On June 11, 1906, an assassination took place that, several days later, sparked the horrific Bialystok pogrom.
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Although the pogrom was one of a number of such anti-Jewish rampages that occurred in the Russian Empire between 1903 and 1908, its particular circumstances led to its becoming a seminal event and contributed to the feeling many Jews had that there was no place safe for them in Russia.
The assassination target was the chief of police in Bialystok, Russia (today Poland). His death is thought to have been the decisive event that led to the murder of 80 to 200 of the town’s Jews (estimates vary).
Bialystok in the early 20th century was more than three-quarters Jewish in its population – some 48,000 out of a general population of 63,000. It was an industrial center and, not coincidentally, also a center of the labor movement. Many Jews were among the activists involved in radical political thought and activity. Ludwig Zamenhof, founder of the utopian Esperanto movement, was a native of Bialystok, and the Hibat Zion proto-Zionist movement had its roots in the city as well.
During the 1905-1907 revolution, Bialystok was a hotbed of activity, some of it violent. A succession of police officers, including two police chiefs, were attacked, and in several cases killed, during this period, leading to the declaration of martial law in September 1905. In 1905-1906 alone, the city went through seven different police chiefs.
On the eve of the 1906 pogrom, the police force, generally perceived as virulently anti-Semitic, was headed by a man named Derkatcheff, who is remembered as benevolent and well-disposed to his city’s Jews. His nemesis was the then-police commissioner, named Sheremetev. Derkatcheff had publicly warned against anti-Jewish violence, and reportedly said that a pogrom would take place only over his dead body.
That is precisely what happened. On June 11 (May 28 in the Old Calendar), Derkatcheff was killed, and Sheremetev made it known that he held Jewish radicals responsible for the act. He even refused an attempt by representatives of the kehila, the Jewish communal leadership, to present flowers at the chief’s funeral, stating, according to one account, “First you spilled blood, then you came to lay a garland!”
From this, it was almost a foregone conclusion that violence against Bialystok’s community would follow. To prepare the ground, law-enforcement officials made efforts to equate political militants with Jews in general. Leaflets appeared declaring that Jews were about to attack Orthodox and Catholic churches in the city. For their part, members of the Jewish community organized a defense league, and families that had the means sent members away from the city for their own protection.
June 14 was a Christian holiday, the Pentecost, known as Green Thursday, and rumors were about that “Jews” were planning to attack the planned religious processions of both churches. A day earlier, when representatives of the Jewish community had gone to the local governor, in Grodno, to ask for his help in quashing the rumors and to remove the inciter Sheremetev from his position, he refused, although he promised there would be no pogrom.
On Green Thursday, both the Orthodox and the Catholics held their processions: Shots were fired at the first, and a bomb thrown into the latter. This was the signal for the pogrom to begin.
Three days of attacks on Jews and their property commenced, much of it carried out by czarist troops and local police. Only on the third day did the minister of internal affairs give orders for security forces to stop the pogrom; czarist forces withdrew from the city, and the violence came to an end.
A commission of inquiry appointed by the Duma, the Russian parliament, drew direct links between the pogrom and the military. On June 23, 1906, the New York Times reported that an ex-policeman had been arrested for the murder of Derkatcheff, “whose death was ascribed to the Jews and used as a pretext for the massacre.”