The Exemplary Pogrom

Wittgenstein posed the question: Why did one crucifixion captivate the world for two thousand years, while tens of thousands of other people crucified by the Romans remain utterly forgotten? One obvious answer is that we react to stories, not statistics: a haunting story exists for one crucifixion; statistics barely account for the rest.

Steven J. Zipperstein has written a smart and sensitive book about an event—the pogrom of 1903 in the Bessarabian city of Kishinev, on the southwestern edge of the Russian Empire—that poses a similar question. Why did this pogrom receive worldwide attention and acquire a symbolic status in modern Jewish life as the exemplary pogrom, although “only” forty-seven Jews were killed? Compared to the 1905 pogrom in Odessa, in which 2,500 Jews were murdered, the Kishinev Pogrom seems small-scale. And yet the Odessa Pogrom never seized the Jewish imagination or, for that matter, the world’s. What made Kishinev so memorable?

The Kishinev Pogrom lasted a day and a half. It began on Easter 1903, a dry, sunny April day. The weather is important: Zipperstein believes that had it rained, it would all have turned out differently. While pogroms were usually chaotic, there was some method to the one in Kishinev, which strengthens the suspicion that the tsarist government was behind it. The houses of Jews were specifically targeted: a group of children hurled stones at them until the adults broke in, brandishing clubs. The perpetrators—among them a curiously large number of seminarians—had pillaged a Jewish-owned liquor store, so they were fortified by considerable amounts of alcohol.

Looting was a significant aspect of the pogrom, but it also included the gang rape of Jewish women and—after widespread chanting of “Death to the Jews!”—murder. The hooligans left Jewish-owned houses and shops in total devastation. It is estimated that about two thousand people participated in various aspects of the pogrom.

But despite these horrific details, the question of what turns an event or site into a larger symbol remains a vexing one. There is no reason to believe that there is one explanation for all such cases. Even if we limit ourselves to especially notorious atrocities and massacres, such as those at Lidice, Nanking, Babi Yar, Guernica, Musa Dagh, Oradour-sur-Glane, Deir Yassin, or My Lai, let alone Hiroshima, the question remains. The magnitude of the massacre may serve as part of the explanation in the case of Babi Yar, Nanking, or Hiroshima, but most of the other examples were relatively small in scale and in number of victims.


Pogrom victims in front of a vandalized house in the Bessarabian city of Kishinev, on the southwestern edge of the Russian Empire, April 1903

Topham/The Image Works