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15 Kislev 5764 - December 10, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








From Kishinev to Bialystok -- and Since

by M. Musman

Editor's Note: Although the material covered in this article is very important to read for a proper perspective on how bad antisemitism can be, it is probably not permissible to read it on Shabbos. In case of doubt, a competent halachic authority should be consulted.

Part Three: The Bialystok Pogrom and Its Aftermath


Until the mid-eighteenth century when it became self- governing, the village of Bialystok had been part of the community of Tiktin, in the Grodno province of Northeast Poland. The Jewish population remained small until the expulsion of the Jews from the surrounding villages in the early nineteenth century. By 1856, Bialystok's Jewish population was estimated at nine-and-a-half thousand, out of a total population of thirteen-and-a-half thousand.

Bialystok's textile industry grew rapidly in the latter half of the nineteenth century. By 1898, over eighty percent of the town's textile mills were Jewish-owned and almost sixty percent of the workers were Jewish, many of them joining the newly opened Bund. In 1905, Bialystok's Jewish community numbered nearly fifty thousand, out of a general population of almost sixty-four thousand.

Bialystok achieved renown in the Torah world in later years, following the Communist takeover in Russia, when Rav Avrohom Yaffen zt'l, son-in-law of the Alter of Novardok zt'l, moved the center of the Novardok Torah network to Bialystok and established the central Beis Yosef Yeshiva there around 5682 (1922). The yeshiva's most famous talmid was the Steipler, zt'l.

In Toldos Yaakov, the biography of the Steipler (by his grandson Rav Avrohom Yeshayohu Kanievsky ylct'a) there is mention of a tale which the Steipler used to relate as to how Bialystok, which used to be a small village, became a town. The King of Poland was travelling in the vicinity. When asked where he planned to spend the night, he replied, "In the town of Bialystok." As soon as the king said the words "the town of Bialystok," bands of workers arrived and built large numbers of houses there overnight, in order to fulfill the king's words, as the gemora says, "If the king says, `I will uproot a mountain,' he uproots the mountain and does not retract" (Bava Basra 3).

The background to the pogroms in Bialystok of June 1905 and 1906 was the general incitement against the Jews and particularly the active involvement of many of Bialystok's workers in the 1905 revolution, which provoked reprisals on the part of the authorities.

In 1905, there were no fewer than three pogroms. In April, many Jews were wounded and many houses looted when Cossacks terrorized the Jewish Quarter. In July, ten Jews were killed and three hundred wounded, while in August, sixty Jews were killed and two hundred were wounded.

Based upon their interviews with eyewitnesses, the members of the Duma Commission produced a lengthy and detailed report on the Bialystok pogrom -- the only one for which such a thorough account exists -- a synopsis of which is presented in the following paragraphs. Horrifying as it is, it must be remembered that in essentials, this is the story of not just one but of the hundreds of pogroms that ravaged the Jewish populations of Russian towns and villages from 1903- 6.

The Seeds of Unrest

One of the societies that were collectively known as the Black Hundreds, which were largely responsible for instigating and carrying out the pogroms, was known as the Organization of Genuine Russian Men. For years, it had been spreading the idea that Jews were the enemies of Czardom and that all the confusion and unrest in the country was owing to Jewish agitation. From this it followed that the struggle against the Jews was a struggle against the forces that were ruining the country and that once the Jew were vanquished, peace and tranquility would reign once more.

Police officials in Bialystok were strongly influenced by these ideas, which they in turn spread among the local population. For the police, the terms, "conspirator" and "revolutionary" were synonyms with "Jew." Besides the Bund, there was also an anarchist party in Bialystok. The police viewed every Jew as an anarchist.

The Black Hundreds agitated within the army as well. Naturally, it was a duty to fight revolutionaries and to annihilate them. In advance of the pogrom, fighting materials were prepared and proclamations circulated among the soldiers stating that the conspirators should be killed, that the Duma was Jewish and that the revolutionaries opposed the Czar etc.

Early in May, the sergeants in one of the regimental barracks were commanded to communicate to the soldiers that on the first of June, a Catholic procession would take place at which the Jews were going to throw a bomb, following which there would be a pogrom. Rumors were also circulated among the police and the townspeople, some of whom were so sure that there would be a pogrom that they sent their families away.

The police chief in Bialystok in the period immediately prior to the pogrom was an officer named Derkatchev, who was opposed to any rioting or violence and whose popularity with the Jews had earned him the title, `the Jewish police chief.' On the twenty-first of May, Derkatchev was dispatched to the scene of a brawl between some soldiers and local residents. He immediately succeeded in restoring calm but then a dispute arose between him and another police officer, named Sheremetyev. Following this incident, Derkatchev asked the governor to dismiss Sheremetyev and sought the support of prominent townspeople for his request. On the twenty-eighth of May, Derkatchev was murdered in very suspicious circumstances.

The Approaching Storm

Relations between the police and the Jews, prior to the pogrom, are well-illustrated by the incident involving the Jewish community's attempt to place a wreath on Derkatchev's coffin. Inspector Sheremetyev's reaction was, "What? A wreath from Jews? Never! We are Christians, not Jews, vampires. You kill us and afterwards you come with wreaths. No. I shall not allow it."

Sheremetyev predicted that other policemen would also protest the Jews' wreath. When asked by the Jewish leaders what form this protest might take he replied with a thinly veiled threat, "If you put a wreath on the coffin in spite of my warning, you will regret it within two days and the whole Jewish population will regret it."

When a frightened Jewish delegation visited the governor of Grodno, their reception was anything but sympathetic. The governor referred to Jewish attacks on the police and stated that without a doubt, Derkatchev's murderers had been Jewish. "Every day I read the dossier of political offenses," he added, "and all the offenders are Jewish. Jews are attacking the soldiers and provoking their hatred also. The moment may come when nothing can be done against the violent wrath of the soldiers and if I am present at the funeral of Derkatchev and shots are fired, I will order an attack on the town. I make myself responsible until Thursday June 1st, but not afterwards."

The governor evidently knew full well that a pogrom was in preparation. When the Jews indicated Sheremetyev as an open enemy of the Jewish community who had gone so far as to name a day for the pogrom, the governor replied that Sheremetyev was his most courageous and energetic official.

As to the relations between the Jews and the general population, all who were interviewed by the members of the commission, Jews and gentiles alike, were unanimous in affirming that they were quite normal and that there was never any danger of a conflict, or any hatred of a national, religious or economic character. Even the competition between the Jewish and gentile workers in the factories never provoked any disturbances, although the police tried to stir up trouble. The small occasional disputes between Jews and gentiles were always peaceably settled.

Meanwhile, preparations for the pogrom continued. Orders were given for a far larger number of guards to be stationed in the town on the first of June. The town was divided into two districts, each with its own commander and instructions were issued for the conduct of the soldiers.

According to Plan

Thursday the first of June arrived. Processions of Greek Orthodox worshipers from the surrounding villages and hamlets converged upon Bialystok, forming one large procession. A second, Catholic procession was also held, the two events attracting a large number of Christians.

As the Greek Orthodox procession was passing a certain point, some shots were fired. Some people later reported having noticed something being thrown and a slight explosion. A tumult ensued and many threw down the icons and other religious emblems that they had been holding, onto the street. A man and woman -- apparently Russians -- were wounded.

Immediately, soldiers arrived who began shooting at the houses, hardly giving the crowd a chance to disperse. The doctors who examined the hurt woman were all of the opinion that her wounds had been caused by a bullet. Immediately after the first firing, a group of hooligans attacked and pillaged a pharmacy shop belonging to a Christian and then proceeded to do the same to nearby Jewish houses and stores and to kill Jews. After the last of the worshipers had left, a bomb was thrown, causing no damage, apparently in order to scare away the rioters, who began to run away.

Then, as though in response to a prearranged signal, the pogrom arose in several different places. A rumor spread rapidly that a Greek Orthodox Patriarch and a Polish priest had been killed, that Jews had fired on the icons, that they had murdered a Christian woman and other such macabre and baseless tales. A Russian writer who was also an official, who lived in Grodno, helped spread these slanders. He sent off an official communique that was believed by many officers, stating that the Jews had committed atrocities.

Eyewitnesses later told members of the commission that they noticed that while the officers and hooligans were not usually well-disposed towards one another, they were now openly fraternizing. One group of thugs was running in one direction when one of the officers called them and told them to go to a different street, whither they went. A policeman who noticed another group of rioters sent them there also and soon after, a company of soldiers was sent to the same place. Even when the soldiers opened fire, the rioters continued their "work," secure in the knowledge that the firing was of no concern to them.

Elsewhere, hooligans, aided by policemen, wrecked shops and pillaged goods while soldiers just stood by and shot at every Jew who appeared in the street. Members of the armed forces actually joined in the looting. One soldier was unable to carry all the wares he had plundered and asked one of his comrades to assist him.

This state of affairs continued for three days, from Thursday through Shabbos. It seemed as though a battle was being fought, although the hostilities were directed solely against the Jews. Christians walked the streets unmolested but as soon as a Jew appeared, bullets flew at him from all sides. It was not a struggle between two adversaries; it was a hunt by armed men of unarmed people. Whenever anyone fired, soldiers arrived on the scene and poured a volley into the street and on the houses. The police fired and then attributed the firing to Jews.

On Friday, the police were especially furious and searched the houses for Jews in hiding. Police agents were continually trying to provoke fresh disturbances and supply a pretext for further attacks on the Jews. All Jews, even elderly men, were branded revolutionaries and immediately murdered; this happened whether the accuser was a policeman, a soldier or a hooligan.

Soon, it was sufficient to cry "Jew!" to call the attention of a soldier to an individual running in the street, or in hiding, for the soldier to shoot him immediately. On Friday and Shabbos, the main feature of the atrocities was not pillage but murder, carried out by the police and soldiers. All the bodies of those killed during those two days bore bullet and bayonet wounds and very seldom injuries caused by sticks or stones.

At the Railway Station

Despite the presence of the governor, gendarmes and soldiers at the railway station, the hooligans felt quite safe going about their business. Not only did nobody hinder them, they were assisted in every way.

Upon the arrival of every train, when Jewish passengers appeared on the platform, they were attacked with sticks and stones, the hooligans crying, "Zhidi! Beat the Zhidi!"

Some Jews fled along the nearby bridge, towards the town. But there were sentries stationed on the other side of the bridge and the victims were searched by policemen to see if they were carrying weapons and then driven back towards the murderers. Some escaped to the railway station, but they were brutally attacked by hooligans waiting at the station gate. Jews were butchered in cold blood in scenes too terrible to be described, while the commandant, gendarmes and officers looked on with indifference.

The agony of the wounded and dying did not provoke the slightest emotion on the part of the officials. They actually seemed amused and urged the hooligans to "work" harder. A few officers did try to intervene on behalf of the Jews but the hooligans were so self-assured and audacious that they paid them absolutely no attention. One witness reported the horrifying lynch of a Jew, the end of which he did not see because he was forced to run and hide himself.

Though the governor was present at the station while all this was going on, he did nothing to prevent it. Evidence of the support of the officials for the rioters was an instance where the officer of the gendarmes gave advice and directions to the rioters about moving to the town's center, where they might slaughter and pillage more effectively.

On Friday, a Jew who was saved by an officer, hid on the roof and escaped miraculously, and witnessed the cruel and brutal murders of several Jews arriving at the station. The hooligans beat the bodies in the presence of the gendarmes. Seven Jews from a nearby town heard of what was going on and came to save their families. The enraged hooligans fell upon them like savages, slaughtering five of them, while the remaining two were saved by a soldier. They escaped to Grodno where they described what had happened.

One Jew hid himself behind the commandant and begged for mercy but the commandant pushed him away, and the hooligans attacked him viciously. A woman who was present at the station almost went out of her mind at the horrors she was witnessing and an officer tried to calm her as if nothing out of the ordinary was taking place. "We must look quietly at all these scenes," he said, "because the Jews deserve much more for having thrown bombs at a procession and having killed our priests; they deserve to be completely annihilated." The canard about killing priests seems to have been part of the intrigue that was planned in advance.

The brutal murders of another group of Jews arriving by train were witnessed by the inspector and the assistant procurator of Bialystok, from the window of the waiting room. When one member of the group, who also witnessed the murders and who succeeded in escaping, reported the events to the governor of Grodno that evening, he met the assistant procurator there. The governor's reaction was, "It is the Jews' fault as they have fired and thrown many bombs."

There were two reports of gentiles who intervened and were killed. The cries of the victims could be heard a considerable distance from the scene of the barbarities.

Boyari and Elsewhere

Boyari is the name of a suburb of Bialystok. Although it was the most peaceful part of the town, it was there that the hooligans robbed, beat and murdered every Jew they encountered. On Friday, a workman brought a detachment of soldiers to the door of a tannery in Boyari, where he told them Jews were hiding. Some of the soldiers remained outside on the street, while others, together with the hooligans, forced entry through the back door. The panic-stricken Jews ran out onto a balcony and the soldiers in the street opened fire. The next morning, another workman noticed that there were still some Jews hiding there. He ran to bring soldiers. Two of the Jews were killed and a third imprisoned on a false charge.

Several Jewish families who lived in the vicinity of a sawmill hid there, under unbearable conditions, while Jews were being murdered in the street outside. Afterwards, they took refuge in a nearby Jewish home, which the soldiers -- under orders from an officer -- began firing upon from two sides, so that the house caught fire. A policeman ordered the women and children to leave the house. Upon exiting, several families -- men, women and infants and elderly -- were either beaten, flogged or shot and killed. Two Jews spent all of Friday night lying in a cellar full of water. Upon their discovery in the morning by soldiers, one ransomed himself for fifty kopecks, while the other was killed.

Other Jews were found hiding in a stove factory and were brutally murdered. Some Jews sought to hide in gardens that belonged to gentiles; when found they were ruthlessly beaten, shot and killed. An entire family -- parents, two sons and a daughter -- were dragged from a house and shot. Mobs, led by policemen, were searching for Jews all of Friday. On Shabbos, a fresh detachment of soldiers, together with police, arrived and continued the searches.

A number of individual cases were also documented, describing in gruesome detail how other Jews were ferreted out of homes or hiding places, or were shot as they tried to escape or even as they walked the streets. For example, on Shabbos, the baker and tailor were taking bread to starving Jews who were hiding in the cellars, when they encountered a group of policemen, the chief of whom fired on them, wounding the baker and killing the tailor.

At the very beginning of the pogrom, the chief of the Kazan regiment arrived and when he heard the rumors that a bomb had been thrown, he ordered the soldiers to enter Jewish homes and drag out the occupants. Soldiers entered one of the homes and drove out the family. Two sons and a daughter were killed, three other members of the family and another woman were wounded. The house was wrecked. A student who tried to defend the owner was killed.

At about the same time, two Jews -- a brother and sister -- were in a house that was behind a small shop. When hooligans began plundering the shop, they jumped from a window into the yard, seeking shelter. A policeman accompanied by a group of soldiers immediately arrived on the scene. The brother was killed and the sister dangerously wounded.

The Commission's Conclusions

Based on the evidence they had collected, the members of the commission tried to ascertain the extent of official involvement in the pogrom's preparation and execution.

There was no doubt that it had been planned. Rumors about it had been circulating long in advance and even a day had been named. The lies spread by the police about murders committed by Jews had been part of the plan. The designation of the day of a procession when the mob would be particularly excitable showed that an appropriate moment had been selected. It could be readily believed that supposed firing by Jews might spark off a riot at the site of the offense but it was impossible to accept that a pogrom would break out so swiftly and in so many places simultaneously, without prior preparation. Who, though, was responsible?

There is little to add about the part played by the police and the soldiers. The facts speak for themselves. Police agents tried to ferment the population with rumors of supposed Jewish crimes. The police participated in the pogrom, indicating who was to be slain and how and in the pillaging, leading bands of hooligans in looting shops. Although martial law had not been declared, the military commanders who took control of affairs place armed soldiers at the disposal of the police, to kill unarmed Jews. Although the shooting was supposedly directed at revolutionaries, peaceful Jewish men, women and children were shot, without evidence of any revolutionary act having taken place.

When the Jewish leaders met Governor Kister and communicated their concern about the trouble that was brewing and about Sheremetyev in particular, he not only dismissed their worries but even indicated his understanding of the policemen's feelings. On the day the pogrom broke out, the governor arrived in Bialystok and spent a long time at the railway station, following which he drove to the police station for a meeting and then left for Vilna, where he met the governor-general. Travelling through the town, he had ample exposure to what was happening. At the station he was witness to murders yet he made no attempt to stay the slaughter. He took no action, either because he knew that the pogrom had been ordered by a higher authority that deemed it necessary, or because his power to act had been secretly suspended.

On Friday, June the second, the second day of the pogrom, two Jewish members of the Duma petitioned the Minister of the Interior to stop the violence. The minister promised that he would immediately wire for vigorous measures to be taken and in all likelihood, he did so. Yet many Jews were killed in the ensuing twenty-four hours. The most likely conclusion is that at Bialystok, it was not considered necessary to heed the minister's instructions, because sanction for the pogrom had come from an even higher authority.

In view of the governor's conduct and the futility of the minister's measures, it seems clear that some secret, unnamed power, of which the authorities may or may not have been aware, had directed the pogrom and guaranteed immunity to all involved. The report concludes with several pointed questions to the Ministers of the Interior and of War, and by recommending that prior to a thorough investigation of the events in Bialystok, all the members of the civil and military administrations be dismissed and that the state of martial law that had been imposed because of the pogrom, be lifted.

Support of the Duma

The Duma devoted three days to the report, hearing it read and listening to addresses delivered by the members of the commission and other speakers, which were greeted with cheers, applause and cries of sympathy by the members of the house.

One of the Jewish deputies mentioned that Stolypin, the Minister of the Interior, had confessed before the Duma that his ministry had printed several thousand inflammatory proclamations "to stimulate the patriotism of the troops." The speaker maintained that in fact, hundreds of thousands of such documents had come from the Komissarov printing press. He produced copies and read excerpts, in which the troops were incited to the extermination of the Jews and all such "enemies of the State."

At the Duma's last sitting before disbanding, it adopted a resolution that explicitly accused the government of instigating the unrest that led to the Bialystok and other pogroms: "The Government, convinced of its impotence to fight the revolution, seeks to overcome it by acts of cruelty upon peaceful citizens . . . This Government imbued the population with the conviction that everything is permitted against the Jews . . . Through the retention in office of the present irresponsible Ministry, the way is paved for . . . the general uprising of the sorely taxed people and the general ruin of the land."

The Duma's power was greatly limited by the Czar's retention of the right to rule by decree and his limitation of its financial power. It was a forum where the concerns of the ordinary citizens could be voiced and legislation prepared but the Czar still held firmly onto reins of power. The bill of civil rights, irrespective of nationality, race or religion, with which the first Duma occupied itself, came to naught with the Czar's order for its dispersal.

The international outcry following the Bialystok pogrom at least embarrassed the Russian government and shortly thereafter, it did take steps to prevent further violence from erupting in Warsaw and in Polatava.

There were more pogroms that summer, however, in which many Jews in other towns in Grodno and in Vitebsk, lost their lives. In August there was a pogrom in Siedlce that was actually carried out by the police and the armed forces. Approximately thirty Jews were killed and a hundred and eighty were wounded. Eventually, with the regime's suppression of the revolutionary unrest, the pogroms were halted.

Conclusion: After Bialystok

A third -- and by far worse -- wave of pogroms took place between the years 1917-21, against the background of the Bolshevik revolution and the ensuing years of civil war between the rival White and Red armies. These pogroms were carried out by different military groups, of differing political allegiance. All they had in common was the conviction that massacring Jews was good for Russia.

Gone was the era of rioting sponsored by a national government. By 1917 much else had changed both in Russia and within Russian Jewry; it was thus the pogroms of 1903-6 that had the most far-reaching effects upon Russian and world Jewry. The upheavals and expulsions of the First World War had thrown Jewish life into utter disarray and German and Austrian military conquests had divested the Czar of some forty percent of his Jewish subjects.

The Czar himself was overthrown in the first revolution of 1917 (the February Revolution, carried out by the liberal Menshevik party), which briefly brought freedom and equality to the Jews of Russia. Hopes for a brighter future were dashed several months later when Lenin and the Bolsheviks carried out the October Revolution.

It is worthwhile bearing in mind that the vast majority of the pogroms took place in regions of the Pale that belonged to Russia proper, particularly the Ukraine and Southern Russia, rather than in those parts of it that had been taken by Russia from Poland and Lithuania. However, it is hard to draw any particular conclusions from this. In all likelihood, the level of the different local gentile populations' Czarist loyalties and Russian patriotism affected their antagonism towards the Jews and the ease with which they could be aroused to violence.

It is true that the generally low level of Yiddishkeit in Russia proper led to greater pressure by the Jews there for civic equality and rights and the opportunity to engage in all aspects of national life, thus creating friction with the ruling class. However, while healthy Jewish spiritual elements existed in Poland and Lithuania, it would be grossly inaccurate to claim that the Jews of these lands were immune from the devastating effects of the haskalah that was the cause of the general situation. We dwell on the great yeshivos, the schools of mussar and the centers of chasidus that flourished in Poland and Lithuania, for these continue to nourish us spiritually to this day. However, we should not lose sight of the fact that the total abandonment of Torah that the Netziv zt'l identified as the cause of resurgence of modern antisemitism, seems to have been almost as widespread in those lands as in Russia.

The plight of Russian Jewry was seen by both the vast majority of its modern-minded and irreligious (or at best "traditional") members and their overseas counterparts, as a humanitarian struggle for justice and equality against backward and benighted forces. The hordes of Russian Jews who emigrated to the United States and the thousands who traveled east, providing the impetus for the establishment of a secular yishuv in Eretz Yisroel, carried this hope with them.

In the United States, they were finally able to achieve their goal. However, it became increasingly clear that without Torah, even allegiance to Judaism and to Jewish causes would not keep future generations within the Jewish fold.

It is in Eretz Yisroel that the spiritual heirs of Russian Jewry are still struggling to achieve equal footing with other nations. With each passing year though, it becomes clearer and clearer that the hope of being a nation on its own land like all others, no longer vying for resources with other nations and being entitled to the respect and proper treatment of gentile powers, is a false one. The ailment of secular Jewry was diagnosed by the Netziv over a hundred years ago. How much longer will it be until the patient helps himself to the only remedy?


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