a day in the city of slaughter

August 3, 2022, Israel

Jewish victims of the Kishinev Pogrom/Massacre, 1903, Russian Empire (today Moldova)

I have a memory...I am sitting on the bus. I am in third grade I believe, it is a school trip. At that age the trips were only the length of a school day and we did not go very far, and yet, it was exciting. We were visiting Tel Aviv, perhaps 40 minutes or so from where we lived, there were a few stops on the trip. One was a bakery, to see how they made bread, I can still picture it. And the other was the home of the late great Hebrew poet Hayim Nahman Bialik (the American actress Mayim Bialik is a relative of his). 

Bialik is considered Israel's national poet, although he passed away before the rebirth of Israel as a modern state. He was born in Volhynian of the Russian Empire in 1873 and moved to Tel Aviv in 1924. Here he became a popular figure and his home was open to all. It is this home that we would be visiting. 

What made the trip even more exciting was that my dear mother, may she rest in peace, was with me. The school always required two parents to come along as chaperons and my mother accepted this invitation. I think teenagers are often embarrassed to have their parents around on events with their peers, but I, as a child of about 9, was very happy about this. I was happy to share this wonderful experience with my mother. I know she found the trip very interesting and of course she grew up with the poetry of Bialik. Over the years we reflected many times upon this trip, reminiscing about it. Now that she has left this world this memory becomes even more precious; a wonderful day with my mom. We shared a love of languages, in particular the Hebrew language, and we often discussed the beauty and the roots of Hebrew words. I cherish this memory of this shared experience.

And now I think back, what a people that honors its poets so! We visited his home, I recall his desk and chair, but it was "to be there" where so many great literary creations took place. Imagine a society that honors the written word so that even small children are exposed to these writers. If our teachers goal was to imbue us with a sense of wonder and respect for the written word, it has worked very well in my case. That visit to the home of the great poet has certainly impacted my life and given me a life long appreciation of writers, words, and clever twists of phrase. 

Today I was reading about the history of anti Jewish hatred and was reminded of the poem that Bialik wrote following the Kishinev Pogrom/Massacre of 1903. Just a little background; the Jews of Europe have suffered from violent persecution for the better part of the past 1,900 years, but it ebbed and flowed. With the waning years of the 19th century it appeared that the situation might be improving, Napoleon of France became the first leader to award Jews with citizenship, a concept that was unheard of until then. But in 1903 in the Russian Empire the hatred was brewing strong and pogroms, or anti Jewish riots, were common. The Kishinev Pogrom of 1903 stood out for its violence and made international news. 

The pogrom began on April 19 (or April 6 according to the Julian calendar which was in use in the Russian Empire). After the congregations were dismissed from church services on Easter Sunday they went to plunder the Jews. Many were murdered, many women were brutally raped in front of their families, synagogues were destroyed, holy schools of the Torah were desecrated, 700 houses were destroyed and 600 stores were pillaged. (The Russian authorities described these as "protests" much as in current USA similar pogroms are described as "protest", the correct term is Pogrom). 

On April 28, 1903 the New York Times reprinted a Yiddish Daily News report that was smuggled out of Russia. 
"The mob was led by priests, and the general cry, 'Kill the Jews' was taken up all over the city. The Jews were taken wholly unaware and were slaughtered like sheep. The dead number 120 and the injured about 500. The scenes of horror attending this massacre are beyond description. Babes were literally torn to pieces by the frenzied and bloodthirsty mob. The local police made no attempt to check the reign of terror. At sunset the streets were piled with corpses and wounded. Those who could make their escape fled in terror, and the city is now practically deserted of Jews."(The New York Times, 28 April 1903, page 6)

Hayim Nahman Bialik was horrified with the news and came with a delegation to visit the area. He interviewed witnesses and survivors and decided to commemorate the event with a poem. The poem is written in beautiful Hebrew. I will bring it below in an excellent English translation. The poem had a huge impact upon the Jewish world. It was a wake up call to the Jews to stop being victims, to wake up and make their own destiny, it was time to leave Russian soil, it was time to come home to Israel, it was time to pick up arms and train in self-defense. 

Bialik's poem is very relevant today, to us, to all people. It could have been written today about the general culture of "Victimhood". It is about the moral wages of powerlessness, it is about how to understand ones collective situation. 

Now let us think about his for a moment: Please read the poem yourself, it is long but well-worth your time. Parts of it are not easy to understand but here I will share the message with you. 

Bialik is writing in great pain. He is angry. He calls out to God, where are you? But he also criticizes the Jewish people. Yes, he is not attacking the Church, he is not attacking the Russians, he is not blaming the world for he knows that that is pointless. He is rebuking the Jewish people. Now let us think about that and put it in a modern current context.

Often we see on Social Media calls for sympathy. Someone is seeking to "increase awareness" (as if we are unaware of the violence in the world). Basically people are looking for an international group hug. And when I call out for action, when I say stop crying and start training, stop complaining and start doing, I am criticized widely for being unsympathetic to the victims. I am criticized for "blaming or shaming the victims", I am told that this is not the right time to make these statements. And worst of all I am accused of "using tragedy to try and increase my Krav Maga business". 

Bialik writes, "...Sing your horse beggar song, ask for alms beneath the high windows. Everywhere in the world like wretched curves or serfs to their masters."

This was not the traditional response, Bialik was asking the victims, what are you going to do now? Go and make your suffering known around the world, are you going to be schnorrers like you have always been? (Schnorrer is a Yiddish word, a very derogatory word for a lowly pathetic beggar). Are you going to beg for a slice of international pity? No, there is nothing left to hope for.

He is asking the Victims, are you going to use the remains of your dead relatives to arouse sympathy? are you going to use your wounds to get donations?  or, in current terms, are you going to ask what Others will do for you? His message was Wake up and get going.

Rather than, Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for country (JFK), today's people ask only - What can others do for me, and, why have others not done enough for me. 

This was one of those rare moments in history when the written word led people to change their practices, even more so, it led them to change their way of thinking, their behavior. In his epic poem Bialik reminds the Jews of the days of the Maccabees, the Hasmoneans who took up the sword and battled the Hellenists/Greek/Syriac in the year 164 B.C.E. and defeated the mighty heathen emperor. Judah the Maccabee killed the great general Apollonius and took his sword. With this sword he battled the Heathens for many years to come, fearlessly meeting and beating them in battle. And today, his descendants, what are you doing?

"Of Hasmoneans lay, with trembling knees,

Concealed and cowering - the sons of the Maccabees! 

The seed of holy ones, the scions of the lions!

...it was the flight of mice they fled, the scurrying of roaches was their flight; They died like dogs, and they were dead!"

"The hatchet found them here, and hither do they come

To seal with a last look, as with their final breath. 

The agony of their lives, the terror of their death. "

If this were today Bialik would be crucified on Social Media. "Victim Shaming", "How dare you!" but that was a different generation and his poem hit them hard and they responded. Rare is it the moment in history when the poet moves the people so, that they take a deep hard look at themselves and...change their ways. How we could use this attitude today!

No one took offense for they knew that Bialik wrote with love, with compassion. His words were true then, his words are true today.

I have written about this many times. A woman is murdered, this is tragic. People take to the streets in protest, they demand solutions. And I ask, why not take a turn, make a right at the light and walk two blocks to the local Krav Maga school. Sign up, start training, we are waiting for you with open arms! Come and join us and we shall help you.

Today my attitude is considered inappropriate but look at our national poet, the great Hayim Nahman Bialik, speaking to those who have suffered such a terrible fate, to see your own daughters and wives raped by such vile creatures!!!  The tragedy of Kishinev still haunts us today, even as a child this event was known to me, as if I were born with this knowledge and pain.

and yet, he wrote it, and yes, people responded. Many of those who responded became the warriors of the new State of Israel, many became the founders of one the greatest military forces in the world today. We took the rebuke and we accepted the challenge. 

and now I go back, and I am seated on the bus, and my mother is there, so close, little could I have imagined on that day that today, as an older man I would look back and remember this moment so vividly. I have taken up both the pen and the sword, and like Bialik I try to move people to take action to protect themselves, to better themselves.

What a day to remember, for both mother and son, a task not yet completed, a job not yet done.
For as long as we live, as long as we breath, we are commanded to act, every moment to seize.

Turn, then, thy gaze from the dead, and I will lead

Thee from the graveyard to thy living brothers...

In the City of Slaughter

by Haim Nahman Bialik

This poem was written by Haim Nahman Bialik in 1904 in the aftermath of the Kishinev pogrom of 1903. It is considered the most influential Jewish poem of the twentieth century.

Arise and go now to the city of slaughter;

Into its courtyard wind thy way;

There with thine own hand touch, and with the eyes of thine head,

Behold on tree, on stone, on fence, on mural clay,

The spattered blood and dried brains of the dead.

Proceed thence to the ruins, the split walls reach,

Where wider grows the hollow, and greater grows the breach;

Pass over the shattered hearth, attain the broken wall

Those burnt and barren brick, whose charred stones reveal

The open mouths of such wounds, that no mending

Shall ever mend, nor healing ever heal.

There will thy feet in feathers sink, and stumble

On wreckage doubly wrecked, scroll heaped on manuscript.

Fragments again fragmented

Pause not upon this havoc; go thy way

Unto the attic mount, upon thy feet and hands;

Behold the shadow of death among the shadows stands.

Crushed in their shame, they saw it all;

They did not pluck their eyes out; they

Beat not their brains against the wall!

Perhaps, perhaps, each watcher bad it in his heart to pray:

A miracle, O Lord, and spare my skin this day!

Come, now, and I will bring thee to their lairs

The privies, jakes and pigpens where the heirs

Of Hasmoneans lay, with trembling knees,

Concealed and cowering -the sons of the Maccabees!

The seed of saints, the scions of the lions!

Who, crammed by scores in all the sanctuaries of their shame

So sanctified My name!

It was the flight of mice they fled,

The scurrying of roaches was their flight;

They died like dogs, and they were dead!

And on the next morn, after the terrible night

The son who was not murdered found

The spurned cadaver of his father on the ground.

Now wherefore dost thou weep, O son of Man?

Brief-weary and forespent, a dark Shekinah

Runs to each nook and cannot find its rest;

Wishes to weep, but weeping does not come;

Would roar; is dumb.

Its head beneath its wing, its wing outspread

Over the shadows of the martyr’d dead,

Its tears in dimness and in silence shed.

And thou, too, son of man, close now the gate behind thee;

Be closed in darkness now, now thine that charnel space;

So tarrying there thou wilt be one with pain and anguish

And wilt fill up with sorrow thine heart for all its days.

Then on the day of thine own desolation

A refuge will it seem,

Lying in thee like a curse, a demon’s ambush,

The haunting of an evil dream,

O, carrying it in thy heart, across the world’s expanse

Thou wouldst proclaim it, speak it out,

But thy lips shall not find its utterance.

Beyond the suburbs go, and reach the burial ground.

Let no man see thy going; attain that place alone,

A place of sainted graves and martyr-stone.

Stand on the fresh-turned soil.

There in the dismal corner, there in the shadowy nook,

Multitudinous eyes will look

Upon thee from the sombre silence

The spirits of the martyrs are these souls,

Gathered together, at long last,

Beneath these rafters and in these ignoble holes.

The hatchet found them here, and hither do they come

To seal with a last look, as with their final breath,

The agony of their lives, the terror of their death.

Question the spider in his lair!

His eyes beheld these things; and with his web he can

A tale unfold horrific to the ear of man:

A tale of cloven belly, feather-filled;

Of nostrils nailed, of skull-bones bashed and spilled;

Of murdered men who from the beams were hung,

And of a babe beside its mother flung,

Its mother speared, the poor chick finding rest

Upon its mother’s cold and milkless breast;

Of how a dagger halved an infant’s word,

Its ma was heard, its mama never heard.

Then wilt thou bid thy spirit – Hold, enough!

Stifle the wrath that mounts within thy throat,

Bury these things accursed,

Within the depth of thy heart, before thy heart will burst!

Then wilt thou leave that place, and go thy way

And lo-

The earth is as it was, the sun still shines:

It is a day like any other day.

Descend then, to the cellars of the town,

There where the virginal daughters of thy folk were fouled,

Where seven heathen flung a woman down,

The daughter in the presence of her mother,

The mother in the presence of her daughter,

Before slaughter, during slaughter and after slaughter!

Note also, do not fail to note,

In that dark corner, and behind that cask

Crouched husbands, bridegrooms, brothers, peering from the cracks,

Watching the sacred bodies struggling underneath

The bestial breath,

Stifled in filth, and swallowing their blood!

Such silence will take hold of thee, thy heart will fail

With pain and shame, yet I

Will let no tear fall from thine eye.

Though thou wilt long to bellow like the driven ox

That bellows, and before the Altar balks,

I will make hard thy heart, yea, I

Will not permit a sigh.

See, see, the slaughtered calves, so smitten and so laid;

Is there a price for their death? How shall that price be paid?

Forgive, ye shamed of the earth, yours is a pauper-Lord!

Poor was He during your life, and poorer still of late.

When to my door you come to ask for your reward,

I’ll open wide: See, I am fallen from My high estate.

I grieve for you, my children. My heart is sad for you.

Your dead were vainly dead; and neither I nor you

Know why you died or wherefore, for whom, nor by what laws;

Your deaths are without reason; your lives are without cause.

Turn, then, thy gaze from the dead, and I will lead

Thee from the graveyard to thy living brothers,

And thou wilt come, with those of thine own breed,

Into the synagogue, and on a day of fasting,

To hear the cry of their agony,

Their weeping everlasting.

Thy skin will grow cold, the hair on thy skin stand up,

And thou wilt be by fear and trembling tossed;

Thus groans a people which is lost.

Look in their hearts – behold a dreary waste,

Where even vengeance can revive no growth,

And yet upon their lips no mighty malediction

Rises, no blasphemous oath.

Speak to them, bid them rage!

Let them against me raise the outraged hand,

Let them demand!

Demand the retribution for the shamed

Of all the centuries and every age!

Let fists be flung like stone

Against the heavens and the heavenly Throne!

And thou, too, pity them not, nor touch their wound;

Within their cup no further measure pour.

Wherever thou wilt touch, a bruise is found,

Their flesh is wholly sore.

For since they have met pain with resignation

And have made peace with shame,

What shall avail thy consolation?

They are too wretched to evoke thy scorn.

They are too lost thy pity to evoke.

So let them go, then, men to sorrow born,

Mournful and slinking, crushed beneath their yoke.

So to their homes, and to their hearth depart

Rot in the bones, corruption in the heart.

And go upon the highway,

Thou shalt then meet these men destroyed by sorrow,

Sighing and groaning, at the doors of the wealthy

Proclaiming their sores, like so much peddler’s wares,

The one his battered head, t’other limbs unhealthy,

One shows a wounded arm, and one a fracture bares.

And all have eyes that are the eyes of slaves,

Slaves flogged before their masters;

And each one begs, and each one craves:

Reward me, Master, for that my skull is broken.

Reward me for my father who was martyred!

And so their sympathy implore.

For you are now as you have been of yore

As you stretched your hand

So will you stretch it,

And as you have been wretched

So are you wretched!

What is thy business here, o son of man?

Rise, to the desert flee!

The cup of affliction thither bear with thee!

Take thou they soul, rend it in many a shred!

With impotent rage, thy heart deform!

Thy tear upon the barren boulders shed

And send they bitter cry into the storm.