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Questioning the Myth of Passivity

Boris Sandler, editor of the Yiddish Forward, is the author of “Nothing Is New Under the Sun,” a novel based on the Kishinev pogrom of 1903, which is currently being translated into English. Sandler, 53, was born in Belz and educated in Kishinev, where he took up Yiddish journalism in the 1980s. He recently spoke in Yiddish with Jacob “Kobi” Weitzner, a staff writer at the Yiddish Forward, about his book and the anniversary of the historical event on which it is based.

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Who is the main character in your novel?

The main character is a young gentile who comes to [the city of Kishinev] because he has gotten a low-level government job. He is not prejudiced, but he finds himself in a virulent antisemitic environment and gradually becomes an antisemite. It is a study of a psychological infection. Novels are often about love. This one is about hate — hate that eventually leads to mass murder.

How did the Kishinev pogrom become part of the history of the city?

The Kishinev pogrom made a huge impression at the time because [it] seemed like a huge number [of dead]. This was way before the Holocaust. The fact that people could be killed just because they were Jews in a modern Europe in broad daylight was a shocker.

This was also one of the first appearances of state-sponsored antisemitism. Jews had experienced pogroms for hundreds of years, but this was not a spontaneous killing. This was a pre-planned killing. Kishinev at the time was 50% Jewish. Many Jews were involved in various socialist organizations. The Russian authorities decided to use the age-old antisemitic feelings of the population as a tool to crush the anti-czarist political movements. Krushevan, the editor of the only newspaper in Bessarabia, did everything he could to fan the anti-Jewish flames.

The pogrom became engraved in the collective memory of the Jews. Its consequences were enormous. It spurred the emigration of 1 million Jews to America. Many of America’s Jews are descendants of those immigrants. [Theodor] Herzl’s Uganda plan was also, to a large extent, a result of the Kishinev pogrom.

The gentiles know much less about it. Four generations went by. The Soviet authorities never mentioned it, the same way they never mentioned any episode of Jewish history. I can give you a comic example. We once learned in class about the wisdom of King Solomon. [I realized that] since Solomon was a king, he must have had a kingdom — in other words, Jews must have had a state of their own. When I mentioned that to my teacher in school he refused to admit to it.

Bialik’s poem on the Kishinev pogrom triggered mass immigration to America and Jewish settlement in Palestine. In his poem he criticizes Jewish inaction. Now we hear that Jews did defend themselves.…

After the Kishinev pogrom, a committee headed by the famed historian Simon Dubnow investigated the facts on the ground. Bialik came to Kishinev specifically in order to investigate, among other things, whether Jews remained passive or took arms and defended themselves. Bialik, still a young man at the time, crisscrossed the city and talked to local Jews. He heard of many cases of Jewish self-defense, but the czarist police fought the Jewish defenders. For example, the [Jewish] butchers in the marketplace took their knives and stood against the pogroms, and they did a good job. But the Russian cavalry eventually charged and dispersed them.

So why did Bialik blame Jews for going like sheep to the slaughter?

My novel deals with this question. My assumption is that Bialik wanted to spur Jews to action and therefore let his poetic imagination run free.

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