Cities of Slaughter

A woodcut of a skeleton holding a scythe in front of a city, from the cover of Ciudad

Submitted by Rebecca Jefferson, Curator of the Isser and Rae Price Library of Judaica

During the Easter holiday of 1903, Russian gangs armed with hatchets and knives roamed through Kishinev attacking the Jews of the city. After three days of rioting, looting, beatings, and rapes, 49 Jewish people were dead, over 500 were injured, and almost 2,000 homes and businesses were destroyed. The Jewish Historical Commission in Odessa sent the Russian Jewish poet, Haim Nahman Bialik (1873-1934), to visit the town in the aftermath and interview survivors. The horrors he encountered inspired Bialik to write the Hebrew poem Be’ir Ha-Haregah “In the City of Slaughter.” (1903?) Not only did his poem capture the senseless brutality of the Russian mob, but it also took aim at what he regarded as the passivity of Jewish men in the face of antisemitic attacks. Bialik goaded his brethren to remember that they were “the sons of the Maccabees,” a powerful Jewish military group from ancient times. The poem, which was widely translated, very quickly became one of the most influential Jewish texts of the 20th century and consolidated Bialik’s reputation as the “Jewish national poet.” The poem also inspired the creation of Jewish defense groups in Russia.

Figures kneeling and bending over bodes in a street

But when they could do so, Jews had been fleeing from the Russian Empire. In the province of Podolia, a pogrom in 1882 had been followed by the imposition of strict laws restricting the economic activities of the Jews in the region. Among the first to leave for a new life in Argentina was Mordejai (or Marcos) Alperson (1860-1947), a budding writer. In 1891, Alperson and his family joined a newly formed Jewish farming community on the Maurico colony in Buenos Aires. He continued writing in his spare time and eventually earned a reputation as the “dean of Yiddish literature in Argentina.” His granddaughter, Rebeca Mactas Alperson de Polak (c.1910-1997), inherited his literary leanings. In addition to her work as a journalist and editor for the Yiddish periodical Morgen Zaitung (Morning Paper), she became an independent writer best-known for her short story collection Los Judíos de Las Acacias, and a translator of note.

An opening of "Cuidad de la Matanza" showing the translated text of the poem and one of Federman's illustrations

By mid-century, younger generations of Spanish-speaking Argentinian Jews could not read the Yiddish of their Russian immigrant forebears, and they had little or no exposure to Hebrew. To bring Yiddish and Hebrew literature to these generations, Rebeca Mactas actively engaged in producing Spanish translations of the great Jewish writers. Among the most important works she translated were the collected poems of Haim Nahman Bialik. In the 1950s, in the face of rising antisemitic violence on the streets of Buenos Aires, the Argentinian Jewish artist and engraver, Bernardo Federman (1906-1996) produced an illustrated version of Rebeca’s translation of “In the City of Slaughter,” En la cuidad de la matanza, with fifteen startling black and white woodcuts. This rare and compelling edition was also accompanied by two critical essays on Bialik by Rafael Cansinos-Assens (1882-1964), the celebrated Spanish poet and literary critic, demonstrating the poem’s continued resonance and impact through the decades. Half a century and half a world away from the events it described, Bialik’s verses found new voice and purpose in the face of familiar fears.

15 Grabados 14 capitulares impreso con tacos originales: sobre el poema En la cuidad de la matanza de J. N. Bialik
Illustrated by Bernardo Federman
Mendoza, 1958
NE594.F4 F421 1958
Isser and Rae Price Library of Judaica 

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