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.