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Before the Holocaust: The Massacre of Jews in Russian Pogroms

Murderous rampages against Jews known as pogroms were “central to the Jewish experience” in Russia and its borderlands in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, according to Professor Elissa Bemporad (The Graduate Center, Queens College). These waves of violence resulted in at least 150,000 Jews being murdered and a third of Jewish women in the region raped. 

Bemporad’s new book, Legacy of Blood: Jews, Pogroms, and Ritual Murder in the Lands of the Soviets, documents the carnage, its context, and the aftermath. One focus of Bemporad’s research is how and why Soviet authorities outlawed anti-Jewish violence once the old world of the czar was swept away by the Russian Revolution. 

Most pogroms were rooted in an ancient “blood libel” — a bizarre claim dating to the 12th century that Jews murdered Christian children to use their blood in religious rituals. This irrational falsehood led to repeated attacks on Jewish communities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The marauders looted and destroyed homes, communities, and businesses, they gang-raped girls and women, and they slaughtered thousands of people. Bemporad’s research includes news accounts, testimonials, photos, memorials, and other evidence. 

Once the Soviets came to power, the violence diminished. Police and courts investigated and punished perpetrators of anti-Semitism with prison terms and sometimes executions. But this “zero tolerance” policy was not to protect Jews per se, Bemporad explained in an interview with the podcast Indoor Voices. Rather, Soviet officials were building a modern, atheistic state, with no room for superstitions rooted in religion or the old ways of the czarist regime. Their “No. 1 priority,” Bemporad said, was to promote “this idea of brotherhood of the peoples.” Equally important was the message that the state alone “controls violence. … Something that originates from below (like a pogrom), something that is not orchestrated from above, cannot be tolerated.” 

The Soviets’ success in preventing pogroms in the 1920s and ‘30s was remarkable, especially with fascism and anti-Semitism rising elsewhere. That all changed, of course, when the Nazis invaded Soviet territories. Mass murders of Jews were frequently carried out by locals in places like Ukraine under German supervision. Anti-Semitism had been kept at bay for a generation under Soviet rule, but the Nazis rekindled it. 

Bemporad says her book holds lessons for today, as we see a “return to the surface of anti-Jewish stereotypes or stereotypes against people of color, stereotypes against refugees.” …  Governments have a responsibility to prevent anti-Semitism, racism, the othering of members of different ethnic or religious groups.” The Jewish Book Council selected Legacy of Blood for a 2019 National Jewish Book Award in the category of Modern Jewish Thought and Experience.

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Legacy of Blood
Oxford University Press, 2020

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Elissa Bemporad (Associate Professor, History) | Profile 1