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Pogroms: A History Not Covered by Activists

The stories that we continue to hear out of Israel bring back the memories and experiences of many Jewish families who survived pogroms before fleeing the land of their birth for safety elsewhere.
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December 6, 2023
Jews persecuted and kept in the arsenal at Kiev during the first pogrom. (Photo by HultonArchive/Illustrated London News/Getty Images)

My great-grandmother lived through a pogrom in the Ekaterinoslav (Russia/Ukraine) region in the early 1900s. She suffered from horrible nightmares ever after, emitting blood-curdling screams in her sleep that woke and frightened her nine children.

While many Americans have some knowledge of the Holocaust, the history of pogroms feels largely nonexistent outside the Jewish community.

My great-grandmother was going to visit friends when heading toward the main street where she lived, she saw a troop of Cossacks on horseback. Two riders at the front of the group held a banner depicting Czar Nicholas and another depicting Rasputin. Their banners were those of approval of a current governing body, much like the Hamas flags recently carried by the terrorists who infiltrated Southern Israel. Behind these banners, my great-grandmother saw more men on horseback, many of them with Jewish babies impaled on the ends of their swords.

The stories that we continue to hear out of Israel bring back the memories and experiences of many Jewish families who survived pogroms before fleeing the land of their birth for safety elsewhere. Why do so many Jews live in the United States and in Israel? Because they were persecuted, and executed, and evicted everywhere else.

This is why the stories of incinerated homes, murdered families, beheaded babies and raped elderly are so particularly horrifying, and personal, to Jews the world over. This is also why the silence of friends, neighbors and humanitarian organizations continues to be so painful. Either you’re against the massacre and kidnapping of civilians or you’re not. These actions should be horrifying all by themselves, without historical context or political hedging, but they are made even more so because of where so many of our families come from, because of what so many of our families already survived.

Our families have not only survived this violence and violation before, but we have also sat through the silence and complicity of those we once called friends. The messages I have seen in the media and online grew numerous and loud as soon as Israel retaliated for the pogrom that was perpetrated against its citizens. But before that, all seemed quiet.

The silence that surrounded the murder, rape and torture of Jewish civilians in the days before Israel retaliated was far more deafening than any words. The many videos of activists ripping down pictures of kidnapped victims prove that bandwagon and propaganda messaging has been far more accepted than any real empathy or understanding.

When I stood at the Rally for Israel in D.C. with over a quarter of a million others calling for the return of the hostages and voicing our compassion for what was suffered by all those in Israel, I did not think that my photos on Instagram would finally lead a friend to reach out for the first time since this horror began. I was told that my standing with Israel ignored the bodies of Palestinian children. “Goodbye,” they wrote.

The comments section online is not the place where any peace or understanding will be found, and yet it feels like it is where a large battle is being fought.

The comments section online is not the place where any peace or understanding will be found, and yet it feels like it is where a large battle is being fought. This friend did not know the story of my great-grandmother. Like many, they probably do not know that Jews standing at a rally for Israel or rejoicing at the return of hostages are not doing so as a general political reaction to the news cycle, but rather as a response triggered in part by personal experience and trauma, both past and present.

Along the street behind the Cossacks, my great-grandmother watched the Jewish-owned stores being sacked. She watched as the Christian citizens, including many she recognized, and many who had professed themselves her friends, ran in and out removing the merchandise. Wanting only to save herself and the two children with her, my great-grandmother sat down with them on the curb of the main street, beside the gutter, already red with blood, and prayed she would go unnoticed in the chaos. It is a testament to her stillness and her bravery that my family and I exist today.

My family has seen the actions of the terrorists who crossed into southern Israel before and worry that we will see them again. My family has heard the silence of their friends and community before. We are still hearing it.

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