A Jewish family stands outside of their ransacked home following the Kishinev pogrom of 1903. (public domain)
A Jewish family stands outside of their ransacked home following the Kishinev pogrom of 1903. (public domain)
In 3 days, 49 Jews killed, 600 Jewish women raped, 100s hurt

How a small pogrom in Russia changed the course of history

Until the Holocaust, the Kishinev pogrom of 1903 was the archetype for anti-Jewish persecution, according to a new book about the massacre’s long afterlife

Reporter at The Times of Israel

The terror lasted for less than three days, and “only” 49 Jews were killed, but the Kishinev pogrom of 1903 had surprisingly far-reaching ramifications. Within weeks of the pre-Easter massacre, the town’s name became synonymous with the worst horrors of Diaspora persecution, and political movements around the world took notice.

Although the pogrom was meticulously documented, mythology played a key role in shaping Kishinev’s aftermath. In his new book, “Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History,” Steven J. Zipperstein outlines some of these distortions, as well as the role Kishinev played in spurring — for instance — the alignment of American Jews with Leftist politics. The Jews’ enemies, too, drew conclusions from the pogrom, widely disseminating “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in the years that followed.

“It was a moment that cast a shadow so deep, wide, and variegated as to leave its imprint on Jews, on Jew-haters, and on wounds licked ever since,” wrote Zipperstein. In addition to the murder of 49 Jews, at least 600 Jewish women were raped, and hundreds more injured. Although the town’s Jews organized at least one large-scale defense action, this resistance was largely ignored for decades, buried in the notebooks of Zionist reporters sent to cover the atrocities.

Located in Tsarist Russia’s fertile Bessarabia region, turn-of-the-century Kishinev was home to about 55,000 Jews among a population of 280,000. Today, the city is called Chisinau, and is the capital of the Republic of Moldova. Wedged between Ukraine and Romania, the small country is home to 15,000 Jews, most of whom live in the city that defined the word pogrom in 1903.

As with other attacks organized against Jews, the Kishinev pogrom began with a “blood libel,” or the accusation that Jews murdered a Christian child to use its blood for ritual purposes. The region’s anti-Semitic intellectuals, including journalists, played a key role in stirring up animosity against Jews, making sure the masses knew it was permissible — and even desirable — to deal with them harshly.

‘Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History,’ published in 2018

“From its start their attack on Jews was justified as self-defense, a reasonable response to a pariah people, capable of any and all transgressions,” wrote Zipperstein, a professor of Jewish history and culture at Stanford University in California.

One Jew to lose his life in the pogrom was 60-year old Moshe Kigel, who was killed at the entrance to his home. In accounts of the massacre, however, Kigel was transformed into a sexton, or synagogue caretaker, who was found dead on the street surrounded by desecrated Torah scrolls. In this mythical retelling, the devout Kigel was slain while attempting to rescue the holy parchments from Lower Kishinev’s small shuls.

According to Zipperstein, the misleading depiction of Kigel’s final moments served, in part, to detract attention from the pogrom’s hundreds of rapes, including knowledge that “the town’s cowardly men” hid in fear while Jewish women were assaulted. The heroic account of Kigel’s death also helped memorialize the massacre’s poorer victims, who — unlike some of Kishinev’s more well-to-do Jews — were unable to flee before the violence.

‘Their flesh portioned out as booty’

Although very few Jews outside of Russia knew the name Kishinev before 1903, many of them had heard of the bustling port city Odessa, a day’s journey east. There, on the shores of the Black Sea, some of Zionism’s chief thinkers laid out plans for the Jewish future.

A 1905 editorial cartoon about the persecution of Jews, including the Kishinev pogrom of 1903 (public domain)

Upon hearing of the massacre in Kishinev, some of these Zionists considered their beliefs about Jewish passivity to have been confirmed. In their view, the massacre illustrated “the stereotypes of feminized Jewish males hopelessly softened by the humiliation of the Diaspora,” wrote Zipperstein.

The most lasting accounts to come out of Kishinev were from the writer Hayim Nahman Bialik, who was sent by the Odessa leadership to document the atrocities. Bialik, who would later become Israel’s national poet, arrived on the scene with “his own sense of the degradation of exile,” according to Zipperstein.

“Even before Bialik goes to Kishinev, his circle in Odessa has already insisted that Jews died and were utterly defenseless and offered no resistance,” Zipperstein told The Times of Israel in an interview. “[The poet] Ahad Ha’Am, too, thought anti-Semitism was caused or reinforced by the behavior of the Jews themselves,” added the author.

Steven Zipperstein, a professor of Jewish history at Stanford University and author of the 2018 book, ‘Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History’ (courtesy)

The most formidable defense put up by Kishinev’s besieged Jews took place in “the wine courtyard,” where 250 “working class” Jews armed with clubs and poles — and a few guns — assembled to fight back. These defenders managed to hold off some of the rioters, but the chief legacy of their efforts was in providing “proof” that Jews had attacked first. In court trials that took place until the end of the year, the Jewish defenders were blamed for bringing the slaughter upon themselves.

Any mention of Jewish resistance was absent from Bialik’s seminal work on the pogrom, “In the City of the Killings,” which has been called the most important Jewish poem since the Middle Ages. In his gory depiction of the massacre, Bialik expressed his “overwhelming disgust at the reaction of a significant cluster of Jewish males,” said Zipperstein.

“Do not fail to note in the dark corners of Kishinev, crouching husbands, bridegrooms, brothers peering through the cracks of their shelters, watching their wives, sisters, daughters writhing beneath their bestial defilers, suffocating in their own blood, their flesh portioned out as booty,” wrote Bialik.

In contrast to Bialik, the famed Jewish anarchist Emma Goldman toured the US with a theatrical production based on the pogrom, in which “an undeniable dignity” was granted to “Jewish victimhood,” wrote Zipperstein.

A photograph taken following the Kishinev pogrom in 1903, when 49 Jews were murdered following a ‘blood libel’ against the Jewish community. Here, the victims are laid out wrapped in prayer shawls prior to burial (public domain)

The “message” of the Kishinev pogrom, in other words, was dependent on the messenger. In pre-state Israel, accounts of the violence from new immigrants helped spark the formation of the self-defense group Bar-Giora, a forerunner to the Israel Defense Forces. For Bialik and others of his mindset, elevating the role of resisters during the pogrom was futile, as Jews — in their assessment — were fated for nothing good in Russia’s Pale of Settlement.

“[Accounts of the pogrom were] assiduously edited, with many of its details treated like unnecessary baggage for an already overburdened people,” wrote Zipperstein.

‘I did not believe in the Jewish question’

The Kishinev pogrom’s impact was fueled, in part, by photographs of the atrocities that made it around the world. One image of 45 murdered victims laid out in prayer shawls was particularly resonant, appearing in numerous broadsheets during the early days of news photography.

“It was a little bit like how that [photo of Alan Kurdi, a dead] Syrian child on the beach concretized Syrian misery,” said Zipperstein, referring to how a captivating image can break through the “abstraction” behind human catastrophes.

Funeral held for desecrated Torah scrolls following the Kishinev pogrom of 1903, in which 49 Jews were murdered and hundreds of women raped (public domain)

Although the pogrom did not sway many American Jews toward Zionism, there was a decided shift to the political left. It was generally (and erroneously) assumed the pogrom had been organized by Russian officials, prompting many Jews to become suspicious of conservative government. In 1905, the Russian Empire’s formation did, in fact, lead to a wave of state-sanctioned, anti-Semitic violence. As many as 200,000 Jews were murdered in an estimated 600 massacres, including an additional 19 victims in Kishinev.

In the US, it was not only Jews who drew conclusions from Kishinev. Black leaders spoke about the “twin evils” of European pogroms and lynchings in the American south, where thousands of blacks were murdered in a decades-long campaign of racial terrorism. In 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was formed to combat this violence, and Kishinev was mentioned in the group’s founding documents.

The Jews’ enemies, too, drew conclusions from the pogrom, realizing that mass media could be used to incite large-scale violence. One of Kishinev’s chief instigators, the publisher Pavel Krushevan, pushed out the anti-Semitic forgery, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” in the months following the pogrom. The notorious canard made it into the hands of anti-Semites including Henry Ford, who published half a million copies in the US.

Social justice crusader Emma Goldman addresses a crowd in 1916, several years before her deportation to Russia by the United States government (public domain)

According to some Jewish leaders, “every aspect of the Holocaust had been anticipated by the Kishinev pogrom.” From the role of intellectuals in galvanizing anti-Semitism, to the blaming of Jews for defending themselves, the pogrom helped solidify a template that culminated in the murder of six million Jews during World War II. This modernization of anti-Semitism was not lost on Jewish thinkers, some of whom predicted Nazi Germany’s “Final Solution” with eerie precision.

“When I was in America, I did not believe in the Jewish question removed from the whole social question,” wrote Emma Goldman after being deported to Russia by the US government in 1919. “But since we visited some of the pogrom regions I have come to see that there is a Jewish question, especially in the Ukraine,” she wrote.

“It is almost certain that the entire Jewish race will be wiped out should many more changes take place,” wrote Goldman.

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