Back to article index

Hayyim Nahman Bialik


The point is important because part of the power of Bialik's poem, and of its huge influence on subsequent Jewish culture, was the accusation that the Jews did nothing to defend themselves. The poem has played such an important role in Jewish - and especially Zionist - culture that it is worth quoting at length:

'Pause not upon this havoc; go thy way -
Unto the attic mount, upon thy feet and hands;
Behold the shadow of death among the shadows stands. 
Crushed in their shame, they saw it all; 
They did not pluck their eyes out; they
Beat not their brains against the wall!
Perhaps, perhaps, each watcher had it in his heart to pray: 
A miracle, O Lord, and spare my skin this day!

'Come, now, and I will bring thee to their lairs
The privies, jakes and pigpens where the heirs
Of Hasmoneans lay, with trembling knees,
Concealed and cowering - the sons of the Maccabees!
The seed of saints, the scions of the lions!
Who, crammed by scores in all the sanctuaries of their shame 
So sanctified My name!
It was the flight of mice they fled,
The scurrying of roaches was their flight;
They died like dogs, and they were dead!
And on the next morn, after the terrible night
The son who was not murdered found
The spurned cadaver of his father on the ground.
Now wherefore dost thou weep, O son of Man?'

The poem is written in the first person of a God who says:

'See, I am fallen from My high estate.
I grieve for you, my children. My heart is sad for you.
Your dead were vainly dead; and neither I nor you
Know why you died or wherefore, for whom, nor by what laws;
Your deaths are without reason; your lives are without cause.'

It is an attack on the tradition of Jewish passivity in the face of persecution - the very tradition that, as discussed in the previous article in this series, is celebrated by Yaakov Rabkin:

'Turn, then, thy gaze from the dead, and I will lead
Thee from the graveyard to thy living brothers,
And thou wilt come, with those of thine own breed, 
Into the synagogue, and on a day of fasting,
To hear the cry of their agony,
Their weeping everlasting.
Thy skin will grow cold, the hair on thy skin stand up, 
And thou wilt be by fear and trembling tossed;
Thus groans a people which is lost.
Look in their hearts - behold a dreary waste,
Where even vengeance can revive no growth,
And yet upon their lips no mighty malediction
Rises, no blasphemous oath.
Speak to them, bid them rage!
Let them against me raise the outraged hand,
Let them demand!
Demand the retribution for the shamed
Of all the centuries and every age!
Let fists be flung like stone
Against the heavens and the heavenly Throne!

And thou, too, pity them not, nor touch their wound; 
Within their cup no further measure pour.
Wherever thou wilt touch, a bruise is found,
Their flesh is wholly sore.
For since they have met pain with resignation
And have made peace with shame,
What shall avail thy consolation?
They are too wretched to evoke thy scorn.
They are too lost thy pity to evoke.
So let them go, then, men to sorrow born,
Mournful and slinking, crushed beneath their yoke.
So to their homes, and to their hearth depart
Rot in the bones, corruption in the heart.'

(3) Taken from the website of the World Zionist Organisation.

Bialik had been commissioned to go to Kishinev to collect eye witness accounts on behalf of the 'Kishinev Historical Commission', headed by Dubnow. According to an account by an American historian, specialist in the twentieth century history of Palestine/Israel, Monty Noam Penkower:

'What Bialik saw in Kishinev ... almost drove him mad. Aided by a local Hebrew teacher, Pesah Auerbakh, he investigated the pogrom in painstaking detail. For more than a month, he collected documents, took photographs of the dead and of desecrated Torah scrolls, and got people who suffered to talk to him. Working in a state of mounting internal tension, as recalled by Yisrael Berman, a youth who escorted him about, the poet filled up four large notebooks [five, according to Zipperstein - PB] of almost 200 pages.' (4)

(4) Monty Noah Penkower: 'The Kishinev Pogrom of 1903: A Turning Point in Jewish History', Modern Judaism, Oct., 2004, Vol. 24, No. 3 (Oct., 2004), p.196.

Instead, however, of writing up his notes, he wrote the poem, which proved to be a much more effective piece of propaganda at least among Jews. He effectively buried his notebooks away and it was only in the 1990s that they were finally published. Penkower continues (p.197): 'Bialik chose, as well, to make no mention of the evidence about sporadic Jewish self defence that his own notebooks documented' and Zipperstein says:

'Bialik’s anguished cry had a particularly powerful impact on Jewish fighters once the poem was translated in 1904 into Russian and recited widely (and brilliantly) by the young, restless Vladimir Jabotinsky. Bialik’s work left little doubt that the response of Kishinev Jews to violence had been gutless. Curiously enough, however, Bialik recorded in the transcripts of the interviews he conducted during his Kishinev stay, often in copious detail, many efforts at Jewish self-defense, including one so notorious - in the minds of local antisemites and their sympathisers, at least - that they would credit it, not their own actions, as the main cause for Monday’s violence.' (p.86)

Zipperstein also says that 'Before the outbreak of violence preparations had been made to store arms at the home of Jacob Bernstein-Kogan, whose apartment had for years been the main office of the Zionist movement's correspondence bureau, and was equipped with a telephone. It was designated as a headquarters of sorts. But Bernstein-Kogan and his family fled their residence on the first day of the pogrom - soon afterward it was looted - and whether the arms were stored there were used or not is unclear.' (p.88)

Bernstein-Kogan was an important member of Herzl's Zionist movement - sufficiently important that, according to the German Wikipedia account, disagreements he had with Herzl mattered. This brief passage leaves him looking rather unimpressive - fleeing the apartment where the guns were stored (Zipperstein doesn't seem to question  their existence. Did they fall into the hands of the looters? Did Bernstein-Kogan distribute them?) Later in Zipperstein's account, as we shall see, however, he appears very impressive indeed, using his position as head of the correspondence bureau, in a town close to the border of the Russian Empire and therefore convenient for smuggling, to publicise very effectively the events in Kishinev.