The Chabadnik Who Became Czarist Russia's Chief Censor for Jewish Writings

When the pogroms started in czarist Russia, the man in charge of overseeing Jewish writings was an apostate rabbi. The contradictions hit an apogee when Haim Nahman Bialik tried to publish an iconic poem.

Ruth Bachi-Kolodny
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Ruth Bachi-Kolodny

Rebbe Israel Landau was out of a job when czarist Russia decreed that Jews could not operate liquor distilleries. Up until that time, he had earned his living at a distillery and, although the other workers had abandoned the path of Orthodox Judaism and would use swear words − he remained faithful to his religious beliefs and was a loyal disciple of his master and teacher, Rebbe Sholom Ber Schneersohn. When he found himself without a livelihood, Landau tried his hand at commerce, but lost even the small amount of money he had managed to save.

Landau grew up in a Hasidic family in Poltava ‏(now part of Ukraine‏). His parents married him off at the age of 16, but he and his wife had no children. He consulted with Rebbe Schneersohn, the fifth master and teacher in the Chabad ‏(Lubavitcher‏) Hasidic dynasty, and the latter advised him to spend time in the Holy Land and to strengthen his religious roots. Landau did so and 10 months after returning home, his daughter was born.

After he lost his job at the distillery, Landau again consulted with Schneersohn, who instructed him to move to St. Petersburg to represent the interests of the masters and teachers of the Chabad sect in the capital. The czar and his court were based in St. Petersburg, as were the government ministries, the army’s general staff and the secret police’s headquarters. Jews were not welcome there, except for a handful of tycoons and persons with respected professions, such as physicians or lawyers.

This was also the city from which the czarist regime issued decrees and prohibitions intended to encourage this bizarre community of people, who could barely make a living and swayed strangely while they prayed, to leave Russia for good. It was also the city from which Interior Minister Vyacheslav Konstantinovich von Plehve issued orders that a pogrom be carried out in Kishinev ‏(now Chisinau, Moldova‏) in April 1903, on Passover, to expedite the Jews’ exit.

The first − and, for a while, only − newspaper that publicized the atrocities committed in Kishinev was called Hazman ‏(The Time‏), which began to appear that same year in St. Petersburg and was founded and edited by Benzion Katz. This was a daring move, because the regime tried to blur the details of the pogrom and present it as a local act. In fact, the regime censored entire passages in journals critical of the government and banished lawyers who gathered details on persons killed and wounded in Kishinev. But Katz had no fear of confrontation. He was a Talmudic scholar who wrote books on religion and Jewish history. Invited to St. Petersburg to explain the manuscripts of the Jerusalem Talmud, he began to attend university there.

Converting to Christianity

For his part, Landau, the Chabad Hasid who had been sent to St. Petersburg, would wander the streets at night in the cold and snow. Toward morning, he would go to the home of a physician, a friend, where he would sleep until noon, when he would begin his workday. He sometimes would spend nights with people who rented out rooms to Jews for a few rubles, but he would then have to depend on the benevolence of the gatekeepers at these houses, who might inform the authorities about his presence.

The only way he could survive in St. Petersburg, he reasoned, was to convert to Christianity. Although he became an apostate Jew, he remained, deep in his heart, a devoutly religious Hasid and continued to look the part with his short trimmed beard, earlocks, skullcap and long, broad kapota ‏(the long black jacket of members of Chabad‏); he would eat only in kosher restaurants. In fact, Landau sent his wife and only daughter, Menuha, to Switzerland so they could live as Jews without any external hindrances.

Eventually, after converting to Christianity, Landau assumed the position of chief censor, after his predecessor, an alcoholic named Zussman, passed away.

Twenty years before Landau arrived in St. Petersburg, it was decided that the chief Jewish censor − who was based there and in charge of vetting all Jewish literature and newspapers − would also be responsible for censors working in the periphery; he was thus in charge of Jewish censors in Vilna, Warsaw, Kiev and Odessa, and for representing them vis-a-vis the regime whenever complaints against them were received.

The censors Landau was responsible for sat in various ministries, and were charged with rooting out any evidence of social, ethnic or religious deviations from the rules of the dictatorial regime. Most of them were apostate Jews, former Talmudic scholars, but some remained loyal to their people and clung to their roots, acting as mediators between the authorities and the Jews. Others, however, made the lives of Jewish writers and journalists extremely difficult, served as informers and testified for the prosecution in the courtroom.

Two-and-a-half months after the Kishinev pogrom − on June 24, 1903 − Interior Minister von Plehve published a document of about 1,000 pages, listing many prohibitions against Russia’s Jews. Known as the Lopukhin report, it specifically related to prohibitions regarding the teaching of Hebrew and the existence of Hebrew schools, and banned all Zionist activity that was not aimed at immediate emigration from Russia. In order to enforce all the stipulations in the report, there was a need for rigid censorship.

Thus Landau would spend entire days − and especially nights − in the editorial offices of various newspapers. He would receive the proofs before the final printing, and books before they were published, and would quickly erase, correct, refine and comment on words and passages, as he considered how he would respond to informers. For the most part, these informers were frustrated writers whose manuscripts had not been accepted for publication, or wealthy individuals who tried their hand at writing and whose manuscripts were rejected by the editor for various reasons.

Landau knew and corresponded with most of the Jewish intellectuals in Russia, and received payment from the editors to overlook and “smooth over” problems. The dozens of letters he wrote in such cases − and the memories others had of him doing so − attest to his deep love for, and significant contribution to, Zionist settlement in then Ottoman-ruled Palestine. Indeed, once, when he instructed that an entire passage be omitted in a newspapers and the typesetter forgot to do so, he ordered him to make a donation on behalf of that cause, and to publish the sum he gave in the paper.

Sacrilegious texts

Saul Ginsburg, a journalist who specialized in the history of Russian Jewry in the 19th century and founded the first daily Yiddish-language newspaper in Russia, Der Freynd, knew Landau well, and related that he was one of the best censors and most interesting people he had met. “In my life,” Ginsburg once wrote, “I had many meetings with censors, and I could sense the difference between him and others. He never bothered with trivial matters or isolated words, nor did he ever look for hidden meanings. He took everything literally and also demanded that people speak with him in a straightforward manner. It was impossible to trick him, because Landau was a very intelligent individual.”

One thing that frightened Landau more than anything else was his fate in the next world; he was particularly pained by having been forced to convert to Christianity. He could not bear desecration of God’s name or use of the sacred tongue of Hebrew to discuss secular matters. He was an expert on the mystical “Zohar,” and even obtained permission for its printing in Russia.

A scholar at that time on the subject of apostate Jews, Zvi Khasdai, mentioned ‏(in his book, “Hamityahadim,”‏) a feuilleton he once wrote for Hanukkah that blended Aramaic and Hebrew in the manner of the “Zohar.” Khasdai related how Landau screamed at him: “How do you dare, as a Jew, desecrate what is so holy, to desecrate the language of ‘Zohar’ − a language which is the holiest of holies? And to write frivolous things!”

Apparently, Landau then passed out and after he was revived, he proceeded to edit and/or expunge most of the sentences, to such an extent that Kasdai could not recognize his own text.

Call him ‘rebbe’

Journalist Benzion Katz first met Landau when the former was trying to receive approval to publish his Hebrew-language paper Hazman, which opposed anti-Semitism and championed equal rights for Jews in Russia. One day, while at the editorial offices of Hamelitz ‏(the Hebrew-language weekly‏), Katz recalled meeting a 50-year-old gentleman who looked like a Jew from the older generation, and was treated with the greatest respect by the staff. Everyone there spoke Russian, yet this Jew would answer in Yiddish. When Katz expressed his surprise, he was told that this was the censor upon whose word newspapers’ fates hinged, and who, while an apostate, objected to being addressed by his Christian surname, and demanded to be called Rebbe Israel Landau.

More than two years passed before Katz finally received authorization for the publication of Hazman, with the condition that the censor would approve its contents. The newspaper, printed twice a week, first appeared in January 1903; 30,000 copies were printed for the premiere edition, and there were plans for cultural and literary supplements. Katz received his news items from writers who knew Hebrew and lived in various parts of the Russian Empire. The correspondent in Kishinev was a teacher, Pesach Averbuch. When the pogrom broke out there, he immediately reported on it and the item was published.

Averbuch accompanied the man who would become one of modern Hebrew literature’s greatest poets, Haim Nahman Bialik, during the weeks that Bialik spent in Kishinev. The reporter wrote that Bialik was preparing a major piece on the devastation there − something that went far beyond a documentary report on the casualties and property damage. Averbuch told editor Katz that the work would be entitled “Massa” ‏(meaning “burden” or “load‏”) and would be seen, on the face of it, in a metaphorical way, as a depiction of a historical event: the slaughter of the Jews of Nemirov during the days of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, 250 years earlier.

Katz thought this literary creation would be earth-shattering. Through Averbuch, Katz informed Bialik that he would speak to the censor, with whom he had a special working relationship. He firmly believed that this piece, an epic, iconic poem, which would later become known as “The City of Slaughter” − and was considered by all who saw it as something that could not possibly pass the censor − would indeed be published in Hazman, and he sent Bialik an advance of 25 rubles. Thereafter, Katz announced its publication, although he had not yet received the green light from the censor. “What could you possibly be thinking?” lamented Landau to a number of writers whom he knew, at the time. “Do you think that I am not a Jew, and that my heart is not torn to pieces and is not bleeding over this horrendous pogrom? Do you think I do not understand what those villains, those malicious people, did to our brothers and sisters in Kishinev? However, on the other hand, there is a principle Dina de-malchuta dina − “the law of the land is the law” ‏(that is, it is binding on all its citizens‏). And after all, I am the official appointed to supervise the press, and I cannot betray the trust invested in me. If I do so, I will expose myself and the newspaper to fiery criticism and I will lose my job while the newspaper will no longer exist.”

Katz invited the censor to a meeting, where he complained about his bitter fate − about the fact that he had paid a huge amount of money to Bialik ‏(he made it sound as if he had underwritten all of the poet’s travel expenses‏) − and said Bialik had written a harshly critical poem that could be seen as an angry attack on the authorities. Even before reading it, Landau demanded it be titled “Massa Nemirov” ‏(“The Burden of Nemirov”‏). After reading it, he promised Katz he would do everything in his power to get the authorities’ approval for its publication − and succeeded.

Katz informed Bialik of this, and the poet then demanded and received another 80 rubles. The censor received the poem in a “ready-to-print” form, to prevent him from being tempted to make changes. When Katz read the poem aloud to Landau, the censor was very moved and quietly said, “He is young ... but he knows how to write ... Excellent ... I would be very sad if a poem like this were not approved.”

When Katz reached the part where Bialik rebukes not only the Jewish people but also the Almighty − writing, “Forgive, ye shamed of the earth, yours is a pauper-Lord! / Poor was he during your life, and poorer still of late” − the censor was deeply offended and shouted, “Bialik is a great poet but I am more of an expert on the ‘Zohar’ than he is. According to the ‘Zohar,’ it is forbidden to write that God is poor. I know to whom the poem is addressed. If I sin against Caesar, I do not feel threatened because I can always provide justification for my actions. However, I cannot do so before God. I do not want to lose my place in the next world.”

Katz had nothing to say; he knew Bialik would never agree to any changes in his poem. After the meeting, he put the poem in his jacket pocket. A short while later and still very upset, he gave his jacket to a laundry to be cleaned. When he realized later what he had done, his heart sank. Fortunately, the pages came back intact.

Crossed telegrams

Katz decided to send a telegram to Bialik to clarify matters and to inform him that the censor had banned the lines relating to God. However, before the telegram got to the poet in Odessa, a proofreader at Hazman leaked the news that the censor had removed a few lines. A number of Odessa’s leading Jewish writers, including Ahad Ha’am ‏(Asher Ginzberg‏) and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky, sent an angry telegram to St. Petersburg about the audacity of touching Bialik’s literary creation. Meanwhile, Katz’s telegram arrived and, as could have been expected, Bialik notified the editor that he refused to have his poem appear in the paper and would return the money to Katz.

For his part, Katz claimed he never had any intention of printing the censored version of Bialik’s poem without his consent. “Today I have been humiliated and have been grossly insulted,” he later wrote Bialik, in an undated letter. “I know you are bitter about this matter and I therefore forgive you. However, I must point out that your accusation is groundless. You wrote that you will not allow even one iota to be touched, nor will you allow the censor to omit anything. Furthermore, you wrote that I deceived you ... The poem was already typeset and ready to be printed. The censor screamed out in pain as he said to me that I am inflicting a mortal blow to my soul and to Hazman because the spirit of revenge speaks in your poem ... Do you think that I am crazy? I did not send you any further proofs because the matter with the censor had not yet been finalized ... It is in vain that you are threatening me with such declarations as ‘I want to murder you.’ Frankly I do not understand you. [Vladimir] Korolenko, [Anton] Chekhov and [Maxim] Gorky published works after the censor had erased some of the lines in their creations.”

Although publication of the poem was suspended, and Katz was forced to apologize to his readers − Bialik ultimately accepted the censor’s cuts because he wanted the poem to appear in Russia. Indeed, that was where most of the Jewish people − to whom the poem was addressed, and whom he wanted to arouse with his words − lived.

Before he acceded, however, Bialik hurriedly fired off two letters to Landau, in which he explained to the censor, while also quoting traditional Jewish sources, that he had not intended to desecrate God’s name. But the poet was unable to make Landau change his mind. While those letters have not survived, the censor’s response has. He expresses admiration for Bialik but stands by his opinion: “To the poet Bialik who has been gifted by God, may your candle continue to shine. Sadly, I cannot possibly [emphasized in the original] accede to the request you have made in the two letters you have written ... If you have a sensitive soul ‏(and I have no doubt that you do‏), then I pray you will give me the benefit of the doubt. May God always answer your prayers.”

In the end, the epic “Massa Nemirov” appeared, with some lines omitted, in the Hebrew month of Kislev 5664 ‏(December 1903‏). All the copies of Hazman, which carried the poem on its front page, were snapped up. The work evoked strong emotions and aroused immense admiration for Bialik. It was not long before Ze’ev Jabotinksy translated the poem into Russian and Y.L. Peretz translated it into Yiddish. “Massa Nemirov” reached many strata in Russian Jewry and became a rallying cry for Jewish self-defense.

A few months after the Kishinev pogrom, another pogrom took place elsewhere in the empire − in Gomel, now part of Belarus. For the first time in the history of Russian Jewry, more Russians were killed and wounded in a pogrom than Jews. The latter had ambushed their attackers with axes and knives, and clearly were not prepared to be as sheep being led to slaughter or to die in vain. Bialik’s poem also contributed significantly to the Second Aliyah ‏(the wave of mass Jewish immigration to the land of Israel which began in 1904 and lasted until the eve of World War I.‏)

Landau would later write to his friends in St. Petersburg: “I find life particularly difficult. Nonetheless, everything that I have done, and everything that I will do in the future on behalf of our literature, which today is wholly dependent on me, under His Royal Highness, our enemy, the czar, will serve as a consolation to me.”

Katz later immigrated to Israel and became famous as a journalist, editor and a sharp-tongued columnist. He worked for several newspapers, including Haaretz. He also founded the now-defunct, hard-hitting Hadashot. In all his activities, Katz displayed courage, a determination to expose the truth even when the regime sought to conceal it from the public, insatiable curiosity, expert knowledge of traditional Jewish sources, and a deep concern for others. In 1956, he received the Sokolow Prize for Journalism and was acclaimed as being the champion of scoops in the Hebrew-language press. His first scoop was publication of Bialik’s “The City of Slaughter.”

The writer wishes to thank Eli Furman for his help with translations and also Prof. David Assaf.

A lithograph published after the 1903 pogrom in Kishinev, depicting President Roosevelt ordering the czar to cease oppression of the Jews.
Journalist Benzion Katz
An oil painting rendering the aftermath of the 1903 Kishinev pogrom.

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