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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Jewish battalion in Ukrainian Galician Army

Jewish soldiers in the struggle for a Ukrainian state
21 July, 2009 - 00:00
THE TERNOPIL OBLAST STATE ARCHIVE HAS THE LEIMBERG FAMILY ON THE LIST OF THE JEWS WHO RESIDED IN THE CITY / THE ONLY REMINDER OF THE JEWISH BATTALION IS SOLOMON LEINBERG STREET IN LVIV

The relationships between Ukrainians and Jews have had many examples of both cooperation and misunderstandings, which left an imprint on people’s memory and have survived in our present views. Yet the history of the Jewish Battalion in the Ukrainian Galician Army (UGA) still remains unknown even now, 90 years after it was formed, although the formation of this unit should be taken as a model of interethnic understanding.

THE PHENOMENON OF GALICIAN JEWRY

Speaking of the historical context of Ukrainian-Jewish relationships and their special features in Galicia, one should point out at once that this part of the Ukrainian lands has never seen such a steep escalation of conflicts as in Left- and Right-Bank Ukraine in the times of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, the peasant Koliivshchyna rebellion, or in the early 20th century. And although during the enlightened absolutism of the Habsburgs the Jews did have some restrictions imposed on them, their life looked far better than that of their brethren on the other side of eastern border. After all, the ethnic name zhyd (Jew) was widespread in both the Russian and the Austro-Hungarian Empire but never had a negative connotation in the latter.

In the second half of the 19th century, Stanis?aw Tarkowski, a well-known Polish political figure who resided in Lviv, went on record saying that “a Jew cannot be the archbishop of Lviv because he is Jewish, but this is not the reason why he could not be the mayor of Lviv.” Statistics say that on the eve of World War One the Jews accounted for 70 percent of lawyers and 60 percent of doctors in Lviv. In 1910 33 percent of all Lviv University students were Jewish. Meanwhile, this third-largest ethnic group accounted for a mere 12 percent of Galicia’s population.

Oppressed by the Polish authorities, the Ukrainians and the Jews were just destined to cooperate, and in the 20th century both groups were represented in the Vienna parliament. What made this possible was the first election to Austria’s Reichsrat in 1907 on the basis of universal suffrage for male citizens. Ukrainians cast their votes for Zionist candidates in urban constituencies, while Jews voted for Ukrainians in rural districts. Thanks to this mutual political understanding, Jews won, for the first time, two seats in parliament.

Decades later, Jews had to decide whether or not to politically support Ukrainians in their quest for freedom. The constitutions of both Ukrainian states, the UNR and the ZUNR, envisioned broad cultural autonomy for the Jewish community, which enabled the well-known Jewish researcher Schwarz to say: “Ukraine was the first state in the world to introduce exterritorial cultural autonomy for ethnic minorities.” But, to tell the truth, this was not a sufficiently strong reason for Jews to formally support Ukrainians in their struggle against Poles in 1918–1919. Jews officially observed neutrality, which was, after all, part of their political tradition—living for centuries in exile, they found it better not to interfere into the military and political conflicts of other nationalities.

THE WAR PATH OF THE JEWISH BATTALION

The situation somewhat changed after Poles captured Lviv in November 1918. In a matter of three days, on November 21–24, theY carried out pogroms which claimed the lives of 150 Jews and left about 7,000 families in distress. The stir that those events caused forced the Polish authorities to launch an investigation which eventually shifted all the blame for the pogroms to the city’s rabble.

What really caused the pogroms was not only the proclaimed neutrality but also moral support that the Jewish population offered to Ukrainians. The bloody November events in Lviv prompted the Jews in a number of cities to form militia units with the aim of defending themselves against any ethnic or military encroachments.

In particular, such a militia unit was set up in Ternopil in November 1918 by Solomon Leinberg, a former Austrian infantry lieutenant. And when Ukrainians recaptured Ternopil on June 16, 1919, Leinberg suggested, with the consent of Ternopil’s Jewish National Council, to the Ukrainian Galician Army Colonel Osyp Mykytka that his militia join the UGA ranks. This resulted in the formation of the Strike Battalion of the Galician Army’s 1st Corps, better known as “Zhydivsky kurin UGA” (UGA’s Jewish Batallion).

After a short time, the Jewish Battalion became a 1,200-strong unit of Jewish soldiers who volunteered to fight for a Ukrainian state, which was, in fact, comparable to the Jewish Legion that fought in Palestine for Great Britain during the First World War. The difference is that the Jewish Battalion fought for Ukraine, while the Jewish Legion soldiers fought for their own national interests.

The Jewish Battalion was called a strike battalion, which means that it had a high combat potential and could be engaged in the most important operations. At first, the battalion was ordered to cover the UGA retreat on the Ternopil–Pidvolochysk line. Later, after crossing the Zbruch, it took part in battles against the Bolsheviks and, passing through Proskuriv, Vinnytsia, and Berdychiv, even reached Sviatoshyn in the outskirts of Kyiv.

Taking into account that the Strike Battalion of the Galician Army’s 1st Corps had won glory with its gallantry and combat successes, the UGA was always supported by the Jewish populace wherever the battalion was passing. Moreover, Leinberg was even allowed to mobilize volunteers in Berdychiv.

But neither the battalion’s good reputation nor the additional mobilization could keep the soldiers from typhus, which took a toll of two-thirds of the unit’s men. Also different was the destiny of the soldiers who were saved from typhus. Some of them headed for Palestine via Odesa to take part in the war, while others stayed behind in Naddniprianshchyna (Land by the Dnipro) or returned to Galicia. Leinberg was among the latter. There are ample grounds to suppose that Poles tortured him to death in Ternopil in 1920.

JEWS IN THE UGA COMBAT FORMATIONS

The Jewish Batallion was not the only Jewish formation that fought as part of the Galician Army. This is all the more interesting because, with due respect for Jewish neutrality status, Ukrainians did not mobilize members of ethnic minorities to the regular troops, which the UGA, in fact, was.

On the contrary, Poles became notorious in the very first days of the Ukrainian-Polish war, when they forcibly recruited Jews to serve in the army. This forced the Jewish Security Committee to appeal to the world public on Nov. 14, 1918, in protest against these actions of the Polish authorities.

Historical memoirs also mention a Jewish detachment in the UGA’s 11th Stryi Brigade and a cavalry machine-gun company in the 4th Zolochiv Brigade, commanded by Salko Rotenberg. Some time later, the UGA officer Haiduchok called Rotenberg a “Ukrainian Jew” and, recalling that Salko returned to his unit after being wounded, concluded: “And how many there were pureblood Ukrainians who were not wounded but still afraid to serve in the brigade!”

Rotenberg’s company also emphasized its ethnic identity by musical accompaniment provided by three musicians, including two violinists. Like the Jewish Batallion, the Zolochiv Brigade’s Jewish company distinguished itself through gallantry on the Eastern and Western Fronts, but, unlike battalion, almost the whole company, including Rotenberg himself, died in a battle against the Bolsheviks. Rotenberg was fatally wounded, when he was covering the retreat near Korosten, and died in Kamianets-Podilsky.

Among the other well-known Jews who fought in UGA ranks, one should also note Ludvik Rosenberg-Chornii, who was a rifle company commander, headed an NCO school near Bila Tserkva, and was a Ukrainian military representative during the talks with Germans in late October 1918.

Most of the Jews in the UGA were doctors. At least three of them were in charge of military hospitals in Galicia: Major Glantz, head of the surgery ward in Sambir; Lieutenant Seelinger, chief of the military hospital in Stanyslaviv (now Ivano-Frankivsk); and Lieutenant Koelner, deputy chief medical officer at the Drohobych hospital. Memoirs say that the latter was the “No. 2 doctor in the hospital” only because of his ethnicity—he was older and bore a higher rank than the Ukrainian doctor. There were other examples, too.

So, in comparison with other UGA arms, the medical corps had the highest concentration of Jews. By various estimates, up to 2,000 Galician Jews fought voluntarily and self-denyingly for the Ukrainian cause in the Ukrainian Galician Army.

In spite of the tragic end of this military and political epic, this formed a phenomenon which, much to our regret, neither Ukrainians nor Jews consider—even now, 90 years after the events,—as an example of cooperation and mutual understanding between the two peoples.

THE JEWISH LEGION OF THE BRITISH ARMY

Very much similar to the UGA Jewish Batallion were the Zion Mule Corps and the Jewish Legion—the British Army units composed of the Jewish volunteers who fought for the liberation of Palestine from the Turkish yoke.

The idea of forming this kind of military formations belonged to the Odesa-born Jew Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who appealed in December 1914 to 11,000 Jewish refugees in Alexandria to form a Jewish legion to fight on the Entente’s side for the liberation of Palestine from the Turks. Although the British law banned recruiting foreigners to the army, Jews were allowed to set up a troop movement column that could be engaged in hostilities against the Turks. This 650-strong formation was named the Zion Mule Corps.

In July 1917 the British government permitted the formation of Jewish regiments, popularly known as the Jewish Legion. The official name of this unit was 38th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers. The legion consisted of Jewish volunteers from Russia, Britain, and the US. There were 6,500 men from the US alone.

The official order to disband the Jewish Legion was issued not long afterward, in March 1920. However, the very existence of the Jewish Legion provided great moral support to Jews in their struggle to establish an independent state.

By Sviatoslav LYPOVETSKY
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