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Kopstein investigates anti-Jewish violence in annual Tayloe Ross lecture

When Jeffrey Kopstein, professor of political science and director of the Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto, decided to look into the anti-Jewish pogroms that took place during Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, he did so with basic questions in mind.

“I wanted to know why these massacres happened in some places and not in others. Why did some communities become toxic?” Kopstein told his audience in Washington Hall during the annual George Tayloe Ross Addresses on International Peace lecture on Oct. 24.

“What kinds of places were these? I’m asking the basic questions that any social scientist should want to know. Did they differ systematically from other places?”

Kopstein’s questions took him through historical, archival and statistical research in many different languages. Daily reports from the German Einstatzgruppen, SS paramilitary death squads, offered some information, while thousands of testimonies taken from 1945 through 1948 at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw offered much more.

“They are quite remarkable documents because no one could talk about the Holocaust yet,” noted Kopstein. “The word didn’t even exist.”

With no shortage of research material, Kopstein became strategic about how he would sort through potential sources.

“There’s been a huge amount written on the Holocaust,” he said. “You could spend your entire life reading about the Holocaust and you’d never make it through the literature. But what hadn’t happened before was that really the tools of social science had not been applied. We have a tremendous amount of basic research, yet there are still really important questions that have not been answered.”

To better understand the anti-Jewish massacres that took place in approximately 10 percent of towns affected by Operation Barbarossa—towns like Jedwabne (Poland), Szczuczyn (Poland), Lviv (Ukraine) and Boryslav (Ukraine)—Kopstein turned to records of electoral data and census data collected in the 1920s and 1930s.

“I used the basic toolbox of social science. I counted stuff,” said Kopstein. “I wanted to know how many Jews, how many Catholics, how many Poles, how many Ukrainians lived in these various villages. But I wanted to know more than that; that’s just demography. I wanted to know what kind of Jews, what kind of Poles.”

Kopstein’s main finding, based on statistical evidence of the data, was that pogroms tended to occur in areas in which the Jewish vote was more strongly Zionist.  He hypothesized that this stronger support for Zionism was interpreted by non-Jews as a statement that Jewish voters in such communities were more vocal about their rights and ideals, and were not intending to be part of local nation-building. 

In regions where Zionist support was weaker, it was relatively easier to mobilize a critical mass of Polish and Ukrainian residents to prevent pogroms against their Jewish neighbors. 

“Kopstein’s research reveals important new insights about the political sources of anti-Jewish violence in Central and Eastern Europe in the first stages of World War II,” said Stephen E. Hanson, vice provost for international affairs and director of the Reves Center for International Studies. 

“His findings will be sure to inspire much debate among scholars and citizens interested in understanding the sources of interethnic violence in general.”