What happened to the Russian Jews

The suffering of the Jews in tsarist Russia

April 2013 will mark the anniversary of an event that gained not only notoriety among the Jews of Russia, but also worldwide: the pogrom in the Russian city of Kishinev. The bloody atrocities during the Easter days of 1903 left 45 dead and 86 seriously injured. 1500 Jewish houses were looted and destroyed. The Russian murderers, pillagers and rapists went unpunished.

There were also pogroms in Russia before and after Kishinev - they were the reason for the millions of Russian Jews who emigrated to America - but the extent of the brutality made the name of the city of Kishinev the epitome of Jewish threats and legallessness in the Tsarist Empire. When the hero of Simon Dubnow's "Story of a Jewish Soldier" visits his hometown Kishinev a few days after the riots, he encounters traces of the devastation everywhere.

Remains of furniture and rags of clothing were still lying around on the streets and courtyards with their shattered gates, dark stains could be seen on some house walls: "These are blood stains," explained my carter, a Jew who told me a lot about which I had nothing would have known. With a pounding heart I stopped in front of my mother's house, where I immediately noticed the broken windows clogged with all sorts of fabrics. I went in and recognized the pale old woman who fell around my neck with difficulty as my mother, who had been young and lively when I had said goodbye to her.

Then the young man learns what happened to the members of his family: the unleashed mob murdered his brother-in-law, violated his sister, and suffocated her baby.

My soul was in turmoil. Pain and shame flooded me: pain because of the tortured and dishonored people, shame because of our brothers who had delivered their neighbors to mutilation and death without standing in the way of the brutal pogrom crowd. Why was no Jewish self-defense organized when the police and army were on the side of the barbarians? Why didn't they defend their honor when they couldn't defend life?

For the 21-year-old, "Kishinev" is a beacon: He is setting out to found Jewish self-defense groups. Twelve years and many pogroms and humiliations later, the nameless hero, as a "Jewish soldier", will face the victims of his marauding comrades several times with the courage of desperation during the First World War. But mentally, he is shattered by the never-ending violence against his Jewish brothers, which he has to experience at the front and in the hinterland - and the schizophrenia of his situation: He is supposed to defend a state with gun in hand that denies him civil rights which often enough stirs up anti-Semitic hatred and whose officials attack the Jewish population with impunity. Hit by a German bullet, the nameless hero, dying, surrenders the fate of his people to the conscience of the world.

"The story of a Jewish soldier" is the only literary work of the great historian Simon Dubnow, whose ten-volume "Weltgeschichte des Jewish Volk" appeared in German translation from 1926-1929 and is still considered a standard work.

It is thanks to the Slavist Vera Bischitzky that the "Story of a Jewish Soldier" can now be read in German for the first time. When she was doing research in Moscow for the transmission of Simon Dubnow's memoirs "Book of Life", the author's granddaughter recommended the text, which was also forgotten in Russia, to her. Vera Bischitzky translated it from Russian, edited it together with the Tübingen Judaist Stefan Schreiner and commented extensively.

The historian Simon Dubnow, born in Mstislavl, Belarus, in 1860, was forced in his youth to acquire his knowledge of Russian as an autodidact. He was denied an academic education. With his "Jewish soldier" he shared his thirst for education and the experience of how difficult and usually hopeless it was to overcome the "barbed wire of the Jewish numerus clausus", the strict quotas for Jewish pupils and students.

The example of the "Jewish soldier" impressively shows how the young Jews of Russia became ardent supporters of the revolution through the formative experience of violence and lawlessness.

What made me a revolutionary? Oh, I had attended an "authority" school from childhood. My mother's stories about the pogroms of 1881, the "battles" in Kiev and the "captivity" in Moscow, my father's tears in the transit prison, the slaughter of the children by the high school Herodesse and the role of the pariah at the gates of the University - do we need better preparation for the revolution? National protest merged with socialism and the revolution became my religion.

When Simon Dubnow published the text in a Russian-language Jewish weekly newspaper in 1916, the censors mutilated the work. Only after the February Revolution of 1917 could the "story" appear in full. It was the February Revolution - and not the October Revolution, as is often assumed - that brought the Russian Jews the equality they longed for and freed them from centuries of discrimination.

Despite initial high hopes, the scholar soon distanced himself from the October overthrow of the Bolsheviks - the language of violence repelled him. From 1922 to 1933 he found refuge in Berlin. After the National Socialists came to power, he moved to Riga. He had preferred the Latvian capital to a possible emigration to the USA in order to be closer to his children in Warsaw and Moscow. The 81-year-old Simon Dubnow died in the Riga ghetto after the German invasion at the end of 1941 under hitherto unexplained circumstances.

For the historian Dubnow, the "story of a Jewish soldier" was a collective biography that reflected the fate of an entire Jewish-Russian generation in the decades before the First World War. The editors of the German translation have added so much illuminating material to the narrow text that a veritable history book has emerged. It calls up a buried chapter in European history and will certainly unfold its significance in the observations about the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the world war that are due in 2014.

Simon Dubnow: "Story of a Jewish Soldier."
Edited by Vera Bischitzky and Stefan Schreiner, translated from Russian by Vera Bischitzky. Library of Jewish History and Culture. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 2012. 248 pages. 59.99 euros