No. 6/2001 - 7. May 2001
Editor: Elsebeth Paikin, Copenhagen, Denmark
The editorial staff: Jack Blagman Estelle Nemoy Lori Miller
THE RECHITSA POGROM (October 1905)
misfortune befell our common homeland,
By the turn of the century, the economic polarization, ethnic inequality, religious intolerance of the official Orthodox church, and artificial restrictions on settlement made the Belorussian Jews especially receptive to revolutionary ideas disseminated by the newly emerging political organizations that were calling for powerful reforms in Russian society. ) The Security Department (Okhrana) was well aware of the readiness of the Jews to respond to these appeals. Through their secret network of agents, the authorities whipped up the anti-Jewish sentiments of the population, blaming all the shortcomings of the existing regime on the "Yids." Finally, they instigated the 1903 pogroms in Kishinev (April) and Gomel (August). ) When a wave of the "people's wrath" threatened to get out of control, an appropriate directive was sent from above. For instance, on March 16, 1904, Minister of Interior Plehve sent a secret telegram to local authorities which stated that "in places where the largest concentrations of Jews are found, a heightening of hostile sentiments against them has been observed among the rest of the population." Plehve ordered them to "take the most energetic measures to prevent disorders which might arise for the said reasons." )
The Russo-Japanese War was a prologue to the anti-Jewish pogroms of 1905. Besides giving rise to mass unemployment and emigration, it also threatened the Jews with mobilization in the armed forces. The number of Jewish draftees reached 30,000 and the percentage of Jewish doctors called to active service was disproportionately high. The Far East campaign was unpopular in Russia and the Jews were "thoroughly infected with defeatist feelings and expressed their opposition to the war." )
The tsarist authorities dealt with the local population's discontent with mobilization by attempting to channel it against the Jews. They disseminated rumors that the Jews were trying to avenge the Kishinev massacre by helping the "Japanese, their racial kin," that they "smuggle gold abroad", "collect for the Mikado's dreadnoughts," and "incite America and England against Russia." When large masses of "embittered reservists" "happened" to gather around a particular shtetl, any petty conflict at a local market could spark a massacre of Jews. According to incomplete data, in 1904 about thirty pogroms were registered in Russia, among them, four in the Vitebsk gubernia, and twelve in the Mogilev gubernia. )
The repercussions of these events were also felt in the small town of Rechitsa. A gendarmerie report stated that on March 4, 1905, a pharmacist, Berlin, had discovered a leaflet in Russian calling upon Christians to kill Jews. The leaflet carried an anti-Semitic caricature. It ended with an appeal: "Away with the Yids. Kill the democrats and fling mud on these Japanese scoundrels!". 
1. The adoption of the October Manifesto
Behind the scenes, Count Witte, Chairman of the Committee of Ministers, well aware of the Jews' deep disappointment with their situation, stated on February 11, 1905, that "the hostile attitude of the Jews to the government is caused by their difficult economic conditions under the weight of restrictive laws." He also predicted that the police authorities would be forced "to energetically fight against Jews who carry out anti-government activities." 
In late March, the Union for Jewish Emancipation in Russia was founded in Vilna with the aim of achieving political, civil and national rights for the Jews in the Russian empire.  On August 6, 1905 the law establishing the State Duma was adopted." But the proposed Duma was boycotted by the Bund, Social Democrats, and other revolutionary parties. In mid-October, a general political strike that affected railways, post and telegraph services paralyzed the country.
Finally, on October 17, 1905, Nicholas II issued a manifesto that promised a new state structure. It was a hastily prepared document that fully satisfied none of the political movements. It failed to mention the equality of citizens under the law, or the equal rights of nationalities. But despite its shortcomings, the manifesto had a strong impact.
Yet there were justifiable doubts as to the ability of the tsarist authorities to carry out the stipulations of this document. Almost all political movements demanded the convocation of a constituent assembly as a guarantee of the manifesto and all of them were united in their demand for the release of political prisoners. On the morning of October 17, with the post and telegraph services were still not back to work in many places, local authorities were asking for a special confirmation of the manifesto before informing the population. Only by midday of October 18 did the situation start to clear up. Nonetheless, lack of coordination between the Ministry of Interior and the army, between the Church authorities and the local administration, contributed to the subsequent course of events. 
The inhabitants of Rechitsa and Gomel only heard about the manifesto on October 19. According to the newspaper Der Bund, "the masses were immediately put in good spirits." A celebration was held in Kahalnyi Rov, the Jewish working class suburb of Gomel. Mass rallies attended by members of various political parties were held everywhere. On October 20, a delegation of railroad workers came into Gomel and one of the meetings they held ended with a ten thousand strong demonstration. The "masses" were eager to release political prisoners from the city jail, but the meeting organizers kept them from taking this step in order to avoid bloodshed. 
As the celebrations were taking place, a message arrived from Rechitsa reporting that a pogrom had broken out in the town. The Jewish community in Rechitsa was large: 5,334 Jews, or 57.5% of the town's total population, according to the 1897 census. The Rechitsa uezd (district) of the Minsk guberniia bordered on the Mogilev and Chernigov gubernii. It was densely populated: 221,000 inhabitants, 28,531 of them Jews.  The district was home to the yeshivah and Hasidic seat of Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber Shneerson, a two-year boys elementary school, two private Jewish schools and a Talmud Torah.
At the same time, news of outrages committed against Jews in other places was also received. Rabbi Maiants telegraphed G. [Henry] Sliozberg, the prominent attorney and member of the St. Petersburg Judicial Chamber, that in towns in the vicinity of Gomel - Orsha, Rechitsa, Starodub, Surazh, Klintsy, Romny -"an indiscriminate massacre is going on, with lots of murdered people on the streets. Burning of shops and houses, total ruin." He pleaded for the urgent dispatch of a "Petersburg deputation to all the cities of the Pale." 
After the 1903 Kishinev and Gomel pogroms, the Jews in Rechitsa lived under the constant threat of pogroms. The local priest and his clerics, with the backing of the Rechitsa Military Commandant, Skvortsov, and Police Inspector Artemiev, had been actively preaching pogromist ideas. Police Superintendent Shitnikov, who had the reputation of a polite and clever person, was against pogroms; he was the only representative of the local authorities that the Jews could turn to.
2. The pogrom
The Rechitsa Patriotic League - as the local Black Hundred called themselves - were outspoken in their propaganda. "The Jews are enemies of the Tzar, while the average man supports him. Extermination of the 'rebels' is a patriotic act." On the eve of the October events, the Rechitsa parish priest, Mozharovskii, had announced to his flock: "the Jews should be killed to a man, since they want to overthrow the Tzar." After hearing this, some of the Orthodox parishioners stopped going to church. Leaflets calling for the defense of the Tzar and decrying democrats, Jews, and all the enemies of the existing regime were distributed on the church steps. There is some evidence that they had been mimeographed on police equipment."
Several days before the pogrom, Commandant Skvortsov suggested that Superintendent Shitnikov distribute 230 army rifles to Rechitsa inhabitants. The superintendent, clearly realizing the commandant's aims, refused. Nevertheless, 100 rifles were handed out. Anxious Rechitsa Jews appealed to the superintendent for help. He tried to reassure them and promised that he would prevent mass disorders. At the same time, some Socialist-Zionists attempted to outwit the commandant. Masquerading as "patriots," they tried to get some rifles too, but they were exposed and severely beaten.
The prelude to the pogrom came on October 20, 1905. On that day, mimeographed appeals for a pogrom were distributed by the church sexton. After the Sunday service, a group of parishioners suddenly assaulted some Jewish women retail traders; the thugs took their goods and beat them up.
The real pogrom began on the afternoon of October 23. The Rechitsa "patriots" had invited a special propagandist from Novozybkov, who gave a pogromist speech from the church pulpit. Immediately afterwards, the mob began ransacking Jewish shops and stores. The pogrom heated up when a petty officer in the gendarmerie, Borichevskil, took control. A drunken old man who cried out only one word: "Down!" was hit on the head with a board and died. The police inspector slashed goods with a saber. Members of the mob wielding rifles roamed the streets looking for "democrats". 
News about what was happening in Rechitsa reached Gomel that same day. The local committee of the Bund received a coded telegram from Rechitsa which said: "Shibn gever" [Send weapons]. It was decided to act without delay. The Bund called upon all the labor-oriented political organizations in the city to organize joint action. Although they had not formed a united front, in the autumn of 1905 a number of revolutionary parties were active there: the Bund, Social-Democrats, Socialist-Revolutionaries (SR), anarchists, etc. In addition, four Zionist-socialist parties had groups in the town: the Zionist Socialist Workers' Party, the Jewish Social-Democratic Labor Party (Poalei Zion), the Jewish Socialist Workers' Party and the Jewish Territorial Party. 
They decided to organize a combined squad of volunteers, five from each of the following parties: the Bund, Russian Social-Democratic Workers' Party, SR and Socialist-Zionists. The Bund members of the squad were Leiba Stradalets, Meier Feigenberg, Noi Geizentsveig and Usin. The railway strike committee provided the squad with a train. They had communicated with the Rechitsa Social-Democrats, and made a decision regarding joint action. 
On Monday morning, October 24, rumors began to circulate in Rechitsa that "armed democrats" from Gomel "were going to rescue the Jews." An already frenzied crowd, among them six soldiers and a civil engineer, Kuznetsov, set up an ambush on the road from the railway station to the city. According to another version, the gendarmerie officer at the Gomel station had warned his colleague in Rechitsa that a group of young Jews had taken the Gomel-Rechitsa train, a journey of two hours. 
The Gomel volunteers, among them several peasants, split into two groups, one with nine men, the other with eleven. The Bundists and Social-Democrats set out along the highway leading to Rechitsa, while the SR and Socialist-Zionists took the side roads, with the intention of linking up at a safe place. They were armed with revolvers and homemade bombs. From the direction of Rechitsa, the people from Gomel heard what they thought was the sound of local workers fighting "thugs." It turned out, though, that the Jews had been waiting and had not yet started fighting back. But the volunteers had not been forewarned about this.
The first group of self-defense volunteers was immediately ambushed by more than sixty concealed attackers who shot at them from a distance of 200 meters.  Noi Geizentsveig, one of the participants, later recalled: "We did not see the enemy during the skirmish, therefore, we did not throw the bombs and responded by aimless shooting." The attack was so strong and unexpected, and they were so hopelessly outnumbered, that the Gomel people were forced to withdraw. After a short exchange of fire, the attackers stormed the yard of the house where the volunteers had taken refuge and the carnage began. They beat everybody with rifle butts, dragged them across the yard, and cut them with bayonets, all the while shouting: "Here is your freedom!" "Here is your constitution!" All this happened in sight of the local police, who stood by doing nothing, and simply left after awhile. Feigenberg, Geizentsveig and others were wounded. The bodies of those who had been killed were mutilated beyond recognition. According to the autopsy report, most of volunteers who had been killed, were first felled by the stream of bullets directed at them, and then, while still alive, stabbed to death, as in the case of Stradalets, whose body was found with eleven stab wounds. 
The group of SR and Zionists-Socialist, joined by some townspeople from Rechitsa, was overcome. Altogether, eight people had been killed and twelve wounded. Those who were still alive were sent to the Rechitsa police station, together with the bodies of their fallen comrades. On the way, they were repeatedly beaten and some were killed. The volunteers were kept nine hours on a dirty floor, without medical aid and water. There were those who proposed to finish them off, but the local authorities, in the person of two policemen, said: "Don't touch them, let them die by themselves..." The city doctor who arrived in the evening gave them a cursory examination, but did not render any medical assistance. Some Rechitsa residents demanded that they be sent to the Gomel hospital, but instead, the city investigating judge had these half dead self-defense fighters placed under arrest for assaulting peasants. 
People in Gomel were shocked by the news of the massacre of the volunteers. Many declared their willingness to come to their aid and free them by force. This was, for instance, the aim of the Gomel Bund, whose squad was "large and strong," according to police informers. But the Bund leadership decided against freeing its comrades by "revolutionary means." 
The October 21-24 events in Rechitsa were part of the wave of anti-Jewish pogroms that engulfed the country in the fall of 1905. During the two- to three-week period that followed October 18, 1905, there were pogroms in 660 cities and towns. The number of victims was enormous. The official statistics tried to minimize the destruction, claiming that 810 people had been killed, and 1,770 wounded, and that there were 325 widows and 1,363 orphans. According to public organizations, however, there were from 3,500 to 4,000 killed, and more than 10,000 wounded. The material loss caused by the pogroms amounted to 62,700,000 rubles. 
The pogroms occurred mainly in the southern and southwestern parts of the Pale. However, they were rare in the northwestern krai, which included the Belorussian gubernii, since the percentage of Jews was so great that it was difficult to organize pogroms. So, for instance, during the 'days of freedoms' (the ten days that followed the announcement of the October manifesto), four pogroms took place in the Mogilev guberniia, four in Vitebsk, and one in the Minsk and Vilna gubernii. In some places, no pogroms took place at all (the Grodno guberniia and Poland)." 
During this time period, Rechitsa was the only place in the Minsk guberniia where a pogrom had taken place. Yet, the events there were unusual in that the local Jewish population suffered far less than in other places in Belorussia (Orsha, Chechersk, Dubovka, Shklov, Novovileisk, etc.), since the victims were almost exclusively the volunteers from Gomel (among them some Belorussians). In a letter to the St. Petersburg Judicial Chamber written in November 1905, A. Bruk, a Gomel doctor, stated that the Rechitsa Jews had not suffered significantly from the pogrom "due to the massacre of the self-defense fighters from Gomel. Most of the apartments were not even ransacked." Bruk concluded by saying that: "Obviously the thugs had limited themselves to these victims for the time being...." 
On November 1, 1905, a group of investigators from St. Petersburg was dispatched to the Ukraine and Belorussia to inquire into the "anti-Jewish riots." A lawyer, Krol, and his assistant, barrister M. Goldshtein, were sent to investigate the October events in Orsha and Rechitsa. They gathered affidavits from witnesses, as well as material evidence. Their investigation confirmed that the Rechitsa pogrom had not been caused by "economic hostility," but by the instigations of priest Mozharovskii. In addition, it was stated that the "non-interference by the Rechitsa police" actually gave free rein to the pogromists. Moreover, all witnesses agreed that the course of events took an ominous turn after weapons had been distributed to the thugs, making it appear that the pogrom had been officially sanctioned.
The investigators failed to establish that the Gomel volunteers had been armed, because they had managed to dispose of their weapons before they were arrested. Instead, it became obvious that the pogromists had greatly overstepped the limits of reasonable self-defense, since among them there were not only civilians, but also members of the military, as well as common criminals, they suffered no casualties, and they acted with unjustifiable cruelty. Some of the wounded had been cruelly killed at the site of the clash, and those who were taken prisoner, while bleeding profusely, were not only refused medical aid, but brutally beaten on their way to the Rechitsa police station. As a result, the leg of one of the volunteers, Feigenberg, had to be amputated. 
During the investigation, the thugs showed no remorse for the deaths of the Jewish youths, declaring that 'the democrats needed to be taught a lesson' and that they were pleased with their success. The imprisoned volunteers were only released after a week and only because the authorities feared that their Gomel comrades would attempt to free them by force. Forty Jewish families suffered material damage which amounted to 30-40 thousand rubles. 
The official reaction of the authorities to the pogromists' atrocities was strikingly lenient. After investigating the events that led to the casualties and material damage in Rechitsa, the commission recommended that a complaint be lodged with the office of the Minsk procurator against the priest Mozharovskii, military commandant Skvortsov, and the Rechitsa police inspector. In addition, another complaint was being prepared against Mozharovskii, this one for submission to the head procurator of the Holy Synod in St. Petersburg.
On December 11, 1905, martial law was declared over the entire Minsk guberniia, and Governor P.G. Kurlov described it as "very beneficial in many localities."  In his report to the Minister of the Interior, he also described the situation in localities where the authorities believed that the situation was tense. The report stated that the situation in the Rechitsa uezd remained stable, except for individual cases of suppressing "agrarian disorders" when the Cossacks opened fire in order to disperse peasants who intended to ransack manors belonging to the nobility. The report did not mention either Rechitsa itself or other towns and cities that had witnessed anti-Semitic manifestations, the looting of Jewish property, and beatings of Jews. 
The anti-Jewish pogroms in Belorussia aroused protests from various Russian groups. As early as September 27, 1905, the imperial authorities authorized the establishment of a committee to aid the victims of pogroms in St. Petersburg and later in other cities. They gave allowances to the victims, sent orphans to institutions, and gathered witnesses' affidavits. Their activities were mostly of a general nature, however, being directed against "counterrevolution" as a whole. Nevertheless, at some factories in Belorussia meetings were held that adopted resolutions in defense of pogrom victims. For instance, on October 30, 1905, the workers of the Libava-Romny and Polesie railways met in Gomel and decided that "thugs, hooligans and the Black Hundred are spreading fratricidal war between different national groups, bringing shame to our homeland." At a meeting in Minsk, the employees of the Moscow-Brest railway stated that "any attempt to arrange a pogrom or violence will be resisted by us with all the means at our disposal." Workers in Smorgon, Minsk guberniia, had promised that "in case of an attack on the Jews by hooligans and police" they would defend them "to the last man." 
Political parties in Belorussia and Russia expressed a variety of opinions about the anti-Jewish riots and suggested various measures to fight them. In November 1905, an article entitled "Anti-Jewish Pogroms as Counterrevolution" appeared in Der Bund. It declared that the pogroms served the Tzarist regime in two important ways: first, to take revenge on the Jews for participating in the revolution; second, to invoke the "instinct of ethnic hatred," by inciting one part of the population against another. The Bund concluded that the best remedy against pogroms was propagating social-democratic ideas and involving Jewish and non-Jewish workers in "red social-democratic armies."  The views of the Socialist-Zionists were similar to those of the Bund. They declared that "until the Zionist ideal is achieved, the best means to confront pogroms is to fight against the Tzardom."
Zionists categorically opposed such an attitude with regard to the future of the Jews in the Russian empire. Their leaders believed that the October pogroms were directed against the Jews, because they did not have a "legal asylum." They declared that the Jewish workers did not think of their own people and served "aliens". At a meeting in St. Petersburg that took place on November 22, 1905, Menahem Ussishkin stressed that "the Jewish people is short-sighted and weak," and that its main misfortune is living in the Diaspora. He went on to say that "Jewish Social-Democrats (Bundists) were inventing a new god that would deceive us as did all the other gods" and that the Jews would not be left in peace until they obtained their own land."  Ze'ev Jabotinsky was even more harsh: "We do not want a Russian freedom bought for such a high price." He added that what had occurred in October 1905 "was not a revolution, but ordinary anti-Jewish pogroms," and that the Russian proletariat had not protested against them. 
4. The aftermath
A sequel to the October 1905 pogroms took place in 1906 and did not bypass Gomel and Rechitsa. Already in mid-December 1905, Captain Count Podgorichani-Petrovich, second in command of the Gomel gendarmerie, secretly distributed twenty-five revolvers, allegedly for self-defense against democrats, to the members of the local underground branch of the Union of Russian People. At the same time, he provided them with a well-organized print shop, previously confiscated from the Bund, thus enabling the "patriots" to readily spread their pogrom propaganda.
On January 9, 1906, the Polesie Committee of the Russian Social Democratic Party announced activities to mark the anniversary of the 1905 "Bloody Sunday." The police dispersed a demonstration of Jewish workers in Gomel. On January 11 an assistant administrator of the Gomel police was killed by unknown persons. The murder served as a pretext for unleashing a pogrom on January 13. Buildings in the downtown were set on fire and looting continued for two days. The local self-defense units put up armed resistance to Black Hundred supporters who tried to attack workers' suburbs in the city. Nevertheless, the Jews of Gomel did not manage to avoid casualties: one person was killed and eleven were wounded. The estimated property damage was as high as two million rubles. 
In order to "pacify the rioters" of Gomel, a "flying squad" (punishment expedition) under the command of Major-General Orlov was dispatched to the city. Orlov had received the following directive from the Ministry of Interior:  "You are instructed to repress the riot by taking the most decisive measures, using firearms without mercy."
In Rechitsa, too, pogromist sentiments had been gathering strength during the winter and spring of 1906, and by the summer they were ready to erupt.  This state of affairs was particularly well-expressed in the June 17, 1906 telegram sent by Rabbi Karasik of the Rechitsa community and Ostrogorskii, a member of the Duma, to P. Stolypin, the new Minister of Interior.  They informed him that a "secret group" in Rechitsa was preparing a pogrom at the initiative of priest Mozharovskii, who was thought to have been one of the instigators of the October riots. Karasik and Ostrogorskii stressed that the Jews in Rechitsa were "terribly frightened" and appealed to him to take "urgent and energetic" measures to prevent the pogrom. The next day Stolypin sent the Minsk governor a coded telegram, which said that the Minister had received information from Rechitsa about priest Mozharovskii's intention of organizing a religious procession which might lead to undesired anti-Jewish riots and directed the governor to take "preventive measures." 
It was no accident that Stolypin had mentioned a religious procession that was being planned in Rechitsa. Pogroms were usually organized according to a well-known method. First rumors were spread that the Jews intended to bomb churches, barracks, police stations, etc. The participants of a pogrom were promised immunity and large spoils. After that a religious procession or a "patriotic" demonstration was held. At the end of the procession there was usually a group of drunkards who called for punishing the "enemies of the Motherland". Lists of potential victims were distributed among those in the crowd and leaders emerged who knew the intricacies of the city's streets and alleyways. Suddenly shots were fired at "patriots" or a monarchs portrait, or it was claimed that a "Jew had offended a sacred banner," and a bloody massacre started.
This pattern had been adhered to almost everywhere during the October 1905 "days of freedom," but not in Rechitsa. It may well be that the defenders of Orthodoxy headed by the Rechitsa parish priest decided to remedy this situation in the summer of 1906, when a new wave of pogroms was about to sweep over the country. Several governors received telegraphic instructions to take measures to prevent pogroms. These instructions were received in fourteen gubernii in Russia, the Ukraine and Belorussia. 
In May-June 1906, the State Duma discussed the involvement of government bodies in the organizing of the 1905 pogroms. Minister of Interior Stolypin was questioned by the deputies. The discussion itself was an indication of changes in public opinion that could no longer be ignored by the authorities. Count Urusov, a member of the Duma, declared that the "danger [of pogroms] will not disappear while the administration and the fate of this country are influenced by the people who are mere 'cops' by education and pogromists by conviction." However, the deputies were unsuccessful in their attempt to expose official anti-Semitism. There was nothing said about calling the culprits to account, and the draft law on ethnic equality for the empire's subjects proposed by the Octoberists did not pass. The notorious Pale of Settlement remained intact." 
The October 21-24, 1905 Rechitsa pogrom was not an isolated episode. It became an additional factor in the general disillusionment of the Belorussian Jews as they assessed their future in Russia. The unwillingness and inability of the Tzarist regime to evolve into a constitutional government and to ensure equality before the law and equal economic opportunities for all the peoples in the country had become evident. The result was unprecedented Jewish emigration. 
Copyright © 2001 Belarus SIG and by "Shvut", its publishers and Leonid Smilovitsky
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