April 1903: The Kishinev Pogrom

By Khaver, Yehuda | Midstream, April 2003 | Go to article overview

April 1903: The Kishinev Pogrom


Khaver, Yehuda, Midstream


One hundred years ago in the month of April, during the Passover/Easter season, men and women of good will the world over were shocked by news of a devastating three-day murderous attack against the civilian Jewish population of the Romanian town of Kishinev, territory that had been under the control of Czarist Russia since 1812. Such mass assaults upon a Russian Jewish community in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, perpetrated with the connivance of government officials, if not executed by government forces themselves, gave the world the ugly gift of the Russian word "pogrom." The word has since become universalized to include mass attacks against any other religious, racial, or ethnic group.

That the Kishinev pogrom of 1903 took place during the Easter season was not in itself a surprise. Jews of that era did not dare to show themselves in the streets of their shtetls during the week of Easter. The dangers to life and limb were always palpable. That the government seemed to be involved in the Kishinev massacre was also no great surprise. Plehve, the minister of the interior in Russia at that time, who controlled all such actions rather closely, was a notorious public antisemite of the first rank.

Pogroms had surged insidiously in 1881 in Russia after the assassination of Czar Alexander II. They continued after the Kishinev pogrom of 1903, replicated there in 1905 by forces of the Black Hundreds (in Russian, Chornaya Sotnya), the militant right-wing gangs that arose to suppress liberal tendencies after the revolution of 1905. The scape-goating of Jews for supposedly adverse national events combined with longstanding inbred religious hatred was, alas, an old story in Jewish life all over Europe. These Russian pogroms carried out against Jewish men, women, and children in the cities and shtetls of Eastern Europe continued relentlessly in the 20th century after Kishinev--up to, during, and even alter the First World War. In 1919-21, the Galician section of southeastern Poland and the Ukraine suffered a similar fate at the hands of forces led by a Ukrainian thug named Petlura who was responsible for instigating almost 500 pogroms. Thousands upon thousands of Jewish refugees immigrated to America each year from 1881 to 1924 to escape these widespread atrocities. The awful nightmarish vision in their minds of Cossack horsemen riding into the shtetl with swords flashing death would remain with them forever.

The Kishinev pogrom stood out in its time by its ruthlessness and by the number of casualties--47 Jews killed, 92 severely wounded. Tragic totals at any time. But readers may possibly react with a reverse kind of astonishment to these figures because they pale by comparison to the horrific number of victims of murder perpetrated later in the century by the Nazis in the Holocaust, by Stalin, and by other tyrants and villainous groups. Kristallnacht alone, November 9, 1938, a pre- Second World War date before the engine of the Holocaust was in full gear, produced unimaginable horrors against the Jews of Germany and Austria that outdid Kishinev in numbers, if not in fiendishness. But the Kishinev pogrom just after the turn of the century was world-shaking enough to elicit protests from many governments to the Czarist regime, including a stern protest by President Theodore Roosevelt of the United States. Such heartfelt public protests were not so immediately forthcoming, if at all, in the later events of the century of genocide and death.

Kishinev--the very name of the town in Bessarabia resonates among Jews as the paradigm of persecution and sorrow at the beginning of the modern era. It goes without saying that the previous one thousand years were no Garden of Eden for Jewish life. We can easily cite a very long list of earlier notorious names of places in European Jewish history drenched in blood--York, England, for example, where Jews were cornered and besieged in a castle by a bloodthirsty mob in 1189 and where they died, or the Ukraine in 164849 where the Cossack leader Chmielnicki (Khmelnitsky, in the transliteration from the Yiddish) wiped out more than 700 Jewish communities, a national disaster that led to the rise of messianic yearnings among the Jews of Europe. …

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