Hello. My name is Sidney Shaievitz. Not long ago, Hvardiyske was called Felshtin and Khmelnitskiy was called Proskurov. At one time, these communities had flourishing Jewish populations.
For hundreds of years, our Jewish ancestors and the ancestors of today’s Hvardiyske population lived peacefully side by side. They did business with each other. They had friendships. Then came the Great War, the Russian Revolution, the Russian Civil War, the Ukrainian independence movement and, in February 1919, a pogrom. My mother was born in Felshtin. Her father was killed in the pogrom of February 18, 1919. The Jewish community in Felshtin was some 900 years old before it was finally destroyed during the German occupation, starting in December, 1941.
The monument that we are here to dedicate is not the first monument to memorialize the Felshtin Jews that were mercilessly slaughtered in the 1919 pogrom. The first “monument” was a memorial book, 670 pages long, that was published in 1937 in New York. The devastation and tragedy which befell Felshtin from the pogrom and the memories of a now vanished Jewish life in Felshtin are vividly depicted in the book. Horrific descriptions of the pogrom are recounted by survivors. Most of what I know about the Felshtin pogrom comes from this book. The book is a “memorial” to the six hundred murdered men, women and children that lie in a mass grave in this town.
In 1917-1919, there was great turmoil in this part of the world. The Russian Czar had abdicated power and he and his family were eventually executed. The Bolsheviks, who succeeded the Mensheviks in power in Moscow, fought a bloody civil war against forces loyal to the Czar. All of this turmoil and conflict presented an opportunity for a Ukrainian national movement to attempt to break away from the Russian Empire. A Ukrainian government was formed in Kiyev and the Rada came under the leadership of Colonel Simon Vasilevitch Petlura. From this point forward, the events, as I understand them, are derived from the Felshtin memorial book and may be subject to different views. My mother rarely mentioned it to me!
The first pogrom was carried out in Proskurov by elements of the Ukrainian National Army which had retreated westward to Vinitse, Podolia Guberniya. Three days later, it was Felshtin’s turn. Some local officials-the police chief and postmaster-were said to be complicit.
First, money was taken and the worldly possessions of the Jews were carted off. Then, Jews were savagely attacked. Some, like my grandfather, were stabbed to death in their homes or in the streets. Others were hacked and dismembered so they were barely recognizable. Some were disemboweled. A group of Jews had gathered in a large town building which was set ablaze. If they tried to escape, they faced death outside. When Jews hid in cellars, the pogromists burned the buildings down. When they tried to flee, they were driven back into the fire where they burned to death. Some Jews were blown up by a grenade thrown into a closet where they were hiding. Many made it to the fields before they were chased down and killed. Others were stomped to death. Many were shot to death.
The streets flowed with Jewish blood. The corpses lay like paving stones to be stepped on. Body parts and organs were strewn on the streets. A local inhabitant set his pigs free to feast on Jewish flesh and blood and encouraged others to let their pigs do so. Women were raped before they were killed. A woman was dragged from her attic with her five small children. She was made to witness her children being raised on bayonets until their souls departed before the pogromists killed her by running a bayonet through her mouth. A young woman was murdered on the day after her engagement contract was made. She was buried in her wedding dress. Some Jews were made to shed their clothes before being killed. Some were mutilated before they were killed. The bedridden were not spared. Many died from their wounds. Some who survived were amputees. In all, 600 men, women and children as young as two weeks of age were murdered.
The local populations of Felshtin and nearby towns were told that if they harbored Jews they would meet the same fate as the Jews. Nevertheless, risking their own lives, there were Christians that saved their Jewish brethren. Even some of the soldiers disobeyed orders and let Jews go, after relieving them of their money.
We are grateful to those gentiles that saved Jewish lives. I will give you some examples:
On the Monday night before the pogrom, the priest’s wife, unbeknownst to her husband, went out and gathered thirty Jews into her stable. She fed them and cautioned them to be silent until the pogrom was over. In this way, this noble Christian woman saved thirty Jewish souls.
It is related that a soldier led a family of Jews to their attic where he secreted them and covered them with rags and other materials. He stood outside and told soldiers that came by that he had inspected the house and it was empty and the soldiers should look elsewhere. When the pogrom ended, he left.
There were gentiles that sheltered Jews in their homes, at a price, but at risk of death. With Jews hiding in the basement of her home, a gentile woman stood outside and told soldiers there were no Jews there. Other local inhabitants dressed Jews in gentiles’ clothing and transported them to another village. One gentile, on his own, took a little girl from a pile of straw and hid her in his home. He warmed her up, dried her clothing, fed her and put her to bed. Other children were taken to peasants’ “safe houses.” Other gentiles hid Jews in the woods, for a price, and came for them when the pogrom had ended. There were soldiers who let Jews flee for their lives after relieving them of their money.
It is related that a gentile couple in a wagon came upon a Jewish family on the road. The couple took the children to protect and feed them and refused any money. The children would not have lasted another night without food.
Jews returning to Felshtin were warned by gentiles not to continue because the pogrom was still raging. When they finally returned, the found their stores had been burned, their homes sacked and smashed and burned bodies littering the streets that had to be buried in a mass grave.
Now, we reestablish a Jewish presence here, although of stone, with this memorial. The world will know there was once a vibrant Jewish market town and community here that lived in harmony with its Christian neighbors. Their way of life has vanished forever. For us, we will always remember Felshtin, our ancestral homeland. I hope that the people here will remember that there was a Jewish presence in Felshtin and Proskurov for centuries.
Alan H. Bernstein
299 Glenwood Avenue Bloomfield, New Jersey 07003 USA