The City of Slaughter
Chaim Nachman Bialik’s great poem about Russia's Kishinev pogrom of 1903 needs to be read and re-read.
May 29, 2011 - 12:00 am
In 1903, the Jewish community in the town of Kishinev, the capital of the Russian province of Bessarabia, was decimated by a pogrom, a frequent occurrence in that part of the world. It was triggered by the age-old blood libel, the Jewish inhabitants of the town suspected of murdering a young Christian boy and using his blood in the baking of matzo. The riot lasted three days, killing and wounding hundreds of Jews, destroying houses and looting businesses. As the New York Times for April 28, 1903, reported, “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.”
Events of this barbarous nature have been a commonplace of Jewish history, whether in Eastern and Central Europe or in the Holy Land, whether in Kishinev or in Hebron where 67 Jewish men, women and children were butchered and the Jewish community expelled in the anti-Jewish riots of 1929. These are only two of the more notable “incidents” in an uninterrupted chronicle of anti-Semitic bloodletting, culminating in the Holocaust and morphing today into the multipronged attack by the Muslim world, the international left, the United Nations and European capitals on the state of Israel.
The rampage in Kishinev, however, has assumed a kind of emblematic status owing to a celebrated poem, “The City of Slaughter,” by Israel’s national laureate, Chaim Nachman Bialik, who visited the town to prepare a report on the massacre. Few read the report today but the poem, over 400 lines long and filled with macabre detail and vehement denunciation, has become part of the Jewish archive, and is said to have contributed to strengthening the Zionist project and to the eventual formation of the paramilitary Hagannah in Mandate Palestine. Interested readers might be moved to consult Simon Dubnow’s History of the Jews in Russia and Poland and the essay collection Pogroms: Anti-Jewish Violence in Modern Russian History.
What makes the poem especially memorable is not only its vivid account of the pogrom but its undisguised condemnation of Jewish passivity and abject resignation — in some instances, as we know, even of collaboration — in the face of endemic Jew-hatred and the repeated eruptions of carnage to which Jewish communities were subjected. Its description of Jewish men cowering in cellars while their women were being raped and disemboweled is utterly harrowing and unforgettable. Bialik knew, as Daniel Gordis explains in a seminal essay, “The Shame of It All,” that the re-creation of Israel was “about changing the condition of the Jew, by changing the nature of the Jew.”
Jews could no longer sit back, defenseless and afraid, while their people were being terrorized and killed. A state would need to be re-established in which the Jewish people would refuse to be the helpless victims of the world’s undying enmity, “shocked by what is done to them [and] infuriated by their powerlessness,” as Gordis writes. And so in the course of time it came to pass that Israel rose again from the darkness of history, not without great suffering and continued slaughter, but with pride, conviction, strength and purpose. Bialik’s poem, with its unsparing judgment of Jewish docility and nonresistance, was instrumental in “changing the nature of the Jew.”
Not entirely however. For among the Jewish population both in Israel and in the Diaspora are many who, like their Kishinev forebears, remain feeble and compliant, timorous conciliators rather than courageous fighters. They live in modern cities, not in shtetls and ghettos. Most flaunt university and college degrees, not yehshiva parchment, and preen themselves on their sophistication and putative insights. The texts they bend over, indifferent to the fury that rages around them, are not the sacred scrolls of the faith, as was the case with their ancestors, but treatises of propitiation, anti-Zionist screeds and manifestos of spurious enlightenment. The result is, mutatis mutandis, the same. True, they no longer cower in cellars while their women are being defiled, but their complicity in the campaign to weaken the Jewish state, reduce its borders to indefensible proportions and encourage its adversaries who wish to destroy it is evident. They are content to watch Israel being raped and dismembered.
Indeed, many actually facilitate the process. Elhanan Yakira in his important 2010 book, Post-Zionism, Post-Holocaust, transfers Bialik’s thesis into the contemporary milieu, speaking passionately about “the participation of Jews and Israelis in the anti-Zionist campaign,” which he regards as “in effect…annihilationist,” as a position characterized by “ignorance, bad faith, or malice” adopted by a “community of opprobrium.” It is nothing short of a “moral disaster” perpetrated by the descendants of Bialik’s colony of submissives who today have transformed the acceptance of victimhood into the disparagement of their own.
For the Court Jews are everywhere, the kapos abound, the so-called “peace” constituency retains its prominence, left-wing Jewish professors work tirelessly in classrooms, lecture halls, blogs, articles and op-eds to delegitimize an embattled nation, rabbinical fellow-travelers engage in “dialogue” with anti-Semites and support influential figures ill-disposed toward the Jewish state, Jewish voting blocs mobilize on behalf of their antagonists and betrayers, Israeli revisionist historians and Jewish UN apparatchiks act as Palestinian water-carriers, Jewish public intellectuals and journalists propose solutions to the Middle East conflict that would lead to the disappearance of Israel, directors of Jewish organizations invite Palestinian jihadists to lecture them, or abet sanctions against Israel, or back a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood. These trimmers and delinquents stubbornly deny who their real enemies are, as they saunter cheerfully toward the abattoir. For those who want names and addresses, I provide a compendious list of such tergiversators in my recent book, Hear, O Israel!. But the most reprehensible among them are already well known.
Bialik still has their measure. This is why his poem stays fresh and contemporary and needs to be read not simply as a literary artifact but as a political lesson for the present and a warning for the future. I present below a sort of hybrid version, a cross between an adaptation and a free translation, substantially abridged and focusing on the spiritual and intellectual defection of far too many Jews wherever they may be found. I have taken a few small liberties in the rendering but I believe they are warranted in the evolving context of cultural resilement among a significant element of modern Jewry. The message of the poem is no less relevant today, when the very existence of Israel is increasingly threatened and terrorist charters call for the killing of Jews, than it was in 1903 when the Zionist movement was just gaining momentum.
From The City of Slaughter:
Do not fail to note
in the dark corners of Kishinev
crouching husbands, bridegrooms, brothers
peering through the cracks of their shelters,
watching their wives, sisters, daughters
writhing beneath their bestial defilers,
suffocating in their own blood,
their flesh portioned out as booty.
And what did these watchers
cradle in their hearts?
Did they pray for a miracle:
Lord, Lord, spare my skin this day?
These are the sons of Maccabees?
The heirs of Hasmoneans
who lie in the privies and jakes and pig styes
with trembling knees,
concealed and cowering,
crammed by the scores
in all the sanctuaries of their shame?
Their pious ruses and denials are of no account,
and in the time of affliction,
on the trampled ground of the present
or on the horizon brimming with blood,
their cries, their confessions, their scourgings
will be of even less account,
fists beating against the stones.
There will be no salvation for the shamed.
And even their resignation,
their making peace with shame,
will not redeem
the cracked pillars of the synagogue
the charred scrolls of the Sefer Torah.
For there is rot in their bones,
corruption in their hearts,
weakness in their knees,
and their bitter cry sent into the storm
of Kishinev and every Kishinev to come
shall not be heard,
not even in the porticos and corridors of heaven.