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How Bad Was Life in Russia?
Last month I wrote about Jewish life under the Tsars, comparing it to Palestinian life under the Jews. Naturally people were outraged by the comparison. I was told in so many words that I didn’t know what I was talking about: from one side, that I had no idea how well the Palestinians lived under Israeli rule; and from the other side, that I had no idea how bad life was for the Jews in Old Russia.
I think I know a little about Jewish life in Russia. No, I never lived there, and I don’t speak Russian. But I’ve read some of our history, and what makes me unusual is that I’ve read it in the original language…the language we wrote it in when we lived there. So I think I have something to contribute to the debate.
Recently I started a blogsite where I am posting transcriptions of the essays of one S. Hurwitz, who wrote under the pen-name of A. Litvin and published a six-volume collection entitled Yiddishe Neshumos (Jewish Souls). The work is a series of vignettes written between 1905 and 1914, and intended to capture for history what was even then considered to be a vanishing way of life. (The link goes to a story about a woman who was punished by communal leaders for consorting with a Gentile.)
Last week I posted the following excerpt from an essay about the Jews of Ruzshinoy, a shtetl whose English name I do not know. Listen to how Hurwitz describes the abject poverty of the Jewish underclass:
“In ergitz is, dacht sich, der elend vun die massen nischt geween asõ grõss, die kontrasten zwischen beide seiten “brückel” asõ scharf, wie in Ruzhinoi. Vun éin seit – gvirim (the wealthy), wâs leben in oysher un gedulah (riches and splendor), wâs séier gvirschaft, yikhus (proud lineage), toyrah gehen über vun dor zu dor ; vun der ander seit – a temper, derschlâggener, âber nischt gâr umwissendig humon (the masses), wâs führt a leben vun sklaven, ephshar (possibly) noch äerger vun der sklaverei un leib-eigentum , in welcher es hâben gelebt die arumige pauerim bei séiere poreytzim.”
For those who are not able divine the meaning of this passage (it’s really not so hard if you know a little German), I will explain: there is no shtetl in Russia where the contrast is so great between the status of the rich and poor…where “the rich” in this case are the rich Jews! The status of the poor Jews is so downcast as to be possibly…possibly, mind you!...even worse than the lot of the local Russian peasants!
I have always believed that no nation on earth has suffered oppression and discrimination to the extent that the Jews have. I still believe this to be true. But I also remember a time in my adulthood when I believed that during the 300 years when Negroes were slaves in America, that even then the Jews in Russia were worse off than the blacks on the plantations. I no longer believe that to be true.
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