Violent intimidation and murder of Jews wasn’t created by the Third Reich. Starting in the 19th century, anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia and its borderlands resulted in the murder of at least 15,000 Jews and the rape of a third of all Jewish women in the region.
Pogrom is a Russian word defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as meaning “devastation, destruction” or, in common usage, as “an organized, officially tolerated, attack on any community or group.” The Holocaust Encyclopedia notes that historically, pogroms referred to attacks by non-Jews on the local Jewish population. Kristallnacht, on November 9-10, 1938, was a wave of pogroms that took place throughout Germany, annexed Austria, and in areas of the Sudetenland in then-Czechoslovakia.
Pogroms in the Russian territories came in three large waves: The first in the late 19th century after the assassination of Czar Alexander II, the second in the early 20th century, and the third after World War I. The first and last wave were triggered by massive governmental changes; the second wave, which started in 1902, exploded during Passover 1903 when Jews were blamed for the murder of two children, and lasted for years.
One of the pogroms in this second wave was the June 1906 attack in Bialystok, a city in the western Russian Empire whose Jewish citizens made up the majority of the population (in 1895, the percentage of the population that was Jewish was 76%; by 1910, even after the second wave of pogroms, the population was still 68.5% Jewish). In the first three days of June 1906, 70 Jews were killed and 90 were seriously injured, the most violent of the mob outbreaks against Russian Jewry that year.
Bialystok’s foremost economic driver at the time was the textile industry. Although the largest mills were owned by non-Jews, many of the mills were owned by Jews and employed Jewish workers. The Jewish labor movement had strong support in the city. Many Jewish workers were members of the Bund, a Yiddishist, secular nationalist, anti-Zionist Jewish labor organization. The Bialystok pogrom of June 1906 was a violent reprisal against the labor movement by Russian authorities in the midst of the Russian Revolution of 1905 to 1906. Local police and government authorities were considered accountable for the tragedy after an investigation into the violence. Following this, a prolonged decline in Bialystok’s trade and industry occurred.
Photographs in our collection document the violence and the aftermath of the Bialystok pogrom. Donated by Helen Spector, the daughter of Hannah Weiss Spector and Samuel Spector, several of the photographs feature Hannah Weiss as a young woman working to aid some of the pogrom victims. Other photographs feature people staring grimly at the camera, showing the violence visited upon their family members.
Hannah Weiss was born in Bialystok in 1888. Although we know few details about her early life, we can imagine the excitement and the many difficulties of growing up as a young woman in a changing world at the turn of the 20th century. Hannah was 18 years old in 1906, at the time of the Bialystok pogrom. In the wake of the violence, she worked with the nascent Red Cross movement to care for victims in the absence of state assistance. She posed for these photographs and took them with her to the United States, ensuring that the raw pain of the pogrom victims would not be forgotten.
Hannah immigrated to the United States in 1906, soon after the pogrom. Four years later, she married Samuel Spector in Newark, New Jersey. Samuel was born around 1880 in Wasilkov, a town located a few miles outside of Bialystok. He served in the Russian Army from 1901 to 1904. That year, he managed to leave Russia and immigrate to New York, where he initially lived with his sister, Chaya Rachel Spector, in Brooklyn.
Hannah and Samuel had three children: Helen (born c. 1912 in New Jersey), Bernice (born c. 1922 in New York), and Stanley (born c. 1925 in New York). They were able to purchase a home in Brooklyn, where they lived with all three of their children during the 1930s and 1940s. Their neighbors were first- and second-generation Jewish immigrants from Russia, Poland, Austria, and Germany. Samuel worked as a carpenter in the construction industry and Hannah was a housewife, while their oldest daughter Helen worked as a school teacher.
Around 1924, Hannah’s brother Benjamin sent these photographs to The Jewish Daily Forward, a Yiddish-language socialist newspaper founded in New York in 1897. Reporting on the pogrom — and accounts of witnessing it — went on for decades in the newspaper, as many of its readers and writers were from Bialystok.
Special thanks to Chana Pollack, Archivist at The Forward, for her help with this article.