On April 6, 1903, Easter Sunday, a riled up mob streamed out of churches throughout the Serbian capital of Kishinev and began attacking Jews.
“[The anti-Semitic pogroms in Kishinev were] worse than the censor will permit to publish,” the New York Times reporter in Saint Petersburg wrote. “There was a well laid-out plan for the general massacre of Jews on the day following the Orthodox Easter. 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 scenes of horror attending this massacre are beyond description…. 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.”
In the months leading up to the pogrom, the local media in Kishinev incited against Jews, agitating for anti-Semitism. This peaked on the eve of Easter with blood libel articles following the murder of a Christian boy in a village near Kishinev and the suicide of a Christian girl in a Jewish hospital in the city. The Jews of Russia were frozen in shock amidst all these events. The Jewish historian, Simon Dubnow, organized a delegation that set out for Kishinev to report on the pogrom and monitor the trial of the perpetrators. The delegation members included Hayyim Nachman Bialik, who expressed his impressions in two furious poems. After attending the court investigation of the pogrom, he wrote, “On the Slaughter,” one of his most moving poems:
“Heaven, beg mercy for me!
If there is a God in you,
a pathway through you to this God –
which I have not discovered –
then pray for me!
“… if there is justice –
let it show itself at once!
But if justice show itself
after I have been blotted out from
beneath the skies –
let its throne be hurled down forever!
“… Cursed be the man who says:
Avenge! No such revenge – revenge for
the blood of a little child – has yet been
devised by Satan.”
After spending five weeks in Kishinev, Bialik wrote, “Arise and go now to the city of slaughter,” in “City of the Slaughter.” “For God called up the slaughter and the spring together… the sun shone, the acacia blossomed, and the slaughter slaughtered!”
Bialik’s poems reverberated throughout the shocked Jewish communities.
In October 1905, yet another wave of pogroms broke out as part of the revolutionary struggle against the czar. The violence spread to over 600 villages all over Russia. In some villages, Jewish defense organizations succeeded to stop the assailants, but in most places, Jews were slaughtered and murdered. Many of the young Jewish students in the Haskalah circles saw themselves as part of the revolutionary movement then active in Russia. However, as they now found out, the Russian revolutionaries did not see them as part of this movement. They would always be considered outsiders; Moshe Leib Lilienblum’s words, “Strangers we are and strangers we shall remain,” had penetrated their consciousness.
The pogroms spawned a new immigration movement. Hundreds of thousands of Jews packed up their lives and made their way across Germany to Hamburg, where they acquired a ticket in steerage on the HAPAG Line, the shipping company that would account for most of the Jewish immigration to New York.
Between the two waves of pogroms, Theodor Herzl died. The news of his death, in the middle of the great conflict over Uganda, spurred a new wave of immigration to Palestine. Young, idealistic, disillusioned Jewish Russian revolutionaries set out from Odessa, Moscow, and Saint Petersburg to create a future for the Jewish people in Palestine.
This revolutionary group of young people accounted for only 2,000 of the 20,000 members of the Zionist movement who made aliyah after 1905. However, their impact on the future heritage of the State of Israel was huge. They included David Grün (who later changed his name to Ben-Gurion), Moshe Sharett, Levi Shkolnik (Eshkol), Zalman Shazar, Izhak Shimshelevich (Ben-Zvi), Berl Katzenelson, David Remez, Joseph Hayyim Brenner, Shmuel Yosef Agnon, and the philosopher and elder of the group, Aharon David Gordon.