Law and Order: Special Galitsianer Unit

Nonfiction

By Allan Nadler

Published March 09, 2007, issue of March 09, 2007.

**A Murder in Lemberg: Politics, Religion, and Violence in Modern Jewish History*
By Michael Stanislawski
Princeton University Press, 160 pages, $21.95.

On September 6, 1848, a young Orthodox Jew with the very inauspicious name of A.B. Pilpel (Hebrew for pepper), bearded with sidelocks and dressed in a black hat and a long caftan, entered the kitchen of the district rabbi of Lemberg, Abraham Cohen, and, pretending to light his cigar from the stove, poured arsenic into the Cohen family’s soup. Within hours of their supper later that evening, the entire Cohen family was severely ill. And by 3 o’clock the next morning, Rabbi Cohen and his infant daughter, Teresa, were dead. Rabbi Cohen’s wife, Magdalena, and his four older children survived the poisoning. The rabbi is reported to have said, as he lay dying, that “no Jew has done this.” But, as Michael Stanislawski demonstrates beyond reasonable doubt in his riveting new book, “A Murder in Lemberg,” the rabbi was wrong. This controversial, liberal, Hapsburg government-appointed rabbi of the capital of Jewish Galicia (Galitsia), Lemberg (Lwów, in Polish; today the Ukrainian city of Lviv), became the first Jewish leader to be assassinated by a fellow Jew since the second-century Judean revolt against the Romans.

Before unpacking the details of the murder investigation and the subsequent trials and appeals of Pilpel and his co-conspirators — including Hirsh Orenstein, who, ironically enough, was to become Lemberg’s chief rabbi 30 years after Cohen’s murder — Stanislawski does a masterful job of introducing the reader to the serpentine and deeply conflicted Jewish religious and political culture of 19th-century Austrian Galicia, the Southern Polish territory annexed by the Hapsburg Empire during the partitions of Poland that began in 1772.

Stanislawski explodes many common misconceptions regarding the Galitsianers, as the Jews of that territory were dubbed in Yiddish culture — particularly the widespread notion that, in contrast to the Jewish populations to their West (the Yekkes, or Germans Jews) and North (the Litvaks, or Lithuanian Jews), Galitsianers were overwhelmingly primitive and uneducated Hasidim, untouched by either modern European values or religious reform. The fact is that, within decades of its annexation to Austria, Galicia had become a hotbed of radical Jewish enlighteners, or maskilim, as well as a bourgeois, liberal class of Jews who fostered the development of Reform Judaism. It was those emancipated, liberal Galitsianers who built the magnificent Choral Temple in Lemberg and invited Abraham Cohen to become its rabbi, and principal of its Hebrew school, in 1843.

Still, the large majority of Lemberg Jewry remained deeply Orthodox and became particularly resentful of the Austrian government’s elevation of Cohen to the position of district, or chief, rabbi in 1846. The Orthodox opposition to Cohen turned ugly and violent after his proposal to ban the traditional Galitsianers’ garb of wide-brimmed hats and long black coats was endorsed by the Austrian government. Just as his own Temple and Hebrew school were making great strides — the school’s registration grew exponentially during Cohen’s brief tenure as principal — the Orthodox community was awash in threatening denunciations of him. In January 1848, on his way home from his synagogue Cohen was attacked and badly beaten by a gang of Orthodox youth. Despite the immediate police response, he refused to press charges.

This nonconfrontational posture vis-à-vis the Orthodox was of a piece with Cohen’s assurances to his wife, who, now fearful for their safety, urged that the family leave Lemberg immediately: “I am, after all, among Jews, so what will they do to me in the end?” This same faith in his people’s innate civility accompanied Cohen to the hour of his death, when he insisted that those responsible for poisoning him could not possibly be Jews.

Ironically, given Cohen’s Western disdain for the primitive culture of the ultra-Orthodox Galitsianers, which Stanislawski documents, his confidence in the essential decency of Jews, regardless of denomination, was an extension of the liberal rabbi’s particular brand of German-Jewish chauvinism. For example, Cohen was the author of a critique of traditional Jewish mourning customs — such as the tearing of a garment prior to the burial, and sitting on low chairs during the shiva period. Stanislawski writes that Cohen viewed these practices as emblematic of the primitive, “oriental” period of medieval Judaism and as entirely inconsistent with modern Western European Jewish sentiments: “We however, as entirely European and as Germans, find these customs alien and repulsive, even frightening as well… among us cold-blooded Germans, true pain is deeper and more reserved.”

In the end, Pilpel and his accused co-conspirators were all acquitted, despite a series of appeals led by Magdalena Cohen that went all the way from the district court in Lemberg to the highest appeals court in Vienna. The Austrian royal government was particularly wary, after the revolutions of 1848, of alienating conservative Galician Jews who had remained loyal to Vienna during the Polish nationalist insurrections, which generally had the support of the more liberal, acculturated Jews. The longstanding Hapsburg desire to modernize the Jewish masses of Galicia, which began in 1781 with Emperor Joseph II’s famous “Edict of Toleration,” was therefore trumped by concerns about political insurrection.

As he makes clear in both his introduction and conclusion, Stanislawski considers the assassination of Cohen to be a turning point in modern Jewish history. Though he does not develop the theme at any length, he observes that there are eerie similarities between this murder and that of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, despite the century and a half that separate the two assassinations. Indeed, Stanislawski professes that he could never get over the agonizing questions that the Rabin assassination raised, even after the second intifada and the new Israeli national traumas that it generated dimmed Rabin’s memory:

And so, the question of how a Jew could kill another Jew for political or religious reasons receded into the background. But not for me. The Rabin assassination only gave me added incentive to study in depth an earlier, almost unknown, case of an internal Jewish assassination that had intrigued me for years but about which I was unable to get sufficient information.

The collapse of the Soviet Union, whose ironclad and paranoid control of its vast archives made any further research into such episodes as the Cohen murder impossible for most of the 20th century, has inaugurated a new era in Eastern European scholarship. Jewish historians from around the world have been flocking to the now open archives in hundreds of cities and towns all across Russia, Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine and Belarus to investigate the many treasure troves of long-inaccessible documents. As a result of their research, our understanding of modern Jewish history has been refreshingly revised.

Stanislawski’s book is the latest contribution to this scholarly renaissance. Beyond the sheer literary pleasure of his captivating narrative and the inherent novelty of a Galitsianer Jewish murder mystery, the author adds important insights into the complex, now vanished, world that was Jewish Galicia, a society bitterly torn between fidelity to tradition and the excitement of the modern national awakenings that culminated in the revolutions of 1848, also the year of Cohen’s assassination. Stanislawski has written not only an important historical morality tale about the dangers of religious extremism, but also a cautionary tale about the unforeseeable perils unleashed when governments try to force modernity, or, for that matter democracy, on a deeply traditional religious society.

Allan Nadler, a nonviolent Canadian Litvak, is a professor of religious studies and director of the Jewish studies program at Drew University.



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