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8 Kislev 5764 - December 3, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








From Kishinev Until Bialystok -- And Since

by M. Musman

Part II

About six months ago marked the hundredth anniversary of the pogrom in Kishinev that touched off a series of hundreds of pogroms that lasted for more than three years. The hatred and the savagery and the complicity of the ruling authorities charged with preserving law and order that was displayed in Russia, after a period of calm and increasing rights for Jews, is worth recalling and remembering well, now that we see signs of its reappearance in many parts of the world.

The first part of this series discussed the historical background of the pogroms, including the increasing liberties enjoyed by the Jews and their unfortunate increasing "liberation" from the truths of Judaism. The background to the Kishinev pogrom was a blood libel that was propagated in the face of all evidence to the contrary. Fifty were murdered and hundreds injured. Many homes and businesses were destroyed. The authorities did nothing to stop it and nothing serious to punish those involved. No compensation was given for losses, and all the thugs were either not arrested or were released soon after.

The Aftermath

Violence on such a horrifying scale, coming as it did after two decades of relative calm, shocked the entire Jewish world -- and many gentiles too. Among the immediate responses were a highly successful fundraising drive among American Jews to provide relief for the victims, as well as public meetings and a petition of protest to the Czar's government whose sharp wording was approved by President Theodore Roosevelt.

For irreligious Jews, Kishinev was of major and long-term significance. It came to symbolize the most powerful argument in criticism of perceived Jewish weakness and vulnerability, and in favor of the new doctrine of "self help" that secular figures were advocating. The religious renegade, the former student of Volozhin yeshiva who left and later was called the "national poet" of Israel, C. N. Bialik wrote one of his most famous poems after visiting the sites of the violence in Kishinev. Although informed of several instances of attempted self-defense, he ignored these and made the forceful denouncement of Jewish passivity in the face of gentile assault his theme. Later research found that his work was not a reaction to the facts, but a calculated attempt to influence the future.

He wrote a very powerful poem. His stirring verses galvanized thousands to adopt a path of defiance and vigorous resistance in the face of gentile attack. From the ranks of the fast growing Bund (the Yiddish-based anti- religious organization of Jewish workers that had been founded a scant ten years earlier), the Zionist and the Social Zionist movements, self- defense groups were formed in Jewish centers across Russia. They tried to ready themselves to repulse further attacks, seeing themselves as the defenders of Jewish honor as much as of Jewish life.

Sadly, they were called on hundreds of times in the ensuing years. Even more sadly, their work during the pogroms was frequently purposely hindered by the Russian army and police, to ensure that the hooligans remained free to wreak havoc and mayhem. Even then, opinion was divided among Russian Jews as to the benefits gained as a result of the actions of the self- defense groups. Many deplored their existence, later arguing that much of the bloodshed could have been avoided had the Jewish youth not shown such determined resistance.

However, the real tragedy was that it was not understood then that with all the assertiveness in the world, Jews were not and never would be masters of their own destiny. A full hundred years later, after further unimaginable suffering, the illusion of "self redemption" still has some way to go before being revealed as just that -- a veil that masks the true workings of Jewish destiny as directed by Hashgochoh Elyonoh.

A Chronicle of Grief

For the next three years, the fortunes of the Russian Jews, broadly speaking, flowed and ebbed with the changing fortunes of the Czarist regime.

Eight Jews were murdered and one hundred injured in a pogrom that took place that September 1903, in Gomel. The following spring and summer, four more pogroms claimed twenty-five Jewish lives and left one hundred and thirty-nine wounded. In the fall of 1904, there were thirty-four pogroms, mostly in towns in the Ukraine and Bessarabia, many of them carried out by soldiers who were leaving to fight in the Russo- Japanese war. There were relatively few fatalities but hundreds were wounded and there were tremendous losses of Jewish property.

These were not always spontaneous outbreaks, if indeed any of them were. One hundred and twenty Jews were injured in a pogrom that broke out in Mohilev on the twenty-fourth of October 1904, during the mobilization of troops. The pogrom had been "forecast" earlier in the month by the chief of the local police, who had also mentioned at the time that no protection would be granted to the Jews. When appealed to for aid, he refused to provide it.

Czar Nicholas' refusal to grant his subjects a constitution, and the heavy burdens of taxation that he imposed upon them, were among the leading causes of the Russian people's longstanding and widespread discontent with their ruler and his government. The ongoing defeats that the Japanese forces were inflicting on the Russian army in the East (the Russo- Japanese War, 1904-5) finally brought these grievances into the open.

The disorders that comprised the Russian Revolution of 1905 began on the twenty-second of January, after troops opened fire on a peaceful procession of workers who were bearing a petition to the Czar, begging him to ease his treatment of his loyal subjects.

Strikes, riots and assassinations took place throughout the spring and summer. In June, the famous Battleship Potemkin Mutiny took place and other units of the armed forces were affected. During this period, in the seven months from February to August 1905, in addition to the revolutionary disturbances directed against the government of the Czar, there were no fewer than forty-six pogroms against Jews, over a wider area than hitherto. From those cases where prior planning and official complicity are documented, it can be assumed that most, if not all of these disturbances were carried out with the support and connivance of high-level officials. This was in keeping with the government's policy of arousing the population against the Jews, in an attempt to deflect wrath from the government.

In a second pogrom in Gomel, on February the fifteenth, one Jew was murdered and three hundred were wounded, many of them mortally. The police were passive spectators. Forty- seven Jews were killed and over fifty wounded when striking workers rioted on the twenty-first of February in Theodosia, in the Crimea. The police stood by for three days and did nothing to stop a three-day pogrom in Minsk that started on the twelfth of March. In April, Cossacks terrorized the Jewish quarter of Bialystok, in the Grodno province, wounding many Jews and looting many houses.

A major pogrom occurred in Zhitomir on the eleventh of May and there was plenty of evidence of advance planning. The pogrom was preceded by agitation against the Jews in the antisemitic Krushevan's paper; reports of the impending riot had been current since the end of April. Twenty-nine Jews were murdered and a hundred and fifty wounded. Twenty-five shops were looted and five houses were burned. However, all wealthy Jews were immune and the governor prevented the hooligans from murdering the son of wealthy parents.

The mayor participated in organizing the rioters and Cossacks assisted the mob in looting. The governor was unmoved by the Jews' suffering. Photographs of intended victims were found with the rioters.

In May, many were murdered and wounded in a pogrom in Kroshna, in the Zhitomir province. Two were killed and twenty- six wounded in a pogrom in Brisk, in June. Three hundred and forty-one Jews were killed and over five hundred injured in a pogrom in Lodz that month. One hundred Jews were killed and over four hundred wounded in a pogrom in Kiev in July and there was a terrible massacre in Yekaterinoslav, in August. In the same month, sixty were killed and two hundred wounded in a pogrom in Bialystok. In Kishinev in September, a pogrom started when a funeral procession was attacked by troops and police. Four Jews were murdered and eighty wounded.

In such a situation, all the Jews live in fear of a pogrom and there is no peace anywhere.

No Cause for Celebration

The atrocities reached a peak in the fall of 1905, with the achievement of the revolution's aims. The loss of prestige following the Russian defeat by the Japanese contributed to the intensification of pressure upon the Czar that finally induced him to grant his subjects a constitution, on the thirtieth of October.

A national assembly, the Duma, was to be convened and a Prime Minister was appointed. This news was met with celebrations throughout Russia and many Jews, who hoped that their emancipation would now not be far off, figured prominently in the rejoicing. In response, reactionary elements who were loyal to the Czar organized processions to demonstrate their allegiance to their sovereign. In many places, these developed into pogroms against the Jews.

The worst pogrom took place in Odessa, on October the thirty- first. Over eight hundred Jews were murdered and five thousand wounded, again amid scenes of unspeakable barbarity. Losses to property amounted to one billion rubles. The Jewish self defense was well organized. However, whenever the Jews had the upper hand, the police surrounded them and shot them down.

Janitors were ordered to point out Jewish-owned flats to the rioters. Gentiles who came to the defense of the Jews also fell victim to the bloodthirsty mob. Following the pogrom, an imperial edict was issued thanking the troops for their exemplary conduct. Nineteen officers who had prevented murder and pillage were transferred to obscure posts. The police prefect was promoted to a governor's post.

In October and November 1905, the JPS Yearbook records a hundred and twenty-one pogroms, in the course of which an estimated twenty-five thousand were murdered, a hundred thousand were injured, two hundred thousand families were ruined and losses caused to property of four hundred billion rubles. According to another estimate, the number of pogroms at this time was far greater.

The commissions of inquiry that were set up following the outrages revealed the criminal inactivity of the police and military authorities. However, in general, prosecutors and coroners were ordered to conduct their investigations so as to remove blame from soldiers and police. Governors were allowed to resign and were then transferred to new, usually better, posts. The violence continued throughout the winter. There were at least another twenty-five pogroms between December 1905 and February 1906.

An Acute Problem

Altogether, the proclamation of the October Manifesto of the Czar was followed by a horrendous wave of pogroms that laid some three hundred towns and villages waste, left tens of thousands dead and countless more wounded and caused hundreds of billions of rubles worth of damage.

The outrages evoked sympathy and protest in many quarters. In New York, nearly one hundred thousand marchers filled the city's principal streets in protest. A huge meeting was held in London, that was addressed by a number of prominent personages.

A number of protest meetings were held in Russia itself. One such meeting, in St. Petersburg, drew a crowd of over four thousand Russians. A general relief fund was established to assist the victims, which amassed contributions from both Jews and gentiles outside Russia, amounting to almost four million dollars. December 4, 1905 (Tuesday, 7 Kislev 5666) was observed in the US as a day of mourning and prayer for victims.

Although it was generally understood that no foreign government would formally protest the Russian government's treatment of the Jews, attempts were nonetheless made in several countries to induce such interference. The responses to these appeals were courteous and sympathetic but conveyed the impossibility of taking any definite steps within the bounds of international law and etiquette. In plain words, what the Russian government did with its Jews was its own business.

Beyond these immediate reactions and responses, it remained to be seen what could be done to ameliorate the long-term predicament of Russian Jewry, given the change in circumstances. The problem was acute. The enmity of the ruling echelon in Russia towards the Jews was common knowledge. The official program for the Jews of Russia had been succinctly put by K. P. Pobedonostsev, one of the Czar's henchmen and lay leader of the Russian Church, when he said that he hoped that, "one third [of the Russian Jews] will convert, one third will die and one third will flee the country."

The government's ability to rouse the populace to violence against the Jews had been, and continued to be, amply demonstrated. There were at least another dozen pogroms in the first two months of 1906.

For the moment, it was by no means clear that further change could be effected through either revolutionary or constitutional methods, though there was great hope for the latter. Emigration seemed the only sure way of escape, but it was not an option for the entire Jewish population.

In principle, the gates of the United States were open to all in those days, but a massive influx of hundreds of thousands of destitute Russian refugees prompted the Senate to change the minimum requirements for entry, effectively limiting immigration.

Several schemes for settling large numbers of Jews in sparsely populated regions of South America were being implemented but these required considerable resources. Although two million Jews did emigrate in the three decades preceding the First World War, this hardly helped the situation within Russia for natural growth maintained the number of the Czar's Jewish subjects at almost five and a half million souls.

It might be said then, that the ground was burning beneath the feet of Russian Jewry. But all were aware that it was burning beneath the Czar's feet too. The forces that threatened to overthrow him and break his hold on the country had not disappeared. They had merely been quieted momentarily, while all waited to see whether there would be any real change for the better.

Hope of Improvement

Now there were to be elections for a state assembly, the Duma. Though the Czar had promised the Russian people genuine freedom in his manifesto, he had made no specific mention of the Jews, who apparently were to remain as restricted as before.

Would the convening of a Duma offer any real hope of improvement? The Bund, for example, opposed Jewish participation in any elections, arguing that nothing could be expected from a parliament where reactionaries would probably hold power. In fact, the Jews expended great efforts before the elections, with the result that twelve Jewish deputies were voted into the Duma. There was a raw voting potential of twice that number, but several provinces with a Jewish population numbering two million between them returned no Jewish members (apparently because of agitation by the Bund and lack of organization of other parties).

At any rate, lengthy deliberations and consultations were held in order to determine the best strategy for obtaining equal rights for Jews. The Duma duly convened on the tenth of May 1906. The majority party decided not to treat the Jewish issue separately but to include the Jews in a clause of their program advocating equal rights for all, irrespective of religion, race or nationality. One of the Jewish deputies was a leading member of this party. Things were looking promising, when suddenly yet another savage pogrom broke out.

Hopes Dashed Again

The Bialystok pogrom lasted for three days, from the fourteenth to the sixteenth of June. It left two hundred Jews dead and between six and seven hundred wounded. In the following days there were three other pogroms in towns in the region; fifty Jews were killed in the last one. The police and military, as usual, openly aided and abetted the rioters. This time however, a national assembly existed and, as representative of the people, it took prompt action.

Several deputies called upon M. Stolypin, the Czar's Minister for the Interior, for an explanation of what had happened. The response was unsatisfactory, as expected, and a motion demanding immediate action was introduced in the Duma and unanimously adopted. A three-member commission set off for Bialystok to investigate and submitted its report at a debate in the Duma on the pogrom, on the fifth and sixth of July.

The report proved the complicity of the government in the unrest. It provided a long and exhaustive account of the prelude to and progress of the pogrom and of the subsequent discussions in the Duma. Bialystok was the only pogrom for which such thorough, or indeed any, official documentation exists. However, the JPS Yearbook points out that the names of any of the other towns where major disturbances took place could be substituted for Bialystok to give a history of the similar scenes of savagery that were enacted there.

Again, meetings of protest were held in foreign countries, notably one in Berlin. The U.S. Congress adopted a resolution of sympathy. The question was raised in the English House of Commons but the Foreign Minister tried to assure the members of parliament that it was impossible for the British government to do anything and that adopting any resolutions would only embarrass the Russian government, which in his opinion was blameless anyway.

By Imperial decree, the Duma, in whose procedures and resolutions the Czar's subjects had placed their hopes, was then dissolved. At its last session, on the twentieth of July, a resolution was adopted insisting that a judicial investigation of the Bialystok pogrom be held, that the officials responsible be punished and the Ministry dismissed.

Although the Russian government had taken action to head off several pogroms, there were further disturbances that summer with violence in Odessa, Warsaw and Siedlce. In the last case, thirty Jews were murdered and a hundred and eighty wounded. With the eventual suppression of the first revolution the pogroms ceased, until the old regime was finally overthrown twelve years later.

End of Part II

!!!!!!!! Box:

Our Hands Did Not Shed This Blood

Barely four months after the Kishinev pogrom, on the sixteenth of Menachem Av 5663 (1903), a major gathering of rabbonim was held in the old shul of Cracow, Galicia (which belonged to the Austro-Hungarian empire at the time). The event was of no small importance.

The blood libel had been a recurrent source of misery and danger to Jewish communities across Europe for hundreds of years. Its invoking in Russia to spark a pogrom of such dimensions, in what had been hoped were modern and enlightened times, was worrying for Jews everywhere. Apparently, it was hoped that a major public declaration by rabbonim from all parts of the Jewish world, repudiating the baseless charge, would prevent it from being used by antisemites in Russia and elsewhere to stir up further trouble.

Sadly, subsequent events in Russia showed that there, not even the flimsiest of pretexts was needed in order to attack Jews. And just a few short years later, the famous Beilis trial reopened the whole "question" and once again laid the onus of disproving the ridiculous charge upon Jewish lawyers and scholars.

Thousands crowded the ancient synagogue to hear addresses by the rov of Cracow, HaRav Chaim Leibush Halevi Horowitz zt'l, and other visiting rabbonim, and to witness the rabbonim swearing a solemn Torah oath in public that the blood libel had no basis in fact, in any Jewish law or custom, or in any of the vast Torah literature, neither explicitly nor by way of allusion.

One of the speakers was Rav Eliyohu Akiva Rabinowitz zt'l of Poltava. He urged the congregation to listen to every word of the oath that the rabbonim would read and to affirm it with `omein,' by doing which they would be swearing as well.

The Cracow Rov opened the Oron Hakodesh and took out a sefer Torah. Holding it, he began to read out the text of the oath, word by word, with the rabbonim repeating it after him from the page that each of them held with trembling hands. There was terrible weeping among the thousands of listeners and the rabbonim. As the rabbonim finished taking the oath, the massive gathering responded with a tremendous sound, `Omein!'

"It was a tremendous sight . . ." wrote Rav Rabinowitz later. "The weeping of the rabbonim and of many of the people during the oath and their shaking hands as they held the text, filled the spectator with such sadness and melancholy, as pen and paper cannot possibly portray. May Hashem see His nation's suffering and remove all hatred and malice that threatens them; may He give them only peace, until the redeemer comes to Tzion, omein!"

A Letter from the Alter of Kelm

The first outbreak of pogroms in the eighteen eighties elicited a powerful response among German Orthodoxy. In this extract from a letter, the Alter of Kelm extolled that community's sense of propriety and their deep brotherly concern, that expressed itself in a way that was not noticeable among Lithuanian Jewry which was much closer to the disturbances.


In 1881, the four million Jews in Russia were seriously endangered by pogroms and riots that erupted with the tacit consent of the highest echelons of government. HaRav Yitzchok Elchonon Spektor, chief rabbi of Kovno, wrote to HaRav Shamshon Rafael Hirsch asking him to come to the aid of Russian Jewry.

"Although 74 years old and in frail health, Rabbi Hirsch threw all his energies into the struggle for a period of two years.

"A fact not mentioned in connection with this affair is that he received little support in these efforts from rabbinic leaders in other countries. . . .

"In Frankfurt, erev Rosh Chodesh Adar 5642 (1882) was set aside as a day of fasting and prayer and a special tefillah was added at Shacharis and Mincha every day until such time as the persecutions ended.

"There is an interesting report of the public prayer in Frankfurt on erev Rosh Chodesh Adar on behalf of Russian Jewry, contained in a letter from Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv, the Alter of Kelm, to his son:

"`Yesterday, Rabbi Dovid Dessler brought me some good news, and something about which I have boundless amazement. The Royal Post from Germany reported that on the previous erev Rosh Chodesh several thousand people fasted because of the persecution of our Russian brethren, and prayed with much weeping and donated immense sums to help them. Rabbi Hirsch spoke for over three hours powerful words of inspiration . . . All the members of the Kehilla fasted, including the nobility, and they spent the entire day in shul in tearful prayer just as on Yom Kippur.' "

(Quotes from Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch by Rabbi Eliyahu Meir Klugman, ArtScroll, pp. 194-196)


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