The Russian Czars were notorious for their brutality and anti-Semitism. But among their ranks was one “white crow” who is still remembered as the best of a bad bunch – Czar Alexander II. Despite his deficiencies, many Jews mourned his assassination in 5641/1881.
Freedom of the Serfs
No one quite knows where Alexander II got his spark of menshlichkeit and humanism; certainly not from his father, Czar Nicholas I. Perhaps a broad education and international travel hammered home his realization that it was high time for Russia to do a little catching up with the more sophisticated culture of Western Europe. Be that as it may, after his accession to the throne in 5615/1855 he introduced a series of radical reforms that included his famous freeing of the serfs in 5641/1861. This transformed them from being the literal slaves of their noble landlords to becoming independent, albeit, impoverished farmers.
Elyakum Zunser, a well- known wedding badchan of the nineteenth century, recorded his personal joy at Alexander II’s sympathetic attitude towards his Jewish subjects. His memoirs recall how he ran into a series of difficulties after demanding his twenty-five rubles wage from a farmer who employed him for six months. Instead of paying him, his employer took advantage of a Czarist decree against “hidden Jews.”
According to this law, any “hidden” Jew who was unregistered or not in possession of a passport, could be arrested and handed to the Russian army in lieu of some other Jew with better credentials. Unscrupulous people made it their business to “sell” such Jews to Jews who were desperate to save family members from the draft. Taking advantage of this rule, Elyakum’s employer sold him to a group of chappers for twenty-five rubles.
“Not knowing my danger, I had sought my bunk and went to sleep,” Elyakum recalls. “Suddenly, I felt a heavy hand fall upon my young body and shake me violently. I awoke and opened my eyes. Three strange men stood before me. One of them held a lantern, which he placed close to my eyes.
“What do you want?” I asked. “Nothing, sonny – get up.” the man answered.
“Get up? Why?”
“You’ll have to go with us to town.”
“Why? What business have I in town?”
“Well, you’ll see! Dress yourself, boy, and be quick.”
“I don’t want to. I won’t go!” “…I was wrapped in my torn clothes, thrown into a wagon, and brought to Bobruysk. There I was locked up in the barracks. And so at the age of fourteen, I was one of the victims.”
For five long, hopeless weeks, Elyakum lived in the primitive barracks waiting for the day he would be sent to some peasant village thousands of miles away, even to faraway Siberia, to chop wood and suffer cruel beatings for any offense real or imaginary. After this preliminary ordeal, the real Gehennom would begin – living in a Russian army barracks, and suffering blistered feet from
endless drills and marches under three hundred pound loads. More than anything, he was tormented by the thought of the widowed mother he had left behind in Vilna.
He described how most of his fellow prisoners were small children ruthlessly snatched from their mothers’ apron strings; even here in the barracks, they laughed and played with one another, seemingly oblivious of their fate. Twice daily, the iron doors clanged open to admit guards bearing loaves of bread and a few filthy pots of soup. At night, they would try to forget their misery in sleep.
“Night is coming on,” he reminisces. “All lie on the floor and say their prayers; others, the older ones, recite the Psalms by heart, and lull themselves to sleep. A flock of sheep awaiting slaughter! They lie on each other in the dirty straw. Misfortune and misery have united these strangers into one body. Here and there a heavy sigh breaks forth from the breast of some older one.
“But help was nearer than any of us suspected. On Purim of 1885, Emperor Nicholas I had suddenly died. Alexander II ascended the Russian throne, and the treaty of Paris was signed. The Crimean War was at an end. One of the very first edicts issued by Alexander II was for the release of the poimaniks (captured Jews). At about one o’clock in the morning, while we were all asleep in the barracks, we
were awakened by a great commotion in the street. The noise came nearer and nearer, and we heard vigorous knocks on the iron doors and shutters.
“‘Get up, children! A deliverance! You are free!’ some one shouted.
“‘An ukase from the Czar to release you!’ shouted another.
“Praise Hashem, children! Say Hallel!’ several voices called out together.
“This news sounded to us like the blast of the great shofar that will awaken the dead on the day of Resurrection. With a cry of joy we sprang from our wretched straw heaps, washed and fell to saying Hallel.”
Elyakum describes how the youngsters were released from the barracks at ten in the morning. Outside, a huge crowd was waiting for the fateful moment. Everyone praised and blessed Emperor Alexander II, who had issued this edict and revoked many cruel edicts of his father.
“The happy moment came. With the blessing, Baruch matir assurim, the rich Reb Yitzchak Rabinowitz unlocked the door and the crowd surged into the barracks. The town chazzan recited a prayer of blessing for the Emperor and sang the 45th Psalm.”
Whether intentional or not, Alexander II’s warmer conduct towards Jews had its negative side. Under his reign, far more Jews were admitted to high schools and universities where assimilation was rife. Three years into his reign, he granted Jewish university graduates, manufacturers, artisans and others the right to settle outside the hated Pale in large Russian cities where many felt free to shake off the yoke of Torah observance. Pauline Wengeroff (5593/1833-5676/1916), the wife of an assimilated merchant, described how the new prosperity and influence endangered Jewish survival.
“I want to say something about 1855, which marked a new era in Russia, especially for the Jews,” she writes. “It was the year Alexander II ascended the throne. He liberated sixty million [actually twenty million] peasants from bondage and the Jews from their chains. He opened the gates of his main cities into which swarms of Jewish youth thronged to quench their thirst for European education in the universities…
“Never before or after, did the Jews in St. Petersburg live in such wealth and distinction as then, when a good part of the financial affairs of the capital city were in their hands. Jewish banking houses were founded; corporations headed by Jews were organized. The stock exchange and the banks grew to immense proportions.
“In the sixties, the government had begun its policy of Russifying the Jews. After the Polish uprising of 1863, Russian was made compulsory in the Jewish schools in Poland and Lithuania. Then, the subject matter began to be regulated. Gradually, Jewish studies were shortened to make more room for the general curriculum.”
The Jewish Encyclopedia (published between 5661/1901- 5666/1906) picks up the thread of her discussion:
“It is remarkable how quickly [the Jews] availed themselves of the opportunity to become Russianized, especially in St. Petersburg and Moscow, in the centers of Jewish learning as Wilna, Kiev, and Odessa, and throughout southern Russia. For the first time there were published Jewish periodicals in the Russian language: “Razsvyet” and “Sion,” and later “Den,” “Yevreiskaya Biblioteka,” and “Voskhod.” Russians were greatly surprised at the superior style of Osip Rabinovich, Pinsker, Soloveichik, Levanda, and many others who in the vernacular endeavored to acquaint the intelligent Russian public with the condition of the Jews, and to defend their rights.
“From among the orthodox Jews also there sprang up a number of liberal-minded men, young and old, who tried to enlighten the orthodox masses and to awaken in them patriotic sentiments and a love for liberal education and European culture by means of Hebrew periodicals, Ha-Meli,’ Ha-Karmel,’ and Ha- efirah,’ the first journals published in the Hebrew language in Russia.”
Alexander II’s Legacy
For twenty-five years, Alexander II tried to improve the temporal lives of at least his wealthier Jewish subjects, and then came the whiplash. Thousands of Russian revolutionaries were dissatisfied with the progress of Alexander II’s reforms and griped that some of them were barely reforms at all. One example was his famous freedom of the serfs, which required them to spend decades paying for the land they had been granted.
Nihilists and revolutionaries, the harbingers of today’s terrorists, were willing to commit any violence to further their goals of “bettering” mankind to the extent of killing the royal goose that was laying the golden eggs.
“Then came March 1, 1881, and the sun which had risen on Jewish life in the fifties suddenly set.” Wengeroff recalls. “Alexander was killed by a bomb on the bank of the Catherine Canal in St. Petersburg. The hand that had freed sixty million serfs was stilled. The lips which had pronounced the great word of liberation were forever silenced… Anti-Semitism erupted; the Jews were forced back into the ghetto. Without ceremony, the gateways to education were closed. An academic education became more and more difficult for Jews to attain, for only a very small Jewish quota was admitted to the gymnasium and even fewer were admitted to the universities.”
Alleging that the assassination was because of Alexander’s soft policies, his successor, Alexander III, annulled most of the Jews’ newly gained rights. Jews were expelled from towns and villages and Jewish college students were limited to ten percent of the student body. Konstantin Pobedonostsev, one of the heads of the Russian Orthodox Church, articulated the goal of the new regime with his announcement, “One-third of the Jews will convert, one-third will die, and one- third will flee the country.”
Wengeroff describes what happened when her favorite child, Volodya, applied to the University of St. Petersburg to continue his studies. An admissions clerk rejected his papers, remarking, “These are not your papers. You must have stolen them. You are a Jew, but these papers refer to someone with a Russian name – Vladimir.”
Symbolic words, which perhaps explain why the gift of Alexander II’s benevolence was snatched away and replaced with renewed oppression.
(Sources: Dawidowicz, Lucy S. ed. The Golden Tradition: Jewish Life and Thought in Eastern Europe. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1996. Shwartz, Leo W. Memoirs of My People. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston Inc., 1943.)