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April 3: The Pogrom Wave, 1881-2

April 2, 2016
250px-G_GelfmanFive revolutionaries who had assassinated Tsar Alexander II, a relatively liberal Russian king, were hanged in Russia on this date in 1881. A sixth, the only Jew, Hessia Helfman (Gesya Gelfman in some sources), had her execution delayed under law because she was pregnant, but she died in prison shortly after giving birth and surrendering her child. The new Tsar Alexander III and some of the Russian media had blamed “the Jews” for the assassination, and two years of widespread pogroms were instigated, or at least tolerated. The riots got underway in the Easter season of 1881 and would eventually spread to more than 250 communities. According to John Klier at the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, “The first pogrom... occurred in Elisavetgrad (Kirovgrad) in the Ukrainian province of Kherson” and “spawned a spate of copycat violence in the region, as news of the disorders spread. A serious pogrom occurred in Kiev” on May 7, which “lasted for three days and spread to villages in Kiev and surrounding provinces. The violence continued sporadically until winter. A pogrom erupted in Warsaw on Christmas Day, 1881. Pogroms returned to Ukraine in the spring of 1882,” but a “greater willingness by the authorities to resort to deadly force in the repression of pogroms finally ended their endemic character in the summer of 1882.” The wave of pogroms, Klier continues, “strengthened new political movements among East European Jews, especially the trend in Jewish socialism that would lead to the creation of the Bund, and the type of proto-Zionism exemplified by Ḥoveve Tsiyon (Lovers of Zion).” The violence also helped instigate widespread Jewish emigration from the Russian empire. “Gesia languished under the threat of execution for five months; finally her sentence was commuted, just before she was to deliver. At the hands of the authorities, the terrible act of childbirth became a case of torture unprecedented in human history. For the delivery, they transferred her to the House of Detention. The torments suffered by poor Gesia Gelfman exceeded those dreamed up by the executioners of the Middle Ages; but Gesia didn’t go mad — her constitution was too strong. The child was born live, and she was even able to nurse it.” —Olga Liubatovich