My daughter and I saw a live production of “Fiddler on the Roof” last week, this one performed as a fundraiser by the teachers and adult staff of Leah’s acting company. I was moved as I always am watching the story of Tevye and Golde and their five daughters scraping out their lives in a little shtetl called Anatevka in nineteenth-century Russia. As we soon learn in the play, there’s trouble a-brewin’ in Anatevka, with the Jews being persecuted by the Russian authorities and the Cossacks carrying out a pogrom at poor Tzeitel and Mottel’s wedding party. No one is seriously injured during the attack, but the ruffians destroy many of the couple’s gifts and overturn the dinner tables. What beasts! Later an edict comes from Moscow that all the Jews of Anatevka have to leave the community they’ve known for generations. Begrudgingly, they make plans to depart. Tevye and Golde arrange to take their family to the New World to stay with their Uncle Avrum in Chicago until they can get on their feet. Before leaving their village, Golde runs back to sweep the floors of the modest home that will soon be taken over by their oppressors. “I won’t leave a dirty house,” she insists. As the Jewish residents begin their arduous journey to their new lives, they plaintively sing about their beloved town.
Underfed, overworked Anatevka.
Where else could Sabbath be so sweet?
Intimate, obstinate Anatevka,
Where I know everyone I meet.
Soon I'll be a stranger in a strange new place,
Searching for an old familiar face
I belong in Anatevka
Tumble-down, work-a-day Anatevka.
Dear little village, little town of mine.
Oh well, I always thought as a kid when I watched the film version of “Fiddler on the Roof,” they’ll be better off in America and away from those mean Cossacks who destroyed Tzeitel’s new dishes and down mattress. The constable in Anatevka had warned Tevye about the attack and expulsion. He was a nice guy who was just following orders and felt really bad about the government’s treatment of the Jews.
I happened to be doing some research in the Los Angeles Times archives from the 1880s earlier this week. Though my research had nothing to do with Jews, I quickly noticed a large number of shocking articles about what was happening to Jewish people in Europe at that time, especially in the small towns of Russia—towns just like the fictional Anatevka. My grandmother’s family, the Schutzes, were living in Russia during that period, as were my father’s ancestors. My mom's father's parents, Itshe Meyer and Alta Toba Korolnek, were born during this decade in a part of Poland that was controlled by Czarist Russia.
Most of my family members would emigrate about 25 years later. I had always assumed that life for the Jews in these European shtetls wasn’t so bad in the 1880s when my great-grandparents were toddlers. I thought the Jews were thriving peacefully back then and that the wave of pogroms coincided more closely with the large number of immigrants who streamed out of Eastern Europe after the turn of the century. Not true at all.
Pouring over the newspapers from the 1880s, I read article after article by Times’ foreign correspondents that painted a terrifying picture of Jewish persecution. Many of the articles were short straightforward accounts with little emotion. It was startling to read these reports as current news stories, and to realize that the actions depicted in “Fiddler on the Roof” were like a fancy tea party compared to the actual events.
An anti-Jewish riot occurred at Vilkomir yesterday. A party of army recruits made a ferocious attack upon the Jewish residents, killing several.
Serious anti-Jewish riots have again broken out. They were renewed yesterday with increased violence. The shops of Jews were raided and ruined, and their owners violently assaulted. Not less than forty persons were severely wounded. The police were powerless to repress the howling mob.
As I continued to read the newspapers, the stories got worse and worse. Jewish refugees in other countries provided more details about the hellish conditions in Russia. Amazingly, some Jews still defended the Czar. They just couldn’t believe their revered leader had anything to do with the widespread abuse.
A Jewish refugee from Kiel says that he recently saw a number of Jewish maidens stripped naked and flogged through the town. The police refused to interfere. Many women with infants suffered acutely. The refugees believe that the Czar is unaware of their sufferings and not responsible for the atrocities.
Information has just reached here that incendiaries have destroyed Smargon, a village near Mensk, and that the mob who tired the place burned a number of Jewish babies alive.
The Russian Jews who arrived yesterday tell pitiful stories of cruelties. Any Russian Christian who wishes to possess himself of the property of a Jewish neighbor can obtain it by paying one-tenth of its value to the mayor or government representative, who will thereupon give him authority to expel the Jewish owner and install himself as the proprietor. It is an ordinary occurrence for a Jew’s house to be burned over his head or a Jew to be stoned on the streets, and it has become a common saying in parts of Russia, “Kill a Jew and pay 20 roubles” ($10). No other punishment is ever inflicted for the murder of a Jew, and even this fine is seldom imposed.
One of the saddest and most shocking accounts of terror was reported by Jewish refugees who had arrived in the U.S. the very month that my great-grandfather was born in Poland:
The two hundred and fifty Jewish exiles who arrived here yesterday morning are all destitute. Some of them tell terrible stories of their treatment in their native land. One man said: “Two months ago I saw my own daughter, a girl less than fifteen years old, taken by the mob and outraged so she died that night. Other women in our family were at the sport of the mob for hours. My brother’s wife (a young woman of twenty) was outraged and then whipped to death by a drunken crowd of devils. So with every family. You can’t find one home which has not lost someone. They spared neither old nor young; those ten or twelve years old were treated as badly as those much older. The people in the villages suffered most. Here no police even pretended to help the Jews. The women were carried out into the fields, stripped naked, and burnt. Old men had their beards pulled out and were thrown alive into privy vaults to stifle. Young girls were branded and scarred with red-hot irons. Everything that drunken brutes could think of was done to torture our people.” Here he went into details of brutalities unfit for publication, showing how women were whipped and scorched after the Jews haters and robbed them of all that made life worth living. Their story was of such savage, obscene cruelty that American ears could not credit the details as anything more than the ravings of madmen. All tell the same story.
Lest you think that the Los Angeles Times was a staunch supporter of the Jews of Europe and was exaggerating the stories to gain sympathy on their behalf, let me assure you that this was not the case. I also found a preponderance of thinly veiled anti-Semitic tracts in the paper written by American reporters such as an October 1892 treatise called “How We Got the Scum of Europe.” In June 1896, a journalist for the Times tried to explain why the Jews were treated so badly:
The prejudice against the Jew has often been fanned by the Jew himself. If the Jew’s only ambition is to feather his own nest and sacrifice every high aspiration and every spiritual feeling—we are not speaking now of Jewish law and custom, but are treating the matter from a moral standpoint—in the mad desire for money and show, he ceases to be an Israelite, in the nobler sense. He becomes a fat prey for the persecutor, he draws upon himself and his brethren public scorn and contempt.
Charming. But other Los Angeles Times reporters were outraged by the appalling acts being committed against the Jews.
The whole civilized world has been convulsed with horror and indignation of late at the revolting cruelties perpetrated on the Jewish inhabitants of Russia and Poland. The particulars would fill a good-sized volume and present sickening details unfit for publication. The first indication of a coming persecution commenced in April of last year. In Elizabethgrad atrocities were committed too revolting for publication, whereby three women, two of them young maidens, were outraged and then murdered. In May the cruelties steadily increased and extended into other provinces. In Kiev two thousand Jewish residences were destroyed, and nineteen persons butchered, fifteen of the number women who were brutally outraged beforehand. The cruelties continued to increase in number, the shedding of blood whetting the ferocity of the merciless persecutors. In Odessa the cruelties perpetrated were horrible, and property valued at over $2,500.000 was annihilated. In Saratow thirty Israelites fell victims to the mad fury of the populace. June and July were still worse. In the latter part of June fifteen towns were completely destroyed, and the Hebrew population driven away homeless. July 3, in a town called Minsk, the property of six thousand Jews was destroyed. The same day in another town called Koretz, five thousand people were made homeless by the burning of their homes and thirty persons ruthlessly murdered.
Incredibly, the “reason” for the first attack on the Jews of Elizabethgrad (Yelisavetgrad) was that tired old libel about Jews killing Christian children for their blood. That same month, there was an actual trial in Hungary centered around the absurd accusation:
In the trial yesterday at Nyreghaza, Hungary, of the Jews accused of having murdered a Christian girl and using the blood to mix with their Passover bread, the only clear evidence adduced tended strongly to establish an alibi in favor of Baxbaum, the Jewish butcher. Witnesses for the prosecution contradicted each other and also their own former statements. The audience in the court openly threatened the witnesses for the defense with punishment. The Times’ correspondent believes that the boy, Moritz Scharf, the principal witness for the prosecution, is a maniac.
Are you still with me? Is this too depressing for one post? Are these articles so far in the past as to lose any meaning for today? Reading the many real-time reports, I felt compelled to share a small portion of them, especially since this forgotten world of long ago has been taken over by the nostalgic and kitschy versions of shtetl life that is now part of Jewish-American folklore. Do you see the many parallels between these articles and events happening in Darfur and elsewhere today? How will people 100 years from now react to newspaper articles about atrocities and genocides happening in our own time?
It’s amazing to me that all of my ancestors lasted twenty more years in this environment. And that the rest of the large Jewish populations there lasted thirty years after that until Hitler finally finished them off. Interesting to note that five years before Hitler was born, many European leaders were already wringing their hands over the “Jewish problem” and trying to get their Jewish residents to leave or convert. While conversion was not a viable option in Hitler’s time, Russia was all for it in the 1880s.
Moscow papers boast that since the beginning of 1891, 20,000 Jews have been converted to orthodoxy. The condition of Jews is becoming steadily worse, particularly in the case of those who have no means to bribe Russian officials. The persecution of the Jews and the inhumanity of the Czar’s officials toward the unhappy race is greater than ever before. Six edicts have been issued aiming to disperse the Jewish subjects of Russia, weaken their position in trading centers, and crush out their religion. The edicts are enforced with the severest rigor everywhere.
In “Fiddler on the Roof,” one resident of Anatevka asks the rabbi if there is a proper blessing for the Czar. “Yes there is,” the rabbi responds. “May God bless and keep the Czar…far away from here!” You got that right, rabbi! I’ve always been fascinated by the Romanovs of Russia, especially the brutal end to Nicholas, Alexandra, and their children including the Grand Duchess Anastasia. After reading some of these articles, I admit I lost a lot of my empathy for that sonofabitch Nicholas. Endless accounts of drunken peasants and laughing Cossacks destroying Jewish towns, raping women, and murdering innocent Jews present a chilling portrait of Russian authority run amuck. Czar Nicholas II ascended to the throne in November 1894 and presided over many of the most vile atrocities. In June 1891, his father, Czar Alexander III, had the gall to publicly condemn foreign criticism of Jewish persecution in Russia.
It is reported that the Czar is angry at the Danish crown prince for sending out pamphlets protesting against the persecution of Jews in Russia. It is not likely, however, that this will interfere with the Czar’s visit to the Danish court.
Gotta love the Danish royal family—always there in support of Jews, even during the worst of the German occupation decades later.
There’s more shocking stuff that I found from this period…so much more. But I will end with a few excerpts from a wonderful article from the Times written by author and lecturer George R. Wendling on February 28, 1892. It is one of the most moving responses to anti-Semitism that I’ve ever read:
There is not a drop of Jewish blood in my veins; I am not connected with the Jews by the marriage of any near or distant kinsman; I owe no Jew a dollar and no Jew owes me. I speak from the vantage ground of absolute independence. It is a splendid race, splendid in their patience, in their love for one another, in their endurance, in their sagacity and temperate habits, and splendid in their inflexible adherence to their Mosaic ideals.
It is a spurious, false Christianity that hates Jews. We get our Ten Commandments—the very foundation of our civilization—through the Jews. We sing Jewish psalms, are uplifted by the passion and poetry of Jewish prophets, and rely on Jewish biographies for the only history we have of Christ. We get our Pauline theology from a Jew, and we catch our clearest glimpse of the next world through the sublime apocalyptic vision of a Jew. Then, forsooth, we Christians turn about and sneer at Jews!
Convert the Jews! Let us first convert our modern Christians to genuine Christianity. Suppress the Jews! A score of Russian Czars cannot do it. Every people on earth has tried it and failed. They have outlived the Tudors and the Plantagenets, the tyranny of Spain, the dynasties of France, Charlemagne, Constantine, the Caesars, the Babylonian kings, and the Egyptian Pharaohs. It was God’s own race for 4000 years, and the awful persecution it has survived for 2000 more stamps it as a race still bearing some mysterious relations to the plans of the eternal. The beauty and fidelity of Jewish women command my homage, and among the wealthy and educated Jews the exquisite refinement of Jewesses, their culture and high breeding, put them among the most charming women of the world.
But the Jew is tricky! Is he? Were you never taken in by a Methodist class leader on a real estate trade? Did you ever get into close quarters with a Presbyterian speculator? Did you ever buy mining stock on the representations of an Episcopalian broker? Did you ever take a man’s word quicker because he was a Baptist or a Roman Catholic? Did you ever see a stone weighing twenty pounds concealed in a bale of cotton grown by a Southerner? Did you never find lard in the butter sold by a New England Puritan?
The belief that the Jew is more dishonest than the Gentile is one-half nonsense and the other half prejudice and falsehood. The anti-Jewish feeling which now seems to be rising again is unchristian, inhuman, and un-American. No man can share it who believes in the universal fatherhood of God and the universal brotherhood of man. It is born of the devil and is detestable.
You go, George! But based on many other articles I read in the Times and letters from citizens who were horrified at the “Jewish scum” making their way to American shores, if I were advising Tevye and Golde back in the 1880s, I might have told them to forget Uncle Avrum in Chicago and head straight to Copenhagen.