On this day in 1903, an angry mob began attacking Jewish people in Moldova’s capital city, Kishinev. Then a part of the Russian Empire, Kishinev had recently experienced a series of child murders that were falsely pinned on members of the local Jewish community. As the mob left their religious services, they began assaulting Jewish people in the streets, raping women and beating many to death. According to a report…
… the mob was led by priests, and the general cry, “Kill the Jews,” was taken-up all over the city. The Jews were taken wholly unaware and were slaughtered like sheep […]. Babes were literally torn to pieces by the frenzied and bloodthirsty mob. The local police made no attempt to check the reign of terror. 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.The New York Times
Law enforcement officials stood by as 49 Jews were killed and 1,500 homes destroyed. When pressed for comment, Russian authorities remarked that the violence was not, in fact, sectarian; the Moldovans were simply upset at being “taken advantage” of by Jewish money lenders. This narrative falls apart when the social climate of Kishinev is taken into account: prior to the pogrom (a Russian term for a violent, racially-motivated riot), a local newspaper entitled Бессарабец (Bessarabian) published a series of articles with titles like “Crusade Against the Hated Race” and “Death to the Jews!“. Kishinev’s Orthodox priests, too, had conducted anti-semitic sermons about alleged Satanic Jewish practices involving children’s blood.
Inspired by the pogroms, zionists like Theodor Herzl began aggressively advocating for a settlement of Jews in British territory, a movement that (eventually) resulted in the creation of modern-day Israel. Although news of the pogrom shocked the international community – including many wealthy Americans who sent money and investigators to the site of the violence – anti-semitism in Europe was nothing new. Particularly in Russia, Jews were the favourite scapegoat for any number of problems that existed in Tsarist society. This deep-seated anti-semitism lived on in Eastern Europe during the Stalinist years and manifested in the murders of millions of Jewish people both before and during WWII. If historians can learn anything from the Kishinev Pogrom, perhaps it’s the understanding that language – the labelling of Jews as criminals, for example – has hideous ramifications in the real world, and that racial animosities don’t spring up overnight.