The most famous pogrom of the czarist era, the incident than made the word “pogrom” itself famous, was a minor if ugly and deadly outbreak of violence compared with other anti-Jewish slaughters.
But through a combination of coincidences and propaganda, the Kishinev pogrom of 1903 has become cemented in Jewish consciousness as the epitome of state-sponsored violence against Jews, Stanford University professor Steven Zipperstein argued Tuesday night, Feb. 2, in the annual Tenenbaum Family Lecture at Emory University’s Michael C. Carlos Museum.
“Why this? Why did this leave the impact that it did?” Zipperstein, who is completing a book about Kishinev’s lasting impact, asked the packed reception hall.
Kishinev itself was a little-known frontier town in the Russian Empire’s province of Bessarabia (now Moldova) when the rioting broke out April 19 in response to the application of the blood libel to the deaths of two children. By the time troops took action to stop the violence on the third day, 49 Jews were dead, nearly 600 were hurt, houses had been destroyed, businesses had been pillaged, and at least 40 Jewish women had been raped.
It was horrible violence that reflected national and local anti-Semitism. But it all occurred along only six or seven streets that were little more than alleyways. The toll wasn’t much worse than the Gomel pogrom later in 1903, was far lower than what occurred during a spike in violence in 1905, and paled compared with the anti-Jewish violence in the wake of the Russian Revolution.
Zipperstein said it now appears 150,000 to 200,000 Jews were killed in the first few years after the revolution, including 2,000 slain within hours in the town of Proskurov.
But “those attacks are almost entirely forgotten,” he said, while Kishinev is used as the “quintessence of horror” and the prism through which violence to and by Jews is viewed to this day. Men as different in outlook as Benjamin Netanyahu (referring to the Toulouse Jewish school killings in 2012) and Noam Chomsky (addressing the massacres of Palestinians in Lebanese refugee camps in 1982) have used Kishinev as a touchstone.
“How is it that this particular moment managed to chisel itself onto contemporary Jewish history, chisel itself so as to give it a far-reaching meaning even for those who never heard of the town, know nothing of its details, but nonetheless draw lessons from it?” Zipperstein said, calling it “a moment that cast a shadow so deep, so wide, so variegated as to leave its imprint on Jews, on Jew-haters … ever since.”
Before Kishinev, pogrom was one of many words for such violence used in Russia, and it was almost unknown outside Russia. By 1904, it was one of the three best-known Russian words in the non-Russian-speaking world, along with vodka and czar, Zipperstein said.
He said the popular mythology of Kishinev played a role in the development and propagation of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” rising Jewish emigration from Russia, a more militant form of Zionism, the Balfour Declaration and even the formation of the NAACP.
“Mythologies do make history,” he said.
Kishinev was close to Romania and served as the home to Zionism’s correspondence bureau under an otherwise obscure doctor named Yakov Bernstein-Kogan. As the violence occurred, dispatches were smuggled across the border, and Bernstein-Kogan spent 1,500 rubles to reach the world’s wire services by telegraph, Zipperstein said.
The Hearst newspaper chain sent a reporter, Michael Davits, who, in the Hearst way, sensationalized the story and exaggerated the toll. The Forward published daily front-page articles about Kishinev from April to June and saw its circulation soar. A forged letter purported to be from Interior Minister Vyacheslav von Plehve, whom Zipperstein said was a rabid anti-Semite, was used as evidence that Czar Nicholas II’s government had ordered police not to intervene in the slaughter.
Hayim Nahman Bialik wrote the epic poem “The City of Slaughter” a year later, and Kishinev’s place in Jewish myth and history was secured.
“Almost everything is forgotten, but some things remain,” Zipperstein said, “and it’s not inevitable as to what remains.”