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HISTORY OF THE JEWS IN RUSSIA AND POLAND - S.M. Dubnow




jewish genealogy in Argentina

HISTORY OF THE JEWS IN RUSSIA AND POLAND

FROM THE DEATH OF ALEXANDER I UNTIL THE DEATH OF ALEXANDER III

by S.M. Dubnow

A Project Gutenberg EBook

7. THE MSTISLAVL AFFAIR

The ritual murder trials did not exhaust the "extraordinary" afflictions of Nicholas' reign. There were cases of wholesale chastisements inflicted on more tangible grounds, when misdeeds of a few individuals were puffed up into communal crimes and visited cruelly upon entire communities. The conscription horrors of that period, when the Kahals were degraded to police agencies for "capturing" recruits, had bred the "informing" disease among the Jewish communities. They produced the type of professional informer, or _moser_[1], who blackmailed the Kahal authorities of his town by threatening to disclose their "abuses," the absconding of candidates for the army and various irregularities in carrying out the conscription, and in this way extorted "silence money" from them. These scoundrels made life intolerable, and there were occasions when the people took the law into their own hands and secretly dispatched the most objectionable among them.

[Footnote 1: The Hebrew and Yiddish equivalent for "informer."]

A case of this kind came to light in the government of Podolia in 1836. In the town Novaya Ushitza two _mosers_, named Oxman and Schwartz, who had terrorized the Jews of the whole province, were found dead. Rumor had it that the one was killed in the synagogue and the other on the road to the town. The Russian authorities regarded the crime as the collective work of the local Jewish community, or rather of several neighboring Jewish communities, "which had perpetrated this wicked deed by the verdict of their own tribunal."

About eighty Kahal elders and other prominent Jews of Ushitza and adjacent towns, including two rabbis, were put on trial. The case was submitted to a court-martial which resolved "to subject the guilty to an exemplary punishment." Twenty Jews were sentenced to hard labor and to penal military service, with a preliminary "punishment by _Spiessruten_ through five hundred men." [1] A like number were sentenced to be deported to Siberia; the rest were either acquitted or had fled from justice. Many of those who ran the gauntlet died under the strokes, and are remembered by the Jewish people in Russia as martyrs.

[Footnote 1: Both the word and the penalty were introduced by Peter the Great from Germany. The culprit was made to run between two lines of soldiers who whipped his bare shoulders with rods. The penalty was abolished in 1863.]

The scourge of informers was also responsible for the Mstislavl affair. In 1844, a Jewish crowd in the market-place of Mstislavl, a town in the government of Moghilev, came into conflict with a detachment of soldiers who were searching for contraband goods in a Jewish warehouse. The results of the fray were a few bruised Jews and several broken rifles. The local police and military authorities seized this opportunity to ingratiate themselves with their superiors, and reported to the governor of Moghilev and the commander of the garrison that the Jews had organized a "mutiny." The local informer, Arye Briskin, a converted Jew, found this incident an equally convenient occasion to wreak vengeance on his former coreligionists for the contempt in which he was held by them, and allowed himself to be taken into tow by the official Jew-baiters.

In January, 1844, alarming communications concerning a "Jewish mutiny" reached St. Petersburg. The matter was reported to the Tzar, and a swift and curt resolution followed: "To court-martial the principal culprits implicated in this incident, and, in the meantime, as a punishment for the turbulent demeanor of the Jews of that city, to take from them one recruit for every ten men." Once more the principles of that period were applied: one for all; first punishment, then trial.

The ukase arrived in Mstislavl on the eve of Purim, and threw the Jews into consternation. During the Fast of Esther the synagogues resounded with wailing. The city was in a state of terror: the most prominent leaders of the community were thrown into jail, and had to submit to disfigurement by having half of their heads and beards shaved off. The penal recruits were hunted down, without any regard to age, since, according to the Tzar's resolution, a tenth of the population had to be impressed into military service. Pending the termination of the trial, no Jew was allowed to leave the city, while natives from Mstislavl in other places were captured and conveyed to their native town. A large Jewish community was threatened with complete annihilation.

The Jews of Mstislavl, through their spokesmen, petitioned St. Petersburg to wait with the penal conscription until the conclusion of the trial, and endeavored to convince the central Government that the local administration had misrepresented the character of the incident. To save his brethren, the popular champion of the interests of his people, the merchant Isaac Zelikin, of Monastyrchina, [1] called affectionately Rabbi Itzele, journeyed to the capital. He managed to get the ear of the Chief of the "Third Section" [2] and to acquaint him with the horrors which were being perpetrated by the authorities in Mstislavl.

[Footnote 1: A townlet in the neighborhood of Mstislavl.]

[Footnote 2: See above, p. 21, n. 1.]

As a result, two commissioners were dispatched from St. Petersburg in quick succession. On investigating the matter on the spot, they discovered the machinations of the over-zealous officials and apostasized informers who had represented a street quarrel as an organized uprising. The new commission of inquiry, of which one of the St. Petersburg commissioners, Count Trubetzkoy, was member, disclosed the fact that the Jewish community as such had had nothing whatsoever to do with what had occurred. The findings of the commission resulted in an "Imperial Act of Grace": the imprisoned Jews were set at liberty, the penal conscripts were returned from service, several local officials were put on trial, and the governor of Moghilev was severely censured.

This took place in November, 1844, after the Mstislavl community had for nine long months tasted the horrors of a state of siege. The synagogues were filled with Jews praising God for the relief granted to them. The community decreed to commemorate annually the day before Purim, on which the ukase inflicting severe punishment on the Jews of Mstislavl was promulgated, as a day of fasting and to celebrate the third day of the month of Kislev, on which the cruel ukase was revoked, as a day of rejoicing. Had all the disasters of that era been perpetuated in the same manner, the Jewish calendar would consist entirely of these commemorations of national misfortunes, whether in the form of "ordinary" persecutions or "extraordinary" afflictions.







CHAPTER XV



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