Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Yiddish Version of the Russian Word for Devastation

I thought it would be worthwhile to define a term that I, at least, assume ‘everybody’ knows. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the term, “pogrom,” refers to “an organized massacre of helpless people; specifically : such a massacre of Jews.” It is a by-product of anti-Semitism. Etymologically, 'pogrom' is a Yiddish word, taken from the Russian word for “devastation.” It is characterized by "an attack, accompanied by destruction, looting of property, murder, and rape, perpetrated by one section of the population against another."

The reason I draw attention to this is because my grandfather’s notes refer to a particular pogrom - - the “Syedlitzer” pogrom (ie, taking place in Syedlitz, actually spelled Siedlce). It was because of this incident that my grandfather felt the need to “stand up for the honor of Jews,” an act that resulted in his first death sentence. Once I learned the correct spelling of the town's name, thanks to Ada Holzman, I learned that this was one of the largest pogroms in Russia, resulting in 200 arrests; all were expected to be sentenced to death.

According to The London Times of September 1906, "The courts will be composed of officers who participated in the pogrom, and to whom an opportunity will thus be afforded of disposing some of the most damning evidence against themselves and the authorities above them." Is any more proof needed that anti-Semitism was not only not discouraged but institutionalized in Russia?

But I have one problem with this information: My grandfather was drafted in 1904, and the Russo-Japanese War took place in 1904-1905. Yet the Siedlce pogrom, to which he refers as his reason for standing up for Jewish honor (which got him sentenced to death the first time), didn't take place till after the war. However, quite a few other pogroms took place between 1903-1906: Kishinev, April 1903; Gomel, September 1903;
Smela, Rovno, Aleksandriya, Fall 1904; Feodosiya, February 1905; Melitopol, April 1905; Zhitomir, May 1905; Odessa, Yekaterinoslav, Kiev, Kishinev, Simferopol, Romny, Kremenchug, Nikolayev, Chernigov, Kamenets-Podolski, and Yelizavetgrad -- 64 towns in total, November 1905; Bialystok, June 1906; Siedlce, August 1906.(There had also been, in 1904, a pogrom targeting Jews in Limerick, Ireland).In many instances, it was clear that the government and/or the police had encouraged these pogroms.

The only way I can explain this discrepancy of dates was that he set down most of his stories in 1931, during the Depression, after having told them for 25 years. Siedlce must have been foremost in his memory, so he attributed his need to stand up for the honor of the Jewish people to that particular incident, whereas it could have been due to any number of incidents before then.

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