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To leave or not to leave was a timeless question, echoing out of the pasts of all oppressed people. How to escape, where to go, and when. The answers would come to Abram as the recruiters of the Galveston Movement offered hope and the realities surrounding him generated fear. Leaving Russia in 1910 meant escaping the pervasive anti-Semitism of Czar Nicholas II's Russia and the ongoing threat of violence against Jews. What most compelled Abram's departure were likely the same brutalities that had driven the unprecedented influx of Russian Jews to New York beginning in 1905.

In October that year, the czar had signed a document to end a general strike that was paralyzing his vast Russian empire. Known as the October Manifesto, it would, if implemented, require the czar to surrender the basic rights of his supreme power and transform his autocracy into a constitutional monarchy with the freedoms of speech, assembly, and conscience. No longer could one man alone make the laws that governed the lives of his people. There would be a parliament out of his control and elected by all classes, including workers like Abram whose voice could then be heard, as the manifesto assured Jews the right to vote and to be elected.

The next day thousands upon thousands of Russians who viewed the manifesto as the first Russian constitution took to the streets in hundreds of towns and cities to celebrate the triumphant outcome of what would be known as the Russian Revolution of 1905. But in the Pale, the joy was exceptionally brief. For there, by midafternoon, the rejoicing masses were silenced by mobs of armed ruffians and local police, causing the storied day to be described in the Pale not as a victory for the masses but as a pogrom, a storm of human violence targeting the Jews of the Russian Empire.

In the weeks that followed, there were 694 pogroms in 660 Russian towns—the majority occurring within the Pale. At least 3,000 Jews were killed and 2,000 critically injured. Reports of the wounded reached levels of more than 15,000 men, women, and children. In most afflicted towns, Jewish homes were robbed and burned; shops and synagogues were looted; and witnesses reported murders of babies and rapes of women and girls.
Russian authorities denied any secret plans to punish Jews in the aftermath of the czar's signing of the manifesto. Instead, they claimed that the pogroms were a mobilization of the Russian people in support of the czar and that the violence had erupted from the passion of his followers expressing what they did not want to lose: their czar and imperial Russia. But with time, the truth would surface: the massacres had to have been planned in advance by anti-Semitic, counterrevolutionary leaders. And it would one day be clear that false information created to set the blame on the Jews for the many failures of the czar's regime was at the core of the pogroms—for example, the discovery of a printing press hidden at police headquarters in Saint Petersburg producing anti-Semitic pamphlets during October and November 1905.

This was an age-old scenario: Repress the unwanted and when they revolt, blame them, the victims, for the ensuing carnage while allowing counterrevolutionary thugs to kill them and be lauded for saving the empire. The unseen irony beneath the thick crust of denial in czarist Russia was that oppression was and always would be the fuel for awakening class consciousness, inciting revolts against oppressors and crushing empires. To be sure, with the mounting anti-Semitism, Jewish radicalism in Russia only grew stronger. By 1906 many Jews in Russia hoped for and worked toward the collapse of the Russian autocracy, some as part of revolutionary organizations dedicated to the overthrow of the czar and even trained in armed resistance to defend Jewish communities against mob violence. One major player in the upsurge of political activism was the General Jewish Labor Union, known as the Bund. Abram Koval had been a member since his late teens.

What drove the young to the Bund was its uplifting solidarity. Their discriminated ethnicity, their working-class roots, their impoverished conditions were no longer shameful. These were not weaknesses, but rather the traits that could empower them as they pledged to change the world by ending oppression. Through solidarity, they could develop an identity based in dignity and hope—not fear and disgrace. This was a generation that would plot to overthrow the czar, who was the symbol of Jewish oppression.

Another member of that fiery generation was Abram's future wife, Ethel Shenitsky. Born in Telekhany, she was the daughter of a rabbi who did not want his daughter mingling in any rebel group promoting socialism—like the Bund. But to young Ethel, socialism had effectively replaced the religion her father had spent years teaching her. As her son George would one day write: "My mother was a socialist long before most people knew the meaning of the word." This was disgraceful to Ethel's father, whose anger was deep enough that on one occasion he grabbed his daughter's thick brown hair and dragged her across a yard into the local synagogue. Neither time nor age would ease the tensions.

Ethel's beliefs only grew stronger as Russian authorities tightened the rules for Jews. Year after year, there was more surveillance, bringing daily dangers to those who were active in what might be considered revolutionary activities. Curfew was at 8 p.m. No assembly was allowed. And there were growing numbers of arrests, mostly of so-called revolutionaries. Worse still, there were vile efforts to force Jews out of the empire. For example, there were accounts of families pulled from their beds in the middle of the night and, with scarcely any time to dress, driven to a central police station, then herded out of the city in groups by soldiers on horseback. By 1910, there had been reports of local authorities "even taking babies from their mothers, leaving the parents the choice of abandoning their homes or their children." Such expulsions were later referred to as the "bloodless pogroms," but their power in pushing Jews out of Russia was as painfully mighty as the bloodiest pogroms.

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