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The Russian Pogroms in Hebrew Literature and the Subversion of the Martyrological Ideal

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 October 2009

Alan Mintz
Department of Hebrew and East Asian, Languages and Literatures, University of Maryland, College Park, MD 20742
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The developments triggered or accelerated by the anti-Jewish pogroms of 1881–1882 in Russia form a panorama of East European Jewish history at the end of the century: Zionism, the Bund, mass emigration and mass pauperization. The role of Hebrew literature in responding to these pogroms as well as to the later round of violence between 1903 and 1905 is significant for two reasons. In its own setting, Hebrew literature is crucial to an analysis of the consciousness of the period because it represents the response of an important segment of the intelligentsia of Russian Jewry, namely, those who associated themselves with national revival and its cultural medium, Hebrew. Hebrew fiction and poetry on the pogroms are also significant when studied in a vertical perspective, that is, in relationship to an evolved and elaborate set of traditions of response to catastrophe in Hebrew sources from the Bible and midrash through the piyyutim, chronicles, and consolation texts of the Middle Ages. Hebrew writing between 1881 and 1905 both partakes of that tradition and rebels against it, and in so doing reconstitutes the tradition; and it is that new tradition which must be confronted, evaded, or subverted when the literary imagination faces the more destructive pogroms of the World War I period and later the Holocaust itself.

Research Article
Copyright © Association for Jewish Studies 1982

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1. See my “Guenzburg, Lilienblum, and the Shape of Haskalah Autobiography,” A JSreview4 (1979): 71–111.Google Scholar

2. “My Sister Ruhamah” was first published in Migdanot, a supplement to Ha-melifṣ20 (1882).Google Scholar

3. Klausner, Israel, “The Pogroms in Russia at the Beginning of the 1880s in Poetry and Prose” [Hebrew], He-'Avar 9 (1962): 715.Google Scholar

4. Jonahgurland, Hayyim, Le-qorot ha-gezerot 'al yisra'el [Sources for the History of the Persecutions of Israel](Przemysl, 1887–1892).Google Scholar

5. Neubauer, Adolf, ed., Hebraische Berichte uber die Judenverfolgungen wdhrend der Kreuzzuge(Berlin, 1892).Google Scholar

6. Buber, Solomon, Midrasch Echa Rabbati(Vilna, 1899).Google Scholar

7. Divrei yemei yisra'el, 8 vols. (Warsaw, 1890–1902).

8. Kol kitvei Mendele Mokher Sefarim(Tel Aviv, 1958), p. 384.

9. Ibid, p. 384.

10. Ibid., pp. 444–48.

11. Ibid., p. 444.

12. Ibid., p. 446.

13. Saul Tchernichowsky, Shirim, 2 vols. (Tel Aviv, 1966), 2: 523–50. References will be to pages in this edition. The poem was begun in Odessa in the late 1890s and finished in Heidelberg in 1900. It should be noted how long before Kishinev, with which “Baruch of Mainz” is often associated, the poem was actually written. For the rather complicated publishing history of the poem, which involved problems with the censor, see Klausner, Joseph, Sha'ut Tshernikhovski, ha-'adam ve-ha-meshorer [Saul Tchernichowsky, The Man and the Poet](Jerusalem, 1947), pp. 8691.Google Scholar

14. Habermann, A. B., Gezerot 'Ashkenaz ve-Ṣarefat(Jerusalem, 1945), pp. 3738.Google Scholar

15. See Yosef Haefrati, Ha-'ldilyah shel Tshernikhovski [The Idyll in Tchernichowsky](Merhavyah and Tel Aviv, 1971).

16. See the piyyut “Qelalah ve-shamta” in Habermann, pp. 105–6.

17. Klausner reports that in addition to the curses, the most admired and anthologized section of the poem was the description of the coming of night in the idyll.

18. Translated in Glatzer, Nahum N., The Language of Prayer(New York, 1967), p. 194.Google Scholar

19. Baron, Salo W., The Russian Jew under the Tsars and the Soviets(New York, 1964), pp. 6769.Google Scholar

20. For an exhaustive historical survey of this territory with publication details of the poems mentioned here, see A. R. Malakhi, “The Kishinev Pogroms as Reflected in Hebrew and Yiddish Poetry” [Hebrew] in Al 'admat Besarabiah[On Bessarabian Soil], 3 vols., ed. Getzel Kxessel (Jerusalem, 1963), 3: 1–98.Google Scholar

21. “In the City of Slaughter” was published with the title “Massa Nemirov” (“The Prophecy of Nemirov”) in Ha-zeman(ed. Ben Zion Katz) 3 (1904). The title, which refers to 1648, was used to satisfy the censor's demand for nontopicality. The poem was published as “In the City of Slaughter” in pamphlet form in 1905/1906 together with two other poems. The pamphlet was titled Mi-shirei ha-za'am (Songs of Wrath)and included the restoration of several censored lines. The Yiddish version (“In a shkhite shtot”), in which the poem gained wide diffusion, was done by Bialik himself in 1906 upon Peretz's failure to render a translation that satisfied Bialik. The Yiddish version is not a translation so much as a new version with its own artistic integrity.

22. Some of the testimonies that Bialik took down have been published by Israel Halpern, ed., Sefer ha-gevurah: 'antologyah historit-sifrutit [The Book of Heroism: A Historical-Literary Anthology], 3 vols. (Tel Aviv, 1951), 3: 4–14. This project, whose first sections were published in 1941, records documents pertaining to Jewish self-defense amidst persecution from Massada to World War I. It was the first book issued by the publishing house Am Oved, and it is an extraordinary example of a Zionist attempt to create a countermythology to traditional martyrology.

23. The Complete Poetic Works of Hayyim Nahman Bialik, ed. Israel Efros (New York, 1948), pp. 105ff.Google Scholar

24. The critic was probably Nahum Syrkin. See Malakhi, pp. 70–72 and p. 79 on David Frishman's criticism.

25. Jules Harlow, ed. Mahzor for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (New York, 1972), pp. 556–559. Also, Chaim Stern, ed., Gates of Repentance, The New Union Prayerbook for the Days of Awe(New York, 1978), pp. 429–42. On the absorption of these texts into a tradition, see the important essay of David Roskies, “The Pogrom Poem and the Literature of Destruction,” Note Dame English Journal 11 (1979): 89–113.