Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

1 Kislev 5764 - November 26, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








From Kishinev Until Bialystok -- and Since

by M. Musman

Part I

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 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.

Introduction: Dimmed by Greater Sorrows

"They coined a parable to which this can be compared: someone in a city sinned and was handed over to a flogger who beat him with his strap. He needed harsher punishment than flogging so they handed him over to a whipper who whipped him with a rod. He needed a harsher punishment than whipping so they handed him over to a centurion who imprisoned him. He needed harsher punishment than the centurion's so they handed him over to the ruler and incarcerated him in a chamber full of earth. So it is with Yisroel -- their later troubles drive away memories of their earlier ones." (Tosefta Sotah 15:3, see Minchas Bikkurim)

For most of us, acquaintance with modern Russian Jewish history begins after the Communist revolution in 1917 and centers upon the trampling of religion by the Communists and the miraculous rekindling of faith and the rebirth of Torah life seventy years later among the descendants of those whose Yiddishkeit was suffocated. We are less familiar with the persecutions and bloodshed that Russian Jewry suffered earlier, under the Czars. It seems that, generally, we indeed prefer to preserve the inspiration of our nation's spiritual heroism and survival in our nation's collective memory, rather than the violence and savagery that have so often been our lot.

In this case there is perhaps an additional factor. The shattering upheavals and catastrophes that two world wars shortly thereafter inflicted on European Jewry in general, and on Russian Jewry in particular, left scant attention for the albeit appalling, yet by comparison small-scale suffering that had been inflicted by the dying Czarist regime.

While they were fueled by the age-old gentile hatred of the Jewish nation, the Russian pogroms, like other instances of modern antisemitism, differed from the religious persecutions of the Middle Ages. They can be classed with the Dreyfus affair in France and the anti-Jewish measures that were adopted by prewar Nazi Germany.

In all these cases, there had previously been a long period of decreasing discrimination against Jews and gradual gains in civic rights. (The process was far slower and less comprehensive in Russia than in Western Europe but it was essentially the same.) This brought increasing Jewish involvement in many aspects and on many levels of national life with consequent abandonment of mitzvah observance and growing assimilation.

These trends were checked by sudden and violent outbursts of racial -- as opposed to specifically religious -- hatred. In order to rationalize their shameful behavior, the inciters laid the blame for their nation's social and economic ills at the doorstep of the Jews. The basis for the rights that were seemingly assured by the modern lights of logic and reason, was thus done away with.

Jews whose faith was staunch understood that though the yoke of exile had indeed grown less oppressive, acceptance by the gentiles posed spiritual dangers that were far more serious and harder to resist than those of persecution. When Jews abandon their faith and their unique mission and integrate with the surrounding society, there is eventually a backlash that reimposes the necessary distance. This is the outlook that the Netziv of Volozhin zt'l articulated in his work, She'eir Yisroel (see box). Other Jews, whose faith in Jewish destiny had been supplanted to one degree or another by reliance on the gentiles' acceptance and by belief in coexistence, were severely shaken and sought other responses.

This survey of the Russian pogroms draws largely upon the American Jewish Yearbook for 5667 (1906-7), published by the Jewish Publication Society of America. Although the period it covers is relatively long, a yearbook is essentially a periodical, like a newspaper or a monthly. It conveys the feel of the events it describes without the detachment of a work of history. Its immediacy makes it a particularly effective means of gauging the reactions of contemporary Jews -- in this case, secular Jews and those affiliated with the early twentieth century movement in America that eventually became known as "Conservative" -- to those events.

Some General Background: A Blueprint for the Future

During the second half of the nineteenth century, Russian Jewry underwent both rapid population growth and drastic spiritual deterioration. When considering this period, it is worthwhile bearing in mind some general background to the development of what was, in its day, the largest Jewish community in the world and the Jewish nation's spiritual powerhouse.

Until the Polish partitions that took place towards the end of the eighteenth century, Jewish settlement in Russia proper, though it had been going on for hundreds of years, was sparse and greatly dispersed. Few, if any, Torah scholars of note lived among these scattered communities, since they lacked the means for their maintenance. A community's spiritual needs would often be met by a single person who had learned sufficiently in the vibrant spiritual centers to the west to be able to serve as rov, teacher, mohel, shochet and shaliach tzibbur, all together.

Once Russia extended its borders to include parts of Poland and Lithuania however, Jews from those lands moved eastward, giving rise to what was recognized as typically Russian -- which was really an outgrowth of Lithuanian -- Jewry. Though there was migration of population, Poland and Lithuania remained the Jewish heartland and in time, even the mitzvah observance that had been the general rule among Russian Jewry, began to weaken.

From the start, the rulers of Russia displayed great animosity towards their Jewish subjects and this did not change when their country annexed the western lands -- Poland and Lithuania -- with the densest Jewish population in Europe.

With the exception of certain classes of merchants and craftsmen, Jews were not permitted to settle in most of the large Russian cities. They were confined to an area known as the Pale of Settlement. This extended from the Polish cities of Kalish, Lodz and Warsaw in the west to Homel, Poltava and Kremenchug in the east and from Lithuania and Latvia by the Baltic Sea in the north, to Odessa and Kishinev in Bessarabia, on the shores of the Black Sea in the south.

It is worthwhile bearing in mind that although Jews were bitterly discriminated against, it was here that the most intensely spiritual Jewish life developed. The forms of Yiddishkeit that emerged in the lands of the eighteenth century Czars' dominion, are the same ones that continue to shape Jewry today, both in the free, affluent societies of the western world and in Eretz Yisroel. In addition, we are still struggling with the conflicts that erupted within nineteenth century Russian Jewry.

Swift Spiritual Decline and a Fruitless Quest for Security

During the first half of the nineteenth century, the Jews were subjected to expulsions, to the infamous Cantonist decrees and to government interference in Jewish education. Nonetheless, the Jewish population almost doubled in the second half of the century, from just under two-and-a-half million in 1850, to over five million at the close of the century. (There was also a rise in the non-Jewish population during this period.)

During this period, moderate relaxation of government policies enabled Jews to enter Russian economic, political and cultural life, giving hope to the modern-minded among them that their emancipation was at hand but almost immediately eliciting sharp reaction from Russian antisemites.

At first, these changes involved relatively small numbers of Jews. The poverty-stricken masses continued living in the cities, towns and villages of the Pale, where the traditional Jewish way of life was the rule.

While the government's initial efforts to modernize traditional Jewish education had been repulsed by the general Jewish population, a few modern schools did open. These were run by a handful of maskilim. The men trained in these schools were soon exerting a growing influence on the general Jewish population.

In addition, a small but influential band of secular Jewish writers began poisoning the soul of Russian Jewry from within. Their periodicals, novels, short stories and poems made light of Torah's sublime values and attributed the failings of certain individuals to traditional Yiddishkeit as a whole. They offered a cynical and distorted portrayal of Judaism, which nonetheless captured the minds and hearts of the ignorant masses, especially the youth.

The ferment and the urge to strike a new path which they inculcated, were partly influenced by the general mood of the Czar's subjects, who yearned to break the shackles of the old, oppressive order. Untold numbers were thus led initially to scorn their heritage in their hearts and eventually to leave the Torah path altogether.

Their literature advocated a completely new type of Jew: the secular Jew, who had cast off his ancestral religion in the name of supposedly universal human values. For the very first time, it was suggested that Judaism could be anything other than a religion. Only when it was too late, having severed himself from the root that nourished him, did the secular Jew discover that he still remained hated and unwanted in the country of his birth.

Estranged from Torah, a new generation of Russian Jews sought escape from oppression and persecution. In contrast to their counterparts in the liberal societies of France and Germany, assimilation and eventual disappearance were not options for them. The virulent hatred of their hosts ensured that they remained a separate population. Many thousands opted for emigration to North or South America and, in lesser numbers, to Western Europe.

Others found different avenues for their spiritual energies, aligning themselves with the revolutionary movement that sought to rid Russia of the hated institution of Czardom, which the Jews identified as the source of their suffering. Besides having cruelly persecuted the Jews, the Czar and his government were perceived by a majority of the population as a hindrance to the country's progress and modernization. The revolutionary movement that eventually overthrew the old regime gathered momentum throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century.

As time went on however, increasing numbers of Jews became convinced that there would never be a place for Jews in Russia and began considering whether the establishment of a Jewish homeland might not provide the solution to the predicament of sizable Jewish populations effectively trapped inside antagonistic countries. The savage pogroms that erupted around 100 years ago, served as a catalyst, speeding up the processes that had already begun to unfold.

Between Hammer and Anvil: The First Wave of Violence

There were in fact three main waves of pogroms, of successively increasing dimension and savagery.

The background to the first outbreak was the period of unrest and uncertainty that followed the assassination of Czar Alexander II by revolutionaries in March 1881. The murder was exploited by both the authorities and the revolutionaries. A rumor was spread that the Jews had been responsible and that the government had authorized attacks upon them. Revolutionary circles also supported the pogroms at first, viewing them as the beginnings of a general awakening that would bring down the existing regime.

During that spring and summer, about thirty pogroms took place in towns and cities across the southern and eastern Ukraine, without the authorities intervening to prevent or halt them. Further isolated outbreaks of violence continued in the Ukraine and elsewhere, even after government orders were published in June 1882 placing responsibility for the maintenance of law and order squarely upon the local authorities.

There was more violence in 1883 and 1884. Many Jews, especially amongst the maskilim, were shocked by the indifference and at times even sympathy of Russian intellectuals towards the rioters. It did not fit with their image of "universal humanity."

These pogroms had a major impact upon Russian Jewry. In their wake, the government appointed regional commissions to investigate their causes.

In the main, they blamed "Jewish exploitation" for the disturbances. This led to a new policy of discrimination. Jews were prohibited from living in villages and were restricted to living in towns and townlets.

Further legislation intended to limit the Jews' economic and public roles: the number of Jews to be admitted to institutions of learning was cut and there was additional, official persecution. The violence and the renewed repression led to soaring Jewish emigration to the United States (which was completely unrestricted at that time) and elsewhere.

In addition, Russian Jewish nationalist and Zionist movements were started and many of the youth joined the general revolutionary movement.

It was at this juncture that irreligious Russian Jews began to take an interest in the small but steadily growing yishuv in Eretz Yisroel, which had hitherto been exclusively peopled and supported by pious, Heaven-fearing Jews. As a result, many of the rabbonim who had worked to further Jewish settlement in Eretz Yisroel within the Chibbas Tzion movement dissociated themselves from its affairs.

It was presumably in response to the confusion engendered by these events that the Netziv composed She'eir Yisroel The Netziv himself passed away in 5652 (1892), shortly after the closure of the Volozhin yeshiva, well before the next wave of violence struck. In this lengthy essay (which was published posthumously) he analyzed the age-old phenomenon of antisemitism and its modern reincarnation (see box). Broadly speaking, the Netziv concluded that nothing would be gained from searching for ways to temper or to escape the actual hammer blows that were sending the Jewish people reeling. Attention should rather be shifted to the lessons being imparted by the One Who was wielding it.

Beat the Jews and Save Russia!

One of the ways in which the ruling circles attempted to offset the gathering momentum of the revolutionary movement was to encourage incitement against the Jews. They hoped that the portrayal of the revolution as the result of Jewish manipulation would divert the anger of the masses towards the Jews and away from the Czar's regime. The press was given a free hand to engage in slandering the Jews and exaggerating the size of their role in the growing revolutionary ferment. A number of Monarchist societies played a prominent role in the planning and execution of the pogroms. These groups were known collectively as the Black Hundreds.

The prelude to the Kishinev pogrom, which broke out in April 1903, was a blood libel. It was rumored that a fourteen-year- old Russian boy who had disappeared had been murdered by the Jews, who supposedly used his blood in the preparation of matzoh. The libel was lent credence by its publication in Kishinev's daily newspaper, Bessarabets, whose editor, P. Krushevan, was wildly antisemitic.

Evidence to refute the absurd charge soon began piling up. Examination of the body determined that it was a case of plain murder. The main witness, who had allegedly overheard Jews plotting the deed, claimed that her story was false.

A far more likely suspect, with a motive, was discovered: a relative who stood to gain a sizable inheritance upon the victim's removal was shortly thereafter actually identified as the murderer. A second medical examination ruled out the possibility of ritual murder.

Nonetheless, Bessarabets continued its inaccurate reporting, ignoring these facts. It published additional, anti-Jewish material that was taken up by other Russian newspapers. A request from the authorities that the paper print a retraction of its wild accusations drew only a half- hearted response and the anti-Jewish slurs continued.

A new rumor then began to circulate: the Czar himself had granted permission for the Jews to be beaten and plundered for three days without official interference. Even the day for the attack had been set for Easter Sunday, which was the last day of Pesach 5663 (1903).

Appeals for protection by the Jews were ignored. A request to the highest Christian religious authority to speak out against the persisting charges of ritual murder was evaded. (Some time later he remarked that it was useless to deny that some Jews did use Christian blood for ritual purposes.)

The attack started according to plan. Twenty-four groups of hooligans, each ten to fifteen strong, fanned out across the city, wrecking, vandalizing and plundering. Jews were physically attacked and brutally beaten and wounded.

The toll was gruesome. Approximately fifty Jews were murdered and hundreds were injured, the victims being horribly mutilated. Approximately one-and-a-half thousand Jewish homes and stores were looted and hundreds were left homeless. The JPS Yearbook reported that the police deprived Jews of sticks, dispersed groups that had formed for resistance and indicated houses that were to be attacked to the mob. A second, smaller pogrom took place a fortnight later in Batsha, another town in Bessarabia.

Following the violence, the farcical attitude of the judiciary to the Jewish victims amounted to rubbing salt into their wounds. The court refused to examine witnesses and replaced Jewish lawyers with Russians. The penalties imposed on the rioters ranged from one month's imprisonment to four years and eight months' penal servitude. However, the prisoners were released at once under an amnesty act.

Though losses were estimated at three million rubles, suits for civil damages were rejected as unfounded. One of the lawyers was exiled for five years.

The horrible pogrom in Kishinev turned out to be the first in a long series of pogroms that lasted for more than three years.

End of Part I

The Only Relevant Cause

Following are excerpts from the work of the Netziv, entitled She'eir Yisroel.

In every generation, the Jew haters are ready to destroy us and to exterminate Judaism from their midst but Hakodosh Boruch Hu, in His mercy and His great kindness, saves us from their designs. While their hatred and their wish to destroy us do not remain constant from one period to another . . . we must be aware that their love for us, even if it continues for many years, can never last forever. Even in what seem to be good times, when the articulation of their hatred is suppressed, it remains closeted within them, ready for activation at the touch of Hashgochoh, when there is a Divine wish to reprove us . . . Therefore, we should refrain from investigating the reasons and pretexts that they find for attempting our destruction, since their hatred is ancient and constant . . . but is just not apparent in every generation.

We thus see with our own eyes that everything hinges on Hashem's Hashgochoh over us and that we are the ones who determine whether their hearts will be benevolent or otherwise chas vesholom, towards us . . . Instead of trying to discover their reasons for persecuting us, we ought to look at things from our side and reflect upon why we deserve that Hashem's Hashgochoh should be causing their hatred to emerge from the obscurity in which it remains in other times or presently in other places. [We ought to ask ourselves,] "What is Heaven taking such great exception to, that is causing the arousal of our enemies' hatred in certain countries?" (perek 2)

I Will Rule Over You with a Strong Hand

This being the essential nature of Yisroel -- keeping charge of His Torah -- what does Hashem do at a time when Jewry wishes to breach the wall of its religion? He arouses the nations' hatred, so that whether they like it or not, the distinct form of Yisroel is recognizable and Hashem's will prevails forever (perek 4).

Their Extreme Savagery

When Jews abandon their identity as Jews, they also lose their identity as humans in the gentiles' eyes. It should therefore be no wonder to us if we appear lowly and despicable to them, as though we had divested ourselves of all humanity (perek 5).


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