order to impose martial law on the city, allowing the Jewish quarter of Lemberg to be closed off and Polish forces to run rampant.

Joseph Tenenbaum, a leader of the disarmed Jewish militia and a witness to the events, described how organized groups of Polish troops, well armed and each led by an officer, went house to house in the Jewish quarter, beating and killing residents and destroying and looting property. A report later prepared for the Polish Foreign Ministry concluded that 150 Jews were murdered and some 500 Jewish-owned businesses were ransacked. It explicitly held the army officers in control of Lemberg culpable for the violence.

Lemberg was not the only Polish town to experience anti-Jewish pogroms at the time, and descriptions of the violence received international attention. By the following June, Herbert Hoover, then the head of the American Relief Association (later United States president), convinced both U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and the Polish prime, that an impartial investigation of the 1918 pogroms was necessary to salvage the reputation of the newly independent Poland, which the U.S. wanted as an ally in the developing rivalry with the Soviet Union. Wilson appointed Henry Morgenthau, Sr., a (Jewish) former American ambassador to the Ottoman Empire who, in 1918, had conducted a damning investigation into accusations of Turkish genocide of Armenians, to head a delegation to the region and prepare a report.

The Morgenthau Commission investigated eight cities where anti-Jewish actions had taken place in 1918 and 1919, including not only Lemberg but also Pinsk, where, in April 1919, the Polish army had executed 35 Jews on trumped-up charges of being Bolsheviks. With regard to Lemberg, Morgenthau concluded the Polish government was not behind the pogrom and refrained from using that term at all. While not minimizing the violence against the Jews, he did suggest that it had a political rather than a purely racial motivation, stating that "these excesses were the result of a widespread anti-Semitic prejudice aggravated by the belief that the Jewish inhabitants were politically hostile to the Polish State."

Thanks to the attention paid to the pogroms, and specifically the Morgenthau Report, the Paris Peace Conference passed the Minority Protection Treaty (“Little Treaty of Versailles”) in 1921. While recognizing Polish independence, the treaty committed the Polish state to render “total and complete protection of life and freedom of all [its residents] regardless of their birth, nationality, language, race or religion.”

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