‘Pogrom,’ the Lingering Effects of Kishinev’s Darkest Days
Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History By Steven J. Zipperstein (W.W. Norton, 352 pp. $27.95)
During the three days of violence in Kishinev in April 1903, 49 Jews were killed, 600 women raped and more than 1,000 Jewish-owned houses and stores were ransacked and destroyed. As Steven J. Zipperstein notes in his riveting new book, Pogrom, “Prior to Buchenwald and Auschwitz, no place-name evoked Jewish suffering more starkly than Kishinev.” At the turn of the century, Kishinev was part of czarist Russia (today it is located in Moldova), a monarchy under siege by revolutionaries attempting to bring about reform that would limit authoritarian rule. Nicholas II, however, sought to misdirect the demand for change by associating the various revolutionary groups with Russia’s Jews, thus playing on the long history of Russian anti-Semitism. It is in this context that the Kishinev pogrom occurred.
Zipperstein, the Daniel E. Koshland Professor in Jewish Culture and History at Stanford University, describes in detail the events that fostered the Kishinev pogrom and how the event subsequently influenced the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary organization in pre-state Israel, and the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in the United States.
The mendacious influence of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion—a vile screed accusing Jews of a conspiracy to world domination—contributed to the agitation that fueled Kishinev’s non-Jews to attack its Jews. Also contributing to the massacre, Zipperstein relates, was the promotion—from the highest level of the czarist government—of the medieval blood libel, which charged Jews with the use of Christian blood for ritual purposes.
Unlike earlier pogroms in Russia, Kishinev’s was covered by Hearst’s American media empire, which sent Irish radical Michael Davitt to report on the massacre. Davitt’s reporting and his book, Within the Pale: The True Story of Anti-Semitic Persecution in Russia, quickly seized the imagination of people in the West, setting the standard for descriptions of Russian Jewish life for decades to come. In the United States, the pogrom was compared to the lynching of African-Americans in the South and the subsequent anti-black riot in Springfield, Ill., in 1908. Zipperstein describes how the Kishinev pogrom influenced William Walling and his Russian-born Jewish wife, Anna Strumsky, to convene the meetings that led to the founding of the NAACP in 1909.
Pogrom’s most controversial section may be the examination of one of the greatest poems in Jewish literature—Hayyim Nahman Bialik’s “In the City of Killing,” based on Bialik’s interviews with survivors of the pogrom. Zipperstein notes that the poem, which depicted the Jews of Kishinev as cowards, for decades influenced our understanding of how local Jews responded to the pogrom. The author points out that Bialik did not mention Kishinev’s Jewish armed resistance and that Jews, for the most part, did not go like sheep to their slaughter—a refrain that would reappear in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Nevertheless, Bialik’s view of Jews as cowards prevailed. To the contrary, Zipperstein notes that the Haganah, launched in Palestine soon after, and its successor, the Israel Defense Forces, was the by-product
of such shame.
Jack Fischel is author of The Holocaust and Historical Dictionary of the Holocaust.