Arts & Culture

The pogrom that transformed 20th century Jewry

5 min read

On April 8, 1903 — Easter Sunday — a mild disturbance against local Jews rattled Kishinev, a sleepy city on the southwestern border of imperial Russia.

“Little property was destroyed,” said Jewish cultural historian Steven J. Zipperstein, who is a Radcliffe Fellow this year, “and the outbreak seemed little more than a bacchanal of rowdy teenagers.”

But the next day, and for half the next, violence escalated. Gangs of 10 or 20 armed with hatchets and knives stormed through the town’s narrow streets and into its courtyards, where Jewish families defended themselves with garden implements and other meager weapons.

In the end, 49 Jews were killed, an untold number of Jewish women were raped, and 1,500 Jewish homes were damaged. This sudden rush of hoodlum violence — prompted by accusatory rumors of Jewish ritual murder — quickly became a talisman of “imperial Russian brutality against its Jews,” said Zipperstein.

More than that, the incident brought the word pogrom to the world stage and set off reverberations that changed the course of Jewish history for the next century.

Zipperstein, a historian of modern European Jewry who teaches at Stanford University, is using his Radcliffe year to work on a cultural history of Russian Jews.

One chapter will be on the formative massacre at Kishinev, the provincial capital of Bessarabia, a 120-mile-wide nook of rural Russia where there were scarcely 100 miles of paved roads.

In this peaceful, growing place of “fruit and hides and splendid wines,” he said, Jews comprised half the city’s population and lived in seeming peace with their Christian neighbors.

It was a draft of that chapter that he shared last week (April 1) with an audience of 150 at the Radcliffe Gymnasium.

Zipperstein is convinced of two things: The Kishinev violence became a metaphor of risk that transformed 20th century Jewish life. And as a historical incident — a creature of fact and figure and chronology — it is still little understood.

Thanks to the “mountains” of archives opened after the fall of communism, he said, “historians have only just started to sift though these papers to make greater sense of this past.”

But even the data Zipperstein has gathered so far — from guidebooks, tracts, transcripts, memoirs, newspaper accounts, and even poetry — is “contradictory,” he said, “and massive.”

“It is little less than the mother lode,” said Zipperstein of the Kishinev massacre, “the heart-bed of so much of what it is Jews over the last century and more have come to believe about themselves.”

To begin with, Kishinev consolidated the immediate belief — propagated within days around the world — that imperial Russia was waging a brutal campaign against its own Jews.

From this came the eventual belief that “Jewry’s ill-starred collision with tsarism” spurred widespread Jewish migration at the turn of the 20th century, said Zipperstein. (At the time, more than half the Jews in the world lived in Russia.)

But most of Russia was untouched by pogroms, especially the northern provinces from which the earliest and heaviest migrations poured.

Like any other immigrants, although in far larger numbers, Jews “fled poverty or the military, or the paucity of opportunity,” Zipperstein said. “They left for a better life, to breathe more freely.”

While documents were buried for decades in Soviet archives, accounts of the seminal Russian Jewish past were “sometimes alarmingly unreliable,” said Zipperstein — including “Life Is with People,” the 1952 evocation of shtetl life by Mark Zborowski and Elizabeth Herzog.

It supplied the historical impressions behind the musical “Fiddler on the Roof” and Bernard Malamud’s novel “The Fixer” — yet today is regarded by historians as “methodologically slipshod,” a pastiche of mostly unreliable stories, said Zipperstein.

Notions of unreliability deepen even more. Zborowski was soon after exposed as a Soviet agent, who likely had a hand in the murder of Trotsky.

There are other unreliable narratives of the Russian Jewish past, including those about Kishinev.

At the time of the massacre, the author of the Bessarabia provincial guidebook was Pavel Krushevan — “one of the vilest fabulists of modern times,” said Zipperstein.

He was also the reputed editor of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a long-lived anti-Semitic slanderous concoction that outlines a plan for world Jewish domination. It appeared in its first sustained form just months after the Kishinev massacre.

Krushevan’s newspaper accounts also fanned rumors about the city’s Jews, including that a small-time doctor there was a “fearful cog in the Zionist juggernaut,” said Zipperstein.

Some of the narrators who gave Kishinev its mythical power in the Jewish world were, or should have been, sympathetic. One was Hayyim Nahman Bialik, the man who one day would be known as the national poet of the Jewish people.

In 1903, he was dispatched to interview survivors of the Kishinev pogrom by the Jewish Historical Commission in Odessa. Going house to house, he filled five notebooks with fresh testimonies of violence.

Then Bialik set the notebooks aside, said Zipperstein, and wrote in Hebrew an epic poem of the incident that was inspired more by the Old Testament than the facts at hand.

“In the City of Slaughter” became “the most powerfully enduring of all influences” on the mythical centrality of Kishinev among Jews, Zipperstein said.

But the poem turned its literary back on “the concrete reality” of two violent days, said Zipperstein. In it, for one, was an image of “crouched husbands, bridegrooms, brothers, peering from the cracks.” (Trial transcripts and press accounts report Jewish resistance.)

Maybe that’s a lesson for those writing cultural history, Zipperstein concluded: “Calm the voice of the poet, rouse that of the chronicler.”