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Behind the Headlines the Lingering Impact of the Kishinev Pogrom

Worldwide commemorations of the 40th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising will obscure the fact that Easter and Passover this year also mark the 80th anniversary of the Russian pogrom in Kishinev, immortalized by Chaim Nachman Bialik’s poem, “In the City of Slaughter.”

Following malicious reports that Jews were using Christian blood for their Passover feasts, primitive mobs in Kishinev, capital of Bessarabia, turned on the Jews on Sunday, April 6, 1903.

There followed three days of carnage which, according to official figures, left 49 Jews dead and 500 injured; 700 houses destroyed; 600 businesses looted; damage to property worth two and a half million gold rubles; and about 2,000 Jewish families homeless.

The hatred of the Jews had been whipped up in “Bessarebtz,” in Kishinev’s only newspaper, whose editor, P. Krushevan, was financed from a slush fund by Von Plehve, the Russian Interior Minister. The paper’s printing house had published the blood libel pamphlets which were used to trigger the massacre.

The government believed that by fomenting hatred against the Jews it could divert the rising tide of revolutionary feeling throughout Russia.

WORLDWIDE PROTEST MEETINGS

As soon as the news was published, large protest meetings were held throughout Europe and North America. The German Kaiser and the Austrian Emperor sent personal protests to Czar Nicholas II.

A joint resolution was passed by both houses of Congress and President Theodore Roosevelt voiced his country’s horror in a personal letter which the Czar refused to accept. In Russia itself, Count Leo Tolstoy arraigned the government as the chief culprit.

HERZL, BIALIK DRAW DIFFERENT CONCLUSIONS

The deepest impact, however, was on the Jews themselves, and especially on the newly-launched world Zionist movement. Theodor Herzl, its founder, wrote prophetically to an American statesman: “Think of it. Seven million outlawed human beings who have begun to tremble. After what has happened we have no right to reproach them with their fear. They dare not arm, they are not defended, they feel themselves surrendered up — and to what a rabble.”

In his anguish at failing to win Palestine for the persecuted Jews, Herzl toyed that year with accepting a British offer of a “temporary” Jewish homeland in East Africa, an idea which almost wrecked the Zionist movement, founded only six years earlier.

Chaim Nachman Bialik, then 30 years old, drew different conclusions from Herzl. After visiting Kishinev to interview the survivors, he felt that the Jews could at least have tried to defend themselves and his over-riding emotion was one of shame.

In his poem, “In the City of Slaughter,” he thundered: “Great is the sorrow and great is the shame/ and which of the two is greater?”

Among those stirred by his words was Vladimir Jabotinsky, like Bialik, an Odessa Jew, but one who until then had devoted himself to Russian culture and letters. After Kishinev, Jabotinsky identified himself entirely with his fellow Jews, with Zionism and the need for self-defense.

The Kishinev massacre and Bialik’s poem, (Jabotinsky was to write 21 years later) marked “the birth of a new Jewish mentality.” It was the first time in modern Jewish history that the main feeling provoked in the community was one of shame rather than horror and grief, he wrote in an introduction to an English edition of Bialik’s works.

“The revival of Maccabean tendencies in the ghetto really dates from that poem: the self-defense organizations which sprang up everywhere in Russia to meet the new pogrom wave two years later, the shomrim movement in Palestine, even the Jewish Legion which fought for the Holy Land in 1918 — they are all Bialik’s children,” Jabotinsky wrote. Had he lived long enough, Jabotinsky would doubtless have added the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto to that list.

Despite the immediate shock caused by the Kishinev pogrom, it was far from an isolated incident. In the months which followed pogroms erupted one after the other in White Russia and the Ukraine, abating only when Russia found itself at war with Japan the next year and when Jews were being pressed into the Czar’s armies.

MORE COURAGE SHOWN

There was also a second pogrom in Kishinev in October 1905. In some places, though, Jews began to show more courage. In August 1903, Jewish defenders acquitted themselves well when a pogrom broke out at Gomel, in White Russia, where 20,000 Jews formed half the town’s population.

Despite its blood-stained name, though, Kishinev seems to have retained a magnetic attraction to Jews in southern Russia. There had been 60,000 Jews there in 1902. Many emigrated after the pogroms. But even so, there were some 65,000 Jews in the town at the time of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. Of these, 53,000 were murdered and by 1947, there were only 5,000 Jews in Kishinev.

Amazingly, the Encyclopaedia Judaica put the 1970 figure back at 60,000, though this has certainly been depleted by the large scale-emigrations of the past 13 years.

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