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Sack 'em or assassinate them?

Byline: Hermes Solomon

THE TERM 'pogrom' appeared in the English language after a wave of anti-Jewish riots swept through south western Imperial Russia in 1881--1884.

The trigger for them was the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, for which some blamed "the Jews". Local appalling economic conditions are thought to have contributed significantly to the rioting, although one of the close associates of the assassins, Gesya Gelfman, was indeed Jewish.

The official reaction to the pogroms caused many Russian Jews to reassess their perceptions of their status within the Russian Empire, leading to significant emigration, mostly to the United States.

Chaim Ritterband was a stable-boy at the Alexander Palace in Tsarskoe Selo, the home of Tsar Nicholas II. He could not be described as a stout lad, yet aristocratic cavaliers in full military dress had him kneel on all fours and would climb onto their horses using his back as a footstool.

He almost froze sleeping in the stables in winter and was all but bitten to death by horse flies and mosquitoes in the high summer.

At the outset of the cry for revolution, Chaim got married and, a few years later, took his wife, Sophie and two small children, Isidore and Eva, to live in Lublin, Poland.

Chaim was not surprised when the people eventually turned against the Tsar in that bloodbath of slaughter known as the Russian Revolution. He would claim that the Romanovs and their lackeys deserved no less, having mercilessly milked the ordinary people; accusations of fraud, embezzlement and outright stealing by highly placed government officials was the rule rather than the exception.

Fearing the Jews would yet again serve as scapegoats, and renewed pogroms spread to Poland, he left for the United States, promising to find work and send enough money back to his family to enable them to join him.

Sophie and her children waited six months without news of him before making the long trek across western Europe in search of her own brother, eventually ending up living with him and his family in the East End of London.

Chaim was not heard of again until forty years later, when he unexpectedly turned up at his wife's home in north London. By this time both Isidore and Eva were extremely prosperous with families of their own.

Chaim would visit Isidore's factory, where I was employed as a young design director, every Wednesday afternoon. He spoke a broken American English with a guttural Russian Yiddish accent (viz: Topol in Fiddler on the Roof).

I was fascinated by his many tales of Russia under the Tsar, his struggle in an impoverished America, surviving the Great Depression and the strange manner of his prodigal return to find his family in England.

He had survived on a sixpence for most of his life and possessed a roving eye and cutting sense of humour -- his three weaknesses being women, wine and gambling, not necessarily in that order.

Due, I think, to displaying such a keen interest in him, he would call me 'the boy with a Yiddisher Kopf' (shrewd mind). I was 22 and he 60 years older. He had no pension rights or visible means of support other than handouts from his son, who kept his mother, and later Chaim, living in a luxury apartment near the Archway Cemetery in north London.

On the odd visit to the apartment, I'd sit quietly listening to him, Sophie and Isidore gabbling on in Yiddish -- sometimes Eva would turn up and a slanging match ensue.

I could manage around 50 words and with some knowledge of German occasionally caught the gist of the family tussles, usually about Chaim's dereliction of duty towards his children. But Sophie kept faith with him until his dying day and the couple were eventually buried together not far from Karl Marx's grave.

He had the habit of borrowing a few pounds from me most Wednesday afternoons to go across the road to the bookies, where he would lose on some nag or other. Isidore would scold me for encouraging him. But friendships should not be stretched to breaking point for a few pounds. He was hardly lining his pockets at the expense of the ordinary folk, like most UK politicians and bankers have done this past 15 years.

Due to a slackening off in demand, the worldwide consumption of electricity is expected to fall by 3% in 2009 and the number of unemployed rise accordingly. It is the first time in history that electricity consumption has contracted.

The American Dream is fast becoming an American Nightmare. So why are the number of politicians, their salaries and expense accounts forever on the rise?

Can one be surprised at the apathy displayed by most voters during these European parliamentary elections? Four fifths of all EU member state decisions are taken in Brussels, so what is the need for this second layer of government on our doorsteps? Surely cut backs by all economies should demand a reduction in the number of bon viveurs belonging to this nouvelle aristocracy.

Am I calling for constitutional reform, a revolution, surely not? The comparatively high living standards enjoyed at present by most barely justify the call.

Yet who will become our scapegoats during this present worsening recession: immigrant labour, bankers and stockbrokers, government officials and politicians, or all of them?

Copyright Cyprus Mail 2009

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Publication:Cyprus Mail (Cyprus)
Date:Jun 7, 2009
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