On April 6, 1903—Easter Sunday—one of history’s most notorious pogroms began in the Russian city of Kishinev, now Chișinău, capital of the Republic of Moldova. The violence, which started in earnest in the evening and culminated the next day, left some 47 Jews dead, hundreds injured, and many hundreds of homes and shops looted and destroyed. In an excerpt from his new book, Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History, Steven Zipperstein addresses the thorny subject of how the city’s Jews reacted:
“Jews did not fight for their lives, but fled to wherever they could.” This was in the testimony of Melekh Kaufman, as told to [the poet] Ḥayyim Naḥman Bialik. Such accusations would soon be seen—and in no small measure because of how Bialik built the charge into the heart of “In the City of Slaughter,” his famous poem [on the subject]—as an assault on little less than thousands of years of Jewish history. Kishinev was said to have cut wide open a web of wretched, cowardly compromises stretching as far back as the last of the Maccabees, a welter of congealed terrors cleverly disguised that had over the centuries made Jews into who they now were: an overly cautious people who knew well how to negotiate but were incapable of fighting for their own lives or, for that matter, defending the honor of their kinfolk. . . .
Curiously enough, however, Bialik recorded in the transcripts of the interviews [with pogrom survivors] he conducted during his Kishinev stay, often in copious detail, many efforts at Jewish self-defense, including one so notorious—in the minds of local anti-Semites and their sympathizers, at least—that they would credit it, and not their own actions, as the main cause for [the] violence.
When rioters broke into the shop of Mordechai ben Aaron Litvak, he and his family told them that they would be shot if they did not leave immediately, which they did. Jews elsewhere fought with kitchen knives and clubs until, as often as not, they were overwhelmed by the sheer number or physical strength of the attackers. Trying to protect his father in their house on that Monday morning, Mordechai Tsvi Lis found himself pinned down by rioters who pushed against a door. Then, amid calls of “Christ has risen!,” the mob jumped both father and son, beating both senseless. When fifty-seven-year-old Yeḥiel Kiserman fought off four attackers, throwing several of them to the ground, a rumor rapidly spread that a Jew had murdered Christians. This news further enraged the mobs, which now attacked with heightened fury. . . .
Hence, after the pogrom’s end, alongside talk of Jewish passivity were fierce denunciations of Jewish anti-Russian aggression. In arguments made by defense attorneys at the trials of pogrom-related crimes, Sunday’s rioting was dismissed as a ruckus that would quickly have come to an end—much as the governor-general assured the Jewish delegation on Monday morning—had Jews not overreacted. In this version, it was the all-but-unprovoked aggression of Jews and subsequent rumors of attacks on a church and the killing of a priest that set in motion the unfortunate but, under the circumstances, understandable violence. . . .