Sholem Aleichem vs. the Czar

After the end of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, the Yiddish writer published stinging anti-Russian satire; but he was more explicit in his letter calling on wealthy U.S. Jews not to loan money to his homeland.

On September 5, 1905, a peace treaty was signed in Portsmouth, Maine, between Russia and Japan. It put an end to the Russo-Japanese War, fought between the two countries over control of the Far East. The 19-month war that began in early 1904 was difficult not only for Russia but also for its many Jews: They were drafted by the tens of thousands and sent to the Japanese front, and among them were Joseph Trumpeldor and Janusz Korczak. Thousands of Jewish soldiers lost their lives in such battles as those defending Port Arthur, and in Manchuria, while thousands of others became prisoners of war on the Japanese islands.

The war prompted a large-scale awakening both within and outside the Russian Jewish community, primarily concerning the matter of maintaining loyalty to a regime that demanded enlistment but continued to harm the rights of its Jewish citizens.

These sorts of sentiments are expressed in an emotional letter dispatched to the Russian czar, Nicholas II, which was composed by Trumpeldor during his incarceration in a Japanese prison. "If there was a necessity for all of us to die in the defense of Port Arthur, we would have done so without hesitation for, after all, we knew that five million Jews were looking on at us from Russia - Jews who lack civil rights ... By their deaths, our friends commanded us to plea before Your Highness the Czar to grant rights to Jews ... similar to the rights that are awarded to the rest of the peoples living in Russia."

That same autumn of 1905, several weeks after the signing of the peace treaty, a thin booklet was published in Warsaw, only 12 pages long, in Yiddish. Its original title was "Der feter Pini mit der mume Reyzi" ("Uncle Pini with Aunt Reyzi").

The author of the booklet was Sholem Aleichem, who began his tale with typical irony: "It is my intention to tell you a story about my uncle and my aunt. That is to say, she is actually my aunt, not the uncle: but when the aunt is an aunt, then the uncle is, one way or another, an uncle." Who is this aunt and who is the uncle? Here is a brief description of the former: "Tall, healthy, puffy face, hands are fat and clumsy, fingernails are black, voice is a man's voice, heart is hard, stingy and deceptive, as if angry at the whole world. A very vulgar creature was my Aunt Reyzi ... She likes to drink - in fact, pretty frequently; a little shot of booze in a tea glass..."

Uncle Pini was the exact opposite: "Short-statured, dark-haired, affable, agile and alert, with small inquisitive eyes and bowlegs, he was excitable, passionate, sly as a fox. This little uncle had a strong mind, golden hands, and a mouth that was fire and brimstone."

What did Sholem Aleichem wish to say? He related that the uncle was deathly afraid of the aunt, because at times "he would be given a slap on the face by her." The humiliation apparently ends with the arrival of Uncle Pini's dear friend, Yankl-Duvidl, "a big-time, extremely wealthy merchant, a great gentleman and wise man, a sharp and acerbic fellow, who comes across as cheeky and audacious, a sort of sheigetz [a derogatory Yiddish term for a non-Jewish male]." With the encouragement of the sheigetz Yankl-Duvidl, Uncle Pini stands up to his wife. "He screws up his courage, puffs himself up into a rage, and then sets upon her and begins to trample and kick and strike her from all sides."

The uncle wanted to complain to his house guest Yankl-Duvidl, but the latter only muttered: "Bravo, Pini, bravo!" In the end, the husband and wife made up and signed a pleasant agreement, one of whose sections reads: "The uncle must see to it that the aunt learns a little 'Hebrew,' so that she can pray, that she take a look every so often in Taytsh-khumesh [the Torah, translated into Yiddish], so that she can study the 'Hovat Halevavot' ['Duties of the Heart', an 11th-century Judeo-Spanish work on morality and philosophy] - and acquire a slight understanding of the 'Kav Hayashar' ['The Just Measure,' an 18th-century work of musar literature] ... In general, that he teach her some good manners, so that she can learn to get along with people."

At first Sholem Aleichem received a permit to publish his booklet from the censor in Warsaw, but soon after it was placed on the blacklist of banned books. Belatedly, the censors had realized that the tale of the "family quarrel" was a sharp satire about the Russo-Japanese War: Wherever the story mentions Reyzi, the reader read Russia instead; the name Pini is a substitute for Japan; and Yankl-Duvidl is the "land of the Yanks," one of whose national songs is "Yankee Doodle Dandy." There is no doubt that the author was fond of Uncle Pini and contemptuous of Aunt Reyzi, which most certainly reflects Sholem Aleichem's attitude toward his Russian homeland, which he left shortly afterward following the Kiev pogrom in late 1905.

In terms of the characters, this lampoon conjures up both the satirical Japanese cartoons of Russia drawn during the war and the popular anti-Japanese Russian propaganda that flooded Russia immediately following the outbreak of the war, with encouragement from the czarist administration. The Japanese depicted Russia as a huge, clumsy Cossack, vicious and unintelligent, as opposed to the small, agile, smart and aristocratic Japanese soldier. Whereas the Russians saw the differences in physical dimensions from an alternative perspective: With a wave of the hand, the strong Cossack or Russian soldier wipes away tens of thousands of little cockroach-like Japanese; or cuts off their noses, which they have stuck into business that is not theirs. Sholem Aleichem offered an authentic Jewish view of the relationship between the two peoples.

'Fonye needs money'

The much-discussed booklet had already been distributed in some quarters, and following the defeat of Russia in the war and the revolutionary insurgence that broke out in the country, Czar Nicholas II issued a manifesto on October 17, 1905 (the October Manifesto ), about his intention to establish a parliament. In it, he wrote that the Jews would also have a vote and that he would draw up a European-style constitution for his subjects.

This manifesto sparked a wave of mass pogroms throughout the empire, especially in the south: During the brief period between October 18 and 28, about 4,000 people were killed and 10,000 injured, mainly Jews. It is estimated that some 690 pogroms took place during this period. The wave of pogroms continued into 1906, and only abated toward the beginning of 1907. For his part, Sholem Aleichem was witness to the Kiev pogrom in October 1905. At the time, he was striving at all cost to secure temporary asylum in the United States.

On November 23, 1905, shortly before he left Russia, he wrote to a friend in New York, Dr. Maurice Fishberg: "I have to tell you in person what my opinion is, because to express it openly [in the press] is still a little dangerous, and so, this is how it goes: Fonye needs money more than do the Jews, who have been plucked clean. He has to - the hair isn't his own. Yes, yes. He has to pay Uncle Pini and Uncle Mendel, and this one and that one, and he doesn't have a penny! Now they are doing all sorts of tricks in order to receive money, some cash, from Europe and from America. But we'll see (and this is the true situation) that the public isn't going to move until he gives them everything he promised on October 17."

It seems that a few other characters have been added to the protagonists of our "family quarrel." Who is Fonye and who is Uncle Mendel? The name Fonye is what the Jews of Eastern Europe used to call the Russians, as well as the czar. This name is derived from the popular Slavic name Ivan, in which Polish Jews believed they could hear the word "Yavan" (Hebrew for "Greece"). Accordingly, all the adherents of the Greek Orthodox faith were known as yavanim or yavonim (as the saying in Yiddish goes, Ale yavonim hobn dem zelbn ponem - all the Greeks have the same face ). And so it is that the title of the book by Rabbi Natan Neta Hanover about the Cossack uprising of 1648-49 is "Yeven Metsulah" ("Abyss of Despair"), hinting at this connotation. And Uncle Mendel is the Berlin banker of Jewish origin, Franz Mendelssohn Bartholdy , a descendant of Moses Mendelssohn.

In the same letter, Sholem Aleichem asks Dr. Fishberg to warn the well-heeled Jews of the West through the press not to extend aid to the czarist administration: "In the event that a Jewish millionaire comes up with a loan, and six million Jews (aside from 100 million Christians ) are murdered, even without a knife, their blood will be on his head!" Sholem Aleichem hoped to prevent the granting of a loan to the Russian government that would ease international pressure on them; he believed this would constitute a setback in the advancement of the rights of Jews in the empire. But did he accurately assess the disastrous consequences of giving such a loan to Russia?

It would seem that in the Russo-Japanese War, Jews were for the first time involved in a modern war as soldiers, at an unprecedented rate. Some 30,000 Jews fought at the front, including thousands of Jewish physicians. As the Japan scholar Ben-Ami Shiloni notes, this number was perhaps the greatest number of Jews to go to war since the Bar Kochba revolt.

It was the American Jewish banker Jacob Schiff, who secured a huge loan for the Japanese government, which ultimately enabled little Japan to beat colossal Russia. This Jewish intervention prompted furious reactions in Russia, which were directed against the Jewish neighbors, notwithstanding their contributions to the war as soldiers, including accusations of an attempt to bring down the regime by means of Japan. Was there a kernel of truth in this?

In Sholem Aleichem's story about Uncle Pini and Aunt Reyzi, an explicit call for reconciliation and peace in "the family" is voiced (perhaps because of the czar's censorship). In his letter, meanwhile, the author links the well-being of Russian Jewry to a weakening of the czarist regime.

Was it these sorts of considerations that motivated the banker Schiff as well? Even before the war, Schiff called on Jewish bankers in Europe to impose a financial boycott on Russia, in response to its anti-Semitic policy.

According to the historian Daniel Gutwein, Schiff consistently prevented Russia from gaining access to American financial markets and requested that his successors continue in this fashion, as long as Russia did not alter its policy toward the Jews.

Following the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War in February 1904, Schiff sent a letter to the Parisian banker Rothschild that April, in which he wrote: "I am afraid that troubled times are still in store for our unfortunate coreligionists in the Czar's dominion, and it can only be hoped for their sake, as well as for the good of Russia itself, that the conflict between Russia and Japan will in its consequences lead to such an upheaval in the basic conditions upon which Russia is now governed that the elements of Russia which seek to bring their country under constitutional government shall at last triumph. Until that day arrives, and come it must, I fear the Russian-Jewish question will be impossible of any real solution."

These words provide historians with decisive proof of the existence of the "Jewish motive" in Schiff's decision to participate in the loan to the Japanese campaign. During the peace talks between Russia and Japan in Portsmouth, Schiff met with the Russian prime minister, Count Sergei Witte, who was considered pro-Western and was married to a woman of Jewish descent. Schiff expressed his support for comprehensive reforms in Russia.

It was Witte who subsequently drafted the October Manifesto, and he was immediately afterward appointed to head the ministerial cabinet. Witte held talks with the Rothschild family and others to receive a massive loan that he later termed "the loan that saved Russia."

But Sholem Aleichem's attempts to influence Jewish public opinion in the United States on the issue of a possible loan to the Russians reveals his lack of confidence in the wealthy Jews of America.

Craving matza

"Uncle Pini with Aunt Reyzi" was not the only story Sholem Aleichem dedicated to the Russo-Japanese War. A year earlier, in 1904, when it was not yet clear where the conflict was headed, another, more emotional, story was written, called "The First Passover Night of the War." The Passover in question is that of 1904. Two Jewish soldiers are on an army train passing through Manchuria to Port Arthur (where Trumpeldor's acts of bravery took place). The two are keeping to themselves in a corner of the railcar, reading the Passover Haggadah.

The younger man, Leibke, is craving a piece of matza, but the older one, Yerahmiel, teaches him that war exempts you from observing the mitzvahs, and that they are only reading the Haggadah as a reminder of Passovers at home. When he hears the words "Passover" and "home," Leibke wallows into yearnings for his hometown in Bessarabia. In the meantime, the older soldier, Yerahmiel, continues to read the Haggadah: "The bitter herb that we are eating, why do we do so?" He too is remembering his Ukrainian shtetl, where he parted from his wife and children after reciting some official-sounding words - for after all, he is a soldier who had served the czar for "five years in truth and in faith; and since the hated one attacked our country, I mustn't pay attention to anything else." He continues: "It is my obligation to go and fight ... to the last drop of blood!"

Leibke has brought a small prayer book and tefillin (phylacteries) from home. Yerahmiel is jealous, "because if they shoot him, at least he will be given a Jewish burial - whereas Yerahmiel was given everything to take with him, but not this. He envies the other man for his tefillin!"

"What does that mean, that he will be given a Jewish burial?" says a panicked Leibke, who cannot understand Yerahmiel's happiness at going to war. "It goes without saying - this is every Jew one's obligation - but what's so great about it?"

Yerahmiel answers him in 0 fashion, "that he is contented by the mere fact that he is Jewish; that he - the servant of the czar - can demonstrate his loyalty before the entire world, that those who hate Jews will see that a Jew can also serve with integrity and loyalty, that a Jew can also sacrifice himself for the country in which his ancestors' bones are buried..."

Leibke looks at him "wide-eyed, and thinks to himself: What strange people these Ukrainian Jews are!" And, indeed, Yerahmiel does seem quite strange, offering an over-enthusiastic explanation that "after death in the war, everyone is equal! For the angel of death, there are no Jews or non-Jews ... Before God and before the czar, all people are equal." And perhaps there is something to it, because the other soldiers "are starting to like Yerahmiel - and for his sake they also bestow honor on his friend Leibke - and they let him sit next to the lamp ... and they say what they are supposed to say."

With sadness and wisdom, Sholem Aleichem portrays the absurd situation of the Russian Jews, as if in 1904 he already knew that even the sacrifice of their lives would bring no improvement in their situation.

Eventually, Russian Prime Minister Witte succeeded in enlisting England's Barings Bank to issue "the loan that saved Russia." In early 1906, the bank entered financial difficulties due to the Russian bonds. A special syndicate, set up for this express purpose, purchased the bonds. The banker Jacob Schiff did not join the syndicate that was then being directed by his business partners, but neither did he interfere with its operations in the United States, as he had previously planned to do.

In July 1906, a stronger Czar Nicholas II dissolved his country's first parliament, only a month and a half after it was convened. Witte was dismissed from his post in the autumn of 1906 and never reentered politics. The pogroms continued, and the Russian administration did not intervene.

Nor did the Americans exert enough pressure: Several thousand murdered Jews were deemed to be an internal matter of a foreign country. Despite Schiff's entreaties, the American president, Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt (who was actually the sheigetz Yankl-Duvidl, as Sholem Aleichem called him in his story, in Ukrainian Yiddish ), even refused to publicly condemn Russia, ostensibly because America could not be a global policeman for the rights of this or that minority group.

Regrettably, Sholem Aleichem's fear that the granting of a loan to the Russian administration would negate any positive aftereffects of the Russo-Japanese War, and would most certainly harm the situation of the Jews, turned out to be justified. Uncle Pini failed to teach Aunt Reyzi how to get along with other human beings.