On December 4, 1905, Jews across the United States turned out en masse to show solidarity with their brethren in czarist Russia, who were suffering from a wave of pogroms. The central event that Sunday was a peaceful demonstration in New York that drew an estimated 100,000 participants, cheered on by an equivalent number of spectators.
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The Russian Revolution of 1905 was followed by the publication of the “October Manifesto” by Czar Nicholas II on October 17, in which he pledged to take a number of steps intended to bring his empire closer to democracy (basic civil rights, establishment of an elected legislature). Among other things, he wrote that the Jews would also have a vote. The manifesto led – why should we be surprised? – to an extreme backlash against the Jews of Ukraine and elsewhere in the Pale of Settlement, who were identified among parts of a reactionary public with the revolutionary cause.
The most notorious attack took place in Odessa, where at least 400 Jews were killed in rioting that was carried out under the nose of both civilian and military authorities. Jews in many hundreds of other towns and villages were attacked as well.
The Great Mourning March
Jews had begun fleeing from Russia in 1881, when an earlier wave of pogroms took place. By 1914, some 1.8 million Jews from the empire had immigrated to the United States alone.
In an article he wrote in 1995, Columbia University historian Arthur Aryeh Gordon examined the 1905 “Groyser Troyer Marsh” (the Great Mourning March) and two other loosely related events that took place in New York over an eight-day period that fall: the November 26 funeral of popular Yiddish writer Nahum Meier Shaikevich; and Thanksgiving Day (November 30), when the Jewish community officially marked the 250th anniversary of the arrival of the first Jews to North America.
The death of Shaikevich drew 100,000 mourners to the route of the funeral procession, and was accompanied by a wave of the kind of journalistic and institutional tributes that we have come to expect in the present day when a beloved cultural figure dies. The anniversary festivities were an opportunity for national and local politicians to join the country’s proud Jewish community in paying tribute to its increasingly prominent place in American society.
But it was the Troyer March that marked the growing trend of political engagement by the organized Jewish community on behalf of Jewish interests not just at home, but on the other side of the world as well.
Planning had begun early in November, when the Yiddish Daily Forward on its front page called for a march on Washington to protest, hyperbolically, “the greatest catastrophe in Jewish history.” In an editorial that could have been published 35 years later, and directed at a different President Roosevelt, the paper declared, “If [Pres.] Roosevelt so wished, America could help. How can we make the Jewish voice heard? Demonstrate in Washington.”
The Troyer March drew mainly “downtown” Jews, those from Eastern Europe, but this didn’t mean that their “uptown” brethren – earlier generations of better-off immigrants who originated in Central Europe, led by people with names like Schiff, Straus and Marshall – didn’t tacitly support it. In fact, they complemented the public display with “lobbying in Washington for diplomatic intervention or sanctions, raising large funds for relief, and coordinating their efforts with world Jewish leaders.” Synagogues across the country also held prayer meetings that day.
The Troyer March was organized by the newly formed Jewish Defense Association, which, writes Gordon, had been founded in November to raise money to buy arms for underground Jewish self-defense groups in Russia. The demonstration was to be orderly, with participants marching with their respective labor unions, fraternal lodges, synagogues and landsmanschaften groups.
The march began at Rutgers Square (today, Straus Square), proceeded through the Lower East Side to Broadway, and ended at Union Square. From there, participants were invited to meetings on the crisis that were held in eight separate theaters.
The New York Times reported sympathetically on the march, describing the atmosphere in the street: “Occasionally, at a concerted signal, the bands would stop playing. Above the murmur of the moving throng would arise softly at first then swelling to full tone, the voices of the synagogue boy choirs in a hymn for the peace of the dead.”