I first read about the Odessa pogrom in articles by Robert Weinberg, who uses descriptions from the Russian reports, Одесскiй погромъ и самооборона, The Odessa pogrom and self defence, 1906, http://torrentsat.org/d60271611dc36bb78e63e13da8f68d96a2f82b8e and Еврейские погромы в Одессе и Одесщине в 1905 г, C. Семенов ,The Jewish pogroms in Odessa and surrounding area in 1905, by S Semenov, 1925 http://escriptorium.univer.kharkov.ua/handle/1237075002/303.
The lurid details of the pogrom can be found in several eyewitness and secondary accounts. Although the list of atrocities perpetrated against the Jews is too long to recount here, suffice it to say that pogromists brutally and indiscriminately beat, mutilated, and murdered defenceless Jewish men, women and children. They hurled Jews out of windows, raped and cut open the stomachs of pregnant women, and slaughtered infants in front of their parents. In one particularly gruesome incident, pogromists hung a woman upside down by her legs and arranged the bodies of her six dead children on the floor below.(Robert Weinberg, “The Pogrom of 1905 in Odessa: A Case Study” in Pogroms: Anti-Jewish Violence in Modern Russian History, John D. Klier and Shlomo Lambroza, eds. (Cambridge,1992): 248-89) http://faculty.history.umd.edu/BCooperman/NewCity/Pogrom1905.html
The only eyewitness accounts in English that I found were from the newspaper correspondents in Odessa or elsewhere in Russia – and between the many newspaper accounts one can begin to build up more of a picture.
The Guardian, 6 November
Immense bands of ruffians, accompanied by policemen, invaded all the Jewish houses and mercilessly slaughtered the occupants. Men and women were barbarously felled and decapitated with axes. Children were torn limb from limb and their brains dashed out against walls. The streets were littered with the corpses which were hurled out of windows. The houses of murdered Jews were then systematically destroyed, not the smallest piece of furniture being left intact.
A British sailor’s account
The Western Times Monday 20 November
During that eventful day (first day of the pogrom) there were 120 killed and 500 wounded. During the following days the mob walked about the streets in multitudes, with the soldiers and policemen in front, and every Jew’s shop they came across they began looting, the soldiers helping them. When the Jews inside the house fired on the mob to keep them from damaging their property, the soldiers fired on the inhabitants, and then the mob rushed into the houses and killed the occupants, throwing them from the windows into the street, and tearing the children limb from limb, and smashing in their faces beyond recognition. Young women had their arms completely torn from them, and their breasts cut off, and nails driven into their bodies. Old men and women, too feeble to walk, were saturated with oil and burnt. In all, 341 men women and children were treated in this manner. The officers gave orders to bash the killed about so that no one could recognise them. No one knew if any belonging to them were killed, as the dead were taken away and dumped in a heap in a kind of outhouse attached to the burying ground. The captain of the ship went and had a look at some of the bodies, and he said it was awful, things having happened too bad to appear in print. I went through the streets where the shops were plundered. Every Jewish shop was completely wrecked, windows smashed and everything taken away. China shops have all the crockery smashed and strewn about the streets, and all the walls and windows of the houses were marked with revolver shots. Only one quarter of what has really happened has been printed. Every ship in the harbour was sheltering refugees.
Looking for some eyewitness descriptions by people who had actually experienced the pogrom, when I first began this research, I wrote ‘pogrom’ and ‘biography’ into Google and found writers like Shalom Aleichem (Fiddler on the roof) and Isaac Babel. I also found some references to Mark Rothko. Several biographical articles about Rothko, who was born in Dvinsk, Russia in 1903, mention him telling a family story of Cossacks making Jews dig large square communal graves before they were slaughtered, which influenced his paintings. The biographies suggest that his story was not believed as they had never heard of mass graves during the 1905 pogrom.
Mark Rothko 1962
Isaac Babel was born in Odessa but brought up nearby in Nikolaev and in ‘The story of my dovecote’ he describes a pogrom of 1905 when he was nine years old. Most incredible was the contrast between the ordinary and the extraordinary. He described working very hard to get into the lycee, as there were strict quotas for Jews, but then writes of the joys of buying a new pencil case, notebooks and a school bag, experiences of so many children. On the day he goes to the market to buy doves, his present for passing the exam, he is beaten up, the doves killed, and when he gets home finds only his grandfather there, beaten to death. Then the scene reverts to a scene of such outward normality — his parents have taken refuge at their next-door neighbour’s and he finds his mother sitting in the glassed-in veranda having tea. It is difficult to switch between the neighbours’ normal day and what was happening to the Babel family.
The glassed-in veranda is a long way from the traditional image of the shtetl with its poverty-stricken inhabitants, rough log houses and streets of mud, which is often the only image presented of Jewish life in Russia, possibly because it distances people from the victims of massacres. I knew that my grandmother’s family had lived in large townhouses but I had never thought of what they might have looked like. My grandmother’s parents ran a hotel near the railway station in the new railway town of Baranovichi in Belarus.
Baranovichi street near station 1907
I had never been able to conceive, until recently, that my family was Russian as it was never spoken about. As a small child I knew that my parents always spoke Yiddish when they got together, but I had no idea where they were from until, when I was possibly 5 or 6, I asked my mother where my grandparents were from, and she said ‘Russia’. She did not elaborate and I always assumed that there was nothing more to be said on the subject. Somehow, that one brief word was not enough to have any meaning for me, or only enough to believe and yet not believe that they were Russian. I did not meet my eldest uncle until I was 12 and by that time I knew he had left Russia when he was about seven, so the first thing I asked him was whether he remembered any Russian. He turned and left the room, slamming the door behind him, and I knew from that time that something had happened there that I was not supposed to ask about.
At the time I read about Rothko, I had not read the newspaper articles about the mass graves in the cemetery of Odessa. I did not even know then where my grandparents had lived in Russia. I wondered why people doubted the story of the mass graves, and I wondered what happened to all the people whose homes were destroyed. Were there refuges, did people remain for days in cellars or attics, did they flee? Looking in the New York Times archive I found several articles on fundraising for the refugees, one of which included a letter written to a sister in New York on 27 Oct 1905 about the Odessa pogrom. It mentions “until today we have all been lying hidden in a cellar”. The next paragraph describes that after three days of burying the dead, the graves take up one half of the field “and 35 bodies are buried in one grave. Bodies are scattered all over the graveyard, so battered that they are unrecognisable. Limbs and heads of the children are strewn about. They lie in thick heaps, covered with tarpaulin. The morgues are full.” At the end of the letter, the author writes: “We find ourselves in a stable. Do not ask about food. The only thing that could help us would be to take us out of this accursed land.” (New York Times 29 Nov 1905).
The Jewish Chronicle had many articles on the pogroms throughout November and December, quoting from correspondents and letters from people in Odessa.
Two private doctors have attended over 300 children of both sexes horribly gashed on head and shoulders with sabres…Today I visited a building containing 2500 refugee Jewish children. They were half famished owing to the scarcity of bread during the last few days.
All the localities in Odessa which could be used as places of refuge were full of victims and wounded, among them the two principal hospitals, clinics of the university, private clinics, the high schools and Jewish schools.
The horrors witnessed in all these places are simply incredible. There were women who had lost the faculty of speech by shock, occasioned by the horrors witnessed and experienced, men who had been thrown from the upper stories of their dwelling houses, young girls who had voluntarily cast themselves from the windows to escape being violated, old men and infants mutilated, whole families found in cellars and attics where they had remained without food for over 48 hours.
Some of the Jews fled their lives to the steamers in the harbour. Others crowded the hotels.
The Jews were leaving the city, in a state of terror, many taking refuge in steamers.
A train from Odessa to Kiev yesterday was held up at Rasdjelna and 12 Jews found in it were dragged from the wagons and shot.
Postcard Odessa pogrom 1905
As many who had lost everything or had friends or family elsewhere were fleeing Odessa, others were trying to survive in the city, returning to their wrecked houses when the violence died down.
Wenatchee, Washington 8 November
All is quiet here today. The town councils and the newspapers have opened collections in behalf of the victims of last week’s slaughter. The municipality headed the list with $12,500 and has re-established temporary refuges and food kitchens. The losses total many millions and no less than 800 families are ruined.
Jewish Chronicle 17 November
The Odessa correspondent of the Morning Leader estimated that 3300 orphans of Jewish victims in the recent slaughter had been thrown upon public benevolence. Over 7700 Christian and Jewish adults who have been plundered, were destitute, and were being assisted by public subscriptions. Twice that number were being temporarily sustained by their relatives and friends.
After the pogrom
The Times 30 November
Inquiry into the working of the Central Hebrew Committee’s Relief Fund, which was originally organised to distribute aid to the wives and families of reservists sent out to Manchuria, show that 150,000 rubles were locally available for immediate distribution. Some 8000 Jewish families, over 40,000 people, nearly all of the poorest classes dwelling in the suburbs, have been affected by the outbreak. The losses, irrespective of life, comprise furniture, clothes, household goods, implements of crafts and labour, and the stock of countless petty tradesmen and sutlers. The Hebrew Committee, which derives its funds from the rich Jewish mercantile houses in Odessa, distributed 40,000 rubles during the first week of the outbreak, and reckons that 1,500,000 rubles will be required in Odessa to furnish adequate redress.
One of the chapters in The Odessa pogrom and self defence is called ‘Slaughter in the attic: a woman’s story’, a first person account about 50 people, mostly women and children, hiding in an attic on Prokhorovskaya St in Moldovanka. The caretaker of the building told the hooligans that no one was left in the building, but they didn’t believe him, forced open the gate and entered. Seventeen were slaughtered in the attic and more than 30 in the courtyard. It is difficult to believe, that with the death of so many women and children in this one building, there were so few women and children in the death records.
I gradually began to picture that possibly my grandparents might have been hiding in a cellar or attic. If they lived in a house on the edge or outside the town rather than an apartment, they might have had less choice about whether to flee to a public refuge, like a school or a public building. Instead, they would have had to hide away on their own or a neighbour’s property. There were several reasons why I felt that my grandparents had not lived in the middle of the city, one of which came from an old, badly copied tape-recording of my mother just before she died in 1972. It is almost incomprehensible, but after many years of trying to understand it, I finally heard my mother saying that when her parents first arrived in New York, eight months after the pogrom, her mother did not like the tenement life, where small children rarely when outdoors, and wanted a house with a garden as she had been used to. Six weeks later they moved out of the city and rented a house in an immigrant area on the edge of New Rochelle, not far from the sea. Another reason was discovering from a cousin that my grandfather had grown grapes and made wine in his garden in New Rochelle. My grandfather could only have learned about growing grapes in a wine producing area like Odessa, not in his original home near Baranovichi. The map below shows New Rochelle in 1900, a few years before my grandparents arrived. The street they lived on, Oak Street, at the top of the map near the railway line, ends abruptly with no more building beyond. Echo Bay, the inlet off the Long Island Sound near their house is where the youngest son, Michel, who was born around the time they left Odessa, drowned.
New Rochelle 1900
Postcards from the early 1900s from both New Rochelle and Odessa show some eery similarities, stretches of sandy beach with rocks and boulders, the boathouses, the wooden walkways, the white sails gleaming…
New Rochelle, New York
Odessa, Bolshoi Fontan