Pogrom of May 13-14, 1919

From the Materials of the Authorized Investigator I. G. Tzifrinovich

In the chain of Jewish pogroms which took place in Ukraine, the pogrom in Rotmistrovka is one of the most conspicuous links.

Rotmistrovka is on the road from Shpola to Cherkassy, 18 versts from Smela, 7 versts from the railroad station of Vladimirovka, on the line Fastov-Znamenka. The town counts a population of 350 Jewish families, the majority of whom lived in good circumstances, being materially provided for, thanks to the position which the town occupies in the commerce between Smela and Cherkassy, on the one hand, and the towns lying beyond it on the other hand.

The population was always on good terms with the local peasant population, dwelling near the town. The local peasantry was always considered pacific. No disorders of any kind had ever occurred in Rotmistrovka — neither specifically Jewish nor any other. It is a characteristic fact that after the October revolution, when the peasants in the neighboring villages plundered estates, our peasants remained passive on account of the fear that they might suffer for it afterwards. Owing to this the greater part of the Jewish population became permeated with the conviction that they would have no pogrom. This conviction was not shaken even when rumors began to arrive from the neighboring towns and villages about the Jewish pogroms which were going on there. And this was the principal reason why the town was so utterly destroyed—not a single chair or piece of pottery being left.

The start of the pogrom may be considered the attack on the owner of a mill, which occurred on Saturday, May 10, and during which two Jewish members of the night watch were killed. It became clear that the bandits now felt that there was no government and that killing Jews was no great sin. This incident produced great alarm among the Jewish population, and fear began to spring up among them, which increased on the next day, when the pogrom in Smela became known, and the overthrow of the existing regime by Grigoriev, and his manifesto ("Universal"), which was being read before the peasants.

In the evening a committee of the poorer classes began to make searches preparatory to requisitions, which no longer had the character of earlier searches, but became more malicious. The searches continued on the next day, too, and in general it was felt that the atmosphere was getting more tense all the time. Nevertheless the confidence of the Jewish population was still great enough so that life continued to flow along almost normally.

On Monday, May 12, at night a band of 50 men arrived, among them not a few locals. On Tuesday morning the pogrom began. The local peasants took part in it. Later peasants from the nearby villages also collected, and the pogrom was in full swing. Murders, however, did not take place by day. Only towards night, perceiving their complete impunity, the bandits committed their first murder—of a father and son, after they had bought their freedom. In the early part of the night they began to set on fire houses and shops, and the whole population broke and ran to hide, everyone wherever he could. Many Jews, as is the custom, rushed to the cemetery, which is outside the city, and digging themselves in between the graves, expected death any minute, as it threatened them with every shot and tongue of flame. So it went on for about eight hours, when the bandits really did arrive. After hysterical, heart-rending cries the Jews succeeded in ransoming themselves with money and everything they had with them. We were ordered not to go away before several hours should have passed, and only later were we driven forth to put out the conflagration. There we saw before us a terrible spectacle of plundered, burning, empty houses. There and then began to peer out, as if out of a mouse hole, faces that were beaten unmercifully, full of mortal terror, and we began to hear of frightful, barbarous things. Everyone hurried to his own house, and those who found the four walls bare, the windows and frames broken, feathers strewn about, etc., were lucky, for many, very many found only mountains of ashes and the bodies of their dear ones in rivers of blood. Two were burnt after having first been shot and then hung.  But no one had time to look around before another gang arrived, and seized whatever anyone had left. Then the entire population was driven into a prayer-house, where 1,200 people, men, women, and children, jammed into a single heap, lived through endless hours of mortal terror. There was a moment when they actually had bombs in their hands to blow up the prayer-house, and it was only by a miracle that the Jews succeeded in saving themselves with a ransom. No small amount of mortal terror did the population live through, and for the space of eight days after this no one ventured to go out of the yard where the prayer-house was (it belonged to a well-known Rabbi of Rotmistrovka). If anyone, owing to want and hunger, did venture to go out into the village to get anything, he went with uncertain footsteps, trembling every minute. Several days later, in fact, after the pogrom, when a boy of sixteen, Brunstein, went out to look for his family, who had hidden, he was wounded. And when the local peasants, thinking him dead, told the family so that they might come and get him, no one dared to go. Later when his brother ran to him, the peasants, seeing that he was still alive, shot him to death. For several days the dead and wounded lay about before the Jews made up their minds to collect them under the protection of a local militiaman. Almost all the slain were stripped naked; some, according to what eyewitnesses say, were stripped on the second and third day after they had been murdered, by local peasants, who went around looking to see if anything had been left.The following fact is also worthy of note. In one house a father and son were shot. The father was afterwards hung, and all this was done before the eyes of the wife and mother. The mother implored them to kill her, too, but they would not, and when she began to scream, they drove her from the house. In one house, after taking everything out of the house, the bandits stood up the entire family, which consisted of four persons (the father of 65 years, mother of the same age, a son of 30 and daughter of 28), stood them up to be shot, beginning with the daughter, as revenge on the parents. The son out of fright fell down beside his sister, and they thought he was dead. Later, when he went out of the house, he saw the bandits coming to make sure that he was dead, because they remembered that they had fired only at the father, mother and sister.

A third fact worthy of attention is this. A woman (the wife of the local Rabbi) ran out of the city with her children. On the way she was wounded in the leg. Her son, aged 14, seeing that her blood was flowing, asked sane passing peasants to help her. One of them volunteered to take her to a neighboring village, and going up to her ran her through with a pike. Her children, a boy of 14 and an infant of five, he wounded with the pike. Many such facts might be enumerated. There are two others which are worthy of being recorded. A mother and several children, trying to hide, remained in a forest. Hearing firing, the mother, fearing that they would be discovered because of the cries of her two-months-old baby, strangled him with her own hands. An old mother with her daughter and five children (the oldest twelve and the youngest half a year) were running away to hide. On the road all were killed. (The children of three years and a year and a half had their heads crushed.) The youngest infant, of half a year, they left there. The next day he died of hunger.