The First Twentieth Century Pogrom

Victims of the Kishinev pogroms in 1903.
J.N.U.L., Jerusalem
Victims of the Kishinev pogroms in 1903.

By Herbert Belkin

Published June 02, 2016, issue of June 02, 2016.

The 1903 pogrom in Kishinev, a city in southern Czarist Russia, looked like so many other bloodbaths in a land that had little toleration for Jews. This pogrom sprang from the murder of a Christian boy (he was later found to be killed by his own relatives) and the cry of Jewish ritual murder and provocative, anti-Semitic headlines appearing in the local newspaper… In Kishinev, tragic numbers were repeated as they had so many times before: 47 Jews killed, over 900 wounded and several hundred Jewish homes and businesses looted and destroyed. But at the beginning of the twentieth century, the world finally objected to this outrage against Jews. Protest rallies against the barbarism were held in Paris, London and New York. The New York Times reported on the pogrom but cautioned that details of the anti-Semitic riots “are worse than the censors will permit to publish” and went on with “the local police made no attempt to check this reign of terror.” American Jews reacted to the pogrom by organizing a nationwide protest petition. The Czar refused to accept the petition and his ambassador to the United States, Count Arthur Cassini, made the outrageous claim that the uprising was the result of Russian peasants protesting against Jewish moneylenders.

This image from 1903 shows the photographer’s destroyed house, which used to house his tobacco factory, Benderskiy and Sons, and his tobacco shop. Kishinev is the capital and largest city in the present-day Republic of Moldova.
Shmul Benderskiy
This image from 1903 shows the photographer’s destroyed house, which used to house his tobacco factory, Benderskiy and Sons, and his tobacco shop. Kishinev is the capital and largest city in the present-day Republic of Moldova.

The large Jewish community in the nearby city of Odessa was determined to find out what happened to the Jews of Kishinev. Odessa elders sent the Jewish poet Hayyim Bialik to interview survivors and report on firsthand accounts of the tragedy. Bialik was so enraged at what he thought was the abject passivity of the Jewish men who watched and did nothing to defend their women that he poured his outrage in his poem “On the Slaughter.” Here are a few impassioned lines from that poem, “…crouched husbands, bridegrooms, brothers, peering from the cracks, watching the sacred bodies struggling underneath the bestial breath…” Crushed in their shame, they saw it all, they did not stir or move; they did not pluck their eyes out, beat not their brains against the wall! Perhaps, perhaps each watcher had it in his heart to pray: A miracle, O Lord and spare my skin this day!”

Here is where reports of the pogrom get cloudy. A story of the same horrific Kishinev pogrom was written in the New York Yiddish newspaper, The Forward. The Forward’s story refutes Bialik’s version citing “…Jewish boys and men came running and fought like lions to protect their weaker and older brothers and sisters. Even young girls exhibited amazing heroism. They defended their honor with supernatural strength.” Two accounts of the same event, both markedly different. Where does the truth lie? As in so many cases, truth may be found in between.

A lithograph in relation to the first Kishinev pogrom portrays U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt to Czar Nicholas II of Russia: “Stop your cruel oppression of the Jews.”
Library of Congress
A lithograph in relation to the first Kishinev pogrom portrays U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt to Czar Nicholas II of Russia: “Stop your cruel oppression of the Jews.”

But the response of young members of the Jewish community to the 1903 pogrom left no room for doubt. The response to Bialik’s blood-stirring poem was a call to arms of Jewish youth, primarily from the Socialist and Zionist movements. In defiance of centuries of Jewish passivity characteristic of the shtetls of Eastern Europe, these young Jews issued a call for Jews to defend themselves. That call was heard louder just two years later in 1905 when there was another bloody pogrom in the same city of Kishinev. This time young Jews tried to defend their community. The protection was not always effective or coordinated; but a stand was made: Jews would defend themselves.

Besides self-defense, the two pogroms in Kishinev had another major effect on the Jews of Russia. Russian Jews had started mass emigration as early as 1882 when the new Czar, Alexander III, issued a series of May Laws (issued in the month of May) that made tenuous life for Jews even more difficult. The stream of Jewish emigration to America that began in 1882 became a flood in 1903 and 1905 when the pogroms of those years confirmed that Russia had no future for Jews. Jews reacted with their feet; between the years 1882 and 1914, when the First World War broke out, over two million Jews left the shtetls of Russia for America.

Even with this mass migration to America, two-thirds of Jewish Russians remained; they would pay a heavy price for staying. The world paid attention to Jewish suffering in the 1903 and 1905 pogroms; it paid no attention 30 years later when Hitler came to power.

Historian Herbert Belkin writes and lectures on modern Jewish history, including courses at Brandeis and Salem State Universities. Herb can be reached at beachbluff1@verizon.net.



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