New Book Offers Chilling Lessons From Jewish History
By Richard Friedman,
BJF Executive Director
I’ve just finished reading “POGROM: Kishinev and the Tilt of History” by Steven J. Zipperstein. This is a powerful new book and I am re-reading parts of it because there is so much there.
Pogrom is a Russian word meaning to wreak havoc, to demolish violently. “Historically, the term refers to violent attacks by local non-Jewish populations on Jews in the Russian Empire and in other countries,” according to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.
This book is about the infamous attack on the Jewish community of Kishinev, Moldova by their non-Jewish neighbors in 1903 which resulted in widespread murder and maiming of Jews, brutal raping of Jewish women, and mass destruction of Jewish property.
The author documents this chilling massacre, the cultural conditions that led up to it
and how it unfolded in stages. He also connects it to the creation of the infamous anti-Semitic forgery “The Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion,” which contends that Jews have an evil plan to take over the world. The pogrom also led to a famous and haunting poem — “In The City Of Slaughter” — written by a legendary Jewish poet in the immediate aftermath of the pogrom as an enduring expression of pain and Jewish helplessness that to this day plays a role in the national psyche of the state of Israel.
The book also connects the pogrom to the creation of the NAACP in the US, where outrage over Kishinev forced Americans to more fully confront the lynching of blacks in our country.
Zipperstein is a distinguished academic and historian.There is much to discover in this relatively short, well-written and well-documented book which offers new perspectives on the massacre.
I discussed the book with Birmingham Jewish Federation staff member Florina Newcomb, whose family lived in Kishinev until the early 1990s, when, as a little girl, Florina and her family immigrated to the US thanks in part to funds raised by the Birmingham Jewish Federation.
Florina was well aware of the infamous pogrom because it happened during her great-grandparents’ lifetime and this chilling saga and brutal reminder of the fragility of Jewish life had been passed down through the generations.
Another Birmingham connection to the Kishinev pogrom came from Jewish community member Nate Salant, who posted the following in response to something I wrote on Facebook about the new book: “My maternal grandmother and her parents, brothers and sisters all survived that pogrom.They left Kishinev the next day.”
My takeaways from this jarring but instructive new book are these: Jews must never again be defenseless (there are horrible people out there who want to do horrible things to us). Jews must always have strong organizations, such as the Jewish Federation movement, and have influence, particularly with government officials, religious leaders of other faiths, and media people. And Jews must never stop working to build strong ties to the non-Jewish community, so those who aren’t Jewish know us, understand us and trust us.
In addition, we must always have a strong Israel, capable of rescuing Jews anywhere at anytime and providing a safe haven for those fleeing anti-Semitism. (And we must NEVER allow our frustrations with a particular Israeli government to erode our devotion to Israel’s well-being, viability and security.)
I’m proud that the Birmingham Jewish Federation continues pursuing the above takeaways on behalf of the Jewish people every single day. Delving into the Jewish past is sometimes difficult, but it’s necessary to ensure that such catastrophes and sadnesses occur never again.
History has bequeathed us lessons, learning from them is up to us.