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Why a Bloody Pogrom in 1903

Gave Me Life in 1942

By Shlomo Maital

   The word “pogrom” is a Russian word, usually applied to anti-Jewish violence in the Russian Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

     Today’s New York Times has a review of a new book by Stanford University historian Steven J. Zipperstein, Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History. The review reminded me that the reason I am alive, on this earth, is because of this horrendous pogrom.

      On Easter in 1903, mobs of anti-Semites tore through the Jewish section of Kishinev, a provincial town on the western edge of the Russian empire. In just 1 1/2 days, in a cluster of streets and alleyways, they murdered 49 Jews, raped scores of women and girls, ransacked stores and homes, and shredded the sacred Torah. Many children were killed. That event came to define “pogrom” — a word derived from the Russian for thunderstorm — and to represent the worst horrors perpetrated against Jews in Europe before the Holocaust.   Its reverberations would reshape the image of czarist Russia, alter U.S. immigration policy, bring Jews into the Russian revolutionary movement and even help launch the NAACP.   “It was a moment,” Stanford historian Steven J. Zipperstein writes, “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.”

  My late mother was born in 1909, six years after the pogrom, in a small rural Jewish village, Dombroven, in Bessarabia, 300 kms. (180 miles) from Kishinev. (Bessarabia is now called Moldova, and It is the poorest nation in Europe). My father was also born in Dombroven, in 1904, just after the pogrom.

   The pogrom made it clear to the Jews of Dombroven that they had no future there. This, even though Dombroven had a small Jewish militia that circled the village at night and guarded it from the marauding Cossacks. My grandfather Israel, my father’s father, left for America. His mission: Raise money to bring the family over. (The Kishinev pogrom, as Zipperstein notes, did help open the immigration doors of both Canada and the US). He worked very hard, even though he was a Talmud scholar by nature, and made enough money to pay for the family’s passage. He missed his family terribly. He sent the money by mail – and it was lost in transit when World War I broke out, in 1914. My grandfather died in Pittsburgh in 1918, during the global influenza epidemic. I believe he simply died of a broken heart. I once searched for and found his grave, up on the old Jewish cemetary on Mt. Liberty.  I am named (Yisrael Shlomo) for him.  

   So, with my grandmother Rivka a widow, it was up to my father, the oldest, to make the journey to Canada. He left in 1920; he was only 16. Grandmother Rivka insisted that he take his sister, Dora, age 12 with him. The two young people were stranded for an entire winter in Antwerp, because Canadian immigration claimed my father had an eye disease (he didn’t). In the Spring, the Jewish community in Antwerp helped, arranged a visa, and the pair left for Canada by ship, landing in Montreal, and travelling by train to Regina, Saskatchewan, where relatives had settled earlier. My mother had emigrated earlier to Canada, with her mother and father, in 1910, when she was only a year old.

   Many Jewish people did not emigrate. They were wiped out by the Nazis during World War II.   So, my mother and father, grandmother Rivka, grandfather David, and grandmother Sassi Feige, and aunts and uncles, were saved because the pogrom made them desperate to migrate, and because Canada and the US welcomed them, partly as a result of the widely publicized bloody pogrom.

   How terrible was the 1903 Kishinev pogram? Israel’s national poet Haim Nachman Bialik, who at the time lived nearby, in Odessa, (now Ukraine), wrote a poem, The Slaughter, about the pogrom, including these striking last lines: “A curse on any who says, Avenge this! For revenge for the blood of a child, Satan himself has not yet invented”.

  I was born in Regina, Sask., in 1942. Had my father not made the perilous journey to Canada, with his little sister, and had he not survived that awful cold winter in Antwerp, I would not be here.

       Every time I read about migrants drowning in the Mediterranean, or children torn from their migrant mothers and fathers in Texas, or Syrians bombed and gassed, or Israel trying to expel Eritreans and Sudanese against their will, I feel deep physical pain. I can only believe that there is a punishment for those who mistreat hapless homeless migrants, and that one day, somehow, it will be meted out with justice.




Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital