Kishinev 1903.

When our family did a study-abroad stint in Paris, I failed to get my sons into the local French public schools.  As a fallback, I enrolled my older boy in a commercial language class.[1]  He soon reported that his classmates were Portuguese plasterers and Moldavian cleaning ladies.  (He spent the rest of his time panhandling).  Now Moldavia is just a squalid and impoverished country waiting to be flossed from the gap between Ukraine and Rumania.  Better than a hundred years ago, however, it was just a squalid and impoverished territory of the rotting Russian Empire of the Tsars.  In Moldavia, there was a town called Kishinev.

Kishinev became a railroad town on the southwestern edge of the Russian Empire.  It attracted businessmen and entrepreneurs and people looking for jobs.  A dozen factories sprang up, but most people shopped in street bazaars.  By 1897, almost half (46 percent) of the city’s population were Jews.  Perhaps 50,000 people.  Familiarity did not breed fraternity.

In Spring 1903, as Easter approached, rumors circulated among the Orthodox Christians of Kishinev, that Jews had engaged in the ritual murder of Christian children so that their blood could be used for making mazo for Passover.[2]  Other rumors—somewhat better grounded in reality—also circulated that government authorities had approved three days of retribution.

Kishinev’s Jews were not without preparation for this attack.  After the assassination of Tsar Alexander II (1881), 200 attacks on Jewish communities happened.

On 19-20 April 1903, mobs of Moldavian Christians ran amok in a “pogrom” (an anti-Semitic riot).  The town’s government and police did not protect the embattled subjects of the Tsar.  The mobs left behind 49 dead Jews, a great deal of property damage, and many raped women.

The Russkie ambassador to the United States claimed that oppressed peasants had merely counter-attacked against Jewish money-lenders.  That didn’t sit too well with TR.[3]  Vladimir Korolenko, a Russian writer of no great ability, but of great courage, wrote a book about the pogrom called House Number 13.[4]  Sholem Aleichem’s play, “Tevye and His Daughters,” became the basis for the musical, then movie “A Fiddler on the Roof.”  It is set in Ukraine in 1905.  Eventually, the family decides to emigrate to the United States to escape oppression.

The pogrom was traumatic, but not only in the obvious ways.  Jews began to tear at each other over the refusal of many men to fight back.[5]  Some Israeli attitudes may find their origins in Kishinev as much as in the Holocaust.[6]

In Maus: My Father Bleeds History, Art Spiegelman has his protagonist, Vladek Spiegelman, observe of pre-war Nazi Germany that “there is a real pogrom going on there.”  Before 1945, a pogrom like Kishinev offered the only terms that Jews had for understanding extreme danger.  It wasn’t enough.

[1] I took the younger boy on extended walks around Paris.  We found Jim Morrison’s grave in Pere Lachaise.  We saw the steam-powered tractor developed by the French revolutionary armies to pull cannon.  We ate a ton of crepes with melted sugar.  He later won the French prize at St. Andrew’s School.

[2] Steve Zipperstein, Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History (2018).

[3] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fz-CVvxVHpw

[4] Let us now praise famous men.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vladimir_Korolenko

[5] Chaim Bialik, “The City of Slaughter.”  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hayim_Nahman_Bialik#Move_to_Germany

[6] I’m not trying to be snarky here, but see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rpnmfbLiRng

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“Conspiracy” (2001, dir. Frank Pierson).

There are a bunch of movies about the Holocaust, but not a lot of good movies about the Holocaust.  Here’s one.

In the House of Lies. Ernst Marlier (1875-?) made a lot of money running a shipping company, then went into making and selling worthless patent medicines. The money rolled in. In 1914 he had a luxurious house built in the ritzy Wannsee area of Berlin. However, he was a fraud and he had a violent temper. By 1921 various forms of the law caught up with him as lawsuits, criminal charges, and a divorce ruined him. He sold the house to Friedrich Minoux. Minoux (1877-1945) had made a fortune in coal, oil, and electric power. After the First World War Minoux wanted to overthrow the Weimar Republic and had some contact with the Nazis. His money and contacts made Minoux and his wife stars in Nazi high-society after 1933. In 1941 he was convicted of having defrauded his own companies of an immense amount of money. Ruined and in prison, he sold the house at the Wannsee to the SS for use as a conference center.

On 22 June 1941, Germany attacked the Soviet Union. On 31 July 1941, Hermann Goering, second highest figure in the Nazi government, ordered Reinhard Heydrich to prepare a “final solution to the Jewish Problem in Europe.” Heydrich’s initial plan called for deporting Europe’s Jews to Eastern Europe, where they would slowly die of over-work, starvation, and disease. Moving all these people would involve massive organizational problems. On 29 November 1941 Heydrich invited the representatives of the key government departments to a meeting to sort out these issues. The meeting was scheduled for 9 December 1941. On 5 December 1941 the Red Army counter-attacked before Moscow; on 7 December 1941 Japan attacked the United States; on 8 December 1941 Heydrich postponed the meeting. Eventually, Heydrich re-scheduled the meeting for 20 January 1942.

Fifteen men attended the conference: Heydrich, three of his most terrifying myrmidons (“Gestapo” Muller, Rudolf Lange, Karl Schongarth), his trusty assistant Adolf Eichmann (who recorded the minutes), and representatives of the Interior Ministry (police), the Justice Ministry (the lawyers), the Ministry for Occupied Eastern Territories (Russia), the General Government (Poland), the Foreign Ministry (all the Jews not yet under SS control), the Four Year Plan for the economy (Goering’s stand-in + slave labor), the Nazi Party (stand-in for the rising figure of Martin Borman), the SS Race and Resettlement Office, and the Reich Chancellery (the office that coordinated the bureaucracy).

The meeting wasn’t about “what” to do. That had already been decided. The meeting was about “who is in charge.” Heydrich wanted to make it clear to everyone that he was in command and would brook no opposition. There are three things to look for in the proceedings of the conference. First, there is the veiled or Aesopian language. Nobody comes right out and says they plan to gas millions of people. No one who attended had any trouble figuring out what Heydrich meant. Second, the meeting got bogged down in petty details. That’s what committee meetings are like. Try not to be on committees. Third, focus on the push-back from Wilhelm Stuckart of the Interior Ministry, and Friedrich Kritzinger of the Reich Chancellery.

What them befell? The Czechs killed Heydrich in 1942; the Americans killed Roland Friesler, the Russians killed Lange and Muller, Alfred Meyer killed himself, and the Nazis killed Martin Luther, all in 1945. The Poles hanged Schongarth in 1946 and Josef Buhler in 1948. Friedrich Kritzinger testified at Nuremberg, then died in 1947. Wilhelm Stuckart died in 1951. The Israelis hanged Adolf Eichmann in 1962. The other four–Erich Neumann, Otto Hofman, Georg Leibrandt, and Gerhard Klopfer—did a little time in prison, then died in the 1980s.

Only the imprisoned Martin Luther didn’t have time to destroy his copy of the minutes.  It’s how we know what happened at the meeting.