A Mur­der in Lem­berg: Pol­i­tics, Reli­gion, and Vio­lence in Mod­ern Jew­ish History

Michael Stanis­laws­ki
  • Review
By – March 23, 2012

The assas­si­na­tion of Prime Min­is­ter Ithzak Rabin of Israel — a Jew mur­dered by a Jew — remind­ed Michael Stanis­laws­ki, pro­fes­sor of Jew­ish his­to­ry at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, of an assas­si­na­tion more than a hun­dred years ago. In Sep­tem­ber 1848, an Ortho­dox man entered the kitchen of Rab­bi Abra­ham Kohn, a pro­gres­sive young rab­bi, and slipped arsenic into the family’s soup. With­in a few hours the rab­bi and his infant child were dead, and with him a threat to the entrenched Ortho­dox Jew­ish estab­lish­ment of Lem­berg (L’wow in Pol­ish and now L’viv in Ukrain­ian). The intrud­er was quick­ly iden­ti­fied and appre­hend­ed, but ulti­mate­ly no one was found guilty of the crime and the case slipped into obscurity. 

With the Ukrain­ian archives now open, Stanis­lawsi was able to exam­ine all the doc­u­ments con­nect­ed to the case and the reli­gious and polit­i­cal con­flicts set in motion by the Haskalah and lib­er­al trends in Europe. Rab­bi Kohn cham­pi­oned not only reform in Judaism but also in polit­i­cal life — nation­al­ism, sec­u­lar stud­ies, and lan­guage, the abo­li­tion of spe­cial Jew­ish tax­es. Such reform was heresy to Lemberg’s Ortho­dox estab­lish­ment, whose wealth was based large­ly on tax col­lec­tion, and to the increas­ing­ly reac­tionary Aus­tro-Hun­gar­i­an gov­ern­ment. After the orig­i­nal guilty ver­dict, the Kohn case was appealed and the ver­dict was overturned. 

A well-paced and dra­mat­ic re-exam­i­na­tion of the Kohn mur­der, Mur­der in Lem­beck is, more impor­tant­ly, a rich and vivid pic­ture of the diverse mid-19th cen­tu­ry Jew­ish life in East­ern Europe, when change was unset­tling tra­di­tion­al com­mu­ni­ties. Walk­ing the streets of L’viv today, Stanis­lawsi can find almost no traces of these once thriv­ing com­mu­ni­ties, com­mu­ni­ties that van­ished in the ash­es of Nazism. To them he ded­i­cates his brief but vital book. Illus­tra­tions, notes, bib­li­og­ra­phy, index. 

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions