A critique from the past

In 1907 Polish journalist, critic, poet and essayist David Frishman criticized the Russian government for ignoring unrest in Odessa, translated here for the first time from Yiddish.

Child victims of a pogrom carried out under the inspiration of Simon Petlura in Ukraine in 1919. (photo credit: JERUSALEM POST ARCHIVE)
Child victims of a pogrom carried out under the inspiration of Simon Petlura in Ukraine in 1919.
In March 2014 Russia incorporated Crimea and Sebastopol into Russia, areas that had hitherto formed part of independent Ukraine. The UN reacted to this by declaring the act illegal.
Tragedy was added to the equation when on May 2, approximately 40 men and women were killed in pro- and anti- Russian clashes in the city of Odessa.
As questions of accountability, responsibility and democracy rear their heads, it is instructive to hear the voice of literary critic David Frishman (1859–1922) on Russia in 1907. He lived through the tumultuous era of the first and second Russian revolutions. His accounts offer unsettling echoes of phenomena witnessed today.
During the First Russian Revolution (1905–1907) the celebrated writer Frishman, then based in Russian-controlled Warsaw, wrote for the London-based weekly Di Idishe Velt. An ardent writer of Hebrew, his output temporarily ceased. The pause was imposed on him: the flourishing world of Hebrew journalism in Russia had forcibly come to an abrupt halt, as newspapers and periodicals were allowed to be published in Yiddish but not in Hebrew.
Titled “A Letter from Russia,” Frishman’s column offered a satirical account of the political developments across Russia with a particular eye for their effect on the Jewish residents. This column, and indeed most of Frishman’s Yiddish writings, has never before been translated from its original Yiddish. The translator is a doctoral candidate at University College London.
The 46th Letter – June 8, 1907
Shortly before I sat down to write this article, a telegram arrived from Odessa: “Unrest has broken out in Odessa. The Black Hundreds [ultra-nationalist, xenophobic Russian movement in the early 20th century] are spreading rumors of Jews having murdered 60 Hundreds have fled. Dozens have been beaten or killed.” We react to a telegram like this by sighing and promptly forgetting about it. Yes, we are rather accustomed to such news.
But is this Odessa not in Europe, and the date of the telegram not June 8, 1907? Yet it sounds like something out of a wild, remote part of Asia. Or like an extract from a medieval annal. What has happened to Culture? Where is Progress? Where are all those things that we so-called modern people like to boast of? Ribbono Shel Olam [for Heaven’s sake], what has the world come to? Where will this end?
And we are collaborators if we read of such things calmly and remain unmoved. And we do indeed carry on eating our roast beef, putting on our finest white clothes and starched collars, and going off to see the latest Bernard Schoss or Sholem Asch play. And thus we enjoy the fruits of our culture, with all its useful and delightful inventions.
Well, it used to be by candlelight (cheap, tallow candles) that they beat and killed us, and now it is with the aid of electricity. And in the olden days they came for us by humble horse and cart, whereas now they reach us by automobile or steam engine. Once upon a time, we would hear of such massacres by post or by a messenger who had traveled for weeks or months; now we hear the latest news very quickly, and by means of none other than a telegram or by telephone. What clever inventions these are.
But we do not blush and we are not ashamed, even though we are all men of culture. Who cares about a pogrom on Jews in Odessa which has been going on for weeks and months? I repeat, weeks and months. The latest tragedy in Russia is the development of a new phase of pogrom: the pogrom is no longer short and sweet, for a limited period of a mere two or three days. No, they have developed a plan which is a thousand times more devilish; they have begun carrying out chronic pogroms, pogroms without obvious beginning or end, little by little, slyly, drop by drop, and such pogroms last weeks and months or even years; and such pogroms, as I have noted once before, have the advantage of leaving no impression on the wider world.
In Odessa the current pogrom has already lasted two months, with dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries. And what does the outside world know of this? And if they did know, what have they done about it? We can at least light a yahrzeit [memorial] candle for the world–renowned pogroms – we know what day each pogrom occurred on; but for the Odessa pogroms we would need to light a candle to burn for an entire year.
But this is why we have the Duma [parliament]; and this Duma is “working.” She is pressed and pressured day and night, and only she is “working.” At their sessions ministers come and ministers go, and people speak. The important thing is not what they say, but how they say it; they speak as only Russian bureaucrats know how to speak: not good and not bad, not cold and not warm, not harshly and not softly. Such geniuses may be speaking about death sentences, criminal penalties, imprisonments, agronomy, steamship companies, about sun or about darkness: the same tone, the same language, the same attitude, the same blandness and the same indifference. One could burst at their steely impassivity. Innocent men are being shot and hanged.
We appeal to the government minister, and the minister alone considers what has happened and eventually responds: “What should I do? I was simply following the law.” But such a “law” is simply terrible. In any case, this “law” is somewhat out of date. “True,” answers the minister, “but until we have new laws, we will have to make do with the old ones.”
And so the Duma continues “working.” And now a minister makes a suggestion that a tender and harmless means must be found to address the ongoing escape of political prisoners: the Duma should approve the execution of “Preventive Measures.”
In fact, you should know that such Preventive Measures have been in place for the past half a year; but it is funnier if you ask the Duma to give a nod of the head and acquiesce to it. Then you can see how hard the Duma is “working.”
So the Duma gives consideration to the proposal, teases its brain, furrows its brow and ponders the matter. Preventive Measures – somehow it sounds so soft and gentle and sweet. Do they not understand that they are dealing with those who are barely children, those who are just learning to walk, and that they are talking of putting fetters on them so that they could end up, God forbid, falling over? “In total,” says the minister, “these fetters weigh 1.5 lbs.” In any case, the fetters can be worn under the clothes, invisible to others, on the right hand or the left foot. And thus, the “Measures” are agreed upon; the latest word in outlandish technology, very light, very portable. Now we only need the great minister himself to produce an example from his briefcase and demonstrate it to the municipal representative – somewhat like a traveling salesman showing off his top-quality armbands.
And how kind our government is, how well-disposed to equality. With these laws they want, for example, to ensure that no distinction is made between men and women, between young and old, between the educated and the simple, the criminal and the innocent – from now on all must wear the fetters. The debates in the Duma regarding this important issue last all day. The Duma is “working.” Why, did you think that the Duma was going to be idle? Did you think that it would concern itself with such trivial matters as pogroms in Odessa? No, children, the Duma has no time, the Duma is “working,” the Duma needs to “consider” and “talk over” the matter of the Preventive Measures.
And meanwhile, the Jewish Question continues to be a Jewish Question. A couple of days ago there was a session of the first Under-Committee, which sits and busies itself with the question of religious freedom. S. Bramson, member of the Duma, read out a paper on all the current legal restrictions on the Jews. He managed to read out only the first part of his paper, namely regarding the restrictions of residence permits for Jews – restrictions which are to be found in the most disparate paragraphs of the Russian codex. The Under-Committee unanimously resolved to propose to the Over-Committee (which busies itself with the question of religious freedom) a proposal that all constraints on Jewish residency rights be removed.
And thus, one can see that they are “working.” An Under-Committee to an Over-Committee, an Over-Committee to a Duma, a Duma to a legislative council, a legislative council to the library archives, and from there into oblivion. It recalls somewhat the Bible passage “Emor el hakohanim”: the high priests should address the lower priests, the lower priests should address those even lower than themselves, etc.
And as a curiosity, I should also mention the almightily ridiculous achievement of that Committee, in two paragraphs which Mr Bramson brought as an example of the multiple strange Russian laws on Jews: In one paragraph there is a restriction on the right of Jews to be organ grinders, street performers or musicians, and in a second paragraph Jewish women are prohibited from shaving their heads.
A letter that I received today from St. Petersburg informs me that the proposed law on equality for Jews has now been signed by 80 members of the Duma. But the Jewish members would like to wait until the majority of the members have signed it before presenting it to the Duma; they hope that this will succeed in showing that it is a majority which is in favor of equality for the Jews. Meanwhile, we hear that the Ministerial Committee has resolved to refrain from expelling Jews from the inner provinces who do not have a residence permit. One can believe anything about Russia, especially now when it needs a foreign loan.
But nothing changes: In one day, 11 men have suffered capital punishment under military law and been hanged – six in Warsaw, three from the outskirts of Warsaw and two in Yekaterinoslav. And on the same day, in Peterhof, 30 innocent members of the Duma have been taken for an audience with the Czar; those who have been arrested include the priests Yevlogy and Flaton, and also Purishkevich, Shulgin, Sazanovich, Rhein and Khomiakov.
The police department has begun preparing new orders for each municipal authority regarding how to treat the members of the Duma, should they (God willing) return home. Some members, those who were present at the Socialist Congress in London, were arrested upon their return and only later released. I have included this small piece of news as a simple illustration of where our freedom stands.
Now, by way of conclusion, here are a few statistics regarding our freedom of the press: In the three months since the start of this second Duma, the Administration has closed down newspapers and journals: In St. Petersburg – 43; Moscow – 10; Tbilisi – 6; Baku – 3; Yekaterinadar – 1; Sebastopol – 1; Krasonyarsk – 1; Novonikolayevsk – 1; Semipalatinsk – 2; the Baltic area – 9; Warsaw – 3; Vilna – 2; Kharkow – 1; Poltava – 1; Yekaterinoslav –1; Simferopol – 1; Yalta – 1; Yaroslav – 1; Saratov – 1; Viatka – 1; – 1; a total of 93 newspapers.
And it is alleged that we have freedom of the press.
The writer is completing her doctorate in Greek linguistics at University College London, and has a side interest in Jewish languages. This piece is dedicated to the memory of her father, Sigbert Prais, her first Yiddish teacher.