The Kishinev pogrom was an anti-Jewish riot that took place in Kishinev, which was back then part of the Bessarabia province of Imperial Russia (currently Chişinău is the capital of independent Moldova). It started on April 6 and lasted until April 7, 1903.The riot started after a Christian Russian boy, Michael Ribalenko, had been found murdered in the town of Dubossary, about 25 miles north of Kishinev. Although it was clear that the boy had been killed by a relative (who was later found), the government chose to call it a ritual murder plot by the Jews.
The mobs were incited by Pavolachi Krushevan, the editor of the Anti-Semitic Newspaper “Bessarabetz”, and the vice-governor Ustrugov. They used the ages-old blood libel against the Jews (that the boy had been killed to use his blood in preparation of matzo).
Viacheslav Plehve, the Minister of Interior, supposedly gave orders not to stop the rioters. During three days of rioting, the Kishinev Pogrom against the Jews took place. Forty-seven (some put the figure as high as 49) Jews were killed, 92 severely wounded, 500 slightly wounded and over 700 houses looted and destroyed.
This pogrom is considered the first state-inspired action against Jews of the 20th century. Despite a world outcry, only two men were sentenced to seven and five years and twenty-two were sentenced for one or two years.
This pogrom was instrumental in convincing tens of thousands of Russian Jews to leave to the West and to Israel.
Among those affected by the pogrom were the congregation of the Israelites of the New Covenant, founded by Joseph Rabinowitz, who had died in 1899. Surviving members of the congregation, which had dissolved on the death of Rabinowitz, were either massacred or scattered. The congregation was restarted by Lev Averbuch for a time between the years 1922-1937.
Prayer: Lord, we see the crimes brought about, often in your name, against the Jewish people. Help us to stand against injustice, and protect the weak from oppression. In Your name we pray. Amen.
1903 (9th of Nisan, 5663):
- Averbuch., “Report — Third International Hebrew Christian Conference, held at High Leigh, 1931”, in; HC, vol iv, 1931: 112. Kai Kjזr-Hansen, Joseph Rabinowitz and the Messianic Movement. The Herzl of Jewish Christianity (Edinburgh/Grand Rapids: The Handsel Press/ Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1995), pp. 209-229. In an article published recently we find additional new first-hand information about Averbuch, see: Gabe, Eric, “The Messianic Work in Kishineff” in HC, vol. LXX, 1997: 29-30. Gabe corrects some details given by Solheim and later quoted by Kjaer-Hansen.
On April 8, 1903 — Easter Sunday — a mild disturbance against local Jews rattled Kishinev, a sleepy city on the southwestern border of imperial Russia.
“Little property was destroyed,” said Jewish cultural historian Steven J. Zipperstein, who is a Radcliffe Fellow this year, “and the outbreak seemed little more than a bacchanal of rowdy teenagers.”
But the next day, and for half the next, violence escalated. Gangs of 10 or 20 armed with hatchets and knives stormed through the town’s narrow streets and into its courtyards, where Jewish families defended themselves with garden implements and other meager weapons.
In the end, 49 Jews were killed, an untold number of Jewish women were raped, and 1,500 Jewish homes were damaged. This sudden rush of hoodlum violence — prompted by accusatory rumors of Jewish ritual murder — quickly became a talisman of “imperial Russian brutality against its Jews,” said Zipperstein.
More than that, the incident brought the word pogrom to the world stage and set off reverberations that changed the course of Jewish history for the next century.
Zipperstein, a historian of modern European Jewry who teaches at Stanford University, is using his Radcliffe year to work on a cultural history of Russian Jews.
One chapter will be on the formative massacre at Kishinev, the provincial capital of Bessarabia, a 120-mile-wide nook of rural Russia where there were scarcely 100 miles of paved roads.
In this peaceful, growing place of “fruit and hides and splendid wines,” he said, Jews comprised half the city’s population and lived in seeming peace with their Christian neighbors.
It was a draft of that chapter that he shared last week (April 1) with an audience of 150 at the Radcliffe Gymnasium.
Zipperstein is convinced of two things: The Kishinev violence became a metaphor of risk that transformed 20th century Jewish life. And as a historical incident — a creature of fact and figure and chronology — it is still little understood.
Thanks to the “mountains” of archives opened after the fall of communism, he said, “historians have only just started to sift though these papers to make greater sense of this past.”
But even the data Zipperstein has gathered so far — from guidebooks, tracts, transcripts, memoirs, newspaper accounts, and even poetry — is “contradictory,” he said, “and massive.”
“It is little less than the mother lode,” said Zipperstein of the Kishinev massacre, “the heart-bed of so much of what it is Jews over the last century and more have come to believe about themselves.”
To begin with, Kishinev consolidated the immediate belief — propagated within days around the world — that imperial Russia was waging a brutal campaign against its own Jews.
From this came the eventual belief that “Jewry’s ill-starred collision with tsarism” spurred widespread Jewish migration at the turn of the 20th century, said Zipperstein. (At the time, more than half the Jews in the world lived in Russia.)
But most of Russia was untouched by pogroms, especially the northern provinces from which the earliest and heaviest migrations poured.
Like any other immigrants, although in far larger numbers, Jews “fled poverty or the military, or the paucity of opportunity,” Zipperstein said. “They left for a better life, to breathe more freely.”
While documents were buried for decades in Soviet archives, accounts of the seminal Russian Jewish past were “sometimes alarmingly unreliable,” said Zipperstein — including “Life Is with People,” the 1952 evocation of shtetl life by Mark Zborowski and Elizabeth Herzog.
It supplied the historical impressions behind the musical “Fiddler on the Roof” and Bernard Malamud’s novel “The Fixer” — yet today is regarded by historians as “methodologically slipshod,” a pastiche of mostly unreliable stories, said Zipperstein.
Notions of unreliability deepen even more. Zborowski was soon after exposed as a Soviet agent, who likely had a hand in the murder of Trotsky.
There are other unreliable narratives of the Russian Jewish past, including those about Kishinev.
At the time of the massacre, the author of the Bessarabia provincial guidebook was Pavel Krushevan — “one of the vilest fabulists of modern times,” said Zipperstein.
He was also the reputed editor of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a long-lived anti-Semitic slanderous concoction that outlines a plan for world Jewish domination. It appeared in its first sustained form just months after the Kishinev massacre.
Krushevan’s newspaper accounts also fanned rumors about the city’s Jews, including that a small-time doctor there was a “fearful cog in the Zionist juggernaut,” said Zipperstein.
Some of the narrators who gave Kishinev its mythical power in the Jewish world were, or should have been, sympathetic. One was Hayyim Nahman Bialik, the man who one day would be known as the national poet of the Jewish people.
In 1903, he was dispatched to interview survivors of the Kishinev pogrom by the Jewish Historical Commission in Odessa. Going house to house, he filled five notebooks with fresh testimonies of violence.
Then Bialik set the notebooks aside, said Zipperstein, and wrote in Hebrew an epic poem of the incident that was inspired more by the Old Testament than the facts at hand.
“In the City of Slaughter” became “the most powerfully enduring of all influences” on the mythical centrality of Kishinev among Jews, Zipperstein said.
But the poem turned its literary back on “the concrete reality” of two violent days, said Zipperstein. In it, for one, was an image of “crouched husbands, bridegrooms, brothers, peering from the cracks.” (Trial transcripts and press accounts report Jewish resistance.)
Maybe that’s a lesson for those writing cultural history, Zipperstein concluded: “Calm the voice of the poet, rouse that of the chronicler.”