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Anatomy of a Pogrom

How the anti-Jewish riot in Kishinev, then the capital of the Bessarabia Governorate in the Russian Empire, unfolded on April 19 and 20, 1903—an excerpt from a new history

Steven J. Zipperstein
March 23, 2018
Image: Library of Congress/Wikipedia
The US President Theodore Roosevelt to Tsar Nicholas II of Russia: "Stop your cruel oppression of the Jews." A 1904 lithograph in relation to the first Kishinev pogrom.Image: Library of Congress/Wikipedia
Image: Library of Congress/Wikipedia
The US President Theodore Roosevelt to Tsar Nicholas II of Russia: "Stop your cruel oppression of the Jews." A 1904 lithograph in relation to the first Kishinev pogrom.Image: Library of Congress/Wikipedia

It began inconspicuously, as so many riots do. People jostled in a sparsely policed public square lined with Jewish-owned shops. Worshippers idled after Easter services at the nearby Ciuflea Church, some drinking steadily once services ended, and teenagers as well as Jews—restless near the end of the long, eight-day Passover festival—were all rubbing shoulders. The weather was suddenly and blissfully temperate, dry after intermittent rain.

Soon it would be commonplace to juxtapose the pogrom’s horrors and its benign springtime weather. Bialik, too, would do much the same in “In the City of Killing,” while also highlighting the buoyant expectations that surfaced for Jews at the start of a fresh new century viewed against the obscenity of Kishinev’s butchery.

Details of these terrible spring days, with their changes from moist to warm, would figure among the cascade of information, small and large, amassed by teams of reporters, Jewish activists, political radicals, well-known writers, philanthropists, lawyers, and civil servants in the months following the pogrom. The ubiquity of this knowledge had much to do with the city’s location, the swiftness with which word of the massacre spread, and the belief that—in its wake—proof had finally surfaced of government complicity. An epoch of permanent pogroms was now predicted by some, making Kishinev into a sort of talisman, a glimpse of terrible things soon to come, which meant, in turn, that its contours provided immeasurably more than mere information about the recent past but an indispensable glimpse into the future as well.


Rumors of attacks surfaced nearly every year in Kishinev before the start of Easter. In 1903 they appeared to be especially threatening. Accusations of ritual murder in the newspaper Bessarabets remained shrill despite official repudiation; there was word of menacing anti-Jewish meetings held in the back room of a Kishinev tavern; and leaflets calling for the beating of Jews were discovered in bars, cheap restaurants, and flophouses. “Grant a zhid free reign [sic], and he will reign over our Holy Russia, will take things into his own paws,” declared the leaflets. By then Bessarabets had launched a private club, a semisecret society that met regularly, it seems, with its goal being resistance to an imminent Jewish onslaught. All this, as Krushevan’s colleague Georgi A. Pronin would later insist, was in response to news that Jews had held a secret meeting in Kishinev’s largest synagogue, where they plotted to unleash horrible deeds.

Against this backdrop, Jewish anxieties were heightened. Jewish shop owners admitted that, for the first time in recent memory, they took home bank records, receipts, and similar financial documents for safekeeping. Employees were informed that stores would likely stay shut for a day or two after the Passover festival—a precaution against Easter-day violence that was nearly always avoided since the long Passover festival already meant loss of profit. Such precautions were sporadic, however, with the risk of a particularly violent riot not taken all that seriously.

Easter Sunday, April 6 began with a chill in the air. Puddles from the downpour earlier that week still pockmarked the city’s mostly unpaved neighborhoods. By late morning families dressed for Easter service sauntered in the cluttered streets near Chuflinskii Square at the city’s eastern edge. Those at the Ciuflea Church spilled out onto the nearby square.

By midday the square was packed. In previous years it had boasted a carousel, but officials seeking to dampen holiday revelry—which had sometimes gotten out of control—shut the ride down that year, stationing additional police at the square’s edge. Some Jews had gravitated to the square, despite warnings issued at Kishinev’s synagogues that morning that Jews should go directly home after services. With the Passover festival and its special foods and mandated conviviality nearly at their end, Jews overlooked the warnings to take advantage of temperate weather and the pleasures of the Christian festival.

Around noon clusters of boys, few older than ten years old, started roughing up Jews. Police intervened, but the children ran away, and police caught only a handful. The taunting continued, but most people assumed it was no more than a harmless prank; Jews themselves took little notice. Children, some adults, too, started tossing rocks at the windows of Jewish stores—this in keeping with a well-trodden holiday tradition that was rarely more than annoying.

By 2:00 p.m., the crowd had thickened, with some now much drunker. Many witnesses later reported that in the square were students from the local Russian Orthodox seminary, some in uniform, inciting the crowd to turn on Jews. Trial witnesses insisted that the students were joined by dozens of men sporting the festive red shirts favored by workers. In the first reports appearing in Western newspapers, the riot was described as an attack by workers; testimony later given in court indicated that these “workers” were most likely rabble-rousers close to Krushevan’s circle who were disguised so as to leave the impression that workingmen were turning on the Jews.

In hindsight the questions are numerous: How many agitators were there in the first hours of the riot? How decisive were the provocations of seminary students spotted by so many at the riot’s start, and of those in the Bessarabets circle? Was there really a close connection—widely believed at the time but not examined by the court or conclusively proved—between Krushevan’s entourage and the massacre? Was this a linkage merely taken for granted because of his newspaper’s persistent Jew-baiting? Cutting through the thicket of rumor and counter-rumor is difficult to be sure; many of the most reliable reports are the ones that surfaced early, before the massacre coalesced into the event it soon became. In nearly all of these, Krushevan’s involvement, whether direct or somewhat less obvious but still critical, is prominently foregrounded.

Jewish-owned stores near Chuflinskii Square—today an ungainly parking lot just outside Chișinău’s Academy of Sciences—were ransacked first. Liquor stores, given their tempting contents, were targeted immediately; by the riot’s end, not a single Jewish-run liquor shop would be left unscathed, with many literally torn to pieces.

Rioters later justified these attacks by saying that they had entered the stores merely to ask the Jewish proprietors for free drinks—and pillaged only once they were refused. Throughout the violence, similar explanations—with a roughly comparable interplay between seeming reasonableness and absurdity—circulated and were repeated at the subsequent trials. Rioters either drank all the liquor in these pillaged stores on the spot or poured what remained onto the street. Tobacco stores were ransacked next, with the remnants of their merchandise, too, scattered on streets now swimming in a mixture of rainwater and liquor. Arriving at the New Market, a mile and a half from the site where the riot had started and it, too, lined with Jewish stores, a shoe shop was emptied of its stock as those inside outfitted themselves with its goods. These forays, destructive as they were, involved only the theft of goods readily eaten, drunk, or worn.

The riot spread westward through a cluster of a few streets, several of them quite large, where Jewish stores stood side by side with others owned by non-Jews—these were left unattacked; the mayhem stopped at the New Market, half a mile or so from the city center. Still, no more than two or three dozen people were responsible for this rioting, and they could easily be written off as drunks or rowdy adolescents. However, by 4:00 p.m., the crowd had grown, with seminarians and others guiding the mob to Jewish homes, which they started to pelt with stones. Jews insisted that lists of Jewish addresses had been drawn up in advance, but no such lists ever surfaced.

The first residence attacked was that of Herman Feldman, an opulent home just down the street from where Kishinev’s mayor, Karl Schmidt, lived. It was also next door to the city’s most exclusive brothel, whose employees had already been packed off elsewhere. Nearby, the office of Bessarabets had its windows stoned because a radical student misdirected the mob to it, claiming it was the property of Jews. Jews found on the street became objects of abuse: An elderly Jew, his wife, and grandchild found themselves threatened but managed to escape when a policeman intervened to protect them. Others beseeched the police for help but were told that the mob was now beyond their capacity to control.

By 4:00 or 5:00 p.m., as the afternoon yielded to evening, cries of “Death to Jews!” and “Strike the Jews!” could be heard. Buildings with large numbers of Jews—much of Kishinev’s housing had Jews and non-Jews living side by side—were surrounded and pelted with rocks. On the whole, these buildings were attacked for no more than ten or fifteen minutes, the crowds then moving on to other targets. On rare occasions, the mob stayed for hours, until outer doors were smashed and the building overrun. Jewish doctors seeking to respond to the needs of wounded Jews found themselves able to reach them only if they wore crosses. Christians scrawled crosses on the windows of their homes to protect themselves from attack; when Jews tried to do the same, it rarely worked—one more indication, as was widely believed, that rioters had been alerted in advance to where Jews lived. Jews managing to pass themselves off as gentiles were told that permission had been granted to attack Jews for the next few days because “they drink our blood.” A Jewish saloon owner who watched as his inventory was subsumed by rioters or poured onto the street overheard the mob toasting Krushevan’s health. A slab of meat found cooking in a shop owner’s home adjacent to his wrecked store was waved over the heads of rioters with the announcement that it was the remains of a Christian child. The wife of the Jewish shopkeeper Yudel Fishman, whose building was broken into, managed to escape with her child in her arms, but she dropped the newborn as she fled to the train station, the baby crushed to death in the onslaught.

David Doiben lived on Gostinaia Street, a boisterous street lined with three- and four-story buildings, many of them hotels, including the posh Swiss Hotel; it ran directly into the New Market and was the hardest hit on the riot’s first day. Doiben described how he had obeyed the warning to stay inside until midafternoon when he accompanied his wife and children to his brother’s home a few blocks away. They spotted nothing at the time. Returning an hour and a half later, however, they ran into two non-Jewish acquaintances who warned them to go home immediately. Suddenly a group of rioters ran past them without stopping. Once they disappeared, Doiben and his family saw a Jew, his clothes ripped, who shouted, “They’re beating us and tearing us apart!” Turning the corner to their apartment building, Doiben found it surrounded by a crowd of fifty boys (and a few girls), throwing rocks and smashing against its door. He managed to get into the building, hiding his family inside. After breaking the courtyard door, the rioters entered the building and demanded money, beating those who did not comply and stealing all they could carry.

Reports on the first day were often contradictory. If, as seems clear, the riot stretched from Chuflinskii Square (where it started) to just beyond the New Market (where Feldman’s home was located), this meant it covered an area of nearly two miles. Nonetheless, the Odessa-based British consul general described it as “a small sized crowd confined to three or four streets.” Although this was technically accurate, it was also true that these streets were within striking distance of the city center. Some would claim that the first killings occurred that day, but this was almost certainly incorrect.

Transportation across town under any circumstances was cumbersome—trolleys were few and far between, and not many of the streets beyond the city center were lit at night—so rioters covering the area pillaged mostly by foot. Much of Lower Kishinev, at its farthest edge little more than a mile from the center of the first day’s violence, knew nothing of the mayhem until the following morning. And except for the shattering of windows here and there in Lower Kishinev—which commenced around nine that night—not much spilled over into that densely Jewish neighborhood until the next day. Attacks on women continued elsewhere well into the night, stopping only at 11:00 p.m.

It has been estimated that no more than two hundred rioters participated in the attacks that day. Rarely did they linger in the way in which the mob did at Doiben’s building. Mostly they clustered in groups of twenty, sometimes as many as fifty, spending no more than ten minutes at any address; youngsters arrived first, followed by older and stronger rioters. Children would rarely do more than throw rocks; the adults were more intent on plunder. Already on the first day, those counted as the fiercest were Moldavians—identified by the language they used or their accents—many hailing, it seems, from the agrarian edge of the city or adjacent villages. By the next day, many more would arrive, often with wagons to carry away the contents of Jewish homes.

Violence continued to escalate that night. Yosef Aaron and his brothers, merchants all, later described how they protected themselves from attack at 10:00 p.m. by shooting bullets into the air when rioters broke into their house. The mob immediately fled. The merchants then gathered their neighbors together and distributed iron bars and wooden clubs, with the decision made that they would fight the next day but only if attacked by adults and not children. Interestingly, even hours after the violence erupted, it remained unclear whether or not this was merely the work of adolescent pranksters. Nevertheless, precautions were now taken by many of those with sufficient resources to flee to nearby hotels, or to board trains for Kiev or Odessa. Some even traveled nearly a thousand miles to Vienna.

Warnings abounded—at least, as recalled once the massacre ended—of greater violence the next day. A gentile gatekeeper for a building near the New Market mockingly asked Jewish residents when he appeared for work, “What’s happening here?” He added as he locked the courtyard for the night that it was well known that permission had been granted for three days of violence. Attacks on women that night were ferocious. In an apartment near the New Market on Nikolaevskii Street, one of the city’s major boulevards, a woman was raped repeatedly for four consecutive hours by members of a mob that included seminarians, according to Davitt. At the same place, another woman who beseeched police to stop this attack was told that Jews were getting just what they deserved.

By now sixty rioters had been arrested; by the end of the next day, the number jailed would exceed nine hundred. Curiously, despite the day’s horrors, many Jews—including communal leaders—remained convinced that the riot was not nearly as bad as had been feared, or that it had now been contained. Early on the morning of the second day, some 150 Jews converged on Governor General Raaben’s offices. Only a small delegation was permitted to meet with him, and they were given the assurance that order would immediately be restored. Perhaps because the many rapes late the night before had not yet been reported or because the riot had been concentrated in only one slice of the city—albeit a highly visible and central part of it, with no one yet killed—this guarantee was believed. Such optimism would quickly vanish.


It rained that night and was still raining at 5:00 a.m. Monday. The rain was light but persistent, with the likelihood of an overcast and wet day. “Perhaps the rain will be our deliverance,” shopkeeper Yisrael Rossman recalls thinking early that morning. Soon the rain cleared, however, and the weather became balmy. As Bialik captured this moment in his poem “In the City of Killing”: “The sun rose, rye blossomed, and the slaughterer slaughtered.”

Rossman hurried off soon after the rain ended to the New Market to check on the condition of his store. Footsteps could be heard all around him, he recalled, as he walked the still-wet, dark streets with many other Jews doing the same. On his way, he spotted a policeman, whom he asked what to expect that day. The officer admitted he had no idea. Returning to his home a couple of hours later—it was now 8:00 a.m.—he found himself scrutinizing the faces of Christians passing by but saw no sign at all of antagonism. Yet once he reached his home, he found the building surrounded by an increasingly menacing mob. Hiding his family along with dozens of neighbors in a barn on the property—many in the building hid themselves in one or another of the outhouses—Rossman recalled that the mob sounded like “wild animals.” The rioters concentrated now on demolishing the large wooden doors protecting the building’s courtyard. Once these were shattered, marauders entered, calling out repeatedly, “Jews, right now!”

Why the targeting of some buildings and not others? Probably a crucial factor, quite simply, was the condition of the external doors: Some were too sturdy to dislodge. In Rossman’s building, with its mix of Jewish and non-Jewish tenants, it seems clear that much like elsewhere rioters found themselves able to readily identify Jews—including those without distinctively Jewish garb. There is little evidence of gentiles misconstrued during the massacre as Jews. Once the mob was inside, the loudest screams were nearly always those of women and girls, who were attacked first, with the men protecting them beaten. Rossman’s brother first hid himself in an outhouse, abandoning it because, as he later insisted, he did not want to die in such a filthy place. As soon as he surfaced, he was beaten senseless. Soon afterward Rossman was also discovered, and he too was beaten and left for dead. He nonetheless managed to flee to the building’s roof, where he found dead bodies lying about “much like slaughtered chickens.” A neighbor, a Jewish convert to Russian Orthodoxy—he had saved himself by reciting for the mob passages from the Psalms—now arranged for wagons to transport wounded Jews to the hospital.

Still, in the first few hours of Monday, the riot continued to be concentrated in the same area where it had broken out, mostly near the New Market. The neighborhood’s stores continued to be ransacked: The newspaper Odesskie Novosti described how well-dressed women were seen eagerly participating, stealing clothes off the racks of Jewish shops and walking through the streets of the city with the goods. Unwanted merchandise was so plentiful that it was piled onto roads, often stopping all traffic including trams.

A wealthy Jew named Sobelman, who prided himself on his close terms with local Russian officials, tried to return home that Monday morning from Raaben’s offices but found his route blocked because the day’s rioting had already begun. Managing finally to reach his building, he found it surrounded by children pelting it with stones. Joined by adults, the mob lingered for more than an hour, working hard at demolishing the front door. As soon as they entered, they started smashing tables on the heads of Jews while demanding that they pay for their lives. As little as a few kopecks—one woman discovered four kopecks in her pockets and gave it to the mob—could make all the difference. Sobelman found his family but was murdered while protecting them. A group of fifteen or so were overheard emerging from his building, calling out, “Sobelman is finished!”

Some Jews were hit over their heads with tables as many as twenty times until they died. Hannah Bruvarman saved her own life, escaping with little more than a mild beating, when she handed over the three hundred rubles she had earned selling wood before Passover. Fleeing to her daughter’s house nearby, which was also under attack, she had to barter once again for her life, handing over the three rubles that was all the money she had left.

By late morning nearly the entire city, except for the far-western neighborhoods inhabited mostly by gentile workers and with few Jews, was enveloped. No less than two-thirds of Kishinev was affected by violence. Nonetheless, its impact remained haphazard, with—as stated in a British consular report—“many streets within the affected area … comparatively (some wholly) untouched.”

Under the attacks, entire streets were all but leveled; an English reporter in Kishinev during the riot described the scene from his hotel window as one of utter devastation. And increasingly, the attacks were personal. Rossman watched as one assailant called out the name of his victim, asking him in Moldavian, “Are you Ben-Zion?” The Jew turned to him saying, “Why, children?” He was then hit with a pitchfork and killed. A gentile woman who offered to hide Jews in her apartment found pleasure nonetheless in taunting them, entering the hiding place every few minutes with news such as, “You no longer have any stove,” or “You have no beds, no chairs, no table.”

In his notes, Davitt described one Jewish victim caught up in Monday’s violence: “Meyer Weissman. 3 children and a wife. His eye gouged out. He wanted them to kill him. Saw him in his bed. Fine type of poor man. Had a small grocery store.” Wine seller Yisroel Hayyim Steinberg watched helplessly as a mob of fifty confronted his seventy-year-old father, demanding money. The terrified man found himself unable to utter more than a few stray sounds; the crowd responded in quasi-Yiddish, “Gibbe gelt.” When it was found that he had only half a kopeck in his pocket, he was beaten to death. As the son told Bialik, who spent much of his five weeks in Kishinev interviewing victims, “We were hiding the entire time watching all this hiding behind a fence. Four at the same time were hiding in the outhouse.”


It will never be known how many women and girls were raped over the course of the two days. Davitt counted forty, based on the testimony of a local rabbi, with others likely having failed to report for fear of losing husbands to divorce or, if unmarried, losing the opportunity to wed. (It was reported to Davitt by rabbis that they had indeed received requests for divorce from the husbands of raped women.) In her apartment on Nikolaevskii Street, twenty-four-year-old Rivka Schiff, who had been married four years and was an immigrant from Romania, was the victim of serial rape. Her testimony to Bialik is by far the longest, most detailed, and most harrowing of all such accounts:

When the vile ones forced their way from the roof into the attic, they first attacked Zychick’s daughter, hit her on the cheek with a tool, and surrounded her. She fell to the floor from the force of the blow. They lifted her dress, pushed her head down, and pulled her bottom up and started to slap her buttocks with their hands. Then they turned her around again, spread her legs, covered her eyes, and shut her mouth so that she couldn’t scream. One took her from behind while the others crouched around her and waited their turn. They all did what they did in full view of the people in the attic. Others jumped on me and my husband. He tried to escape, and I followed him. They jumped on him. “Give us money!” Mitya Kresilchik sought to abuse me and asked for money. I pleaded for mercy. “Don’t touch me, Mitya. You have known me for many years. I have no money.” Others ripped open the back of my dress; one slapped me and said: “If you have no money, we will get pleasure from you in another way.” I fell to the ground with Mitya on top of me, and he started to have his way with me. The other gang members surrounded me and waited. My husband saw this, as did the other Jews in the attic. My husband gave them his silver watch and chain. They thought the chain was gold, and as they were examining it, he jumped [out of the attic and] to the ground. There they beat him. The rest of the Jews jumped, too. Only Sima Zychick and I were left there. They were mocking and abusing me. “It seems like you haven’t slept with a Gentile yet. Now you will know the taste of one.” I don’t know how many had their way with me, but there were at least five, and possibly seven. As they finished, they came down one by one. One Gentile … came up there and said: “Hide in the corner; soon a few other thugs will come up here. I will come soon with my wife and take you down.” I sat in the corner (wearing my underwear and my coat); just at that moment, Sima Zychick came and sat down next to me. We sat there silent and still. Immediately, one came up and started to call out his friends’ names. He saw that none were there and left. Then four others came up, one after the other. One of them knelt down and pretended to sympathize with my sorrow. He saw my earrings, ripped them from my ears, and wanted once again to abuse me. But at that moment, the other Gentile, the righteous one mentioned before … came up and right in front of him, two had intercourse with me and two with Sima. He tried once again to convince them cunningly by saying: “You are Christians and are forbidden to take the women of Israel.” But then they wanted to attack him as well, and he was afraid and only tried to save our lives: “Do whatever you want with them, but do not kill them.” The four finished, and the Gentile helped me to cover my head with my shawl, and Sima held my hand as we left there escorted by the Gentile to my mother’s house. … There, too, all had been destroyed. I searched for my husband. I didn’t know where he was. [Was he] dead or alive? I was pulverized, and crushed like a vessel filled with shame and filth. I returned to my residential courtyard.


That rape occurred was common knowledge in the city in the pogrom’s immediate aftermath. Still, the details of these attacks remained obscure, rarely mentioned in post-pogrom trials. Bialik’s transcript—the source of a wealth of information—was withheld for reasons the poet never explained, left among his unpublished material in the archives of Beit Bialik in Tel Aviv until transcribed and released in print only in the 1990s. Davitt also consigned his notes on rapes to his unpublished diary, leaving them out of his journalism and his subsequent book. (The reason for these omissions on Davitt’s part may have been the strictures of the time—obeyed even by the sensationalist Hearst press, for which he worked—on the reporting of outrages like rapes.) In the diary he kept while in Kishinev, he describes in great detail an atrocity that took place in a semirural part of the city, probably the strip known as Muncheshtskii, or Manchester Way, composed largely of Moldavians “of the poorest & most depraved kind. Their houses are wretched looking. … The few Jews who live among them are equally poor.” Davitt continues:

I found on entering a gateway that I was in the yard where five Jews had been killed—one young girl violated & killed & a Jew’s wife held by fiends while others ravished her. … She was cornered in there in the shed … and repeatedly violated by several men & then killed. About a hundred feet from this house is a long wooden shed used by the male Jews in the yard as a carpenter’s shop … the shed is some 40 feet long by some fifteen wide. … The young girl … by some accident of chance was left in her home, the house nearest the gateway entrance to the yard & she was caught & treated as above before she could escape. This was during the night of the first day’s rioting. The 23 persons, men, women & children were inhabitants of the house in the yard. The shrieks of the girl were heard by the terrified crowd in the shed for a short time & then all was silent.


As late as Monday morning little more than stray rumors of violence had reached Lower Kishinev. There had been some rock throwing the night before at the windows of Jewish houses and stores, and some of the neighborhood’s Jews joined the self-defense in the wine courtyard. On the whole, however, the neighborhood had passed through that first night with many expecting that the worst was over.

The area, built on hills just above the Byk, was indented with tiny shops, synagogues, and houses built around courtyards packed with large Jewish families numbering sometimes as many as eight or even ten children. Here violence was concentrated on no more than six or seven intersecting streets, most of them little more than alleyways, packed with ramshackle structures some of which literally collapsed under the weight of attack.

In these cramped quarters Jews and non-Jews, mostly Moldavians, occupied apartments in the same building. The Russian short-story writer and essayist Vladimir Korolenko, in his stirring work “Dom nomer 13” (“The House at Number 13”), gave worldwide notoriety to the neighborhood and especially one of its modest dwellings at Aziatskaia, or Asia Street 13: “Stones, tiles, and bricks and mortar choke the growth of trees. … The houses are small, and stone walls hide the entrances to the courtyards.”

Most of the dwellings in the area were flimsy, their belongings sparse; in the hot, humid months of spring and summer, residents spent much time outdoors in the courtyards or on the dusty unpaved streets. One Jewish home inventoried after the pogrom included only cabinets, beds, tables, and two photographs: one of the Anglo-Jewish grandee Moses Montefiore, which had been ripped into shreds, and the second of the late Tsar Alexander III and his family, which had been left alone. A Jewish woman living at Aziatskaia 13 would insist that, once the pogrom ended, all that remained of her possessions was a single pillow.

With horror and puzzlement, Jews here would speak of the friendly, at least benign, relations between Jews and non-Jews that had existed prior to the violence; interactions, they said, had been more casual and less encumbered here than elsewhere in the city. In this neighborhood, with few pretensions and where workaday relationships—Jews often hired non-Jewish laborers as well as maids or artisans—were more likely to slide into friendships, it was more typical than elsewhere in Kishinev for gentile neighbors to take dangerous risks to save Jews. Hence it was not rare for Jews fleeing rioters to run into the courtyards or homes of non-Jewish neighbors, with the expectation of being hidden.

Then again, it was also not uncommon for neighbors to slaughter or rape neighbors, and frequently with an astonishing indifference to suffering. This interplay between familiarity and ferocity was replicated in grim incident after incident. Victims of rape or beating were known to call out the names of their assailants. One raped woman spoke afterward of having held her rapist as a baby in her arms. The sons of a local shoemaker—the two boys hid behind a stove while their father was beaten and murdered—recognized the killer as a neighbor whose shoes they had recently repaired.

Time and again familiar faces would come crashing into Jewish houses—this starting late Monday morning—often justifying their actions with the declaration that Jews had killed a local priest or demolished a church. The wine-shop owner Yeshaya Sirota described how the riot in the neighborhood had started, predictably enough, with children tossing rocks at the windows of his store and adjacent house; this was soon joined by older men, who began crashing against his front door. Once inside, they spent no less than an hour and a half ransacking his modest house, breaking nearly everything that they did not steal. Once all of Sirota’s clothes and furniture were gone, the mob turned on his wine shop next door with at least sixty people—according to one report as many as four hundred—somehow squeezing themselves into this small space and stealing nearly all his stock until police finally intervened. No marauders were arrested; the police merely persuaded them to leave the building and move on. Sirota survived the onslaught, as he later told Bialik, because when rioters burst into his house, and one was poised to kill him and his family, the assailant spotted his youngest child, five months old, and declared that only Turks slaughtered small children. Sirota then hid himself and his family—together with eight other families living in the same building—in the house of a neighboring non-Jew, a wagoner whom he described as a friend.

The mob engulfing Lower Kishinev included villagers from outside the city, or peasants living at its edge; many brought wagons in which to pack stolen goods. Neighbors joined in along with, it seems, much of the same group of anti-Semites and seminary students spotted elsewhere. That morning one of the students encountered a Jew standing in front of his house with a terrified look on his face, and the student stopped to say, “Why weep? Tomorrow we’ll murder all of you.”

Immediately after sacking Sirota’s shop down the street, the mob converged on No. 13. It was a modest building wrapped around a courtyard with seven apartments housing eight families, all Jews. In one corner lived Naftoli Serebrenick, who ran a store located in the same small complex, selling candles, soap, matches, oil, calico, and sweets. The landlord lived elsewhere, in a better part of town, but his divorced daughter and family were in the building. The other residents included a bookkeeper, a glazier, a shop assistant, and a hospital orderly. Eight men were in the building when it was attacked by as many as a hundred rioters. Korolenko acknowledged that, under such circumstances, self-defense was inconceivable.

The first casualty was the glazier, Mordecai Mottel Greenschopin, who was discovered hiding with his family in a shed and dragged by rioters—including at least one whose name he knew—to the roof of an outhouse, where he was beaten with poles until dead. Fearing a similar fate, Jews witnessing the attack made their way to an attic that was soon so crowded and intolerably hot that most found it impossible to remain. They were spotted and pursued while escaping, several fleeing to a roof within view, as later reported, of police on the street below. One after another, they were beaten to death, some smashed on the head with an enamel sink and others literally torn apart with crowbars. Their bodies were tossed onto the street, some covered—to further humiliate them—with chicken feathers. Corpses lay there for hours until the streets were cleared by the army late that afternoon; many lay in water puddles or were covered by the wine that had spilled from Sirota’s store.

Even two months later, when Urussov visited the street in late June—on his first day as governor general—“rough boards covered the broken windows and shattered doors of many houses. Here and there were damaged roofs and partly destroyed chimneys.” Dried blood could be seen on some of the walls, and many residents in the neighborhood occupied houses that had no roofs or, in some instances, were in a state bordering on destruction.

Nearly everything that would come to be associated with the pogrom was drawn from the events in Lower Kishinev on late Monday morning and early that afternoon.

The pogrom’s lingering impact would also remain the most visible for locals, who were the least able to cover the cost of repairs. Not infrequently the violence in this neighborhood was the work of neighbors themselves living side by side with Jews in the same cluster of flats and sharing the same courtyard. The dense and deadly concentration of these attacks, the frequency with which they involved acquaintances, and the simple fact that the area remained in disrepair long after other parts of the city were rebuilt all contributed to making it the focal point for the pogrom’s horrors. Perhaps the preponderance of traditional Jews in classic Jewish garb among its residents—and victims—also helped to consolidate Lower Kishinev as the pogrom’s epicenter. Elsewhere in the city many Jews had by now abandoned Jewish dress, or at least modified it, with many here, as in Odessa, less fixated on the minutiae of Jewish practice.

Soon enough the best known of all faces linked to the tragedy would be Moshe Kigel, described as the devout sexton of one of Lower Kishinev’s numerous, mostly tiny synagogues. He was said to have lost his life in an effort to save the Torah scrolls of his beloved house of worship from desecration at the hands of hoodlums. Kigel’s martyrdom would soon constitute the most enduring of all portraits from the pogrom—indeed, arguably the most memorable of all moments of Jewish life in late-imperial Russia. Portraits of Kigel would be reprinted widely; prayers and poems devoted to him would be recited in synagogues, especially in the United States; and plays would be written in his honor. His martyrdom was made into a medieval-like tale, particularly once Ephraim Moses Lilien produced his evocative poem, “To the Martyrs of Kishinev,” describing Kigel wrapped in a traditional tallith, wearing phylacteries, his arms outstretched in an effort to save the holy scrolls, his body enveloped by angelic wings.

Kigel—bearded, age sixty, and pious—resided in a building around the corner from the synagogue whose Torah scrolls had been desecrated. Contrary to the later accounts, however, he was murdered right outside the door of his home, not in front of the house of worship. He was not a synagogue sexton (he owned a tiny shop adjacent to the synagogue), and there is no evidence that he attempted to protect its sacred objects. Nevertheless, once his body was found near shredded scrolls on the street, stories of his martyrdom quickly coalesced. His prominence deflected talk of Kishinev’s rapes and the town’s cowardly men. It focused attention on Kishinev’s poor, thus reinforcing a theme pushed by the Jewish Socialist Labor Bund, especially in the weeks after the pogrom, namely that it was a catastrophe of the poor, not the rich, who abandoned Kishinev’s most vulnerable while protecting themselves and their possessions.

A similar interplay between intimacy—at least familiarity—and ferocious violence was evident in the slice of Kishinev’s Muncheshtskii or Manchester Way. There at the city’s eastern edge the pogrom arrived late, much as in Lower Kishinev, and was all the more shocking because its Jews could recall years of peaceful coexistence. Technically a suburb, it was little better than a tumbledown row of houses, artisan shops, cattle slaughterers, and dealers in grains, hides, farm animals, and the like running alongside the railway tracks near the Byk, with the city’s Botanical Gardens nearby. It was a neighborhood with perhaps a hundred Moldavian families and approximately thirty Jewish ones, mostly small peddlers. A Jewish-owned leather factory employed many locals, and the area’s doctor was a converted Jew married to a Catholic.

Muncheshtskii’s Jews were so confident that they were safe, and so ignorant of what was transpiring only a few miles away, that the first reliable word of the pogrom came only because one of them—hoping to have his newborn circumcised on Monday morning—set off in a wagon for the city to pick up the mohel to perform the ritual circumcision, only to be informed that such travel was too dangerous. Soon afterward, outside a Jewish-owned grain store, a crowd gathered. Its young proprietor overheard talk in the crowd of the killing of a Christian child in a nearby town, and that it was the practice of Jews to use gentile blood for their rituals. Joining the mob were seminary students and others from outside the neighborhood, with the word now spreading that a Jewish house at the street’s end had already been ransacked.

Soon some two hundred people were outside the grain store, arguing about whether to attack Jewish homes and businesses; some of them tried to stop the riot before it erupted. Like elsewhere, however, violence took off when free drinks were demanded from the owner of a Jewish wine store, who, once he refused—at least he was rumored to have done so—was attacked. A large wagon now appeared outside the store, with the bulk of the Jew’s stock loaded onto it. The grain-store owner was approached by a gentile acquaintance and offered the use of a cross to fool the crowd. He correctly figured it would do no good. The store was now ransacked together with all the Jewish houses on the street. Women were raped amid a fury inconceivable just an hour or two earlier.


“Jews did not fight for their lives, but fled to wherever they could.” This was in the testimony of Melekh Kaufman, as told to Bialik.

Such accusations would soon be seen—and in no small measure because of how Bialik built the charge into the heart of his famous poem—as an assault on little less than thousands of years of Jewish history. Kishinev was said to have cut wide open a web of wretched, cowardly compromises stretching as far back as the last of the Maccabees, a welter of congealed terrors cleverly disguised that had over the centuries made Jews into who they now were: an overly cautious people who knew well how to negotiate but were incapable of fighting for their own lives or, for that matter, defending the honor of their kinfolk. The first stirrings of the Israeli army, the self-defense force known as the Haganah, launched in Palestine soon after the Kishinev pogrom, was the by-product of such shame. So were a multitude of other well-charted efforts at Jewish self-defense brandished as militant responses to Kishinev, with Jewish fighters in Gomel that September, for example, managing to leave more pogromists dead than Jews.

Bialik’s anguished cry had a particularly powerful impact on Jewish fighters once the poem was translated in 1904 into Russian and recited widely (and brilliantly) by the young, restless Vladimir Jabotinsky. Bialik’s work left little doubt that the response of Kishinev Jews to violence had been gutless. Curiously enough, however, Bialik recorded in the transcripts of the interviews he conducted during his Kishinev stay, often in copious detail, many efforts at Jewish self-defense, including one so notorious—in the minds of local anti-Semites and their sympathizers, at least—that they would credit it, not their own actions, as the main cause for Monday’s violence.

When rioters broke into the shop of Mordecai ben Aaron Litvak, he and his family told them that they would be shot if they did not leave immediately, which they did. Jews elsewhere fought with kitchen knives and clubs until, as often as not, they were overwhelmed by the sheer number or physical strength of the attackers. Trying to protect his father in their house on that Monday morning, Mordecai Zvi Lis found himself pinned down by rioters who pushed against a door. Then, amid calls of “Christ has risen!” the mob jumped both father and son, beating both senseless. When fifty-seven-year-old Yehiel Kiserman fought off four attackers, throwing several of them to the ground, a rumor rapidly spread that a Jew had murdered Christians. This news further enraged the mobs, which now attacked with heightened fury. Elsewhere four Jewish teenagers—all of them employed as servants—tried unsuccessfully to stop the beating of a tailor threatened by a large and angry crowd by beating them first.

Yehiel Pesker, the owner of a glass store at the New Market who, like Yisrael Rossman, went to inspect his shop early Monday for damage, encountered on the way home a large group of Jews—he recalled that they numbered at least two hundred—gathered in the wine courtyard, armed and prepared to fight. He saw the clubs in their arms; it turned out that several were carrying guns as well. Returning home inspired by what he had seen, Pesker set in motion plans to protect his building. He armed himself with a club, too, and instructed his neighbors to join him in battling the mob. This they did until they were overwhelmed. Fugitives from Kishinev arriving in Vienna and interviewed by the local press insisted that they, too, would have defended themselves had the authorities not intervened.

Hence, after the pogrom’s end, alongside talk of Jewish passivity were fierce denunciations of Jewish anti-Russian aggression. In arguments made by defense attorneys at the trials of pogrom-related crimes, Sunday’s rioting was dismissed as a ruckus that would quickly have come to an end—much as the governor general assured the Jewish delegation on Monday morning—had Jews not overreacted. In this version, it was the all-but-unprovoked aggression of Jews and subsequent rumors of attacks on a church and the killing of a priest that set in motion the unfortunate but, under the circumstances, understandable violence.

The instance of Jewish militancy most frequently cited in descriptions inimical to Jews—yet sidelined in Jewish accounts—was the one whose start was witnessed by Pesker at the wine courtyard early Monday morning. Gathered were likely more than 250 Jews, armed with clubs, poles, and some guns. This crowd soon attacked a few dozen would-be rioters nearby, overwhelming them at first. Most of the Jews were laborers at the New Market, with a sprinkling also from Lower Kishinev—a medley of husky wagon drivers and others engaged in manual labor eager to fight back. One of the group gave Bialik a lengthy description:

We decided to arm ourselves, not to be the first to start to fight. Many who had returned to their houses to hide their weapons, to fill the breaches, and to close the doors and shutters came back with poles and with some pistols. Chaim Kazioshner armed himself with an old rifle as a threat. At eight o’clock in the morning, gangs of gentiles arrived via the market. A battle broke out between the two groups, and we pushed back twice. On Bolgarskaia Street the Jews who did not have a chance to arm themselves fled, and the rest joined the Jews who were armed in the wine courtyard. As this was happening, the number of gentiles in the gang grew, and nearly a hundred of them attacked us—and there was no police or patrol in sight. We decided to strengthen our fortification so that not even one gentile could approach us, as other Jews joined our ranks—wine transporters, residents of the old settlement … who heard about the defensive war and came to help us, so we numbered about 250 (others said that there were even more). Gentile passersby received light blows to scare them off. Some police came to the area and ordered Jews to put down their arms, but we did not heed their orders, and they returned to report this to the headquarters. Immediately, patrols and police came to the yard from all directions. … In this manner, the gangs gathered and many stood behind the patrols and threw stones at us from there. We threw the very same stones [back] at them, but the patrols that tolerated the gang’s deeds acted against the Jews.

Before the outbreak of violence, preparations had been made to store arms at the home of Jacob Bernstein-Kogan, whose apartment had for years been the main office of the Zionist movement’s correspondence bureau and was equipped with a telephone. It was designated as a headquarters of sorts. But Bernstein-Kogan and his family fled their residence on the first day of the pogrom—soon afterward it was looted—and whether the arms stored there were used or not is unclear. By and large self-defense at the New Market and elsewhere seems to have been cobbled together without assistance from the likes of Bernstein-Kogan. It was apparently organized more or less on the spot, with little if any coordination with Jewish political groups, whether socialist or Zionist—perhaps a significant reason why instances of self-defense were quickly erased from subsequent Jewish accounts. With little if any institutional underpinning, they were an outgrowth of exasperation with the indifference or incapacity of authorities, the density of able-bodied Jews accustomed to arduous labor, and simple fury.

Ironically, then, those hostile to Jews would argue then and later that the pogrom’s outsize violence was the result of Jewish aggression, while far more typical for Jews was an insistence on Kishinev Jewry’s passivity—indeed, its outright cowardice. This would leave an indelible mark, especially since the latter charge would come to be at the explosive center of Bialik’s famous Kishinev poem. But the belief congealed rapidly even before that poem’s appearance in late November/December 1903. With the pogrom’s outrages now overshadowed by the deportment of its victims, just a few months later Jewish self-defense during the Gomel pogrom in September 1903 would be touted as little less than redemption for the wretched behavior of Kishinev’s Jews.

Soon a great deal of what had occurred—and had, at first at least, been reported in the weeks immediately after the massacre—all but disappeared amid the cascade of postpogrom journalism in the Jewish press and other media too. Rarely would Jewish self-defense be mentioned except by apologists for the government. The role played by seminary students would soon be downplayed as well. Krushevan would often be relegated to a surprisingly minor role as little more than a government-controlled puppet, a shadowy figure in an episode in which he played a bit part. With the government implicated as early as mid-May in having launched the miserable episode, nearly all the others held responsible before were relegated to the margins. And much of what had already been aired—but with its details all the more confounding because Kishinev’s urban layout remained so little known—was reduced to a few discrete hours of particularly intense and murderous violence that erupted just hours before the pogrom was put to an end.


Excerpted from Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History by Steven J. Zipperstein. © 2018 by Steven J. Zipperstein. Used with permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Steven J. Zipperstein, a professor of Jewish history and culture at Stanford University, is the author of, most recently,Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History.