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Kishinev 1903: The Birth of a Century

One hundred years ago, on April 6, 1903, the Jewish community of Kishinev in what was then czarist Russia suffered two days of mob violence that shocked the world and changed the course of Jewish history.

Provoked by a medieval blood libel, flashed around the globe by modern communications, Kishinev was the last pogrom of the Middle Ages and the first atrocity of the 20th century. The event, and the worldwide wave of Jewish outrage that it evoked, laid the foundations of modern Israel, gave birth to contemporary American-Jewish activism and helped bring about the downfall of the czarist regime.

Much of that, curiously, resulted from a misreading of events at the time.

Kishinev, the capital of the czarist province of Bessarabia, today’s Republic of Moldova, was a town of some 125,000 residents, nearly half of them Jewish. Ethnic tensions were running high that spring, thanks to a noisy, months-long campaign of antisemitic incitement by local nationalists.

The rioting began on Easter Sunday, after rumors spread through town that a Christian had been killed by Jews in a ritual murder. Mobs rampaged through Jewish neighborhoods for two days, burning, smashing, raping and killing. When it was over, 49 Jews were dead and 500 wounded, 1,300 homes and businesses were looted and destroyed and 2,000 families were left homeless.

The brutality sent shock waves across Russia and around the world. Leo Tolstoy spoke out. Mass rallies were held in Paris, London and New York. Western governments protested the apparent complicity of the czar’s police, who had refused repeated pleas to intervene. The Forward reported the news with a banner headline: “Rivers of Jewish Blood in Kishinev.”

From nearby Odessa, the great center of Russian Jewish culture, the young Hebrew poet Hayyim Nahman Bialik was sent to Kishinev by the Jewish communal commission to interview survivors and report firsthand on the bloodbath. Before returning home he composed one of his most powerful poems, “On the Slaughter,” with its unforgettable cry that Satan himself could not forgive the death of a child. A year later Bialik would publish his epic masterwork, “The City of Slaughter,” a searing condemnation of Jewish passivity, from which the following is taken.

Descend then, to the cellars of the town,There where the virginal daughters of thy folk were fouled,Where seven heathen flung a woman down,The daughter in the presence of her mother,The mother in the presence of her daughter,Before slaughter, during slaughter, and after slaughter!Touch with thy hand the cushion stained; touchThe pillow incarnadined:This is the place the wild ones of the wood, the beasts of the fieldWith bloody axes in their paws compelled thy daughters yield:Beasted and swined!Note also, do not fail to note,In that dark corner, and behind that caskCrouched husbands, bridegrooms, brothers, peering from the cracks,Watching the sacred bodies struggling underneathThe bestial breath,Stifled in filth, and swallowing their blood!Watching from the darkness and its meshThe lecherous rabble portioning for bootyTheir kindred and their flesh!Crushed in their shame, they saw it all;They did not stir nor move;They did not pluck their eyes out; theyBeat 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!

Bialik’s poem fell on ready ears. Young Jews across Russia, electrified by the events, took the poem as a call to arms and organized themselves into self-defense units, most led by fledgling socialist or Zionist parties. Thousands threw themselves into revolutionary movements, determined to bring down the murderous czarist regime. Their rage and energy gave new momentum to the revolutionary movement and led directly to the abortive Russian revolution of 1905, which in turn set the stage for the cataclysm of 1917.

Others, despairing of any Jewish future in Russia, began making their way to the land of Israel in a wave of immigration that would come to be known as the Second Aliya. Influenced by socialism, led by young radicals such as David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, the pioneers set about remaking the Zionist settlement in Palestine on a foundation of Jewish labor and Jewish self-defense. Driven by visions of Kishinev and the shame of Jewish passivity, they created the kibbutzim, the towns and factories, the militias and political parties that were the cornerstone of modern Israel.

In fact, the image of Jewish passivity was largely untrue. Eyewitness accounts of the pogrom tell a very different story. Here is a front-page report from the Forward of April 24:

Armed with knives and machetes, the murderers broke into Jewish homes, where they began stabbing and killing, chopping off heads and stomping frail women and small children. If such a vicious, enraged mob would have attacked a Jewish town somewhere in Volin or Lithuania, thousands of Jews would have been killed in an hour’s time. But Kishinev Jewsare tough, healthy, strong as iron and fearless. When the murderous pogromists began their horrible slaughter, 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…. The Jews, however, fought with their bare hands and the murderers, armed with machetes and knives, were primed to annihilate and decimate all the Jewish townspeople.

How did Bialik get it so wrong? Like many young Russian Jews, Bialik was ready to believe in the shame of Jewish passivity even before he got to Kishinev. Zionist essayists had been hammering the theme home for decades, none more powerfully than the Kishinev-born physician Leon Pinsker, whose 1882 essay “Autoemancipation” is still regarded widely as the founding manifesto of Russian Zionism.

Pinsker’s essay was on Bialik’s mind when word of the bloodbath reached Odessa on the second day of the rioting, April 7. Bialik appears to have spent the evening at a meeting of the city’s Jewish literary circle, the Beseda (“Conversation”) Club, which included such luminaries as the historian Simon Dubnow, the Hebrew essayist Ahad Ha’am and editor-publisher Yehoshua Ravnitzky. The circle’s April 7 meeting was devoted to a lecture by a little-known journalist named Vladimir Jabotinsky, age 23. His theme for the lecture, his first major public appearance, was “Autoemancipation.”

Here is how the historian Dubnow recalled the evening in his memoirs:

It was the night of April 7, 1903. Because of Russian Easter, the newspapers had not been issued for the previous two days so that we remained without any news from the rest of the world. That night the Jewish audience assembled in the Beseda Club, to listen to the talk of a young Zionist, the Odessa “wunderkind” V. Jabotinsky [….] The young agitator had great success with his audience. In a particularly moving manner, he drew on Pinsker’s parable of the Jew as a shadow wandering through space and developed it further. As for my own impression, this one-sided treatment of our historical problem depressed me: Did he not scarcely stop short of inducing fear in our unstable Jewish youth of their own national shadow?… During the break, while pacing up and down in the neighboring room, I noticed sudden unrest in the audience: the news spread that fugitives had arrived in Odessa from nearby Kishinev and had reported of a bloody pogrom in progress there.

When Bialik set out for Kishinev later in the week his mission was to collect the facts, but it could be that his narrative was formulated in advance, etched in his mind by Jabotinsky.

Most of Russia’s Jews, to be sure, wanted nothing more than to flee the czar’s charnel house. Emigration to America, already a flood tide, more than doubled by the end of the year. In America, Jews scrambled to cope with the human tidal wave, leading to an explosive growth of Jewish philanthropy and social service agencies. When Russia launched its ill-fated war against Japan the next year, America’s leading Jewish philanthropist, investment banker Jacob Schiff, volunteered to underwrite Japan’s war bonds and personally financed Russia’s defeat. Schiff and other prominent Jewish business figures entered a series of negotiations that led three years later to the formation of the American Jewish Committee, arguably the world’s first modern human-rights lobby. President Theodore Roosevelt greeted the committee’s formation by inviting its best known figure, the former diplomat Oscar Straus, to become his secretary of commerce and labor, the first Jew to serve in an American cabinet. And not a word about color-blind meritocracy: “I want to show Russia and some other countries,” Roosevelt wrote to Straus, “what we think of the Jews in this country.”

For all that, the enduring image of Kishinev is Bialik’s.

The historian Rufus Learsi once wrote that the 1903 Kishinev pogrom must be seen as “a dress rehearsal” for the far bloodier wave of antisemitic violence two years later, following the 1905 revolution, which left some 3,000 Jews dead. But that violence was only a rehearsal for the genocidal fury of the 1918 Russian civil war, in which Ukrainian militias under Simon Petlura massacred as many as 200,000 Jews. And that, of course, was just a dress rehearsal for the Holocaust.

Like Kishinev in its time, the Holocaust was taken by survivors and heirs to be an object lesson in the human capacity for evil and the Jewish duty to stand up and fight. But for all the earnest lessons, whether at Kishinev or at Auschwitz, the atrocities of the 20th century seem to be little more than forerunners one for the next, descending not as warnings but as dress rehearsals for new and greater horrors. In Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and now Liberia and Congo, neighbors continue to slaughter neighbors while the world is busy elsewhere. Only the technologies improve. The mold was set in Kishinev.

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