Kishinev and the Tilt of History
By Steven J. Zipperstein
Illustrated. 261 pp. Liveright Publishing. $27.95.
In Kishinev, a provincial city of the Russian Empire (now Chisinau, Moldova), on April 19-20, 1903, 49 Jews were murdered, several among them children; as many (or more) were serially raped; very many more were injured. Synagogues were desecrated, shops were looted, and homes were destroyed or damaged. One woman said afterward: “I was pulverized, crushed like a vessel filled with shame and filth.” The victims knew their assailants, many crying out their names while being beaten or raped. They were not protected by the civil authorities. In response to calls for help, one police officer told the Jews they were getting what they deserved; the police thwarted Jewish self-defense efforts by confiscating weapons. Two-thirds of the city was affected by violence.
Funeral held for desecrated Torah scrolls following the Kishinev pogrom. Credit: Public Domain
This was the “Kishinev pogrom,” a “dreadful moment” in Jewish Diaspora life, Steven J. Zipperstein writes in his impressive, heart-wrenching new book on the subject, “Pogrom.” The episode is so little known now that its facts are likely to come as a shock to most readers. Yet until the late 1930s it was practically synonymous with anti-Semitism. The word “pogrom,” which Kishinev concretized, “was believed to capture accurately centuries of Jewish vulnerability, the deep well of Jewish misery,” Zipperstein writes. It was the state directing mob violence, a phenomenon that would reach its apogee in the Holocaust. The genocide of World War II has come to act like a screen across the middle of the 20th century. But Zipperstein reminds us that it is important to understand the catastrophes that preceded. And there’s no better place to start than Kishinev.
Zipperstein gives us a strong, clear narrative as well as appalling details. Rumors of attacks on the Jews had been circulating; permission had been given, it was said, for three days of violence; there were accusations against the Jews of ritual murder. It began with random, nonlethal violence. The mob found meaning through its slogans, “Strike the Jews!” and “Death to the Jews!” They were cheered on by local officials who claimed, as one put it, that Jews “exploited the Christians in a hundred unscrupulous ways, to their own aggrandizement.” But the book is much more than an account of these horrors. It is a history of the pogrom’s reception, as well. Among his six chapters, Zipperstein addresses the impact on Russian anti-Semites, who took the pogrom as proof not of Jewish weakness but of Jewish mendacity; on the Zionist movement and then on Israeli society, who saw in it the impossibility of diaspora existence; on the N.A.A.C.P., “energized by efforts to align the Russian pogroms against Jews with the American lynching of blacks,” as well as in the United States generally, “the epicenter of pro-Kishinev relief campaigns and demonstrations.”
Each of us will take from this book what most resonates with us. For this reviewer, it was the chapter on the poet Hayim Nahman Bialik, who wrote a celebrated poem about the pogrom, following a five-week evidence-gathering mission to the city. “In the City of Killing” compacts in its lines a discourse of national grief and prophetic wrath, a lamentation and a jeremiad. It articulates a grief and rage hitherto believed to be not fully articulable. “If we were to stand and scream all our days and our nights, it would not suffice,” the Russian Jewish author Joseph Hayim Brenner wrote of the pogrom.
The poem condemned the city’s Jews for their cowardice, in defiance of evidence that Bialik himself had collected. “Note also do not fail to note,” the poem urges, “In that dark corner and behind that cask / Crouched husbands, bridegrooms, brothers, peering from the cracks” watching their women being raped. Bialik drives home his scorn: “Crushed in their shame, they saw it all; They did not stir or move.” It gets worse: “They crawled forth from their holes, they fled to the house of the Lord, They offered thanks to Him, the sweet benedictory word. The Cohanim sallied forth, to the Rabbi’s house they flitted: Tell me, O Rabbi, tell, is my own wife permitted?” The Jews of Kishinev “have met pain with resignation / And have made peace with shame.” They are “mournful and slinking, crushed beneath their yoke.”
Bialik, Zipperstein writes, puts Jewish cowardice “at the heart of his poem.” “In the City of Killing” draws on “stereotypes of feminized Jewish males hopelessly softened by the humiliations of the diaspora” and of “the superstitions of blandly passive religiosity.” The poem’s “taunts are relentless.” When translated into Russian it “captured a widespread devoted following.” Bialik himself translated it into Yiddish to ensure an even greater audience. Practically everywhere, it was met with acclaim. The Jewish world embraced the poem; individual Jews acted on it, setting up self-defense groups.
Read in the immediate aftermath of Philip Roth’s death, Zipperstein’s account of the poem’s reception prompts a particular thought. Why was a 1903 poem utterly damning of Kishinev’s Jews so well received, while Roth’s 1960s fiction, mildly satirical of New Jersey’s Jews, so hostilely received (as it undoubtedly was) by so much of his Jewish world?
We may find a ready answer to my question in any one of a number of differences between the authors, their works, and the respective historical moments of their publication. These differences are immense. But let me pick out one.
The Jewish world accepted Bialik as its national poet. More than just the national poet, even. When he died, in 1934, the leading newspaper in Jewish Palestine announced on its front page: “Israel is orphaned: Hayim Nahman Bialik is gone.” This was not Roth’s literary vocation. On the contrary: “I did not want to, did not intend to, and was not able to speak for American Jews,” he insisted in 1963, 30 years after Bialik’s death. He regarded his “Jewishness,” he explained in the autobiographical “The Facts,” as “an intellectual resource.”
As Zipperstein makes clear in his masterly work, this sort of remove was not on offer in Kishinev when Jews had mostly one question on their minds: How long would they be the victims of history?
(c) 2018 The New York Times