“In the City of Slaughter,” written in 1903 in what was then the Russian Empire, is the single most influential Hebrew poem—perhaps the single most influential Jewish literary text—of the twentieth century. It is commonly understood to have had an outsized and lasting effect on how people in the once vast communities of East European Jewry, and later in the new Jewish community of Palestine and the State of Israel, understood their collective political situation and what they ought to do about it, the nature of Diaspora and the claims of Zionism, and the political and moral wages of powerlessness. American readers might compare “In the City of Slaughter” to Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or indeed Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the sense that their searing moral and political claims about burning political problems had an immediate and lasting impact.
“In the City of Slaughter” is Haim Nahman Bialik’s poem about the 1903 Kishinev pogrom, a terrible ethnic riot during which the large Jewish community of this small city in the Russian Empire was attacked over the course of three days by crowds of their Gentile neighbors. Although popular images of the life of Russia’s Jews, who numbered nearly six million at the turn of the twentieth century, sometimes treat such anti-Jewish violence as routine, in fact there had been nothing like the Kishinev pogrom before it happened. At the time, Bialik was a young and rising star in the burgeoning world of modern Hebrew literature. In the immediate aftermath of the pogrom, Bialik and his associates spent several weeks in Kishinev taking copious, careful, and sympathetic testimonies from eyewitnesses, from terribly wounded survivors of violence and rape, and from the bereaved. This poem was one of Bialik’s responses to the horrors he learned about through this work.
(Many thanks to Sadie Gold-Shapiro for their editorial work on this resource kit.)
Cover image: Abel Pann's The Day after the Pogrom: A Courtyard with Ruins and a Bereaved Family, 1903.