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  • Kishinev and the Twentieth Century:Introduction
  • Alan Mintz

Because the Holocaust dominates our historical awareness, it is doubly important to recover the force of the events at Kishinev in 1903 on their own terms. How the memory of Kishinev shaped the responses of the actors and bystanders during the Holocaust period and how, in turn, the memory of the Holocaust shaped the memory of Kishinev are all, to be sure, legitimate and even crucial questions. But we must start with the event itself. The case for the status of Kishinev as a turning point in modern Jewish history rests on its relationship to the wave of pogroms that were visited upon Jewish communities in southern Russia in 1880-81. It was that earlier outbreak that was the real surprise. In contrast to the common notion that the story of Eastern European Jewry is the story of one pogrom after another, the pogroms of 1880-81 were wholly unprecedented in their volume, ferocity, and concerted nature. They marked the appalling debut of a modern form of antisemitism that was fomented by both the Right and the Left, and, within the internal sphere of Jewish culture, they brought the lingering aspirations of the Enlightenment to a crashing demise.

What had shifted profoundly between 1881 and 1903 was Jewish political self-awareness. The shame of mass victimization had spurred the emergence of political Zionism and Jewish socialism, both of which emphasized the exigent need for organized self-defense. This was a priority taken up not only on the level of ideology but at the most applied local level in the Zionist and socialist clubs and associations that were established in almost every Jewish population [End Page 1] center by the end of the century. So when the news of the atrocities committed in Kishinev in April 1903 reached the world, the outrage expressed by the Jewish intelligentsia in Eastern Europe was centered not primarily on the gruesome renewal of anti-Jewish attacks after a twenty-two-year hiatus but rather on the perceived failure of Jewish resistance.

Ḥayyim Naḥman Bialik's stinging critique of this failure in his poem "In the City of Slaughter," it should be said at the outset, was but one of many literary responses to the Kishinev pogrom, which as a rule invoked the language of Lamentations to bestow pity on the hapless victims of gentile malice. Against the background of these more traditional responses of grief and outrage, Bialik's poem was a radical and paradigm-shattering document. It is the only one that we remember today and, more important, the preeminent text that was remembered at darker and more fateful moments in Jewish history between then and now. It can be argued, moreover, that within the entire canon of modern Hebrew and Yiddish literature, "In the City of Slaughter" is the text that had the greatest direct impact on the formation of political attitudes and actions-for good or for ill, it should be added, as will become evident from the discussions below.

Bialik's Kishinev poem, in short, will not leave us alone, and we seem disposed not to leave it alone. It is this persistent and changing legacy, particularly poignant at the century mark of the events and the poem, that is the occasion for the gathering of essays in this special issue of Prooftexts. The essays are based on papers that were originally discussed at a scholars' colloquium titled "Kishinev and the Twentieth Century: One Hundred Years to Bialik's 'In the City of Slaughter,'" which was held at the Jewish Theological Seminary in September 2003 and was jointly sponsored by the Ginor Chair in Israeli Culture and Society of JTS and the Hebrew Literature Department of Tel Aviv University within the framework of the Howard Gilman International Conference. The participants included: Arnold Band, Yael Feldman, Michael Gluzman, Nurit Govrin, Sara Horowitz, Lawrence Kaplan, Asa Kasher, Anne Lapidus Lerner, Iris Milner, Alan Mintz, Dan Miron, Stanley Nash, Yochai Oppenheimer, Menakhem Perry, David Roskies, Anita Shapira, Ziva Shapiro, Uzi Shavit, Michael Stanislawski, Ruth Wisse, and Eli Yassif. The essays were written after the conference and [End Page 2] productively reflect the give-and-take...


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