Jewish self-defense units in Europe: Shtetl Jews were not weak


A pogrom is a violent riot or attack against the Jewish People with the aim of massacring or displacing the population (note: sometimes the word “pogrom” is used to refer to violence against other ethnic groups; however, the word was coined specifically to describe violence against the Jewish People, and for this reason, I and many other Jews prefer for it to be used in this context only).

The word “pogrom,” meaning “to destroy, to wreak havoc, to demolish violently,” was coined to describe the antisemitic violence that targeted the Jewish communities of the Russian Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. With that said, though the word didn’t exist yet, pogroms against the Jewish People date back over 2000 years and span nearly every corner of the globe.



Various waves of horrific pogroms swept the Russian Empire beginning in 1821 in Odessa, Ukraine. After Alexander II was assassinated, the general populace scapegoated the Jewish People, and over 200 massacres ravaged the Jewish population, lasting over a period of several years.

These pogroms prompted the beginning of the third wave of Jewish immigration to the United States.

The first pogrom of the 20th century took place in Kishinev, Ukraine in 1903. Some 49 Jews were murdered, hundreds were wounded, 700 Jewish homes were destroyed, and 600 Jewish businesses pillaged. Between 1903 and 1905, some 660 pogroms were recorded in Ukraine and Bessarabia and six in Belorussia, all carried out with the complicity and/or incitement of the Russian government. Between 1881 and 1920, 1326 pogroms took place in Ukraine alone. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were murdered, half a million were left unhoused, and 2.5 million Jews were prompted to emigrate out of Eastern Europe.

Trigger warning:

The pogroms were brutal. People were mutilated, and women and girls were sexually assaulted, oftentimes in public as a form of spectacle.



The Russian Civil War (1917-1923) was a multi-party civil war that broke out in the Russian Empire in the aftermath of the overthrow of the Russian monarchy. In total, it’s estimated that 7 million to 12 million people died in this war, many of them civilians.

Even the most conservative estimates calculate that some 50,000 Jews were massacred in pogroms during the Russian Civil War. Most estimates calculate that up to 100,000 were murdered; the Soviet authorities themselves put the number at 200,000. In total, over 2000 pogroms took place. At least 60,000 Jewish refugees fled the region, and millions were internally displaced.

The perpetrators of the Russian Civil War pogroms not only murdered tens of thousands of Jews, but they also tortured the Jewish population (trigger warning). Most notably, the rioters raped Jewish girls and women in a massive wave of systemic sexual violence. Jewish men were humiliated, with rioters cutting off their beards and desecrating their Torahs. In at least one case, the rioters barricaded all of the town’s Jews into the synagogue and burned them alive. Other times, Jews were paraded across the villages and shot once they reached the edge of town. Oftentimes, the pogroms were treated as a public spectacle, with drunken townspeople dancing and celebrating the violence.

The pogroms of the Russian Civil War were the deadliest pre-Holocaust attack in modern Jewish history, with historians overwhelmingly describing the violence as “genocidal.”

While initially most of the pogroms were perpetrated by average townspeople, eventually the violence was ritualized and militarized. While the majority of the pogroms during this period of the Russian Civil War were perpetrated by local anti-Bolshevik nationalist armies, the Soviet Red Army was also guilty of indiscriminately massacring Jews. These pogroms arguably laid the groundwork for the Holocaust some 20 years later.



One of the main barriers in of organizing Jewish self-defense groups in pre-Holocaust Europe was that oftentimes Jews were afraid to fight back, lest they be accused of starting or prolonging the violence. Melekh Kaufman, a survivor and eyewitness to the 1903 Kishinev Pogrom, one of the most horrific pogroms in Jewish history, attested as such. After the pogroms, when some of the perpetrators were put on trial, many Jews who’d fought back with nothing but kitchen knives and clubs were charged with prolonging the violence.

Much as often happens today, Jews were depicted as the aggressors when they engaged in self-defense.

Organized Jewish self-defense units were also delegitimized with accusations of “Zionism,” whether they identified as Zionist or not.

However, as deadlier and deadlier pogroms ravaged the Jewish communities, those formerly reluctant to support the self-defense units ended up getting on board.

Even so, the Jews of Europe did not sit idly by as their people were massacred. The first organized self-defense units popped up in 1881. These groups formed spontaneously and usually were formed by Jewish youth, particularly — but not exclusively — Jewish students.

As rioters ravaged Jewish communities, well-established units began to form. Predictably, these units fell in two camps: the socialists, led by the non-Zionist Jewish Bund, and the Zionists. Though they disagreed politically, when violence came to their communities, they usually fought back side by side. 

By the time of the Russian Civil War, these self-defense groups were not only well-established, but they were both recruiting fighters and collecting taxes from the local population so that they could continue to purchase arms and train new recruits. Many units — particularly the Bundist units — ended up officially integrating into the communist militias.

The issue of Jewish self-defense units to pogroms has been understudied for a number of reasons; for example, these groups were usually short-lived and clandestine, leaving behind virtually no paper trail.



Many of you are probably familiar with the Israeli martial art of Krav Maga. However, what you might not know is that Krav Maga originated from Jewish self-defense units in Europe.

The origins of Krav Maga can be attributed to Imi Lichtenfeld, a Jewish martial artist who was born in 1910 in Budapest, Astro-Hungary and grew up in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia. In 1928 and 1929, Litchenfeld won the Slovak Youth Wrestling Championship and the Slovak Adult Wrestling Championship, respectively, in the light and middle weight divisions.

In the mid-1930s, pogroms ravaged Litchenfeld’s hometown of Bratislava, Czechoslovakia. As such, he organized units of Jewish wrestlers and boxers to defend Jewish neighborhoods. However, he soon found that competitive martial arts and street fighting were quite different. As such, he began developing the principles of Krav Maga. In 1940, Litchenfeld left the last refugee ship to Mandatory Palestine.

In Palestine, he joined the Jewish paramilitary Haganah. In 1944, he began training his team in the areas of physical fitness, wrestling, swimming, knife fighting, and self-defense. In 1948, with the establishment of the State of Israel and the founding of the Israeli Defense Forces, Litchenfeld adopted the position of Chief Instructor for Physical Fitness and Krav Maga at the IDF School of Combat Fitness.



The Holocaust — and the general reality of Jewish life in Europe — was deeply traumatic for Jews and for the collective Jewish psyche. Having little information about Jewish self-defense in Europe and without the psychological tools to heal from this monumental trauma, many early Zionist leaders disavowed what they imagined to be the “weak,” “feeble,” and “meek” European Jew. Instead, they imagined themselves as a new ideal, the “New Jew” who defends themselves and won’t “allow” themselves to be oppressed.

Of course, today we know (or should know!) that this is not how oppression works.

At the Second Zionist Congress in 1898, co-founder of the World Zionist Organization Max Nordau coined the term “Muscular Judaism,” emphasizing the importance of developing “mental and physical strength.” According to Nordau, Muscular Judaism was the answer to Jewish distress. Antisemitic stereotypes in Europe already depicted Jews as weak; Nordau believed that in increasing physical fitness, Jews could prove those tropes wrong.

Nordau’s ideal transformed Jewish culture. A number of Zionist sporting clubs popped up in both Europe and Palestine, such as the Maccabi clubs. Between 1898 and 1936, Jews won a disproportionate number of Olympic medals.

In the 1930s, the “new Jew” came to be known as a “Sabra,” named after the prickly pear: thorny on the outside but sweet on the inside. It was applied to any Jew born in Palestine, and today, to any Jew born in Israel.



In the early days of the State of Israel, many Israelis attempted to cope with the deep collective trauma by misplacing their disdain onto Holocaust victims and survivors. To make matters more confusing, Israeli Holocaust survivors felt deep shame and survivor’s guilt about their experiences. As such, they spoke little, if at all, about what had happened to them. This led to the general misconception that, in the face of Nazism, the Jews of Europe had gone “like sheep to slaughter,” without fighting back.

This was by no means an accurate perception. Jews fought back tooth and nail during the Holocaust. For a more thorough post on this topic, please see my post WE DID NOT GO LIKE SHEEP TO THE SLAUGHTER.

Israelis deeply resented Holocaust survivors for “allowing” this to happen to them. Many pejoratively called survivors “sabonim,” meaning soap, alluding to the claim that the Nazis had made soap out of dead Jewish bodies.

What changed all of this was Adolf Eichmann’s trial, held in Jerusalem in 1962. This was a monumental trial: for the first time, Jews were trying a Nazi in the Jewish homeland, the trial was televised for all to watch, and Holocaust survivors shared hours upon hours of detailed, horrific testimony in Israel as they never had before. Israelis came to see Holocaust survivors as valiant, tough, resilient heroes who’d endured — and miraculously managed to survive — the absolute worst of humanity.

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