"City scum", nationalists or ordinary people: interethnic violence on the streets of Lviv

ID: 233
Spontaneous acts of violence against Jews. Responsibility for the violence. Were the facts of planned by the Nazis violence possible without assistance from local Polish and Ukrainian population. National alibies through the perspective of later years.

This story elaborates on the theme Holocaust Topography, that was prepared as a part of the program The Complicated Pages of Common History: Telling About World War II in Lviv.

In the first days of the Nazi occupation of Lviv, a series of acts of anti-Jewish violence took place, known in the Holocaust historiography as the Lviv pogrom. It was not a single planned action, but a series of simultaneous acts of violence against Jews, not aimed at the pure destruction of those who fell into the hands of the rioters; it was also about humiliating and intimidating the victims, affirming a new ruling regime, although sometimes it was just banal settling of personal scores.

The Lviv pogrom was preceded by a campaign of spreading propaganda materials prepared by the Nazis making newsreels in Lviv prisons. As the new occupation forces approached the city, the NKVD failed to deport political prisoners before fleeing and decided to kill all those who remained in prisons. The Nazis used what they saw as an illustration of the horrors allegedly perpetrated by the GPU Jewish agents. By order of the Nazis, Jewish men carried the bodies of the dead to the walls of Lviv prisons, which was to be an additional confirmation of the Lviv Jews’ participation in the massacre. The whole process was filmed and covered in newreels, posters, articles. The propaganda seeds fell on a fertile ground as Lviv Poles and Ukrainians, with the active participation of the Ukrainian police formed a few days earlier by the nationalist leaders on the occasion of the Nazi entry into Lviv, brutally persecuted Lviv Jews for several days.

The violence in the city was public to emphasize that under the new rule, Jews would take a subjugated position. Felix Horn, a Jew who survived the Holocaust in Lviv, recalls the beginning of July 1941 as follows:

Germany, in spite of their pact with the Soviet Russia, invaded eastern Poland. And first thing that happened, Ukrainian students in the dormitory knew who was Jewish, who was a Jewish student. They grabbed me and one of my good friends, a Ukrainian, beating the hell out of me, and forced me to wash the floor in a pub opened for German officers.

The acts of anti-Jewish violence began on the morning of July 1 and lasted until the evening. Jews were mostly detained on the streets or taken from their homes and brought to prisons and other places where they were compelled to do various kinds of forced labour. At the same time, significantly more people were taken to prisons than were needed for exhumations.

Alma Heczkowa, a resident of Lviv, who wrote memoirs about 1937-1945, remembers this day as follows:

Tuesday, July 1, 1941.

It seems that a pogrom of Jews in Lviv has started. In the morning we visited Marycha to tell her about what happened in the city yesterday. We were coming back home along ul. Pierackiego and Leona Sapiehi. When we came to ul. Kopernika, [we saw that] something was happening. We had to stop because there was no chance to pass. Other passers-by also stopped. At the corner of ul. Sapiehi, Kopernika, Tomickiego, and on the other side on ul. Łąckiego, there is a huge building with the main entrance facing ul. Leona Sapiehy. Before the war, this building housed the Provincial Police Headquarters. After the outbreak of the war, the NKVD was there until June 1941. It is a prison called "on Łąckiego". What we unintentionally witnessed was beyond imagination. The scenes unfolding before our eyes were macabre. The Germans formed a double line in front of the the prison’s main entrance gate. It was along this "corridor" that the Jews, taken from their homes, were running, hands above their heads. They were beaten mercilessly with sticks wherever possible. In front of the gate, they were ordered to crawl on their knees, continuing their torture. Bloodied, massacred, they rushed to the gate while still on foot. [...]

In the afternoon of the same day, I experienced a similar scene for the second time. Lolek was at work and I went to town myself. I passed the Great Theater. I heard screams from ul. Kazimierzowska. I saw a long, double line of Germans and Ukrainians, who lined up from ul. Rzeźnicka, along ul. Kazimierzowska, to the gate of the Brygidki prison. The massacre from ul. Sapiehi was repeated. Jews were taken out of the surrounding houses and chased in the direction of the prison. Those running were beaten with sticks on their heads, backs and legs. They fell, got up, and, covered in blood, ran on toward the prison gates.

One of the main centers of anti-Jewish violence was the Brygidki prison. Its name comes from the women's Order of St. Bridget, which owned this monastery building until 1782. It was later reorganized into a prison. In the late 19th century, about 1,500 prisoners were kept there. In the interwar period, the Brygidki prison was one of the largest prisons in the region. Death sentences were carried out in the yard. There was a hospital, a school and a chapel in the prison territory.

After the outbreak of World War II, Soviet authorities continued to use the Brygidki as a prison facility. Now its official name was the Prison number 1. The Prison number 4, the so-called Small Brygidki, was also located near it, on ul. Jachowicza (now vul. Akademika Kuchera), where the State Police Commissariat of the City of Lviv was located in the interwar period.

In late June 1941, during the retreat from the city, a selection of prisoners was carried out: those arrested under political articles were separated from those arrested for domestic crimes. The former were shot dead, and the prison itself was set on fire. As of June 10, 1941, there were 3,638 prisoners in the Brygidki and another 706 in the Small Brygidki. According to German researcher Kai Struve, at least 981 prisoners were shot dead in the Brygidki and another 457 in the Small Brygidki.

Dr. Mykhailo Rosliak, who was taken to the Brygidki prison in late June 1941, described his experience in an article entitled “How It Was in the Brygidki: An Eyewitness Story”, published in the July 16, 1941, issue of the Ukrainski Shchodenni Visti. Despite the fact that the article was published in a newspaper run by the occupation authorities, the information provided in it is quite accurate and consistent with other known sources. Among other things, Rosliak noted:

… Late in the evening we were called again one by one from all the cells to a prosecutor in civilian clothes for a short interrogation. During this interrogation, I was asked only which article I was under arrest for, because, as we found out later, all prisoners were then divided into two groups: 1) ordinary criminals and 2) political ones. Now I managed to convince the prosecutor that there had been a fight between buyers in the queue in front of a bread shop… so I was arrested for hooliganism as well. I was taken to a cell where ordinary criminals were kept; military deserters and comrades who had Article 54 of the Penal Code in their resolution [counter-revolutionary activity, betrayal of the Motherland — ed.] never returned to us. All of them were shot dead in the courtyard.

Beginning from June 22, 1941, according to Rosliak's memoirs, the NKVD left the prison several times, but only on the night of June 27-28 left it finally. Until then, the building walls were shelled several times, while executions were constantly carried out in the courtyard. On June 28, "people came with axes and crowbars and helped break down the doors and the iron gate." Survivors in the Brygidki could be released. Later, Jews were brought there and to other Lviv prisons to exhume the bodies of those shot dead. All these actions were photographed and filmed.

During the Nazi occupation, the building remained empty. It was repaired only after the war; death sentences continued to be carried out there until the 1980s. The pre-trial detention center number 19 is currently located in the prison building.

Jews who were caught on the streets or taken out of their homes by the Ukrainian police and local residents were not only taken to prisons for forced labour, they were also compelled to clean the streets and entrances in various parts of the city and in the center.

The square in front of the Lviv Opera became one of the places of abuse when Jews who had been forcibly gathered there were forced to clean the cobblestones with their bare hands. Public space was thus used to degrade human dignity. The abuse was recorded on film.

The available descriptions of the Lviv pogrom are problematic primarily because of difficulties in acknowledging the involvement of ordinary Lviv residents of Ukrainian and Polish ethnic origin and not only marginals. Each party prefers to create its own national alibi and to shift the blame solely to the "city scum" of the other nation and to the Nazis. To this end, the Jews are often portrayed as helpers of the Soviet regime, loyal servants and executors of most orders for the deportation and killing of political prisoners in Western Ukraine. At the same time, it is not mentioned that Jews were also among the victims of the NKVD. For the Ukrainian side, it is especially difficult to admit the Ukrainian police participating in the pogrom, as it took place against the background of an attempt to restore statehood, the paramilitary structures formed on the OUN initiative being ready to assist it as soon as possible.

The early July events found their place in the memories not only of ordinary city residents, but also of those who were members of the government institutions created during the Nazi occupation. Thus, Kost Pankivsky, Deputy Minister of the Interior in the government of Yaroslav Stetsko, who worked in the city pharmacy administration of Lviv in the summer of 1941, describes the pogrom as follows:

As early as beginning from July 1, anti-Jewish excesses took place in the city on the initiative of the German army. Under the pretext that Jews were either communists or Bolshevik servants, German troops forced them to clean up the streets littered due to the ten-day-long bombing and, above all, to dig up and transport those killed in prisons. A change of government always brings criminal elements to the surface. So it was in Lviv. The city scum took the opportunity to join the action. In those early days, it all went unpunished. To understand how the street assessed the political situation, it is enough to mention that the scum, which was almost entirely Polish without exception, robbing and beating Jews, put on blue and yellow insignia and tried to speak Ukrainian. I personally had to do with such cases, because the street people attacked our Jewish and even non-Jewish employees.

The peculiarity of these recollections is that Pankivsky, as a supporter of Ukrainian national aspirations, puts all the blame for the pogrom only on the city marginals, identifying them as Poles and pointing out that they tried to look like Ukrainians, so were wearing yellow and blue armbands and speaking Ukrainian. Thus, he removes any responsibility from the Ukrainians. The available Polish evidence of the Lviv pogrom looks identical to Pankivsky's memoirs, with the only difference that they suppress the presence of Polish rioters, and the "scum" is described as purely Ukrainian.

So attempts can be seen on both sides to avoid responsibility, to shift it to the other ethnic group that is considered rival or even hostile. As for their own ethnic group, there is a process of ousting and erasing the facts of complicity in the implementation of anti-Jewish violence. If one reads memoirs written by representatives of only one of the parties (Polish, Ukrainian or Jewish), a one-dimensional picture of the events that took place in the city during the first days of the Nazi occupation is formed. That is why it is important not just to compare them but to analyze by whom and when (during the events or later) they were written, who held power in that place, what influences were exerted on the author (whether it was an ordinary person or someone involved in the system of the dominant power or, vice versa, someone who opposed the regime), etc. In fact, the use of such texts without careful analysis allows us to look at the traumatic events from only one perspective, often deliberately distorted and politically instrumentalized, so it is a kind of trap.

As for the pogrom, both Ukrainian and Polish witnesses agree only that it was committed by the "city scum", i.e. representatives of the social bottom, such as criminals or drunks. Their ethnic origin is usually not specified, but is easily read "between the lines", depending on the author's own affiliation. According to modern research, as well as numerous photos and videos, it is clear that most of the rioters were not some illusory "scum", but ordinary Lviv residents of all ages, genders, social and ethnic backgrounds, including many children and adolescents.

It is obvious that such approaches are an attempt to hide from the terrible truth that among the accomplices of the anti-Jewish violence was part of the civilian population of Lviv of Polish and Ukrainian origin, including the Ukrainian police, and therefore in a broader context, despite the fact that the Holocaust was planned and organized by the Nazis. many quite ordinary people were involved. It is also worth remembering that even before World War II, Lviv was already a divided society with two diametrically opposed aspirations for statehood, with two nationalisms and three main nationalities living in the city. Poles who had restored their own state in these territories, Ukrainians who hoped for their own monoethnic state, and Jews who were traditionally supposed to support the current government; the latter, however, also nurtured the desire to create their own state, but within different borders. The occupying powers, both Soviet and later Nazi, easily exploited tensions and escalated conflict and mass violence. Rejecting the historical background of events, one arrives at an attempt to simplify the situation, instead of analyzing it and studying the materials.

The number of victims in the first days of the Nazi occupation is still unknown; historians believe that the rioters took the lives of 4 to 7 thousand Lviv Jews. For example, such figures are given in articles by Christoph Mick and Philip Friedman. The researcher of the pogrom, Dieter Pohl, concentrates on the number of 4,000 victims of the pogrom. In contrast, Kai Struve insists that these figures are exaggerated: in fact, they are the fruit of fear that gripped the Jews of Lviv and later was expressed in memoirs in the form of numbers. Having analyzed available documentary sources, Kai Struve points out that the number of victims on July 1 was probably several hundred Jews. However, the mass public violence that shocked the Jewish community could have provoked a natural call for an exaggeration of the number of victims to emphasize the scale of the events. In fact, the mention of a large number of victims passes from one Jewish account to another. The study of these events became possible only in the early 21th century, when much of the documents are lost and it is difficult to achieve historical accuracy. The historian points out that when it comes to the total number of victims in July 1941 (together with 2,000 Jews killed on July 5 by the Einsatzgruppe C and 1,500 Jews killed by the Lviv police on July 25-26), the number of victims starting from 4,000 is quite real. It is important to note that the historical accuracy of the figures does not diminish the scale of the crime against the Jewish community in Lviv, as the murder of even one person is a crime.

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Brygidki prison building on fire in July 1941. Photo by Finke. Source: Collection of the Polish National Digital Archive (NAC 2-1702)
Olena Andronatiy
Translated by Andriy Masliukh