History “Buff”

The English-language dictionary defines the word “buff” to mean an enthusiast, or a devoted fan. In this case it refers to a young American man, David Winer, who has written to correct me on some of my historical data errors. In each case, though not too many of them, he has been correct.

He is what is referred to as a history “buff”. Remarkably, he can recount every event prior to, during, and following the American Civil War, or what those below the Mason-Dixon line call “the war for Southern independence”.

He knows the places of every battle during the four years of the war, the names of every general on both sides of the battles, the numbers of dead and wounded. I think his hero was not the beloved great 16th American President, Abraham Lincoln, but rather the Virginia plantation owner and aristocrat, General Robert E. Lee.

I am in awe of his memory. Perhaps, in an earlier lifetime, he was a witness to the history of the tragic war which attempted to divide the United States of America into two sovereign states. At the loss of a great many soldiers of north and south, the north was victorious in saving the American union.

I do not pretend to know more than the very basic events which created the War Between the States. As a Jew, it is most interesting to know that the Attorney General, Secretary of War, and finally Secretary of State for the Confederacy was a Jew named Judah Philip Benjamin.

He was the first American Jew to serve in an executive cabinet in American history. Scholars have referred to him as “the brains of the Confederacy” aiding the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis in the four year bitter war. After the surrender of the south, Benjamin fled to England where he died and is buried. He is little remembered in American history.

But the history “buff”, David Winer, could probably describe the uniform he wore and what he ate for breakfast.

As for me, my love of history is centered on life of the Jews under the Czarist regimes in Russia and the long road which led Israel to independence and statehood.

My late father used to retell his memory as a five year old child caught up in the 1906 dreadful pogrom in the city of Bialystok. That city had normally been a paradise for the Jews living there. They constituted more than 60% of the city’s population.

The three-day pogrom which began on Thursday, June 14 and ended on Saturday, June 16, 1906, began following the assassination of the chief of police in Bialystok. The cries went out that the Jews wanted to burn the Catholic and Orthodox Greek churches in the city. The Polish mayor of Bialystok had been friendly to the Jews and attempted to protect them, but he was killed by the Cossacks and the Czarist troops.

In those three days, the notorious pogrom took the lives of 200 Jews and wounded 81 other Jews.

My father recalled the event vividly. He had accompanied his mother, my grandmother, from their shtetl in Dereczyn to consult with a famous ophthalmologist in Bialystok, Dr. Leon Pines. While there, Cossacks began breaking into Jewish homes and killing Jews wherever they could find them.

My grandmother hid my father in a wardrobe closet and covered him with several blankets and towels, urging him to lie quietly and not to make any sounds, no matter what he heard.

When the Cossacks and Czarist troops broke into the room, they found only my grandmother whom they beat without mercy. One of her arms became paralyzed forever. But thankfully, she and my father survived the pogrom.

I was always amazed how my father, then a five year old boy, could remember the events so clearly and the impression it made upon him.

I cannot compete with David Winer, the secular history “buff”, but I can hold my own on Jewish history.

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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