Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Pogroms and a Thought for Today

Pogrom: (noun) An organized massacre, especially of Jews

When I reflect on my K-12 education I can't recall a single discussion in any textbook or classroom on the topic of pogroms. It's probable the word appeared somewhere here or there in my readings, but I failed to notice. Our history books taught us about the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Louisiana Purchase, the Alamo and Manifest Destiny.

It was while visiting Ellis Island, that famous gateway to America, that I was struck by the prevalence of this word in the Museum of Immigration that had been established there in 1990.

I'm currently reading a biography of Ayn Rand, who was born to a Jewish family in 1905, in Russia. Her family's roots were the Odessa region, which seemed especially hard hit by the pogroms being carried out under Tsarist Russia.

At the Ellis Island museum one can see the drivers behind various waves of immigrants from various locations. The Irish potato famine in the second half of the 1840s, for example, resulted in mass starvation, disease and emigration. A million Irish died and a million emigrated, reducing the population by as much as one-fourth.

Russia's pogroms similarly resulted in much suffering and disruption. Ayn Rand (Alisa Zinov'yevna Rosenbaum) was born in St. Petersburg because of her father's desire to remove the family from the troubled Odessa region. Bob Dylan's paternal grandparents, Zigman and Anna Zimmerman, came to America that same year to escape the Odessa pogroms. Waves of Jewish immigrants arrived here at various times as a result of these pogroms which tragically, Solzhenitsen notes, did not end with the Russian Revolutions of 1917 and resulted in an overabundance of orphans.

The first Odessa pogroms began as early as 1821. At various times these events re-occured, peaking for a while in the 1880's.

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The first inkling that I may want to comment on this topic came about a week ago while finishing Mark Twain's Autobiography, Part 2. Twain at this time in his life was no longer writing but rather dictating, often drawing upon the day's news stories to generate memories or commentary. With the world becoming smaller news travelled further and faster than ever before. The ill-treatment of the Jews taking place at the hands of the Tsarist State in 1905-06 was readily covered in the American press.

When we think about American history it becomes apparent that our nation is a melting pot of peoples who saw our country as a refuge, a safe house as it were from hardships and horrors that most of us here have difficulty even comprehending.

For Ayn Rand the primary feature that made this country great was its constitutional foundation protecting the inalienable rights of the individual. The government exists to protect your right to create and work in peace. What's dangerous, she warned, is when these rights get eroded in the name of the Fatherland, or National Security or other purportedly good causes.

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Robert Zimmerman's maternal grandparents, Ben and Florence Stone, were Lithuanian Jews who arrived in the United States in 1902. In his autobiography Chronicles: Volume One, Dylan writes that his paternal grandmother's maiden name was Kirghiz and her family originated from Kağızman district of Kars Province in north-eastern Turkey.

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