At a time when American society is confronted with pictures of immigrants incarcerated at the US border with Mexico it is a good time to step back and try and understand why people choose to flee their homelands and come to America. In the case of people arriving on our southern borders their motivations are diverse from economic hardship to fear of death. These reasons are in a sense universal when examined from a historical perspective. Earlier in American history we witnessed a flood of Jewish immigrants, roughly two million from Eastern Europe and Russia between 1890 and 1914. This has had a tremendous impact on our history and growth as a nation. This mass migration was due in large part because of the anti-Semitic policies of the Tsarist government that resulted in years of persecution, and violent acts against Jews. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th century these acts, labeled “pogroms” seemed to occur on a regular basis fostering the need for Jewish families to begin a chain of migration to America and other areas of the world. Perhaps the most famous pogrom occurred in 1903 in the provincial city of Kishinev located at the edge of the Russian Empire which is the subject of Steven J. Zipperstein’s fascinating and informative new book POGROM: KISHINEV AND THE TILT OF HISTORY.
The term “pogrom” enters the western lexicon toward the end of the 19th century in Russia as violence and scapegoating of Jews proliferates. It would be invoked in numerous towns and villages reaching a crescendo between 1918 and 1920 as 100,000 Jews may have been victimized as they were thought to be Bolsheviks. Jews were supposed to be wealthy, but the vast majority lived in poverty. They were thought to be well educated and involved in commerce, but what the Russians resented the most was their secrecy and refusal to be absorbed into the larger society.
The accusation against Jews that seems to have been the foundation of many pogroms was that of the “ritual killing of Christian children” during the Passover holiday under government sanction. For an interesting novel that highlights this topic see Bernard Malamud’s THE FIXER which presents the major issues that Zipperstein discusses in a fictional format.
The Kishinev pogrom was seen as shorthand for barbarism, “for the behavior akin to the worst medieval atrocities.” It would become the only “significant event embraced by all sectors of the severely fractured Russian Jewish scene.” However, as the author argues throughout the narrative, though agreement was reached concerning the horrors that took place, it became an agreement wrought with myths, half-truths, and outright distortions. The strength of Zipperstein’s presentation is the dissection of the myths and other components by explaining what occurred in the spring of 1903 in the Kishinev district. The author carefully examines all aspects of the tragedy from its causes, the persons responsible, the victims and survivors, and the implication for Jewish history in the future. Kishinev would become the epitome of evil in the west, a jarring glimpse of what the 20th century would hold in store.
The theme of book rests on how “history is made and remade, what is retained and elided, and why.” The author examines how “one particular moment managed to chisel onto contemporary Jewish history and beyond that it held meaning even for those who never heard of the town, know nothing of its details, and nonetheless draw lessons from it.”
Forgeries and myths surround the history of the pogrom that greatly impacted how people who participated and survived viewed what they experienced, what had actually transpired, as well as how it was perceived years later. For example; there was supposedly a letter from the Russian Minister of the Interior, V.K. Plehve instructing the local authorities not to intercede once the massacre began. This is untrue, no letter existed, though a forgery may have appeared. Another example revolves around who wrote and was responsible for the dissemination of the PROTOCOLS OF THE ELDERS OF ZION which accused Jews of a worldwide conspiracy to dominate all people and their lives. It was said to have been a creation of the Russian secret police, the Okhrana in 1897, when in fact it was most likely the work of Pavel Krushevan, a publisher, novelist and owner of the newspaper Bessarabets which made the scurrilous lies of the PROTOCOLS available to the public.
Zipperstein’s sources have been mined thoroughly ranging from the literary works of Alexander Pushkin to Serge S. Urussov, the Governor-General of Bessarabia’s diaries. The two most important sources are Hayyam Nahman Bialik, the Jewish national poet who wrote, “In the City of Killing,” describing the massacre; and Michael Davitt, an Irish revolutionary and a reporter for Randolph Hearst’s New York American, who would go on to write WITHIN THE PALE: THE TRUE STORY OF THE ANTI-SEMETIC PERSECUTIONS IN RUSSIA, published in 1903. Zipperstein examines the lives of these two important figures, how they went about their research and who they interviewed. Excerpts of their work dot the narrative as Zipperstein dissects what occurred hour by hour and both men reach a controversial conclusion that Jewish men were weak and cowards.
Bialik’s poem, “In the City of Killing” has impacted Jewish history up until today and even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has referred to it in his speeches. Zipperstein argues that Bialik conflated his entire life experience, particularly his childhood with the plight of Jews – one of helplessness. His “rage leads him to construct the Jews of Kishinev as abject, and in the process to reshape and reconstruct his own identity.” The poem recreates the violence, rape, and plunder perpetrated against the Jews, but the core of the poem is a devastating conclusion concerning Jewish male cowardice. The appearance of the poem would overshadow what had transpired as it focused on the moral failings of Kishinev’s men and soon it became “shorthand for the utter vulnerability of the Jewish people, their devastation of soul and body alike.” Zipperstein examines the poem line by line and concludes that Bialik’s approach is literary poetry, while Davitt ‘s account is accurate as a whole and is first rate journalism, in addition to being reliable history.
Zipperstein asks why did the pogrom occur in Kishinev, a town that was on the outskirts of the Russian empire. He concludes that a number of events, thought processes, and socio-economic relationships are responsible. First, though day to day relations among the population seemed amiable, the peasants felt exploited by Jews engaging in a significant amount of commerce. Second, in the spring of 1903 agricultural prices were on the decline reducing the supply of money. Third, right wing elements were obsessed with Jewish visibility in the town. Four, the supposed “ritual killings” in Dubossary, a town near Kishinev a few months before the pogrom. Five, the fanning of anti-Semitic flames by Pavel Krusheran and his newspaper. Lastly, Pogroms were seen as a reasonable response to a pariah people as rumors of ritual killing swirled. Keeping in mind that in 1897 the population of the Kishinev district was 280,000 of which 54.910 were Jewish; and of the city’s 39 factories, 29 were owned by Jews could help explain people’s exacerbated feelings reactions once the violence spread.
Zipperstein also dissects the political implications of the pogrom. He explores how it was used by different political factions for their own ends be they Zionists, socialists, Labor, Bundists etc. Many saw the pogrom as an opportunity to foster immigration to Palestine, others were resigned to trying to survive in Russia as they hoped the violence was spent. The pogrom also touched off a nasty debate in American politics as the pogrom was compared to the lynchings of blacks in the south. The American left used Kishinev as vehicle to make Americans aware of the treatment of blacks. This also created a schism within the black communities because of its response to Kishinev and dealing with their own issues. Interestingly, as Zipperstein describes at the end of the book, the uproar in the United States and its link to lynching’s helped push for the creation of the NAACP in 1909.
Overall the book is quite comprehensive and incorporates a great deal of information that is knew, i.e., Zipperstein’s acquisition of Krusheran’s teenage diaries among other sources. If you would like to try and understand what occurred in Kishinev, with its historical implications, POGROM: KISHINEV AND THE TILT OF HISTORY is an excellent resource.
(Damaged Torahs used at funerals for Kishinev pogrom)