Modern Judaism 24.3 (2004) 187-225
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The Kishinev Pogrom of 1903:
A Turning Point in Jewish History
Monty Noam Penkower
As the church bells of Kishinev pealed on April 19, 1903 (April 6 on the Julian calendar), marking the noon hour of Easter Sunday, the first pogrom of the twentieth century began. Initially, young people began hounding Jews to leave Chuflinskii Square, their cause gradually taken up by adults in an increasing state of holiday drunkenness. Late that afternoon, some twenty-five bands, averaging thirty-fifty each, simultaneously fanned out across the Jewish quarter of Bessarabia's capital, teenage boys taking the lead in smashing the windows of houses and stores. Students and seminarists from the Royal School and the city's religious colleges, iron bars and axes in hand, followed the hooligans; aided by looters, they plundered and demolished property. The local police made no attempt to interfere, Chief of Secret Police Levendal even exhorting the gangs on. A few rioters who were taken into custody were quickly released. Christian homes, differentiated earlier that morning by large chalked crosses, went unscathed. Passing through the streets in his carriage, Orthodox bishop Iakov blessed the mostly Moldavian attackers.
The rampaging mobs of laborers and artisans, finding Governor von Raaben not employing the more than 5,000-man military garrison against them and seeing many police taking part in the robbery, passed to murder and massacre during the night. Having just celebrated the seventh day of Passover, the city's 50,000 Jews (a third of the population) now fell prey to barbarism. Four who tried to defend 13 Asia St. on Monday were killed; a boy's tongue was cut out while the two year old was still alive. A group of 150 Jews in the New Bazaar succeeded in driving away their aggressors until a police officer arrested some of these defenders and broke up the remaining body. Meyer Weissman, blinded in one eye from youth, begged for his life with the offer of sixty rubles; taking this money, the leader of the crowd destroying his small grocery store gouged out Weissman's other eye, saying: "You will never again look upon a Christian child." Nails were driven through heads; bodies, hacked in half; bellies, split open and filled with feathers. Women and girls were raped, and some had their breasts cut off. [End Page 187]
Several policemen and a Jewish member of the fire brigade did drive off attackers, and some civilians gave Jews shelter, but these responses proved rare. No Russian or Moldavian clergymen, with one solitary exception, performed a similar Christian duty. The better class of the public, the semiofficial St. Petersburgskiye Vedomosti subsequently reported, "walked calmly along and gazed at these horrible spectacles with the utmost indifference." The savagery of the 1,500- 2,000 rioters went on unimpeded until, at 7P.M. on April 20, the governor received a telegram from Minister of the Interior Vyacheslav von Plehve to disperse the mob. Within an hour, a large detachment of troops implemented the order. This, in turn, drove crowds to the Bender Rogatka, Skulanska Rogatka, and other suburbs, where they continued their slaughter and violation of Jews until the morning of April 21, when full martial law came into effect.1
The results were devastating. According to a memorial album published by Kishinev Jewry that year, the recorded names consisted of thirty-four males (two babies among them) and seven females (including a twelve year old) who died during the pogrom itself, followed by another eight who succumbed to their wounds. This number surpassed the total killed in all of the pogroms of 1881. The volume also gave the figure of 495 wounded, ninety-five of them seriously. The number of homeless reached 2,000, with 2.5 million rubles in personal property damage. And even after the pogrom was quashed, a visiting journalist who arrived soon thereafter was particularly impressed that there appeared to be "neither regret nor remorse" among the Gentile citizenry. Almost each evening during his...