The fertile earth of the Ukraine, once known as the breadbasket of Europe, was the soil of Sonia Pollin’s motherland. At her birth in 1905, that soil was governed by the imperial rule of Russia, and much more than wheat was growing in the land. Russian military forces had recently surrendered to Japanese infantry, ending Czar Nicholas II’s expansionism into Manchuria and Korea. This humiliating defeat reverberated violently at home, and St. Petersburg was pitched toward revolution.
Economically strapped urban and agricultural workers threatened strikes; a series of harvest failures and industrial crises incited protests; and on January 9, 1905, a young priest leading a peaceful demonstration in front of the Winter Palace was slaughtered along with his followers when palace guards, on orders from the czar, machine-gunned the demonstrators. This “Bloody Sunday” sparked the Revolution of 1905, which would not end before revolutionary terrorists at Moscow murdered the Grand Duke Serge, uncle of the czar; peasants seized their landlords’ land, crops, and livestock; and a general strike was organized in October that forced Nicholas II to grant a constitution, establish the Duma, and grant civil liberties to placate the people.
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These new political trends, socialism and communism, were regarded by the autocratic czarist regime as “Jewish” ideologies because Jewish scholars were importing and discussing many new philosophies from the West. The popularity of these ideas among laborers made the government quite uneasy. Consequently, a period of Jewish tolerance was reversed. Poland and Russia, in particular, instituted official polices of Jewish persecution to offset liberal tendencies.
The imperial government encouraged and even financed periodic massacres of Jews. Pogroms were largely calculated to divert the attention of the Russian people from their discontent with the failing feudalistic system, but thousands of Jewish families suffered. In 1904, a pogrom in Bessarabia killed 45 Jews and destroyed 600 houses. The police turned a blind eye to the mob running wild in the streets. By 1909, terrorists of the anti-Semitic organization known as the “Black Hundreds” had murdered an estimated 50,000 Jews.
In the Ukraine, it was primarily the Cossacks who carried out these anti-Semitic policies of the government. In the Russian army, Cossacks had earned fame as cavalrymen serving in a number of wars for the czars. In later years, the czars of Russia utilized the Cossacks as border troops and as special military and police forces for the suppression of internal unrest. By the early years of the twentieth century, Cossack troops were used on a large scale in the suppression of the Russian Revolution of 1905.
The Cossacks principally targeted able-bodied men, but no one was spared. Children, women, whole families were murdered, burned out of their homes, or intimidated into fleeing. In the desperate hope of remaining alive and intact, many packed up their families, grabbed a few belongings, and emigrated in search of safety. Some families sent only the father or an elder son, who eventually would send for the rest of the family, to establish a new life in a new country.
These were the circumstances for Yakov and Libby Butler in 1905. When their daughter Sonia was born, she was delivered without complication; yet she couldn’t have been delivered into a more complicated period of history. No one knows the precise date that Sonia was born, not even Sonia. Although she can recall birthday parties, cakes, and even candles, the historical events raging around them made it impossible for tracking an event as personal as a birthday.
I took myself a day, I took myself a year. During the war, we didn’t have things like birth certificates. So I picked December 15, 1905, the day of Chanukah that year—you have to have a birthday. Everybody does. (Sonia Pollin 1995)