Pogrom (and the ignored lessons of history)

Pogrom:  Kishniev and the Tilt of History   by Steven J. Zipperstein  

A pogrom, google informs those who’ve never heard the word, is “an organized massacre of a particular ethnic group”.    The second clause of the top definition reads “in particular that of Jews in Russia or eastern Europe.”    The word comes from Russian, Russia was where pogroms, organized attacks against Jews, often erupted in the early 20th century.   Synonyms (and I’m quoting):   massacre, slaughter, wholesale slaughter, mass slaughter, mass killing, mass murder, mass homicide, mass execution, night of the long knives, annihilation, extermination, decimation, carnage, bloodbath, bloodletting, butchery, genocide, ethnic cleansing, megadeath, More.   

A pogrom is when a group of people who hate another group of people organize and storm into the hated community, run amok and brutalize the hated group.   They smash windows, loot shops, burn down homes, beat and kill, rape, get drunk, laugh, whoop, shoot, stab, strangle, pummel to death, set on fire.   During a pogrom the authorities generally look on benignly, allowing events to unfold as they will.   

Not to complicate things here, but a pogrom is exactly what happened, for example, in Tulsa, Oklahoma May 31 through June 1, 1921 when the prosperous black community of Greenwood was invaded, looted, burned to the ground, dozens of blacks (perhaps as many as 300) were murdered, ten thousand were left homeless and many of the now homeless survivors were interned, by armed men deputized during the organized attack who also took part in it,  in a makeshift prison camp in the “pogrom’s” immediate aftermath.  

It is a sickeningly familiar if easily forgettable horror story (America pretty quickly forgot about the massacre in Tulsa, for almost a century).   Think of the horrific tales of the Janjaweed (“evil on horseback”)  in southern Sudan.   They ride into a village of the group they hate and rape, massacre, slaughter, commit carnage, butchery, ethnic cleansing.   The Rohingya [1] in Myanmar are another ethnic minority that has been catching hell in recent times, stateless souls fleeing by the tens of thousands, victimized by government supported pogroms and ethnic hatred, villages on fire.

I have always found it particularly grotesque that humans don’t stand as one against this kind of atrocity, instead arguing about which ethnic group has endured the worst of it.  We are quite tribal, apparently.   Our attitude toward a particular slaughter varies by how much we identify with the victims, or the perpetrators.  Our memory of various atrocities is shaded by the degree of our particular historical amnesia.  Americans are famously obtuse about anything that happened in the past, even a few weeks back.

But I am stepping on the story, which is an astoundingly told history by a writer and historian named Steven J. Zipperstein.    I’d heard of the 1903 Kishniev pogrom, one of many carried out against Jews in Russia in the Age of Pogroms, the most famous of them.   Zipperstein’s book is the most readable history I’ve ever encountered. 

Looking for the notes I took while reading the library’s copy of this great book (eluding me so far) I opened his book at random, looking (in vain) for my usual minimally invasive pencil marks in the margins for passages that I wanted to find again– and was immediately again sucked into the pages of the story.   Zipperstein tells a complicated and sprawling history in a smooth, narrative way we seldom see in a history book.   The beauty and immediacy of Zipperstein’s detailed, seamless telling is the most striking aspect of this great book.

My first thought when I finished reading it was to write to Zipperstein, tell him how blown away I was by how the book placed this particular, haphazardly famous pogrom into a broad historical context (as any great history must do)  and did so with breathtaking narrative sure-footedness.   In turning the book over I noticed that I’d been beaten to the punch by other, much more famous, writers who appreciated Mr. Zipperstein’s amazing facility for uncovering and telling a story,

“It tells us the horror that occurred street by street, butchery by butchery– with gripping clarity and admirable brevity” opined novelist Philip Roth.    Historian Deborah Lipstadt added “Written with the insight of an impeccable historian, his account– which will intrigue scholars as well as the widest array of readers– can be seen as a harbinger of what would come but four decades later.”   Timothy Snyder adds: “Structural grace and clear prose allow a lifetime of historical meditation and a decade of multilingual research to reach virtually any reader interested in Jewish, Russian, and, indeed, American history.”

The book is admirably brief, just over two hundred pages.  The clarity of the writing is gripping.  The insights follow so quickly one after another that a reader without his notes (as I am) is at a loss to even conjure many of them (though I’ll try).  The writer puts the story, brilliantly, within the reach of virtually any reader.

The organized slaughter of Jews in remote, provincial Kishniev, we learn from this account, became famous because, the Kishniev communications liaison for the World Zionist Congress was there when the pogrom began and immediately took off by train for a neighboring town where he began sending off telegrams.   News spread far and wide as fast as possible in 1903 and newspapers worldwide, notably Hearst’s vast news syndicate, arrived in Kishniev in the immediate aftermath of the pogrom.  Photos of the murder and devastation were immediately on newspaper front pages worldwide.  

A star journalist, Michael Davit, writing from Kishniev. kept the story on the front page of Hearst’s influential paper for days.   Davit went on to write Within the Pale: The True Story of Anti-Semitic Persecutions in Russia, a definitive account of  Russian Jewish life.   Kishniev became the subject of Zionist poet Hayim Nachman Bialik’s most famous poem, In The City of Slaughter.   The image of the Kishniev pogrom  was a potent symbol and organizing tool for Zionism.   It was held out as an irrefutable proof that Jews could no longer live in lands where they could be freely butchered while local authorities looked the other way.

We all know how the larger story of the Jews of the Pale turned out, an army marched through the region just four decades later and completed the mass killing of virtually every one of the area’s Jews.  That knowledge only deepens the horror of this intimate portrait of one particular pogrom.   A bit from the book, at random:

With horror and puzzlement, Jews here would speak of the friendly, at least benign, relations between Jews and non-Jews that had existed prior to the violence; interactions, they said, that had been more casual and less encumbered here than elsewhere in the city.   In this neighborhood, with few pretensions and where workaday relationships — Jews often hired non-Jewish laborers as well as maids or artisans — were more likely to slide into friendships, it was more typical than elsewhere in Kishniev for gentile neighbors to take risks to save Jews.   Hence it was not rare for Jews fleeing rioters to run into the courtyards or homes of non-Jewish neighbors, with the expectation of being hidden.

Then again, it was also not uncommon for neighbors to slaughter or rape neighbors, and frequently with an astonishing indifference to suffering.   The interplay between familiarity and ferocity was replicated in grim incident after incident.  Victims of rape and beating were known to call out the names of their assailants.  One raped woman spoke afterward of having held her rapist as a baby in her arms.  The sons of a local shoemaker — the two boys hid behind a stove while their father was beaten and murdered — recognized the killer as a neighbor whose shoes they had recently repaired. 

This immediately reminded me of translated witness narratives by Jewish survivors of the 1943 massacre in Vishnivetz, the little town my grandparents came from.  In these accounts Jewish women pleaded for mercy from  Ukrainians they knew well, begging them by name.  One very pregnant woman with a child in her arms pleaded in vain to a Ukrainian “reptile” (and not one of the worst, according to the witness) named Vasye, begging him to at least spare her tiny child.  Vasye did not spare anyone.  Such was the “interplay between familiarity and ferocity” and the “astonishing indifference to suffering” in that part of the world. [2]

It is well-known (by those who know…) that the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the bible of anti-Semites, translated into dozens of languages and continually in print since its appearance early last century  (we’re told it is second worldwide in sales to the actual Bible) played a huge role in the proliferation of pogroms after its appearance around 1903.   The long ago debunked (but nonetheless often cited) book purports to be a verbatim account (largely plagiarized from a French satire written decades earlier)  of the diabolical meeting of Jewish leaders (once a century, at midnight in the old Jewish cemetery in Prague, as in Umberto Eco’s brilliant novel) at which they (we) lay out their (our) infernal plans for world domination.  

Zipperstein details the story of locally influential anti-Semitic Kishniev publisher Pavel Krushevan and his apparent role in creating the famous Czarist forgery, which first appeared serialized in his paper around the time of the Kishniev pogrom.  In Zipperstein’s account Krushevan is strikingly reminiscent of Umberto Eco’s insane protagonist in The Prague Cemetery.  

There a dozens of fascinating discoveries in the pages of this book.  In passing, describing what he does not include in this account, Zipperstein tells us 

Not examined in this book is Kishniev’s impact on the politics of the Jewish Socialist Labor Bund, then the largest Marxist group in Russia.   This influence, while undoubtedly significant, proved too difficult to substantiate, given that the Bund’s keen preoccupation with the pogrom was silenced by its insistence on its internationalism. 

Among other things, the Kishniev pogrom, it turns out, played a significant role in the creation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.  Anna Strunsky, a radical Jewish woman and William English Walling, her wealthy, white Southern Christian Socialist husband, recently returned from a visit to post-pogrom Kishniev, were in the middle of the formation of the NAACP.  Hot damn.  Maybe those Czarist secret police forgers who wrote the Protocols were right about those sneaky Elders of Zion!


[1] Doesn’t this look sickening, reduced to a footnote (even leaving out details of the vicious persecution, referred to here blandly as the “crisis”)?

The Rohingya people are a stateless Indo-Aryan ethnic group who reside in Rakhine State, Myanmar. There were an estimated 1 million Rohingya living in Myanmar before the 2016–17 crisis. By December 2017, an estimated 625,000 refugees from Rakhine, Myanmar, had crossed the border into Bangladesh since August 2017. Wikipedia
Myanmar~400,000 (November 2017)
Bangladesh1,300,000+ (March 2018)


[2]  (from eye witness testimony)

While he was hiding, the reptile Vasye, a Vishnevets resident who lived near the Jewish homes, came armed with a gun and leading Avraham Shimkovits’s daughter, the one who was married to Motye Grinberg, Shimon the Soldier’s son.

[Page 65]

He was leading her as if he were escorting a prisoner on trial. The woman was in the last months of pregnancy and carried a baby in her arms. The baby cried and twisted in her arms out of fear and nervousness.  The woman was very tired; she faced Vaske, her neighbor of many days and years, and spoke.

“Vasye,” she said. “Look, Vasinke, look at my condition. I’ve never harmed you. Have mercy on me and my baby, have mercy, Vasinke.”

The reptile didn’t answer. He moved back as if he wanted to measure her with his eyes, and with unusual calm, he aimed the gun at the baby’s mouth, shot him, and quieted him. The boy convulsed, collapsed, and fell from her arms… she passed out and went into labor. When the killer saw the newborn coming into the world, he aimed his gun and killed him the minute he was born… him and his mother.


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