Lincoln's assassination and the Russian Hebrew press

Vidaver’s eulogy for Lincoln can still be found in many libraries in Israel and throughout the world.

Abraham Lincoln 370 (photo credit: Jerusalem Post archives)
Abraham Lincoln 370
(photo credit: Jerusalem Post archives)
It was not unusual for Hamagid – the first Hebrew-language weekly newspaper in Russia – to cover the big American news events of 1865. These included the end of the American Civil War at Appomattox, Virginia, when Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, and the following week on Passover – April 14 – the tragic assassination of president Abraham Lincoln.
Rabbi Henry Vidaver was Hamagid’s correspondent in the US and had been on the paper’s staff for a few years, especially covering the Civil War and Lincoln.
Jonathan D. Sarna, the Braun professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, characterizes Vidaver in the following fashion: “I don’t think that Hamagid paid much, but Vidaver became well-known for writing in the newspaper.
The articles linked him back to the world of Hebrew-speaking learned Jews.”
Sarna also says that like all writers, Vidaver experienced “that joy of simply seeing one’s words and thoughts in print.”
“Because Vidaver’s English was only learned when he immigrated to America, it would have been difficult for him to be printed in English,” Sarna notes. “He never became that fluent in his acquired tongue, but his Hebrew writings made him known throughout elite Jewish circles in Europe.”
Hamagid, published between 1856 and 1903, marked the beginning of the modern Hebrew press. Because of censorship problems in Russia, the paper was first published in Lyck, Prussia, and after 1890 in Berlin, Krakow and Vienna. Eliezer Lipman Silberman founded the paper and set the tone. Hamagid’s editorial approach represented the point of view of moderate religious Orthodoxy at that time. The paper’s circulation was never more than 1,500 but the paper was passed from hand to hand, so many people read it. Vidaver was one of the paper’s on-the-spot reporters in both the Jewish world and world at large.
Throughout the Civil War, beginning in 1861, Vidaver contributed lengthy articles about once a month. We do not know how he obtained his information, except through the printed sources of the time.
As a rabbi in St. Louis, it was difficult to get major information out of Washington, but Vidaver had a way of telling a story so that his readers around the world learned from his writings and enjoyed them as well.
Lincoln had been a favorite of the Jews living in the northern part of the US, Yankee- Union land. The Jews in the Confederacy were not pleased with the president’s pro-abolitionist views and his Emancipation Proclamation to free the slaves. In the only modern book in Hebrew on Lincoln, translated by Yair Burla in 1956 from a biography written by an American historian, both the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address are included in Hebrew. When the US Information Agency issued the Gettysburg Address in a multitude of languages, Burla’s Hebrew translation was utilized.
I was fortunate to locate Vidaver’s April 1865 dispatch in Hamagid, on the shelves of the Ben-Zvi Institute library. Since the paper has now been digitalized and is free to anyone via the Internet, a researcher can easily capture its flavor. For example, next to the Vidaver story is S.D. Luzzatto’s analysis of the new mathematics.
Here are selections from that 1865 dispatch, the only Hebrew one issued, so that Lincoln’s “yahrzeit” today can be cast in a Jewish perspective: Vidaver begins in his normal fashion.
“The end of the month of April.
From the time I sent you my last dispatch – mighty acts has God performed which could be readily seen in the eyes of the citizenry of this country.” (The writer always sought to lead his readers into the story, first chronologically, then moving into a description of the end of the war itself.) “The majority of the American population knew that the ‘Land of the South [negev]’ had weakened and its strength waned daily, with the capital, Richmond, Virginia, only possessing a few more days to survive.”
Vidaver then described the process leading to the final stages of the four years of the bloody struggle: “No one was ready to announce that the end was at hand, but the southern commanders, one by one, began surrendering quickly to their northern opponents.”
The author then inserts some rabbinic knowledge, with the generals’ names written in Hebrew and English script: “Who can fathom the secrets of God and who can know His plans? Suddenly a strong voice is heard in the land that Gen. Lee, the Confederacy commander- in-chief, had surrendered to Gen.
Grant, northern commander-in-chief. All the Confederate troops followed the lead of Gen. Lee. Richmond, the South’s capital, had fallen into the hands of the northern leaders and would never rise again.”
Vidaver stressed that “Lee halted the fighting because he realized that continuing on would shed innocent blood...
Grant, on his part, offered peace terms to Lee which contained the spirit of love parallel to the expression of comfort when death was at hand.
This victory paved the way for the path to peace. When the announcement was made that Richmond had fallen, great was the joy of the North, but the entire nation, in its enthusiasm, shouted out ‘Heydad, heydad!’ Hurray, hurray.” “When we discuss Lincoln and the Jews,” Prof. Sarna explains, “it has to do with which Jews and when. The assassination rapidly turned Lincoln into a Jewish saint. By then he had won the war, overturned the expulsion order of Jews by Grant and ensured that Jews could be chaplains in the Union army in 1862. Northerners and Jews in Yankee land were devastated by his death.
The Confederate Jews, like their southern brethren, were not as overwhelmed by this leader’s demise. Even the noted Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise had his doubts regarding Lincoln. For most Jews, Lincoln became Moses unable to enter the land of peace.”
The joy, described earlier, did not last long as can be seen in the continuation of the story. “On the day that we recited [in the Hallel prayer for Passover], ‘This is the day which God has created, we should rejoice and be happy thereon,’ this became a day turned upside down into one of clouds and overcast; this was an accursed day for the citizens of the United States.
A voice was heard wailing! Abraham Lincoln, the president of the US, has been assassinated by a murderer who laid in wait for him in the theater.”
Vidaver then described how Lincoln and his family had come to the theater to celebrate with the people of his nation: “But a man came from behind the curtains and shot Lincoln in his forehead and killed this tzaddik, righteous man... what a terrible crisis arose in the minds of the American people – all that could be heard was the sound of weeping and great anguish...
the windows of every home were draped in black.”
Continuing his account of why this happened: “It was the hatred of the South, which had lost the war on the field of battle, now caused the death of a great man via an individual with his deadly weapon who murdered this innocent soul [because the assassin had been hired by the Confederacy to perform this deed],” Vidaver wrote, espousing the conspiracy theory for Lincoln’s death arranged by southern leaders.
The day after Passover (Lincoln was killed on Shabbat Hol Hamoed Passover) there was a call for memorial services for Lincoln in every church and synagogue throughout the country.
Vidaver’s own synagogue in St. Louis was packed with men, women and children, Christians as well as Jews. “I spoke in English expressing our anguish for the death of this great leader. My words had their impact on those assembled... so soon they will be printed and distributed,” he said.
In fact Vidaver’s eulogy for Lincoln can still be found in many libraries in Israel and throughout the world.
The American Jewish interest in Abraham Lincoln has continued through the years. In 1942, during World War II, a member of Young Judea in US drew a striking black and white illustration of Lincoln.
The artist surrounded Lincoln with smaller drawings representative of his biography, along with drawings pointing to his hopes for humankind.
The author recited the Gettysburg Address at the 90th anniversary celebration of the Civil War.