“In the City of Slaughter” בעיר ההרגה is a poem written in Hebrew in 1904 by Hayim Nahman Bialik about the Kishinev pogrom. The pogrom was sparked in April 1903 by a false Passover blood libel, inciting uncontrolled mobs to attack Jews, killing 49, with hundreds injured, homes and shops looted, burnt and destroyed. Police blocked Jewish defense, intensifying the carnage.
The poem is told from God’s perspective, urging the reader to join Him on a tour of the City of Slaughter. The command “Go forth” comes from the story of Abraham beginning his journey to build a nation. Bialik’s poem opens “Arise, walk to the City of Slaughter,” and describes the blood soaked streets, ruined homes, basements where girls were raped in front of their mothers, crushed wombs, dead babies, gardens where people were burned with pitchforks, and the desecrated cemetery beyond the city limits.
The poem has eleven stanzas, each depicting brutal details of bloodbath and destruction. At the end, Bialik’s anger is directed both at the Jews who were passive victims of brutal violence, and at God, for allowing such horrors to happen to His people. The poem challenges the divine authority, portraying Him as an indifferent force, choosing to remain silent.
The poem concludes that the choice for the Jewish person is either to stay in a dangerous place or move to a desolate land.
Since God relinquished control, He transferred the responsibility for life and death to mankind. The idea is that individuals must create meaning and purpose for themselves. It emphasizes personal responsibility for shaping one’s own life, reflecting the secular trends of Jewish thought.
The poem caused shockwaves within the Jewish community. The massacre, as well as the Uganda crisis in the summer 1903, caused turmoil in the Zionist movement. Bialik’s words were a powerful focal point, motivating young people to take action, form self-defense groups, develop a new national consciousness and eventually return to Israel.
The poem is regarded as “the most influential” and “the finest” Jewish poem written since medieval times.
“Arise, go to the City of Slaughter, and come to the courtyards,
And with your eyes, you shall see, and with your hand, you shall feel upon the fences,
Upon the trees and the stones, and upon the plastered walls
The frozen blood and the hardened brains of the slain.
And you shall come from there to the ruins and leap over the breaches,
And pass over the pierced walls and the crumbling furnaces,
In a place deep and shattered by the explosion, widened, enlarged, the holes,
Uncovering the blackened stone and the burnt white skins,
And they appear like open mouths of human wounds, black and torn.”
“You fled and came to a courtyard, and the courtyard was covered –
On this cover, two were sprawled: a Jew and his dog.
One corpse intertwined with the other in the refuse was cast,
And in the evening of blood, both of them will be scavenged by swine and roll.”
“They are living witnesses, eyewitnesses, and will tell you all the findings:
An incident in a crushed womb filled with feathers,
An incident with daggers and nails, with skulls and hammers,
An incident with slaughtered people hanging in the gallows,
And an incident with a baby found by his mother’s pierced side,
As he sleeps with a breast in his mouth, silent.”
“You descended from there and came to the dark cellars,
A place defiled, where the daughters of your people were disgraced among the vessels,
One woman under seven layers of impurity,
A daughter before her mother’s eyes, and a mother before her daughter’s eyes,
Before slaughter, during slaughter, and after slaughter;
And in your hands, you will feel the plague-covered cover and the crimson floor,
Crawling pigs of the forest and the quarters of human horses
With a boiling blood-drenched dagger in their hands.”
Selected stanzas from the poem “In the City of Slaughter”