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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