My Grandma Miriam told me many times how as a young girl she walked from Ukraine to Poland to escape the pogroms. At the time, her mother and father were dead and she was living with her grandfather, whom she loved dearly. And then her grandfather was killed. It was the Sabbath. He was in the Temple. The Cossacks had put a bomb in there. It was lying on the floor and he went over to look at it. Everyone else ran away. But she said, "He had a natural curiosity about everything and no common sense. He could see a bird flying the the sky and carve it out of a little piece of wood." He leaned closer to the bomb for a better look, and he, the golden Torah, and the whole temple blew up. After that, she left wit the remaining members of her family. They walked from the Ukraine to Poland wearing shoes made of straw. Strangers took them in along the way and hid them from the soldiers. From Poland she came to New York where she worked as a seamstress. I believe the year was 1917. Even in her eighties, she spoke of her grandfather as the person she loved the most.
As a child, my grandmother lived in Russia. When she was quite young, she experienced a pogrom. Since her father was dark-haired and looked Semitic, he was hidden in the cellar of a friend/neighbor. My grandmother and the rest of the family were blond and blue-eyed. They were given statues and crosses to hold as they lined the side of the street when the army came through the village looking for Jews. This occurred in the late 1880's.
My dad also came from Russia. He and two brothers escaped being killed by a pogrom. His mother, father and two siblings were killed.
Grandma lived with us, and preparing for Pesach [Passover] in our small apartment was always a huge project. One year in the middle of helping to move dishes and watching her chop fish for gefilte fish, I asked her about Pesach when she was a girl. She was almost off-handed in telling me it wasn't so much fun because she had to hide from the Cossacks in the basement of a Christian girlfriend because of the pogroms during Easter. She didn't elaborate, and I was so shocked that I couldn't ask for details. I eventually asked my parents to explain what a pogrom was. I was about eight years old and remember the day as if it were yesterday. It shaped my worldview forever. To this day, I still can't imagine anybody wanting to kill the sweetest, nicest person who ever lived - especially when she was a young girl, as I was when I first heard her use the word "pogrom".
Told to me by my mother after the death of my father:
My grandfather, Max, was born in a little town near Bialystock. Bialystock fell between Poland and Russia; sometimes it was in Poland and sometimes it was in Russia. And evidently the Tsar had a summer place there. My great-grandfather took care of his horses. His name was Louis. He was said to be very charming and very good-looking. One day the other people working in the stables came to him and said, "Louie, get your family and yourself out of town because there's going to be a pogrom here soon." They told him because they liked him.
I thought about what my mother had told me and grew curious about a couple of things. First of all, were pogroms really planned and were some people warned to run away? I looked up the Bialystock pogrom. I learned that yes, indeed, some people were warned, and that pogroms were not necessarily spontaneous outbursts, but sometimes planned attacks. I learned that the one in Bialystock took place in June of 1906, and that prior to the pogrom, Bialystock was a predominantly Jewish city with nearly 50,000 Jewish residents. The trigger appears to have been a conflict between the Catholics and the Orthodox Christians. Somehow the Jews were blamed for the violence.
Both my Zadie (great-grandfather) and his daughter, my grandma, told me this story:
In Russia, they used to induct Jewish boys into the army, and keep them there for years and years. My Zadie never knew his age precisely, but when he was about ten years old, and his older brother about twelve, soldiers came to their village and took them both.
They hated it. One day his older brother picked up his rifle and intentionally shot off one of his own toes. Both boys screamed that there had been a terrible accident, and they got on their horses and rode away to "find a doctor". What they were really doing was running away from the army. My Zadie never saw his mother again.
I never heard what happened to my Zadie's brother, but my grandfather made his way to England, and then to America. They came in 1912, when my grandmother was six years old.
I've since learned that self-mutilation as a response to forced service in the Russian military was common.
My paternal grandmother and her family fled Eastern Europe around the turn of the century, in part to escape the violence and pogroms. My father told us stories about how his mother would not let him and his brothers leave the house on Passover because she was afraid that there might be a pogrom here. Even after many years of living in the U.S., she was still scared and tried to protect her family.