Sunday 26 May 2019

Land League founder Davitt exposed Russian pogroms

Mayo man's revelations in American newspapers about two-day slaughter sparked international outcry

Foreign correspondent: Michael Davitt (centre, back) with a Jewish family in Kishinev, 1903 Photo: courtesy Board of Trinity College, Dublin
Foreign correspondent: Michael Davitt (centre, back) with a Jewish family in Kishinev, 1903 Photo: courtesy Board of Trinity College, Dublin

Carla King

When people hear the name Randolph Hearst they mostly think of Orson Welles's magnificent portrayal of the media baron in the film Citizen Kane.

Few would link him to the Father of the Land League, Michael Davitt. And yet the Mayo man was employed by the newspaper tycoon as a foreign correspondent. He covered the defeated Boer President Kruger's arrival in France in 1902 and made three trips to Russia.

His most important assignment was his investigation of the Kishinev pogrom of April 1903, in which 51 Jews of the town that is now Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, were murdered in an attack that lasted for two days. While the Russian government sought to play down what had happened, immigrant Jewish communities in New York's East side learned through letters and telegrams of an attack but in the absence of reliable information, rumours circulated of an extensive massacre.

Davitt in a fur coat in a studio photo taken in Russia some time during 1905. Photo: courtesy Board of Trinity College, Dublin
Davitt in a fur coat in a studio photo taken in Russia some time during 1905. Photo: courtesy Board of Trinity College, Dublin

Hearst, who owned several newspapers across the US, was an innovative and crusading editor who used his journals to campaign for social reform. He stepped in with a letter to his papers opening a fund for the victims. In addition, he appointed Davitt, by then well known as a political and labour figure, writer and human rights campaigner, as a special investigator, tasked with establishing the facts.

Davitt arrived in Russia on May 20.

He spent two days in Odessa interviewing refugees and others, then went on to Kishinev, which he found "a handsome town", with its broad streets lined with acacias, its "imposing public buildings, substantial shops, banks and jewellers' stores".

In the warm evenings, military bands played polkas and mazurkas in the Royal Gardens, attracting crowds of well-dressed citizens.

He attributed much of the town's prosperity to its Jewish population - but in the aftermath of the attack some 10,000 Jewish inhabitants had fled and business had ground to a standstill.

Davitt was thorough in his inquiries, conducting interviews through an interpreter. He consulted doctors, witnesses, victims and government officials, inspected the scenes of the rioting and visited the Jewish cemetery, where he counted and had photographed 44 new graves.

He gathered eye-witness accounts, met the children orphaned by the attack, patients recovering in the hospital and victims of rape.

In House No 13 on Asia Street, notorious as the scene of the murder of four Jews, he picked up a child's first exercise book on which, as he relates, a man had wiped his bloody hands.

The same blood-stained copybook is still among Davitt's papers in Trinity College Dublin. He remarked on his return to Ireland that what he had learned and seen in Kishinev would haunt him to his dying day.

Davitt sent telegrams in code and articles to Hearst's papers, including an appeal for assistance to the victims. He left Warsaw on June 1, and on reaching Berlin forwarded a 14-page telegram detailing his findings and naming those responsible.

One of those he identified was Pavolachi Krushevan, who had preached extermination of the Jews week after week in his weekly paper, the Bessarabets. Krushevan had recruited a group of seminarians who incited the mobs to attack the Jews. Later that year in another newspaper he was to publish the Protocols of the Elders of Zion - the infamous anti-Semitic forgery alleging a Jewish plot to rule the world.

Davitt also held to account the provincial governor, General von Raaben, and the vice-governor, VG Ustrugov (a repressive anti-Semite), neither of whom made any effort to halt the rioting.

Davitt's articles and photographs were first aired in the Hearst newspapers and subsequently in other publications in Europe and America and widely quoted in speeches. There was widespread international outcry over the events in Kishinev, with demonstrations in European and American cities. A petition to the Tsar signed by more than 12,000 people was entrusted to President Roosevelt for transmission to St Petersburg but the Russian government refused to receive it.

Davitt followed up his correspondence with a book on the subject, Within the Pale: the True Story of Anti-Semitic Persecution in Russia, published in New York in 1904, the same year he denounced an outbreak of Irish anti-Semitism in Limerick. At the time, it was the only book about the pogrom written by a gentile and was particularly influential because he was seen to be relatively impartial.

It is just one example of the breadth of Davitt's international commitment and influence, in the 26 years of activism, advocacy and writing after his involvement in the Land War.

Here, I must confess that Davitt's role as Hearst's 'special investigator' to Kishinev held a personal significance for me - and in fact was what first drew me to him as a historical subject.

My grandmother was born in Kishinev. There was also a family account of her uncle who survived an attack in a pogrom in Kishinev (possibly this one) by hiding in some straw in a loft. The attackers pitchforked the straw and although injured her uncle did not dare move or cry out for fear of being killed. It was a scene that revisited him at the end of his life when a stroke reawakened the violent memories.

Dr Carla King is the author of Michael Davitt: After the Land War 1882-1906, published by UCD Press

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