The Civil War and the Polish-Soviet War

The Civil War and The Polish-Soviet War


The disintegration of the Russian Empire led to the Russian Civil War (1918 -1921), three years of conflict on a huge scale; according to historian Norman Davies, the number of victims reached the number of total deaths from all the battlefields of World War I. The concurrent Polish-Soviet War (1919-1920) is described by Davies as a 'vast war of movement' in which up to a million Polish troops swept east to the River Dnieper, while a million Red Army troops pushed back against them. The Berazina valley was in the midst of it.

 For Byerazino and Pahost, this period was more directly destructive than the years of World War I. The River Berezina was a contested frontier, fought over by Reds, Royalist Whites and Poles. A "Report on MInsk", addressed to the JDC on 31 May 1920, explains the impossibility of deliviering aid to outlying areas, saying that “communication has been discontinued, and such cities as Ihumen, Berezin, Borissov have been captured by the Bolsheviki and re-captured by the Poles twice during this period" (p.3).  Villages were vulnerable to  repeated raids and anti-Semitic attacks were common. The author of the JDC Report describes a lawlessness, chaotic situation:  “Many of the smaller towns have been visited by detachments of the Polish soldiers and have been threatened with pogroms unless they pay certain contributions in money, cigarettes and sugar.(p.3).”  Occasionally military authorities could be persuaded to intervene, but more often they allowed or even encouraged such extortion. The Wohlnnian Report from the JDC comprises more than 100 pages of eyewitness statements, describing the pogroms in horrific detail; many occurred in Minsk district shtetlekh, such as Starobin and Lyuban near Bobruisk (pp. 28-31).

Atrocities occurred in our Kehila, too. Sol Feldbaum, then 22 years old, lost his father and brother during a raid on Pahost. Fifty years later, he reported the details:

       The Polish army killed my father Chaim and my brother Lazar in a pogrom in Pogost on Thursday, the 7th day of Adar (26 February) 1920. I was taken out first to be executed and it seems that I was destined to live because while many bullets were fired at me, I managed to escape and hide until the Polish army withdrew.

      When I ran towards our house, the town was aflame and I heard my mother crying. I presumed she thought I was killed and was crying about my loss. Never expecting the sight awaiting me, I yelled, " Mother, mother, I'm alive!" When I came to where mother and my sister Lilly were standing I found my father and brother lying on the snow near the three synagogues. My brother was dead and my father was wounded. This happened about 9 A.M.

       I ran to get a Feldscher (a retired army medic) as we didn't have a doctor in our town. Before I went for the Feldscher, I carried my father on my back about three city blocks to the end of town because all the houses on the street were on fire. I found the Feldscher, who was 80 years of age and hard of hearing, and I carried him on my back, all the way to the village. By the time I got back with the Feldscher it was 2 p.m. and father was dead. The whole town was destroyed by the fire except the three synagogues and the The whole town was destroyed by the fire except the three synagogues and the Synagogue Street (Shul Street). All told, seven Jews were killed that day. 

      We placed the corpses in the synagogue that Thursday night and sat up most of the night. Friday morning, I and some of the family of the deceased went to dig the communal grave, as the professional gravediggers had deserted the town. The earth was frozen three feet deep and we had to build a fire to defrost the earth. According to Jewish law, the martyrs had to be buried in the clothes they were killed in. It took us until 5 pm on Friday until  we could bury them.

(Excerpted from The Murder of Chaim and Lazar Feldbin and the Destruction of Pogost by Polish Soldiers in 1920 on this KehilaLInk)

The Jews of Byerazino and Pahost were repeatedly subjected to extortion, violence and torture between 1919 and 1921. Here is an excerpt from an investigative report, based on eye-witness testimony: 

Town of Berezino:

(Excerpt) On February 19 1920, the regular units of the Polish Army entered the town from the direction of Igumen. Around noon time next day pogroms and looting started in town. The soldiers split into groups of five or six and began entering Jewish homes where under threat of death they took all of the hosts’ valuables. The Jews who resisted were beaten to death and, in some cases, shot to death from rifles and revolvers. This is how they have killed Movsha Cherni (the Black) and his wife Bluma, Haim Abramovich, Abram Gelfond and his wife Sorka, Meyer Hodosh, Izka Hodosh, Leyzer Paperny and others. Next day the Poles selected 20 Jewish men and drove them into the river, demanding 10 kilos of gold from the commune. They’ve kept the poor men in the icy water for over two hours. The commune was unable to collect the required amount of gold, and the Polish officer shot the Jews right there in the river. Pogroms and the killing of Jews continued between February 19 and 23, and subsided only after the Polish soldiers moved farther east. Many Jews chose to hide at the houses of their acquaintances in the neighboring villages. There were cases when the Jews had to pay their Christian neighbors for the permission to hide in their basements. After the White Poles’ departure from Berezino, the neighboring villagers and the local Christian population continued looting the abandoned Jewish homes.

The full report, which is available here, is very detailed and - as a warning to the reader - it contains graphic descriptions of brutality. The following persons are named in the report (either as surviving witnesses or as victims of the pogroms): Movsha Cherni and his wife Bluma, Haim Abramovich, Abram Gelfond and his wife Sorka, Meyer Hodosh, Itzka Hodosh, Leyzer Paperny, Borukh Ratner (the butcher, a witness), Feiga (no surname given), Rabbi Avram Brodna, Aron Gilman, Vigdor Rakhmonovich, Berl Sorkin, Haim-Aron Levit, Peysakh Charny (witness), Nohim Rabinovich (witness), Srol Pres, Sorduh Hodosh, David Pevsner, Movsha-Leib Averbukh, Aron Simkhovich (witness). 

Town of Pahost:

(Excerpt) Testimony of witness Haim Daichik. Before the revolution there were about 1,000 Jews living in Pogost. The town had three synagogues. Most of the Jews were craftsmen, they made shoes, clothing, vine woven ladles, manufactured leather. Many were either doing small business in town, or traveling from village to village to sell their small merchandise. Some families were buying hide of domestic animals or dairy and hauling them to Igumen and Berezino to sell. Several Jewish households were pretty wealthy, but the majority of the Jews were very poor. On early morning of February 26, 1920 Polish soldiers entered Pogost from the direction of Berezino. They started knocking on Jewish house doors, which were pointed to them by a few local Christian inhabitants, and demanding gold and warm clothing. The Jews were not opening the doors, then the Polish soldiers started setting the houses on fire. The arson ceased only after a few local Christians led by the priest approached the Polish officer and asked him to stop, otherwise the fire could damage the Christian houses and the local church.

The full report on Pahost, available here, is equally detailed and again, readers must be prepared for graphic descriptions of violence and brutality. The following victims are named: Rabbi Haim Rivkin, Alpern family, Gordon family, Bunim Darishinsky, Peysakh Levin and his wife Doba. Haim Daichik and Nohim Zorin are quoted as surviving witnesses.

Many thanks to Daniel Chernin, who donated these reports to us. Yuri Dorn, Director of the Jewish Heritage Research Group in Belarus, researched the documents; Garen Hartunian wrote the translation.

Daniel's great-grandparents, Shmuel Krivochei and Anna Volman, were murdered during the pogroms described here; as yet, Daniel has been unable to find any records for them. He would like to hear from you if you have any information about them. You can contact Daniel directly by email:   dchernin[at]

Abramson, Henry. 2010. "Russian Civil War."YIVOEncyclopedia of Jews in Eastern EuropeAccessed 1 December 2018.

Davies, Norman. 1996. Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Jewish Heritage Research Group in Belarus. 2018. “Eye-Witness Testimony: Extracts from the Investigative Materials on Pogroms in Igumen County 1919 -1921.” Research report donated by Daniel Chernin. 

“Report on Minsk General Resume.” 31 May 1920. Archives of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Accessed 1 December 2018.

"Wohlnnian JDC Report, Oct. 1919 - July 1920.” Archives of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Accessed 1 December 2018.

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