Born a Jew

Boris D. Bogen


Chapter XVI. The Pinsk Tragedy

A letter from Zuckerman, the commissioner, evidently written by an agitated hand. It had come from Brest Litovsk bringing the news of horror. He had been in Pinsk and had organized there a committee to distribute food for the Passover in order that the Jews might celebrate properly one of those occasions when the hand of God reached out to deliver their forefathers.

And after his departure the committee had assembled with no little rejoicing. The Passover was to be observed in the old way in Pinsk, and there was to be enough of food for everyone. It was to be again as in the good times when even the poorest was not lacking. The committeemen were conscious of a holy joy at having been designated for the service of the distribution, for a mizvah (the privilege of a good deed) had been conferred.

Their deliberations were disturbed by an imperative knocking at the door which was suddenly flung open to admit soldiers; the committee was herded like cattle in the corrals of our ranches; and whoever protested was seized by rough hands.

So away with them through the city’s streets, and in an hour not one of the thirty-four was alive. The soldiers were digging their graves where they fell; all had been shot without trial and without accusation of crime.

The next day an official notice in a Pinsk newspaper reported the tragedy coldly, briefly, and falsely: A Bolshevik Jewish organization had been discovered in Pinsk and a few of the ringleaders had been shot.

There was no sleep for me this night and the next morning I was returning to Warsaw, stopping at Brest Litovsk, where trains were changed and where Mr. Zuckerman was waiting, disheveled, distraught, and weeping for his brethren.

“Would that they had taken me with those innocent victims,” he cried. “Why did I leave them? At least, I would not be here just to tell the story.”

There was no use for Mr. Zuckerman to remain longer in Brest Litovsk where the Polish authorities were following his every step and had searched his rooms and even his person. He left with me for Warsaw on the next train.

In Warsaw we found an eyewitness, a boy of fifteen, Zalman Lichevski, though by reason of privation he looked no more than ten, a pogrom orphan from the Ukraine. He had been a wanderer in the world with four brothers and sisters, living by begging and bartering. He had been in Pinsk that dreadful night.

“We lived in Pinsk, you know, on the grand street just a few houses from the Zionist Center,” he began. “They had a meeting there that night and everybody knew about it because the American delegate had been in the city. He had come a few days before. Everybody was on the streets to see him because he was not like any of the Jews in the city.

“So they had a meeting and it was about Pesach. Everybody knew that. I was home taking care of the little ones, for Dweirke, my sister, had gone to visit our sick aunt. All at once I heard a noise of shouting and crying and the firing of guns.

“I knew what the sound of guns meant. The Bolsheviks had been in the city and there had been much shooting on the streets. I guessed the Bolsheviks were coming back, and I got the children up and was already beginning to think ‘Where should we run?’ when Dweirke came back wringing her hands and crying.

“‘What happened?’” I asked.

“‘Terrible! Terrible! The people in the Zionist Center are taken to the tlea’ (to death), and then she cried and cried and couldn’t talk any more. I asked her questions but she could not say a word.

“So I left her with the little ones and ran into the street. The houses were all dark and few people were on the streets except soldiers, and there were some shadows of people hurrying home under the dark houses. I, too, went the same way in the shadows.

“All at once I heard shots again and again, and there were thousands of echoes, as if from all the walls.

“Soon automobiles were coming toward me, maybe three or four, and I hid in the doorway of a house, and when they had passed I ran. At last I came to the big wall, and a few soldiers were there who were burying dead men, and some officers were watching them.

“I did not wait any longer but ran back toward home, but on the way I went into the house of one of the men who I knew had been to the meeting. He was an old man and I wanted to know if anything had happened to him. I knocked at the door and when they had found out who I was they let me in. There were candles on the floor and I knew somebody had died. The old man had escaped, but they had killed the one who was to be his son-in-law.

“I asked how it happened, and the old man said, ‘We were sitting in the room making out a list of the people who were to receive flour for matzo which the Americans were bringing. But black was the hour that we learned that we should have matzo this year, for at once shooting started. We wanted to run, but where could we run?

“‘The house was surrounded by soldiers and we were beaten into line and told to go with the soldiers. We did not know where we were to go, but we thought to the prison, for who should think they were leading us to the tlea?

“‘I escaped on the road in the darkness.’

“‘And the old man and his family cried and wrung their hands and tore their clothing. And the kahle, the one that was to have been married to the man who was killed, sat over the candle and was like crazy.

“I thought, ‘What should I do?’ And I said, ‘Home I should not go, for what could I do there? I shall do better if I go to Warsaw and tell everybody what is happening in Pinsk. Maybe we can get help before all the Jews are killed.’

“So I left Pinsk without telling anybody and went on the road to Warsaw. I walked all night and in the morning I came to a little Jewish place and told the people what had happened. These Jews were afraid themselves for their lives and they gave me a little food and money, and I stole a ride on a train and so I got to another place, and then here.”

The child spoke with the mature intelligence of one far beyond his years; his truthfulness was not to be doubted. I hastened to Colonel Grove of the American Mission, who had already heard about this catastrophe. He was perturbed and at first could not believe that the victims were entirely innocent. They must have been guilty of some flagrant crime against the government. Such wanton slaughter was beyond the comprehension of a civilized man. . . . Surely, there must have been a good cause. . . . To destroy men wholesale. . . .

I told him of the boy. He must himself hear the story from the boy at once, he said, and without adding or subtracting a detail the lad repeated to the colonel the story he had told me. The next day the colonel had him for luncheon and for this occasion we removed his rags and gave him new shoes and clothing.

The colonel had managed a dramatic setting, for when I arrived with the boy we found ourselves in a glittering group of Polish officials and noblemen who were likewise the colonel’s guests that day.

Here sat this and that proud noble and there this and that pompous official, and among them the Jewish boy Zalman Lichevski, who had just come out of his rags. And one and another inquired who he was and soon it was known about the table that he had come from the slaughter at Pinsk to tell the world. And though no word was spoken of that tragic event it brooded at the table, as if the haunting ghosts of the thirty-four dead were themselves in attendance. Zalman Lichevski was the silent accuser.

But justice was only in heaven with the dead, for the smell of Jewish blood had whetted the thirst of newspapers and stimulated the appetite of the multitudes. Whoever spoke other than compliments of Poland was denounced by the newspapers as an agent of American Jews. Such was a former member of the Red Cross who had left Poland and had spoken with no flattering words of the Poles; such was an American correspondent who had failed to burn sweet-smelling incense for them. In all Poland there was no voice of the press lifted to cry down the murders at Pinsk, and if it were mentioned at all it was only for justification.

These dead were Bolsheviks, it was said. There was no room on the earth for Bolsheviks. Bolsheviks must die. Was the killing without semblance of trial even? For Bolsheviks there must be no processes of justice.

Even our own Americans were not to be persuaded otherwise than that these dead had been Bolsheviks, plotting against the government. One of them had gone to Pinsk to find the truth; but truth, the immortal bird of legend, was not to be found in the fog of prejudice and fear which lay heavy on Pinsk and all Poland, and all the world, for that matter. Even in America we were pursuing phantoms of Bolshevism, and whoever could not feel the current hates, and whoever spoke for constitutional liberties, and whoever forgot to lift his hat for a patriotic hymn, were Bolsheviks.

But there was an ounce of satisfaction later on, though sad enough it was. A Parliament commission had investigated the killing of the thirty-four at Pinsk, and had reported that the slaughter of these Jews was not justified for any reason. A terrible mistake had been made, it was confessed.

It had been alleged that a shot had been fired from within the building in which the Jewish committee was assembled. And, to be sure, there was a hole in the door. But Mr. Gruenebaum, a member of the commission, found the bullet imbedded in a wall within the house and directly opposite the door. This was the proof that the shot had been fired from without.

The thirty-four dead, shot without trial, were vindicated and justice came to weep at their graves. But there was justice only for the dead, and the persecution of Jews continued with increasing fury and Jews lived in fear of to-morrow.

When in the tragic circumstances of the time courageous voices were needed, only the Zionists were to be heard. The Assimilationists spoke in deprecating whispers. “Ah, gentlemen, we must be quiet. We must not embarrass the government.” . . . The Orthodox raised their voices only for flattery of the authorities.

A few months later I myself visited Pinsk, which was then still an island surrounded by bayonets. I called a meeting of the Jews of Pinsk, but few came, for the fate of the thirty-four was still a horror in the hearts of the people. They had died because they had gone to a meeting—a Jewish meeting that had to do with the hunger of Jews. Another such meeting I had now called, for the hunger of the Jews of Pinsk was no less; but only the boldest dared answer the summons.

They sat under a loaded machine gun in the hands of a soldier standing on the platform of the hall. With one sweep of its barrel he could have wiped out the pitiful handful that sat before him; and little would they have cared, for death had become the least of afflictions in Pinsk.

What mattered death for Miss S——who had seen worse than death? She was in the meager audience and I observed her particularly because she seemed a figure of tragedy. She was one of four women who had attended the meeting the night the thirty-four men were shot. The women had been spared for tortures that caused them to envy the swift death of the men as a happy end.

Imprisoned, they suffered degradations until the day of their release. Daily the officers amused themselves by threatening them with death; daily they were undressed and flogged until they lost consciousness; two of them became insane, one had disappeared, and only this one was left in the community.

Her friends said: “She thinks only of death.”

And I replied: “We will give her something to live for.”

I made her a member of the local committee and I saw the aspect of tragedy fall from her face. Life had been an evil, haunting past; suddenly there had been set before her a hopeful future with work to be done, with the promise of relief for the suffering that was on Pinsk.

“I thank you,” she smiled. She entered the discussion, full of plans. This must be done and that, she suggested. . . . Then, suddenly, the soldier spoke. Curfew time had come. The meeting must disband.

The girl came to my side with a young man. Would I remain in the city a while? I must depart early the next morning, I answered. But could I not find time to stay at least until the evening? Very well!

And early the next morning they were at my door, and a lovely speech the girl had.

“Our good friend,” she began, “you came to us when there seemed no more hope of good on the earth. Since that terrible time the Jews had not been permitted to meet, until last night. And we had passed each other on the streets like strangers, not daring to meet two together. And each of us must suffer alone. You see, suffering is less when many suffer and each can share his suffering with his neighbor. But it is dreadful to suffer alone.

“But last night you made it possible for us to meet for the first time since the murder, and merely in touching each other’s elbows was comfort. We felt there was goodness again in the world and hope had come again. Various visitors have been here to ask about the murder, but these only opened up the old wounds and only despair was left after they departed.

“You have made us forget the past and think of the future. We wanted to present you with some gift, but you were in a hurry and our stores were closed and there was nothing we could get here. So we went to a Jewish farmer, a distance from the city, who we knew had something hidden away, and here it is.”

Before me they placed a package in a rag which upon being unfolded revealed an inkwell, a pencil, and a pen-holder. It was not a thing of value nor of great beauty; but now, ten years later, the little glass inkwell stands as the loveliest ornament in my house, a precious belonging.

One day about this time the walls of Warsaw became gay with gaudy placards summoning the people to a pogrom. The Poles had liberated themselves from the hands of their Russian masters but had saved their masters’ worst habits. It was Passover week and the Warsaw Jews sat at their meager Seder feasts thanking the Lord, with choking voices, for delivering them from the Egyptian hands.

For the Jew there is always something to be thankful for in the past.

The walls call for the slaughter of Jews, but once upon a time the Red Sea parted for the passage of the Jews while the Egyptians were destroyed after they had suffered nine plagues. The blood of the thirty-four cries from the earth at Pinsk, but once upon a time the hand of the wicked Haman was diverted from its purposes by the grace of God, and Haman himself was hanged. The enemies assembled on the streets muttering against Jews, but once upon a time it was given to the hands of Judas Maccabaeus to defeat with a feeble army the great power of the Syrians.

The Warsaw Jews, awaiting pogroms, were not without faith in the Most High who had destroyed the Egyptians and caused Haman to be hanged and had made the Maccabean strong enough to defeat the Syrian hosts with a handful; but they were afraid. There were ominous assemblies on the streets, and though the government, at the request of Colonel Grove, had removed the incendiary placards, the welcome summons to a pogrom had remained in the heart of the mob.

The fear of violent death haunted every Jewish house, made bitter the bread that the generosity of America had provided, and drove sleep from the night.

It was early in the morning after the night of the first Seder that I was awakened by the screams of a woman in the Jewish house in which I lived; and I heard a loud knocking at the front door with the sound of clubs, and a voice crying, “Open, or it will be the worse for you.”

In the street I saw a clutter of shadows.

“Open! Open!”

“This is the end,” the father of the household said with the calm courage becoming to one who was the heir of a history of unhappy ends.

“This is the tlea,” the mother cried, gathering her children about her.

I ran to the telephone which, since I became a member of the household, had been installed as a special privilege by the government; I called the police.

“Oh,” they said, “it is only some of our men who are hunting a fellow who has evaded military service.”

So it came to pass in that unhappy time that the noise of a window rattling, the cry of a child in the street, a shout made the hearts of Jews cold. And one day a deafening noise in the street brought me to the window before which all the rabble of Warsaw—beggars, loafers, soldiers—was running and shouting and throwing stones in a pursuit of Jews. It was like a mad wind of hate suddenly let loose, before which Jews were driven like straws.

A Jew in a long coat running and now and then turning his blood-streaked face to his enemies to cry for their mercy; a woman with an infant, now felled by a stone, now rising again to run; a whole family, now holding one to the other, now scattered and trampled.

The mistress of the house cried to me: “Go away from the window, for God’s sake!”

But other members said: “No, let him stay. His uniform may save us. They will not dare to come in here when they see him.”

I opened the window and shouted to the crowd. I spoke with that stentorian authority that military men like to affect.

“Stop! What does this mean?”

They stopped and regarded most respectfully my uniform, for the world had not yet come out of the nightmare in which uniforms were respected even more than life; and the while they lifted their eyes in adoration of my uniform, the Jews ran to grateful shelter.

I scarcely knew what to say or do next, but the police themselves relieved my anxiety, for down the street there was heard the rattling of a police wagon and the sound of shots fired in the air, and the mob dispersed.

But if a fear stays long enough it ceases to hurt any more, like any pain that in time becomes a familiar experience. And soon Jewish life in Warsaw was moving again in its rather sluggish course, although the talk of pogroms was still whispered and although Easter came, when to the glory of the risen Christ it was the custom in old Russia to make a sacrifice of Jews.

Chapter XXX. The New Freedom

Now our work proceeded under the favor of one of the noblest women of Russia—Mme. Olga Kamenev, the wife of the Acting President of the Republic. She was the chairman of that commission through which the government dealt with foreign-relief organizations; a woman of unusual ability and intelligence, a daughter of Jews. Her noble presence was like an admonition and the graft and the favor-seeking disappeared from the affairs of Russian relief administration, and men were ashamed to ask aught for themselves. [ . . . ]

The Kamenevs lived in three rooms on the second floor of a building in which were the living quarters of other officials as well. This space must suffice not only for the President of the Republic, his wife, and two children, but also for his secretary and two servants.

The rooms were modestly furnished, but in good taste. There was a select library in the study room, and the name of the aristocratic personage who once had owned them was still in the books. But this aristocrat, had he known, would have felt assurance that his beloved books had fallen into gentle hands, for the Kamenevs were people to the manor born.

Mme. Kamenev thought of herself as one of the family of mankind and to be a Jew was therefore to seclude one’s self from the common life. She cared for Jews as people and not as brethren exclusively hers; they were brethren, to be sure, but as the Tartars were brethren, as the Bashkirs were brethren. But in unguarded moments hidden recesses of her heart opened to reveal a deep affection for the people of whom she was born. She was concerned with their good name in the world.

“You see,” she said, “it is impossible to have you do everything for the Jews and nothing for the others. After all, to do for others does good to the Jews, for it promotes better understanding.”

Mme. Kamenev labored furiously at her tasks, crowding every hour with service, for blindness was falling upon her and she must fill the days with work before darkness came.

Mr. Kamenev seemed even more distant from the Jews than his wife. It was said of him that he was the son of a converted Jew. He was the most respected of the Communist leaders, though not loved as Trotsky was. Among his political enemies I heard no ill spoken of him; these loud fellows said only that he was too mild and too modest. He was a prodigious worker, and though there was a multitude of detail to be served in the presidency of the Republic, he still found time to lecture on technical subjects and scarcely a month passed without a new book of his appearing in print.

Not that Kamenev was indifferent or hostile to Jews; they were brethren, but not special brethren, who must be treated justly. His beloved friend was the Jew, Professor David Shor, the musician, who was often with him in friendly discourse and who was the voice of the Jews speaking to the ears of the president. Shor found friendly ears in Kamenev, and often it was Kamenev himself who pointed ways out of Jewish difficulties that Shor brought to him. One day Shor brought to him a delegation of rabbis pleading for recognition of their calling and for the rights of the Hebrew language which had been declassed as something counter-revolutionary. Though the objects of their visit came to no success, still it was brought home to fanatical Jewish Communists that the Acting President himself had given gracious audience to rabbis, and it was as if Kamenev had said to his comrades, “We may despise the teachers of religion, but may we not be gentlemen?”

But Kamenev’s gentle tolerance was quite wasted as an example for his truculent Jewish comrades, who demanded that Hebrew must be stricken from the tongues of men, since it was called a holy language and since nothing holy must be tolerated, and to whom synagogues were useful only for confiscation and conversion into Communist clubs.

When the kindly Kamenev proposed to the rabbis that they draft a petition asking the government’s indulgence for Hebrew, it was the Jewish Communists who protested against any favor that would give any legal sanction to Hebrew. And the pious portion of Jewry cried, “Oh, that our brethren should do this to us! Oh, that the feet of our own children should now be on our necks!”

So Hebrew had become a secret language, a sort of Marrano, and was taught behind closed doors and the little boys no longer raised their voices in the well-known singsong of the Hebrew schools. But in unguarded moments the boys quite forgot themselves and chanted their lessons in the traditional way. One day I visited a Jewish shelter home with Mme. Kamenev and even before we came to the door Mme. Kamenev’s Communist ears were assailed by the singsong that told us little boys were studying Hebrew there. And what a hurrying there was to hide the Hebrew books as we entered and what a blushing as the pupils put away their hats which must be worn when the holy language is on the tongue! And what a stammering by the teacher making explanations to Mme. Kamenev, who smiled a sweet tolerance that, alas! was not common in this new Russia, furious and unbending in the pursuit of the new ideals.

The teacher opened his coat and displayed a badge to her.

“You see,” he said, “I am the commandant here.”

In every house the government had a “commandant” who was a faithful Communist and whose duty was to make report to the authorities on the comings and goings of all the inhabitants. A commandant was also in every school and his functions included janitor service.

This one was a faithless commandant, perpetrating treason against Communism in order to be faithful to Israel! Placed in the school to keep his eyes open against Judaism, he himself was teaching it; on guard to keep it out, he was stealthily imparting it to the hearts of the children. Faithless Communist! Faithful Jew!

Like all things that are prohibited, Hebrew came to be greatly desired by the Jews and in the Ukraine and White Russia it was bootlegged, as we would say in the United States, by hundreds of teachers. These imparted the language to furtive groups of five and ten, meeting in the basements of synagogues, with lookouts at the doors to give warning of the approach of intruders.

And time and again there were raids on these classes by Jewish Communists, bringing the secret police of the Cheka which was the most feared and the most hated of the institutions of the new order. The Cheka was the instrument of Schrecklichkeit by which Communism maintained itself in the beginning, an all-seeing eye seeking enemies, an iron fist that crushed them. But after Russia had become safer for Communism the remorseless Cheka became more mellow and made concessions to gentleness; now the Cheka no longer was permitted to execute people offhand and formality of trial was required. It even changed its evil name and became the GPU. [ . . . ]

In this new Russia, at that time, Jews predominated in the high places of the government, but not consciously as Jews, for they had set themselves apart from Judaism as they had from capitalism, and there was none among them to say, “I am a Jew”; they knew only the proletarian unity.

Nor was there any in Russia, at that time, to point scorn publicly at these new rulers and say, “They are Jews.” And I who had been born in the old Russia and had lived in it until my young manhood, felt myself in a topsy-turvy world in which the despised had come to sit on the throne, and they who had been the least were now the mightiest, and I was like one waking up from a dream, uncertain between fantasy and reality.

There was that May Day in Moscow, a grand parade. The Red Army marches. The workers march with banners and floats, singing. The procession, miles long, snakes through the winding streets and comes, at length, to the Kremlin where the puissance of Communism is assembled.

Where homage was once for Tsars, the heavens are rent with hoarse, exultant tributes for the Jew, Trotsky, the idol of the people—then.

Where the soldiery did obeisance to emperors, the battalions now stand before the Jew, Kamenev, Acting President of the Republic, to recite after him the oath of allegiance.

He is flanked by generals who were of the old régime and now are of the new. At his right Budiani, the dashing cavalry-man, whom the Tsar loved.

One sees these things and says, “But, after all, this is not Trotsky the Jew or Kamenev the Jew. They have repudiated Judaism and feel no unity with Israel. Are they of us, then?”

Then one argues: “But they are Jews. Is the Jewish quality something that can be renounced with a word? Can our spiritual inheritance be cast off by a man as some garment? These are Jews.”

Trotsky the Jew receives the salute of the army. . . . Budiani, the favorite of the Tsar, stands at attention as the Jew [Budyenni] Kamenev speaks.

This is not to say that there was no anti-Semitism in Russia then. Oh, there was enough of it and, perhaps, the more dangerous because it was suppressed. The government sat on the lid, and when Jews met to discuss the comparative happiness of their new state, there was always the terrifying question, “But what would happen if the government fell?”

And men feared to venture the answer, being seized with unspeakable dread; for every Jew knew that the fall of the government would release such an explosion of hate as would fade St. Bartholomew’s eve to a brawl. And the prayer was that there might be no change even though Jewish Communists were most obnoxious and persecuted Judaism, even while the Jew himself was safe.

The Jewish Communists knew how to rationalize the persecution of Judaism. This persecution, they said, was really good for the Jews in the long run. They must take this attitude of opposition to Judaism in order that it might appear that even among the Jewish Communists there was no special favor for Judaism in this new Russia in which all religions had been declassed. Seeing Jews barking at Jews, the dogs of anti-Semitism might be content and seek other objects at which to snap.

But, in reality, the Jewish Communists were moved by inspirations less complicated, and these partly had to do with their own prestige in the party and partly with the nature of the Jew who is forever afraid of what the neighbors may say about him. If in America it is a time for hysterical patriotism he must seem more hysterical than others, lest it be said that he is not patriotic enough, as we saw in an earlier chapter of this book. If in Russia religion had come to be despised, the Jew must be seen tearing down synagogues. [ . . . ]

In a pamphlet of which hundreds of thousands were printed, under the title “What We Are Doing to the Rabbis,” Esther Froomkin enumerated the hundred and one indignities that rabbis had suffered. And if the mediaeval church burned Jews to save their souls, no less did Esther Froomkin persecute Judaism to save Jews.

One day I reproached her.

“Why do you go out of your way to violate the most sacred feelings of your people? It is bad enough that you are making life miserable for the rabbis. But why do you take the trouble to stir up the Jews against rabbis, to lead the young against institutions their fathers respect?”

“I am right!” she exclaimed. “You do not understand the danger that the Jews are facing. If the Russian people should once get it into their minds that we are partial to the Jews, it would go hard with Jews. It is for the sake of the Jews that we are absolutely objective in our dealings with the clergy—Jewish and non-Jewish alike. The danger is that the masses may think that Judaism is exempt from anti-religious propaganda and, therefore, it rests with the Jewish Communists to be even more ruthless with rabbis than non-Jewish Communists are with priests. So we must popularize prejudice against rabbis; the Russians who have lost the poor consolation of their priests must be persuaded that there is no special favor for rabbis.”

But a few weeks later the god Trotsky spoke and peace fell upon the turbulent spirit of Esther Froomkin; for Trotsky in his new book, “The Problems of Life,” counseled moderation in the methods of anti-religious propaganda. It was quite a mistake, he said, to antagonize believers too much and advised “a milder and even respectful attitude toward those who, because of their background, cannot lift their minds to an understanding of modern ideas.”

Thereupon Esther Froomkin who had been flaunting fiery banners lifted a pure white one of pity, and thereafter rabbis were not fellows to be thrown to the wolves but poor, benighted creatures who deserved the sympathy of all who perceived the new light that issued from the Kremlin. [ . . . ]

We were free of the partnership of the anti-Judaistic Evsectzia, for under the terms of our contract with the government we functioned as a nonsectarian organization.

We had to appear less Jewish in order that we might serve Jews more. As a nonsectarian organization we were enabled to serve Jews who had no favor in the eyes of Communist Jews. To be sure, we had to pay for being free of the Evsectzia, for we were obliged to use about one-third of our funds for purposes designated by the government in places where there were almost no Jews. So we granted a loan once for combating wolves in Northern Russia, for they had become a serious menace to life, and in Hartaria our money helped to rehabilitate institutions for the care of children that were not of Jewish birth. And who could have it in his heart to find fault that Jewish money saved Christians from the depredations of wolves or that Jewish money nurtured Tartarian children?

Indeed, we came to be regarded as the lords bountiful in Russia, the generous and magical Americans who had balm for every ill, and missions from the far-flung Soviet Republic were sent to us with pleadings for the construction of canals and roads and what not. [ . . . ]

But when Passover came our nonsectarian rôle failed us and, in response to pleas for matzoth, we were obliged to insert notices in the press announcing we could not help make a Jewish holiday, because, under the terms of our contract with the government, we were not permitted to assist in any enterprise that had to do with religious observance.

The good Mme. Kamenev, whose heart had rejected Judaism but was still Jewish, intervened the next day. Since matzoth were bread, she argued, and none other could be eaten during the seven days, it was quite unjust to say that people might not have them. And straightway she called a meeting of her cabinet and shortly we were permitted to distribute funds for matzoth and quickly we sent couriers to distribute our money.

And when this became known that zealous Evsectzia, Jewish but not Judaistic, raised a protesting voice.

“Under the auspices of the government,” it said, “a religious observance is fostered. This enlightened Communistic government gives aid and comfort to a holiday by which Jews remember that they were slaves once. This must not be permitted.”

And they shouted so long and with such violence and with such effect that the permission was withdrawn; but too late. Already the couriers had reached their destination and distributed our funds.

It is difficult for the Jew to play nonsectarian, for Jewish problems are always stepping on his toes. One day when they put into our hands a non-Jewish orphan asylum we insisted that a just proportion of Jewish children must be placed in it, in order that there might be no doubt of its nonsectarian character. And so to start with, five children of Israel were transferred from a Jewish orphan asylum to this one. The Jewish institution was crowded and lacked the comforts that made the other one a model of its kind.

But one morning when the bell rang summoning the orphans to arise, the beds of the five Jewish children were vacant.

“Esther, Moishe, Yankele, Sarah, Abba,” the attendants called through the halls, and a while afterward they were found—in the Jewish orphan asylum whence they had come.

“And why,” we asked, “did you run away? Were you mistreated?”

And they answered: “Could we be treated any better? But it was no place for Jewish children. There were no Jews there but we, and no Yiddish and everything Goish. Was that a proper place to put Jewish children?”

They embarrassed us with reproachful eyes.

“There is even no chance to get a Yiddish book or to be Jewish. What sort of a life is it for Jewish children? It is good for Goim, but for Jewish children it is better here, even if here we do not eat so much.”

And only upon our promise to send a larger number of Jewish children to the better asylum would they go back. So even in a proletarian society in which all beings had been reduced to a common level and in which all racial and religious barriers were cut down, the Jew still was a fellow apart, saying, “I am a Jew. I am different.” And his children said it, as if it were born with them in their hearts.

And when one hundred illiterate Jewish children were found in Moscow and it was proposed to send them to various non-Jewish institutions for learning, there was heard a swelling protest arising from Moscow Jewry.

“This is impossible. Jewish children must be kept together. They will be lost to us if distributed among the Goim. Only when Jews stand together do they live as Jews; in separation is death. Our children must live together that they may be Jews; otherwise we destroy them as Jews.” [ . . . ]

Our all-embracing charity that took in a non-Jewish orphan asylum and fed starving workingmen students without distinction of race or creed was not applauded at home where, it was asked, “Did we give our money to feed the Goim?” And it was idle to explain the necessity of this. And hot was the blast of reproach that enveloped us when it became known in America that we were helping to feed these students.

Even if we were not obliged to do this, our consciences would have driven us to the succor of these noblest of young men who had come from distant places of the Republic in quest of knowledge. Hunger and privation was their portion, and they slept in the railroad stations, lacking other shelter, and some froze to death in the bitter winters, but few abandoned their ideal. The good life was in knowledge, they said; the good life was worth any sacrifice, for their cloud-capped heads were too high above the stomach to feel its pangs.

Among them were many Jews. The position of the Jew in university life had vastly changed, and it is worth while to offer the comparison as described by Professor Minor, a renowned neurologist.

“My father was the chief rabbi in Moscow,” he began, “and when it came time for me to enter the gymnasium I was not admitted. There was a numerous clausus that limited the number of Jews to one-tenth of the non-Jewish student enrollment. Since there were in the gymnasium 175 non-Jews, the number of Jews was fixed that year at 17½. A half a Jew being physically impossible save, perhaps, in the butchery of pogroms, the number of Jews actually admitted was 17. But when an appeal was made to the Governor of Moscow, he made a concession: I might be the half a Jew left over in the quota, and so I was admitted.

“At length, I entered the university and for twenty odd years I was a privatdozent (a sort of tutor), for, being a Jew, I could never hope to be a professor. I was approached again and again with suggestions that I accept Christianity for the sake of promotion.

“Oh, our world has been turned upside down and much evil we have suffered, and all that I possessed has been taken from me, and I have endured privation and even now lack meager comforts, and for old age there is no promise, but I am conscious of a certain happiness. The Jew has come at length to his rights as a man. What the Jew has suffered in this new Russia is the common suffering, but he shares also the common rights and privileges. For that reason I am happy even amid discomfort, for in time one may adjust himself to physical pain, but the oppression of the spirit is not to be endured.

“Though in the old Russia I could get no promotion for twenty years by reason of being a Jew, to-day I am not only professor but also dean of the medical school. I am not a radical, but I must acknowledge the debt of the Jews to the new rulers.” [ . . . ]

Chapter XXXI. A New Way, a New Life

[ . . . ] It was springtime when Dr. Rosen and I proceeded on an inspection trip which took us to the Jewish agricultural colonies in the Ukraine, where we were fascinated beyond measure by the spectacle of new life being born out of the soil.

Bereft of all their possessions, having torn themselves out by the roots from age-old habitations, and having been torn out of their occupations, hundreds of Jewish families had come here to plant a new life in this rich earth. And, lo! Israel was again at his ancient occupation. More than seed he sowed here; his spirit also.

There were old Jewish colonists here as well, families that had been tilling the soil long before the war, and had suffered the raids of the bandits afterward, and had lost relatives and friends in pogroms which were no less in these bucolic scenes than in the towns.

“My son, my daughter, and her two children were killed,” said an old colonist with whom we stopped. The years had served to heal the wounds, and he told us of his sorrows with the detachment of one reciting the history of a distant past. The dead were of the earth, but the ruin of his former good estate was still visible and for this he wept.

He took us to the orchard where his ruined fruit trees stood, gaunt stumps, and his eyes filled with tears.

“I remember when my father, blessed be his name, and I planted these trees.”

It was double toil for the old colonists—to rebuild on the ruins of their former prosperity and to plant anew for the next harvest. They asked for tools, seed, and horses.

If we gave them tools we must, under our agreement with the government, give tools also to their non-Jewish neighbors. But what would these Jews say about this? These neighbors had robbed them and burned their houses in the pogroms. They had fallen eagerly upon them when the bandits came through. What would these Jews say to see us comforting them? We asked them and discovered they held no grievance.

“Our peasants are good goim,” they answered. “They were misled by a few. And, besides, is it not better to show them kindness? Can we make friends of them if we hold ourselves as enemies against them? We need their friendship and we can make friends only by being friends. It is good that you give to them as well as to us.”

“So peace and friendship were upon these acres, and the Jews were quickly rebuilding their ruined fortunes, and, with the aid of our loan fund, were going into new enterprises, such as cooperative cheese factories. Seeing these things, Dr. Rosen rejoiced, for his work was already good; the workers were not content to be helped, but were helping themselves as well.

Now the pioneers were pouring into the land from the wretchedness of the cities and towns, applying their hands to unaccustomed toil, bending to plows their backs that had carried the peddler’s pack, giving to the soil a portion of the spiritual devotion that was once only for synagogues.

Among these were the chalutzim, young men and women, who had come here to prepare for Palestine, the distant goal. Here they would prepare and become strong for the greater labor in the Holy Land where the desert waited for their hands, and they worked with religious fervor.

This was only an interlude, and next year or the next the Holy Land, and this soil was only a little less holy since from it would come the strength and the knowledge for their work in the desert. Their housing was poor and their clothing was rags, but they felt the elevations of rapt priests. A little success, the sight of newsown seed sprouting, the completion of a habitation wretched enough, was celebrated as a triumph. They sang, as they worked through long, hard hours, those songs that spring from the anguish and the hopes of Jewish hearts. And when night fell they read or played games or sat spinning their dreams; and we saw among them the loveliness of the friendship that is between people held together by a common ideal and sweating for it.

Their dreams ran ahead of their means, and in one place these chalutzim had established an agricultural school even before their first crop was gathered, and shortly the school was filled with young pilgrims who had come from the cities in pursuit of the chalutz ideal. And what if there was want and misery, and what if they must eat sparingly to-day in order that there may be food enough for the morrow, and what if they were in tatters? Their hearts were light with the dream, and happiness was in toil. And when we offered to supply clothing for the rags they wore, they answered quickly, “Send us, rather, implements.” [ . . . ]

On this journey it fell to us to rescue a confiscated synagogue and restore it to the devotion of the Jews, and it was the privilege of our hands to set free imprisoned Jews who had offended the Communist Jews by being too zealous in their piety.

It was in a Jewish colony near Sympheropol I met a wife weeping for her husband. And what had happened? Oh, he had been arrested and put in jail for praying in the synagogue of the Caraites whose religious practices were generally Jewish and yet who were not considered Jewish enough to suffer the limitations that were put on Judaism by the Jewish Communists. When their synagogue was confiscated, the Jews went to pray with the Caraites, and when they were caught bootlegging Judaism in this way, they were imprisoned or fined; and for that reason the husband of the weeping wife was in jail.

But shortly he was out by our intercession, and so freedom came also for a number of others who were in jail for the same offense, and thus, too, the synagogue was taken from the impious hands of the Communist Jews and restored to the hands of the righteous who cleansed it first, considering it to have been defiled.

And happy was the reunion of the husband and the wife whose weeping had brought about this good conclusion. Life would be pleasant enough to live in this Russia were it not for the devilish Communist Jews, he sighed. He had been a wealthy landowner who had lost everything, but what mattered that, he asked, in a country in which no one was rich? Wealth was only a relative state.

Now he was permitted to have no more land than he needed for his living, and what more needed a man ask for in the world? Now, being an expert in cattle, he worked for the Jewish coöperative, buying stock, and this increased his living. And where once his family had far more than enough to eat, to-day they had no more than enough, and why should the stomach have more than enough? he asked. Was it good for the stomach?

“But, my friend, the best is that we have the right to live. It was a daily fear in the old times. To-day I might offend one of the nobility and to-morrow I might be without a home and without my land and a wanderer in the world; for we lived here by sufferance. And wherever I went I was unwanted, being a Jew.

“The other week I was the convoy for a shipment of cattle to the Caucasus and when I came to the boundary line of the Crimea I was stopped, as is the custom. I showed them my credentials from the coöperative—the Jewish coöperative, mind you—and they read it, and the officer said, ‘This is a herd of the Jewish coöperative,’ and they let me through without delay and with great respect.

“This is worth something: To be a man, the equal of all others. To be respected and to have enough for life—is there more to be asked for? It is only the Communist Jews who make life miserable; of the government we have no complaint.”

Rosen and I had gone to the Crimea to spy out the land and its opportunities for Jewish colonization by the aid of the Joint Distribution Committee. And we saw immense tracts of rich land lying idle for whatever hands would apply themselves. The natives were friendly and the government of the Crimea was willing, but it rested with Moscow to say whether land should be bestowed for the colonization of Jews. Indeed, already large numbers of Jews had come to the soil of the Crimea on their own account, and were already planting on rented ground, living in the open until the harvest when there would be time to build shelter. We returned to Moscow, thrilled with the idea of making these beautiful acres available to Jewish farmers.

In Moscow we found the enthusiasm for this project no less than our own, and Citizen Bragin—the one who had created the universal exposition—became a burning prophet for it. He lifted it as a new banner and proclaimed it as the solution of the Jewish problem. He elaborated it.

“Why not establish a Jewish republic or some kind of autonomous unit in the Crimea?” he asked. “A republic in which the Jew will be self-governing and live his own life!”

This Utopian had plans and specifications, for Bragin was not of those dreamers who shoot aimless arrows. Nor was he one who fashions dreams for his own contemplation; he demanded an audience and the government patiently and seriously inspected his plans and felt the substance of reality in them.

“In Russia we have three million Jews,” he said, “the inhabitants, in the main, of cities and small towns, formerly small merchants, to-day without occupation, declassed, a social problem.

“If you teach them trades, do you improve the situation? You add so many more to the working classes and so increase unemployment.

“Already official life is overflowing with Jews, and soon the young Jews will come like a flood from the universities seeking employment in the government, and where will you place them?

“Whichever way he turns the Jew finds himself superfluous in our overcrowded world. If he is a worker with his hands, he finds many hands already at work and no employment for his own; if he is a worker with his mind he is embarrassed because there are too many Jewish minds already working for the government. Already people are seeing the Jews are too prominent and it is only right that in Russia the government should be largely of real Russians.

“Where, then, is escape for the Jew? In the old Russia the Jewish problem was ‘solved’ by repression; in this new Russia the problem must be solved by providing the Jew with the widest opportunity for self-development. If he is permitted to develop in the midst of the general population he soon causes irritation, for he is an amazingly precocious individual; then we have anti-Semitism again.

“No! He must be permitted to exercise and increase his great talents apart from the mass—in a separate republic of, for, and by Jews. Then his hands will not come to compete with non-Jewish hands, causing strife; then his mind will not come to overcrowd a government already filled with Jews whose presence is already the cause of envious comment.

“For his educated mind there would be a government of his own to serve and for his hands there would be work of his own to do. In the Crimea are vast tracts of idle lands for hands. A Jewish republic!” [ . . . ]

In the United States the Zionists said “No!” being jealous for their own nationalistic and political project. Bragin’s republic would be a competitor.

The Reform wing of American Judaism said “No!” because it always had been opposed to any separate political and nationalistic identity. Jews must be Jews by reason of religion only, they said.

The Orthodox said “No!” because they were sure that a Jewish republic under Communist auspices would be a godless republic and Judaism would perish at its source.

The majority of radical Jews said “No!” for long ago they had ceased to have any use for the Communists and they were sure that a Jewish republic would strengthen the Communist hands.

And so Bragin’s republic perished, but not the plan to colonize the Crimean lands with Jews, and eventually a limited sum was appropriated by the Joint Distribution Committee for this purpose, and colonization of the Crimea was established as the important item of the future program. As for the rest, we would begin to liquidate our interest in the Jewish institutions we had been supporting.


Boris D. Bogen, from Born a Jew (New York: Macmillan, 1930), pp. 171–80, 320–29, 335–39, 345–54.

Published in: The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization, vol. 8.

Engage with this Source

You may also like