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Pogrom Against the Jews

Hep-Hep riots in Frankfurt, 1819. On the left, two peasant women are assaulting a Jew with pitchfork and broom. On the right, a man wearing spectacles, tails, and a six-button waistcoat,
Hep-Hep riots in Frankfurt, 1819. On the left, two peasant women are assaulting a Jew with pitchfork and broom. On the right, a man wearing spectacles, tails, and a six-button waistcoat, "perhaps a pharmacist or a schoolteacher," holds another Jew by the throat and is about to club him with a truncheon. A contemporary engraving by Johann Michael Voltz

Pogrom (from the Russian - to wreak havoc, to demolish violently) is a form of riot directed against a particular group, whether ethnic, religious or other, and characterized by destruction of their homes, businesses and religious centers. Usually pogroms are accompanied by physical violence against the targeted people and even murder or massacre. The term has historically been used to denote extensive violence, either spontaneous or premeditated, against Jews, but has been applied to similar incidents against other, mostly minority, groups.

Before the 19th century

There were anti-Semitic riots in Alexandria under Roman rule in 38 CE during the reign of Caligula.

Evidence of communal violence against Jews and Christians, who were seen as a Jewish sect, exists dating from the second century CE Rome. These riots were generally precipitated by the Romans because the Jews and early Christians did not conform to the religion of the Romans.

Massive violent attacks against Jews date back at least to the Crusades, as well as the massacres of Jews at London and York in 1189-1190.

The eleventh century saw Muslim pogroms against Jews in Spain; those occurred in Cordoba in 1011 and in Granada in 1066. In the 1066 Granada massacre, a Muslim mob crucified the Jewish vizier Joseph ibn Naghrela and massacred about 4,000 Jews.

In 1348, because of the hysteria surrounding the Black Plague, Jews were massacred in Chillon, Basle, Stuttgart, Ulm, Speyer, Dresden, Strasbourg, and Mainz. A large number of the surviving Jews fled to Poland, which was very welcoming to Jews at the time.

In 1543, Martin Luther wrote On the Jews and Their Lies, a treatise in which he advocated harsh persecution of the Jewish people.

Jews were also massacred during the Khmelnytsky Uprising of Ukrainian Cossacks in 1648-1654.

In the Russian Empire

The term pogrom as a reference to large-scale, targeted, and repeated anti-Semitic rioting saw its first use in the 19th century.

Early nineteenth century

The first pogrom is often considered to be the 1821 anti-Jewish riots in Odessa (modern Ukraine) after the death of the Greek Orthodox patriarch in Istanbul, in which 14 Jews were killed. Other sources, such as the Jewish Encyclopedia, indicate that the first pogrom was the 1859 riots in Odessa.


The term "pogrom" became commonly used in English after a large-scale wave of anti-Jewish riots swept through south-western Imperial Russia in 1881-1884.

The trigger for these pogroms was the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, for which some blamed "the Jews." The extent to which the Russian press was responsible for encouraging perceptions of the assassination as a Jewish act has been disputed. Local economic conditions are thought to have contributed significantly to the rioting, especially with regard to the participation of the business competitors of local Jews and the participation of railroad workers, and it has been argued that this was actually more important than rumors of Jewish responsibility for the death of the Tsar. These rumors, however, were clearly of some importance, if only as a trigger, and they had a small kernel of truth: one of the close associates of the assassins, Gesya Gelfman, was indeed Jewish. The fact that the other assassins were all Christians had little impact on the spread of such Anti-Semitic rumors.

During these pogroms, which started in Elizavetgrad in April of 1881, thousands of Jewish homes were destroyed, and many families were reduced to poverty; and large numbers of men, women, and children were injured in 166 towns in the southwest provinces of the Empire (modern Ukraine). The new Tsar Alexander III initially blamed revolutionaries and the Jews themselves for the riots and issued a series of harsh restrictions on Jews. The pogroms continued for more than three years, and were thought to have benefited from at least the tacit support of the authorities, though there were also attempts on the part of the Russian government to end the rioting.Although the pogroms claimed the lives of relatively few Jews (2 Jews were killed by the mobs, while 19 attackers were killed by tsarist authorities, the damage, disruption and disturbance were dramatic. The pogroms and the official reaction to them led many Russian Jews to reassess their perceptions of their status within the Russian Empire, and so to significant Jewish emigration, mostly to the United States. Changed perceptions among Russian Jews also indirectly gave a significant boost to the early Zionist movement.


A much bloodier wave of pogroms broke out in 1903-1906, leaving an estimated 2,000 Jews dead, and many more wounded, as the Jews took to arms to defend their families and property from the attackers. The number of people of other nationalities killed or wounded in these pogroms exceeds Jewish casualties. The New York Times described the First Kishinev pogrom of Easter, 1903:

The victims, mostly Jewish children, of a 1905 pogrom in Yekaterinoslav (today's Dnipropetrovsk).
The victims, mostly Jewish children, of a 1905 pogrom in Yekaterinoslav (today's Dnipropetrovsk).
Home at last, painting by Moshe Maimon
"Home at last", painting by Moshe Maimon

"The anti-Jewish riots in Kishinev, Bessarabia (modern Moldova), are worse than the censor will permit to publish. There was a well laid-out plan for the general massacre of Jews on the day following the Orthodox Easter. The mob was led by priests, and the general cry, "Kill the Jews," was taken up all over the city. The Jews were taken wholly unaware and were slaughtered like sheep. The dead number 120 [Note: the actual number of dead was 47-48] and the injured about 500. The scenes of horror attending this massacre are beyond description. Babies were literally torn to pieces by the frenzied and bloodthirsty mob. The local police made no attempt to check the reign of terror. At sunset the streets were piled with corpses and wounded. Those who could make their escape fled in terror, and the city is now practically deserted of Jews."

Some historians believe that some of the pogroms had been organized or supported by the Tsarist Russian secret police, the Okhranka. Such facts as the alleged indifference of the Russian police and army were duly noted, e.g., during the three-day First Kishinev pogrom of 1903, as well as the preceding publication of articles in newspapers inciting anti-Jewish violence , suggesting to some that pogroms were in line with the internal policy of Imperial Russia. There is also evidence which supposedly suggests that the police knew in advance about some pogroms, and chose not to act. Members of the army also actively participated in pogroms in Bialystok (modern Poland) (June 1906) and Siedlce (modern Poland) (September 1906). The most violently antisemitic movement during this period was the Black Hundred, which actively participated in the pogroms.


Even outside of these main outbreaks, pogroms remained common - there were anti-Jewish riots in Odessa in 1859, 1871, 1881, 1886 and 1905 in which hundreds were killed in total.

During the Revolution and the Civil Wars in Russia

Many pogroms accompanied the Revolution of 1917 and the ensuing Russian Civil War, an estimated 70,000 to 250,000 civilian Jews were killed in the atrocities throughout the former Russian Empire; the number of Jewish orphans exceeded 300,000. In his book 200 Years Together, Alexander Solzhenitsyn provides the following numbers from Nahum Gergel's 1951 study of the pogroms in the Ukraine: out of an estimated 887 mass pogroms, about 40% were perpetrated by the Ukrainian forces led by Symon Petliura, 25% by the Ukrainian Green Army and various Ukrainian nationalist gangs, 17% by the White Army, especially the forces of Anton Denikin, and 8.5% by the Red Army.

Outside of Russia

Pogroms spread throughout Central and Eastern Europe, and anti-Jewish riots broke out elsewhere in the world. In 1918 and throughout the Polish-Bolshevik War there were sporadic pogroms in Poland. In 1927, there were pogroms in Oradea, Romania. In the Americas, there was a pogrom in Argentina in 1919, during the Tragic Week.

In the Arab world there were a number of pogroms, which played a key role in the massive emigration from Arab countries to Israel. In 1945, anti-Jewish rioters in Tripoli, Libya killed 140 Jews, and the Farhud pogrom in Iraq killed between 200 and 400 Jews.

There is also said to have been a Limerick Pogrom, in Ireland in the late 19th century. This pogrom was less violent than the others and, though it involved campaigns of intimidation, it mainly took the form of an economic boycott against Jewish residents of Limerick.

During the Holocaust

Pogroms were also encouraged by the Nazis, especially early in the war before the larger mass killings began. The first of these pogroms was Kristallnacht in Nazi Germany, often called Pogromnacht, in which Jewish homes and businesses were destroyed and up to 200 Jews were killed.

A number of deadly pogroms occurred during the Holocaust at the hands of non-Germans, for example the Jedwabne pogrom of 1941, in which Polish citizens killed between 400 and 1,600 Jews (estimates vary), with little to no German assistance. The region was previously occupied by the Soviet Union, (Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact) and the Jewish population was accused of collaboration with the Soviets. In the city of Lvov, Ukrainian nationalists allegedly organized two large pogroms in June-July, 1941 in which around 6,000 Jews were murdered, in apparent retribution for the alleged collaboration of some Jews with the previous Soviet regime. In Lithuania, Lithuanian nationalists (led by Klimaitis) engaged in anti-Jewish pogroms for similar reasons as well, on the 25th and 26th of June, 1941 (after the Nazi German troops had entered the city), killing about 3,800 Jews and burning synagogues and Jewish shops. Perhaps the deadliest of these Holocaust-era pogroms was the Iasi pogrom in Romania, in which as many as 13,266 Jews were killed by Romanian citizens, police, and military officials.

Even after the end of World War II, there were still isolated pogroms, the most notable being the Polish Kielce pogrom of 1946, in which around 40 people lost their lives. The Kielce pogrom was a major factor in the flight of Jews from Eastern Europe at the end of the Second World War.

Influence of pogroms

The pogroms of the 1880s caused a worldwide outcry and, along with harsh laws, propelled mass Jewish emigration. Two million Jews fled the Russian Empire between 1880 and 1914, many going to the United Kingdom and United States.

In reaction to the pogroms and other oppressions of the Tsarist period, Jews increasingly became politically active. The General Jewish Labor Union, colloquially known as The Bund, and Jewish participation in the Bolshevik movements were directly influenced by the pogroms. Similarly, the organization of Jewish self-defense leagues (which stopped the pogromists in certain areas during the second Kishinev pogrom) such as Hibbat Zion led naturally to a strong embrace of Zionism especially by Russian Jews.

Modern usage and examples

Other ethnic groups have suffered from similar targeted riots at various times and in different countries. In the view of some historians, the mass attacks on and random killings of Black people during the New York Draft Riots of 1863 can be defined as pogroms, though the word had not yet entered the English language at the time. The same could be said of the Chinese massacre of 1871 in Los Angeles, California, and of the killing of Koreans in the wake of the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake in Tokyo, Japan, after newspapers printed articles saying Koreans were systematically poisoning wells, seemingly confirmed by the widespread observation of wells with cloudy water (a little-known effect after a large earthquake).

In the 1955 Istanbul Pogrom, ethnic Greeks were attacked and overwhelmed by a Turkish mob. In the years leading up to the Biafran War, ethnic Igbos and others from southeastern Nigeria were victims of targeted attacks. The use of the term is therefore commonly used in the general context of riots against various ethnic groups. Other examples include the pogroms against ethnic Armenians in Sumgait in 1988 and in Baku, in 1990, both of which occurred in Azerbaijan. The Jakarta Riots of May 1998 were pogroms targeted against ethnic Chinese in Indonesia. Businesses associated with Chinese were burnt down, women were raped, tortured and killed. Fearing for their lives, many ethnic Chinese, who made up about 3-5% of Indonesia's population, fled the country.

A riot that some consider a modern day anti-Semitic pogrom in the United States was the Crown Heights Riot (August 1991) which resulted in the murder of -most notably- Yankel Rosenbaum and also resulted in two other deaths and countless injuries and damage to Jewish property. The October 2000 events are another example of a modern-day anti-Semitic pogrom, in Israel, with the perpetrators being Israeli Arabs (although Jews are known to have been among the rioters as well).

In 1999 after NATO troops took control of the Serbian province of Kosovo, the non-Albanian population of the capital Pristina was driven from their homes by ethnic Albanians and their property sacked and demolished, while NATO forces stood back and refused to intervene

Pogroms in arts & literature

In 1903, Hebrew poet Hayyim Nahman Bialik wrote the poem In the City of Slaughter in response to the Kishinev pogrom.

Elie Wiesel's Trial of God depicts Jews fleeing a pogrom and setting up a fictitious "trial of God" for His negligence in not assisting them against the bloodthirsty mobs. In the end, it turns out that the mysterious stranger who has argued as God's advocate is none other than Lucifer. The experience of a Russian Jew is also depicted in Elie Wiesel's The Testament.

A pogrom is one of the central events in the play Fiddler on the Roof.

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