Russian “barbarities” horrified Fort Worth in 1903

Special to the Star-Telegram

By Hollace Ava Weiner

Handbills posted on tree trunks and street signs across Fort Worth screamed of Russian “horrors” and  “barbarities” in a provincial capital 6,000 miles away. Politicians and preachers planned to speak at a MASS MEETING, a protest rally at the City Hall Auditorium the night of June 4, 1903, to denounce “Russian persecution.” Six weeks earlier, on Easter Sunday and Monday, Russian mobs had bludgeoned Jewish shopkeepers to death, choked children, maimed women and ransacked hundreds of homes in Kishineff, a village on the southern edge of the Russian empire in a region bearing the romantic name Bessarabia. 

Survivors who slipped across the border gave eye-witness accounts that were telegraphed to news media in Berlin, Paris and London, then across the Atlantic.  Three days after Easter, a front-page headline in the afternoon Fort Worth Telegram declared: “Massacre of Jews. A Story of a Race War from Russia.”  Later that week, another article declared, “Horrible Atrocities on Peaceable Jews.”   The world’s first widely publicized acts of ethnic cleansing evoked international outrage.

In Fort Worth, reaction to the crimes in Kisnineff was swift.  At Congregation Ahavath Sholom, the city’s 11-year-old synagogue, trustees, who were largely Russian and Polish immigrants, organized two “mass meetings” for refugee relief.  The first, on May 24, was an appeal to Jewish co-religionists. The second was a call to conscience for the broader secular community.

Among Fort Worth’s nearly 30,000 residents there lived 500 Jews—1.7 per cent of the population. The city’s first two Jewish settlers had arrived shortly before the Civil War. Post-war, dozens more followed, particularly after 1876 when the railroad reached the city.  During the 1880s and 1890s, Jews fleeing persecution under the czar immigrated to Fort Worth via New York. Despite their Yiddish accents and observance of Sabbath on Saturdays, Jewish shopkeepers and seamstresses had become part of the economic and civic mainstream of the small town on the Trinity.  Since 1896, city and county officials had  attended the annual Purim masquerade ball, a festive party celebrating Queen Esther, the biblical heroine who saved the Jews of Persia.  

For the mass meeting protesting the Kishineff pogroms, the lineup of “ringing speakers”  included Mayor Thomas J. Powell, former mayor Capt. B.B. Paddock and Congressman Oscar W. Gillespie, according to news accounts. The master of ceremonies was the chairman of the Board of Trade.  Curiously, while leaders at the synagogue had planned the meeting, they remained behind the scenes. A Methodist minister, rather than a rabbi, delivered the invocation. Perhaps the decision to feature only Christians at center stage reveals a degree of self-consciousness because of the organizers’ foreign accents. Nonetheless, the program reflects the Jewish community’s strong ties with leading municipal figures.   

The city’s most popular soprano, Maud Peters Ducker, sang an aria from the Russian opera “Judith,” the apocryphal tale of a Hebrew heroine.  Mrs. Mary Compton, another vocalist, rallied the audience of 300 with a chorus of “Dixie” that was enthusiastically applauded. So was an official resolution condemning “the uncivilized and un-Christian . . . cruelties perpetrated” in Kishineff.   The declaration, forwarded to President Teddy Roosevelt, extended “warmest sympathies and . . . condolences”  to Fort Worth “citizens . . . bereaved in family or friends by the unhappy conditions . . . in their mother country.”  

Altogether, the two mass meetings raised nearly $300, including donations from two banks, a brewery, and an oil company.  The gatherings prompted B’nai B’rith, the city’s Jewish fraternal lodge, to bring Russian refugees to Fort Worth through a New York immigration agency that relocated Jews to western cities. Within a month, they welcomed two destitute families. Shortly thereafter, Jewish women launched the Ladies Hebrew Relief Society, a sisterhood that ultimately transformed itself into the Ladies Auxiliary to Congregation Ahavath Sholom, which remains active to this day.   

The city of Kishineff is now part of Moldova, which became an independent nation in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed. The capital city’s name is presently spelled Chisinau, pronounced Kishi-nal. It borders Ukraine. In a twist of history, during the violence wreaked by the Russian Army this year in Ukraine, Jews have fled across the border into the city that once was the scene of antisemitic massacres.  Chisinau today is aiding fleeing Jews.  

 (Hollace Ava Weiner, an author and historian, is director of the Fort Worth Jewish Archives and editor of the anthology Lone Stars of David: The Jews of Texas.)