Spies, Murders and Deportations ($1.42)

1. In 1848, a modernizing rabbi in Lvov (Lemberg), along with his wife and children, were the victim of arsenic poisoning. The rabbi, Abraham Kohn, and his youngest child died. The murderer, by all accounts, was a young orthodox man who believed that Kohn was a heretic leading the Jews astray, but he was acquitted of the crime on the basis of a lack of credible evidence.

Columbia history professor Michael Stanislawski tells the story of Kohn’s murder in his 2007 book, “Murder in Lemberg”, published by Princeton University’s Press. But the crime and the trial, based on research in recently opened archives, is only part of the story told in the book. The remainder is a brief, interesting, but necessarily abbreviated history of the Jews of Lemberg (which prior to World War II had the third largest Jewish community in Europe, after Warsaw and Lodz.

He portrays the Jews of Galicia, that portion of Poland which, as a result of the 18th century partitions of that country, came under the control of the Austrian empire. Poor and backwards, Galicia and its Jews suffered from on-again, off-again restrictions on various aspects of their lives, at the whim of the various rulers of Austria. But along with the complexities of, and restrictions on, Jewish life, there was ferment in Jewish religious practice, with traditional orthodox, Hasidic and modernizing tendencies competing with each other, the modernizing tendencies being offshoots of a movement that began in Germany but soon spread elsewhere. Kohn, a young man, but a reputed scholar and published author, was invited to take the leadership of a congregation in Lemberg, which had been developed on liberalizing principles, and soon – in part because of the economic and political power of some of its founding members, was soon appointing to a position equivalent to a “chief rabbi” position, gaining the enmity and concern of opposing strict orthodox followers.

In 1848, a year of liberal revolutionary ferment throughout Europe (largely unsuccessful, of course) saw the murder, and attempted murder of the Kohn family, through the poisoning of their mid-day soup, by a stranger who came into their kitchen asking if he could light his cigar on their fire. Abraham ber Pilpel, a young orthodox man, was identified by many witnesses, tried and convicted of the murder, only to have his sentence reversed on appeal. Stanislawski attributes the reversal not to the facts brought before the court, but to a change of Austrian politics towards the conservative and the influence, not any longer of the modernizers, but of the followers of traditional orthodoxy.

Not the most smoothly written book, but nevertheless, recommended.

2. Several weeks ago, I wrote about “Shades of Gray”, Ruta Sepetys’ new book about the invasion of Lithuania by the Soviets in 1940 and the Holocaust-like expulsion and treatment of so-called “enemies of the people” by the Soviets to and in Siberia. On the same day that the Soviets sent 40,000 Lithuanians to their deaths or to exile, June 14, 1940, similar invasions and deportations took place in Latvia, Estonia and (I believe) also in Finland. The story of one victim of the Estonian invasion is told in Sofi Oksanen’s “Purge”, both a book and a play by a young Finno-Estonian woman. Oksanen’s three books have been big sellers in Europe and are beginning to find their way to the United States. The stage version of “Purge” is being produced by DC’s Scena Theatre now (it had its American premiere earlier this year in New York City). It is a powerful story – one sister taken by the Soviets and presumed dead, the other marrying a Russian communist to avoid deportation and all that came with it, the story moves from 1940 to 1992 (shortly after Estonia’s liberation from the Soviet Union) and back again. The story line is, I thought compelling, although the play is somewhat hurt by attempting to put too much into two short acts, which compresses some of the story which requires a more expansive telling. I would like to read the book, and recommend the play largely as a way to open the audience’s eyes to the general topic of what happened to the Baltic peoples when the Soviets invaded their countries – a story only now beginning to be told.

3. Oh, yes, the spies. I picked up a book, published in 2005, written by journalist John H. Richardson, a memoir about his father, also John Richardson, who for decades worked for the CIA, acting as station chief in Athens (after World War II, when Athens was the central point for trying to avoid a communist takeover of southeastern Europe) , and then Manila (when the CIA was attempting to ensure that the government of the newly freed Philippine Islands would be friendly to the US) and finally Saigon (where he was removed from his post after clashing with Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge as to how closely the United States should continue to identify with the government of Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother-in-law Ngo Dinh Nhu). But beyond a very readable, and sometimes surprising, story of these important events, the book is a biography of a personally troubled diplomat and his unfortunately dysfunctional family and children (one of whom, of course, is the author). Starting with Richardson’s early years and ending with his death at his retirement home in Mexico in his mid-80’s, the book is fascinating from start to finish. I did not now what to expect when I first opened it up. Very pleasantly surprised. Highly recommended.


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