A Mother’s Obituary for Her Fallen Son: The Pogrom of Orsha 1905

Posted on December 4, 2012

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Memorial Orsha Pogrom 1905

A tree-shaped memorial to victims of the 1905 Orsha Pogrom (source: http://shtetle.co.il/Shtetls/orsha/orsha_eng.html)

For fourteen years I had been a childless Jewess, I prayed God for a son, and he gave him to me in the fifteenth year of my marriage. It was my long-awaited yearned son. God has blessed me, for I had a pure and noble son, full with love for his family and passion for his people. He was only seventeen years old, but he dedicated himself entirely to the service of his brethren. When we heard that the Jews of Orsha were being beaten and murdered, my Abraham decided to rush for their help. And I could not hold him back, I said, “My son, there flows the blood of our brothers, go there, I cannot stand in your way.” And he went.

And he died. But I do not cry, no, I must not cry. He fell as a saint, a victim of atonement, and his name shall be written in the Roll of Honor of the holy men that have died as martyrs for the Jewish people. But I do not complain, no, I do not complain!

Thus she said, and fell down unconsciously.

The town of Orsha, nowadays in Belarus, was the third largest town in the province of Mogilev, with a total population of 13 thousand as of 1897. Among them there were 7,383 Jews, more than half of the total population.

The wave of pogroms that broke out in the Pale of Settlement following the declaration of the Tsar’s October Manifesto in October 17 [o.s.], 1905, did not spare this town. The manifesto was a declaration that was given as a concession to liberal and social-democrat forces at a critical moment during the Revolution of 1905. It outlined the intention to grant civil liberties to subjects of the Russian Empire in a promised upcoming constitution. When news of the issuing of the Manifesto arrived in provincial towns, typically after one or two days of delay, they evoked joyous demonstrations on behalf of the supporters of reforms in the towns’ centers. Think of a 1905 Russian version of Takhrir Square, duplicated over hundreds of provincial towns. Such was the case in Orsha.

However, what typically came next, usually during the next day, was a counter-procession of reactionary forces and supporters of the autocracy. Sentiments were heated, rumors were flying, and sooner or later the anger was channeled towards the town’s Jews. A drunken mob would storm the market or the Jewish quarters, looting and burning Jewish shops and houses. Many of them were armed with cold weapons – axes, knives, crossbars – and were using them to beat up Jews. In the case of Orsha, we are told that the mob had asked the mayor to lead the pogrom, and that the mayor was almost killed when trying to shirk this role. The pogroms usually lasted between a few hours to a few days, and ended either when the local police or military units decided finally to put an end to it, or once sentiments had subsided.

At the second day of the Orsha pogrom, a self-defense company of 23 members, two of them non-Jews, had arrived from the nearby towns of Shklov and Dubrovny. They were armed with a few revolvers, but were soon outnumbered by the mob. They were beaten up, killed, and their bodies were looted. Among them was seventeen-year-old Abraham Kurchik.

According to the Jewish-Russian Journal Voskhod, the obituary above was given by the mother of Abraham Kurchik, during the burial procession of the martyrs of the Orsha pogrom. The obituary was cited in German in Leo Motzkin’s report on the 1903-1906 pogroms, that dedicated a few pages to the Orsha pogroms, alongside an endless number of other similar cases. The faulty translation to English is my own.

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