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Kishinev To Kovno: Witnesses To History

YIVO Institute for Jewish Research at the Center for Jewish History
15 West 16th Street, New York, NY, 10011
Monday-Thursday 9 a.m.-5:00 p.m., Friday 9 a.m.-4 p.m.


When G-d hid His face in the last century, a ruthless history unfolded as tragedy after tragedy descended upon the Jewish people. This occurred in spite of the best efforts of many who struggled to protect Jewish communities. The Kishinev pogrom of April 1903 sent shock waves throughout the Jewish world, resulting in a call for self-defense. In the wake of this publicity, the efforts of many Jewish leaders were largely successful in blunting further attacks and raising the consciousness of many Russian Jewish communities in the years that followed.

Unfortunately, this network of self-defense groups did not survive to withstand the Nazi onslaught 40 years later. Kishinev was devastated along with all of Eastern Europe.

There are currently two exhibitions at YIVO, one about the Kishinev pogrom, and the other about the Kovno Ghetto with a commentary from Solly Ganor’s “Light One Candle: A Child’s Diary of the Holocaust.” These stand as important witnesses to Jewish history in the last century.

On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Kishinev pogrom, YIVO has mounted an exhibition of materials from their archives that documents the awful events of 1903. A two day rampage by at least 200 rioters against the 60,000 Jews of Kishinev resulted in the murder 49 Jews, 500 critically injured, many raped, over 800 homes destroyed and 4,000 families left homeless. The exhibition seeks to demonstrate that the Kishinev pogrom was a turning point in Russian Jewish history. The event convinced many that Czarist Russia was unwilling to provide any protection for its Jewish citizens.

In response, a vigorous self-defense movement blossomed in many Jewish communities that was able to provide some measure of protection. Other sections of the Jewish community, especially the Jewish Labor Bund, became convinced that only the violent overthrow of the Czarist government could ultimately protect the Jews. Finally, many decided that there was no feasible future in Russia and they immigrated to America, or joined the ranks of the Zionists in what was to become the Second Aliyah.

The exhibition contains many well-known photographs that document the massacre. The dead are seen uncovered in a makeshift morgue, while another photograph bizarrely pictures a Jewish defense group posed around three bodies. Surprisingly, there is little respect shown for the dead, either because most of those pictured were secular Jews who didn’t know any better, or because the extreme trauma of the event disrupted normal burial practices.

Another haunting image shows almost 50 victims displaying bandaged heads and limbs as they pose in a courtyard. The outrage was compounded by the fact that the existing self-defense organizations had attempted to resist the rioters, but were dispersed by the Russian police who stood by passively while two days of destruction descended upon the Jewish community.

Haim Nahman Bialik, in his well-known poem, “The City of Slaughter,” along with Ahad Ha-Am, M. Ben-Ammi, S. Dubnow and Y.H. Ravnitzky, campaigned for Jewish self-defense as the only rational response to Kishinev. Others responded by visual memorials. The dedication page of “Sbornik”, by Maxim Gorky, written in memory of the victims, was illustrated by Ephraim M. Lilien, a Zionist illustrator and printmaker. This moving image depicts an old Jew bound to a stake with a tallis as flames engulf him. An angel appears with a Torah scroll and liberates his soul with a kiss. In a terrible prescience, it foretells much Holocaust art.

Memory is bound up with witnessing in the memorial poster for the victims of the pogroms in Kishinev, Odessa, Bialystok and Kalarash between 1903 and 1906. The text of the Kel Moleh Rachamim prayer is framed by a list of all the victims surrounded by a border that includes reproductions of photographs that picture the dead and the burial of desecrated Torah scrolls.

“Light One Candle: A Child’s Diary of the Holocaust,” downstairs in the Joan Constantiner Gallery is a Holocaust Educational traveling exhibition of photographs and texts designed by Eric Saul, curator. The texts are based on the book of the same name by Solly Ganor, whose childhood diary (he was 13 in 1941) relates his internment in the Kovno Ghetto, encounter with the Righteous Gentile Chiune Sugihara (Japanese consul who provided many exit visas and saved thousands of Jews), and final liberation by Japanese American soldiers from the death march from Dachau.

Published in 1995, the book has been translated into Japanese and German and has become a standard text in many Holocaust studies. The exhibition of 46 photographs is particularly strong in the intriguing photographs of George Kadish, all taken in the ghetto using a hidden camera.

Kovno was a spiritual and cultural center of Lithuania, home to the Slobodka Yeshiva. In 1930, it was occupied by Soviet forces. Just prior to the German invasion in June 1941, Lithuanians entered Kovno and massacred close to 10,000 Jews. Later that summer and fall, a number of terrible “Aktionen” were taken against the Jews in the ghetto. Over the next two years, a viable Jewish underground was formed that had links with the partisans fighting the Nazis. In 1944, the ghetto was liquidated amidst active resistance. Many of Kovno’s surviving Jews were taken to Dachau in Germany. In 1945, many died in death marches from Dachau. Upon liberation, approximately 2 percent of Kovno’s 30,000 Jews had survived.

Kadish (Zvi Kadushin) was an amateur photographer who fashioned a hidden camera in his trouser buckle. He secretly developed the film, hid the negatives in the ghetto, and retrieved them after liberation. The many photographs he took document the terrible life in the ghetto, and he commented later that they were his revenge against the Nazis. They are stirring witnesses to Nazi oppression.

The exhibition photographs transports one into the crushing life of the ghetto; the humiliating searches at the ghetto gates, desolate streets, and orphan children bartering and begging for food. In August 1941, and again in October, the ghetto was shrunk with forced moves, deportations to slave labor camps in Estonia, and terrible loss of life. In some ways, the most haunting photograph is of one Hebrew word, nekamah (revenge) written in a victim’s own blood on the floor of a house in Slobodka. These images provide a chilling echo to Ganor’s riveting text.

Solly Ganor relates that, “We made a pact among ourselves that those who would survive the war would tell the truth about what happened.” He has kept his promise to his perished friends through his book and this exhibition. Here, the act of witnessing seems so urgent, almost a cry from the distant past when life itself was uncertain. Witnessing is perhaps the most elemental act one can make as oppression, violence and despair conspire to crush our very humanity. Witnessing is an act of survival for the memories of those who perished, a balm for survivors to endure the terrible poison of the Holocaust, and an essential weapon against all who would
attempt to annihilate the human spirit.

Mini-symposium on Kishinev Pogrom: Tuesday, November 4, 2003; 6 p.m. at the Center for Jewish History Auditorium. Speakers include: Dr. Allan Nadler, Drew University; Professor David Engel, NYU; Professor Hasia Diner, NYU; Professor Robert Seltzer, Hunter College; Boris Sandler, Yiddish Forward. RSVP: 212-294-6143.

Light One Candle: A Child’s Diary of the Holocaust: text by Solly Ganor, photographs by George Kadish and others, Joan Constantiner Gallery; Monday- Thursday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Until September 27, 2003.

Kishinev Pogrom: Commemorative Exhibition; YIVO Galleries: Monday-Thursday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Until December 31, 2003.

Richard McBee is a painter of Torah subject matter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at www.richardmcbee.com.

About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com

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