Author pho­to: Tony Rinaldo

Pro­fes­sor Steven Zip­per­stein’s new book, Pogrom, is about the mas­sacre of Jews in Kishinev in 1903. Bob Gold­farb spoke with him recent­ly about his findings.

Bob Gold­farb: In Pogrom, you doc­u­ment how Pavel Kru­she­van, an anti-Semit­ic news­pa­per pub­lish­er in Kishinev, fab­ri­cat­ed the Pro­to­cols of the Elders of Zion” — and you uncov­ered some facts about his life that were pre­vi­ous­ly unknown. It’s quite a break­through. What led you there?

Steven Zip­per­stein: It was real­ly acci­den­tal. Many authors of the first books about the Pro­to­cols” had no idea that the Kishinev ver­sion had even been pub­lished. Lat­er an Ital­ian schol­ar demon­strat­ed that the word end­ings in the book ver­sion of the Protocols”indicate quite clear­ly that it had orig­i­nat­ed in or around Bessara­bia. I was able to con­nect that ver­sion to the pogrom. A superb Ger­man schol­ar, Michael Hage­meis­ter, men­tioned to me that a Moldovan Jew­ish jour­nal­ist in Brook­line, Mass­a­chu­setts had some­thing, and I was in Boston on my way to Moldo­va the next day. I called this man and asked him if I could come by. I’m sit­ting in his liv­ing room, and from a shelf in his liv­ing room, he takes a large white fold­er, mas­sive­ly packed with doc­u­ments, and I begin to leaf through it. What I dis­cov­ered are treasures.

BG: What was in the fold­er, and where did he get it?

SZ: The archive came to the jour­nal­ist because he was writ­ing a his­to­ry of an insane asy­lum at the edge of Chisin­au (Kishinev), and he had befriend­ed a nephew of Krushevan’s. The nephew admired his uncle, and Kru­she­van gave the nephew his most sen­si­tive papers, doc­u­ment­ing finan­cial mis­deeds, shenani­gans, bank­rupt­cies. Still more sur­pris­ing was his diary, writ­ten at the age of 15 or 16. He’s stay­ing with rel­a­tives in Odessa, and he’s hav­ing joy­ous sex with a Cos­sack — they come in only one gen­der. And he declares that he wish­es he had been born a lady.”

BG: Did the doc­u­ments shed any light on the man he became?

SZ: Kru­she­van is one of the great totems of anti-cap­i­tal­ist, homo­pho­bic, anti-Semit­ic atti­tudes. I also dis­cov­ered that Krushevan’s life was spent in close prox­im­i­ty to Jews. His step­sis­ter had run off with a Jew, moved to Bal­ti­more, and is pic­tured in a Russ­ian-lan­guage news­pa­per as an Ortho­dox Jew liv­ing a Jew­ish life with her hus­band. What’s more, from the age of two, Kru­she­van was raised by a step­moth­er who was Jewish.

BG: You write that there was not a lot of overt anti-Semi­tism in Kishinev before the pogrom, that the pop­u­la­tions lived rel­a­tive­ly ami­ca­bly togeth­er. It calls to mind more recent cas­es of pogroms, or geno­cides, where the same was true. In Jed­wab­ne, Poland, Jews and Poles knew one anoth­er inti­mate­ly, yet the Poles sav­age­ly mur­dered their Jew­ish neigh­bors. In Rwan­da, Hutus and Tut­sis lived side by side, inter­mar­ried, and then the Hutus per­pe­trat­ed geno­cide against the Tut­sis on an incom­pre­hen­si­ble scale. Shouldn’t famil­iar­i­ty bring sym­pa­thy and understanding?

SZ: In the Kishinev pogrom we have a good many instances of Jews under attack who run into the court­yard of Gen­tile friends, expect­ing their pro­tec­tion and not infre­quent­ly being pro­tect­ed. But there is a rela­tion­ship between famil­iar­i­ty and out­right feroc­i­ty, as Jan Gross argues in his book Neigh­bors: The Destruc­tion of the Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty in Jed­wab­ne, Poland. That serves as a cau­tion­ary note with regard to the notion that know­ing some­one bet­ter — as lib­er­al­ism would like to believe — mod­er­ates neg­a­tive feelings.

In Kishinev, one woman was raped by a man whom she had suck­led when he was an infant. A shoe­mak­er was attacked by a man one week after the shoe­mak­er repaired his shoes. Anoth­er sober­ing exam­ple is that of Min­is­ter of the Inte­ri­or Vyach­eslav Kon­stan­ti­novich Ple­hve, whose hatred for Jews seems to have deep­ened as a young boy grow­ing up in War­saw in a neigh­bor­hood close to Jews. He attrib­ut­es some of his ani­mos­i­ty toward Jews to that proximity.

BG: Is there any les­son to be drawn from this?

SZ: For me, the most sober­ing les­son to be drawn is about what we now call fake news.” So much of what res­onat­ed about the pogrom were myths, fic­tions. Myth and fic­tion have a kind of coher­ence his­to­ry doesn’t have. His­to­ry is full of loose seams and odd edges. With Kishinev, here’s an event that’s prob­a­bly the best doc­u­ment­ed in all of Russ­ian Jew­ish his­to­ry, and at the same time the most mythol­o­gized. The mas­sive amount of doc­u­men­ta­tion does rel­a­tive­ly lit­tle to unset­tle the myths over the course of the last century.

BG: The Hearst news­pa­pers played a large role in pub­li­ciz­ing the Kishinev mas­sacre in the Unit­ed States. The Hearst news­pa­pers also whipped up fer­vor in favor of a war with Spain in 1898 by fab­ri­cat­ing atroc­i­ties. The Kishinev pogrom did hap­pen; the Span­ish atroc­i­ties did not. If a sto­ry has the same pow­er whether it’s true or not, it gives one pause, doesn’t it?

SZ: I would go even fur­ther. The made-up sto­ries have greater pow­er than the actu­al sto­ries. They’re fuller, more zaftig, than the news can pos­si­bly be. The so-called Ple­hve let­ter sur­faced a few weeks after the pogrom, and it seemed to fur­nish empir­i­cal proof that the Russ­ian gov­ern­ment was behind the pogroms. The let­ter was a forgery. Yet, it had con­sid­er­able impact on facil­i­tat­ing mass migra­tion by Russ­ian Jews to the U.S.

BG: Speak­ing of myths, you con­clu­sive­ly demon­strate that the Pro­to­cols” is a fraud. It’s anoth­er great exam­ple of the per­sis­tence of myth in the face of fact.

SZ: It’s strik­ing that the Pro­to­cols” is real­ly the only anti-Semit­ic text — among so many anti-Semit­ic texts that have been pub­lished — that con­tin­ues to have a real life. It actu­al­ly pro­vides a voice, albeit a false voice, of the Elder.” One rea­son for its suc­cess is its redun­dan­cy. You don’t need to read more than a page to get what it’s about. Some­how this text, which is pro­found­ly local­ized, ends up speak­ing to so many dif­fer­ent audi­ences in so many countries.

BG: One of the myths that helped inform the pogrom in Kishinev is that Jews drained the blood of Chris­t­ian chil­dren. It seems to be anoth­er exam­ple of peo­ple believ­ing what they want to believe, so it becomes a kind of truth,” like the oth­er myths we’ve been talk­ing about.

SZ: You’re right. Dis­prov­ing some­thing that doesn’t exist is extra­or­di­nar­i­ly tough. Every time there was a rit­u­al-mur­der accu­sa­tion, the coro­ners set about test­ing whether the body was drained of blood. The act of dis­prov­ing the mur­der serves to val­i­date the notion that rit­u­al mur­der exists! How do you dis­prove an absurdity?

BG: You talk about how Kishinev has vast­ly dis­pro­por­tion­ate promi­nence in people’s mem­o­ry. Many, many more peo­ple were killed in pogroms in sub­se­quent years. Yet, despite the hun­dreds of thou­sands of casu­al­ties in lat­er years, Kishinev stands out. Why?

SZ: This is the first pogrom in a new cen­tu­ry. And it’s insti­tu­tion­al­ized: in Zion­ist mem­o­ry, in Social­ist mem­o­ry. It’s adopt­ed by the now-pow­er­ful Yid­dish-speak­ing Left in New York. It’s intro­duced not only into pol­i­tics but also into plays, syn­a­gogue rit­u­al, and arguably the best poem in a Jew­ish lan­guage in moder­ni­ty, Bialik’s City of Killing.” It inspired the very play that intro­duced the notion of the melt­ing pot.”

There’s also an inter­play with the rel­a­tive­ly small num­ber of Jews who were killed, all of whom can be pic­tured in a sin­gle pho­to­graph, shroud­ed before their buri­als. It’s impos­si­ble to pho­to­graph 600 dead, let alone 200,000 dead. We’ve dis­cov­ered over time that unthink­able cat­a­stro­phes are best con­cretized in small numbers.

BG: You point out that the impact of Kishinev went well beyond the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. News of Kishinev affect­ed Book­er T. Wash­ing­ton, and at least indi­rect­ly led to the found­ing of the NAACP. It’s hard to imag­ine how a dis­tant atroc­i­ty could have such impact.

SZ: In some ways it’s pre­cise­ly because it’s hard to imag­ine it that it had the impact that it did. It dom­i­nat­ed the head­lines for weeks, and was denounced by Theodore Roo­sevelt. It changed the way lynch­ing is dis­cussed in the U.S. The out­rage over Kishinev, in con­trast to the lack of out­rage over lynch­ings in the U.S., was itself felt to be out­ra­geous and sparked a cor­rec­tive on Amer­i­can soil.

BG: Read­ing his­to­ry, one can’t help but look for some sort of redemp­tive les­son: if pogroms could bring about a move­ment for social change, per­haps that’s a kind of com­fort. Yet the pogroms were also fol­lowed by the rapid growth of the Ku Klux Klan in the U.S., and the mas­sacre of Arme­ni­ans in 1915, so the anti-lynch­ing move­ment is only part of a larg­er picture.

SZ: One of the most extra­or­di­nary aspects of his­to­ry is its form­less­ness, and the way peo­ple try to cre­ate a coher­ence out of this form­less­ness; that’s what I study. I leave moral lessons to oth­ers. What came to intrigue me at the out­set is how this par­tic­u­lar episode stuck so res­olute­ly, while oth­ers — arguably more impor­tant — have dis­ap­peared. If I’ve expli­cat­ed that, I’ve done what I set out to do.