The Murder of Rabbi Abraham Kohn
By Rachel Druck
Interdenominational tensions between Jews are nothing new. Luckily, however, most of these conflicts do not end the way they did in Lemberg on September 6, 1848. Though this may be the story about one unusual event in Jewish history, it is a drama that reflects the violence and uncertainties faced by the Jews of Lemberg and beyond during the 19th century. It is a story of religion and modernity, control and change, and the ways in which these forces violently collided in one city in 1848.
Lemberg, the Yiddish name for Lviv (also known as Lvov) in present-day Ukraine, was, like many other places in Eastern Europe, at the crossroads of tradition and modernity. Not unusually for the area, the Jews of Lemberg were generally traditional Yiddish-speakers, and there were often fierce conflicts within the community between opposing ideologies. The Hasidic movement made a number of significant inroads in Lemberg starting at the end of the 18th century, and the new movement’s adherents clashed with those who disagreed with Hasidism. Later, during the 19th century, the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskala) would begin to be popular, setting off a new round of debates and excommunications between those who wanted to embrace modernity, and those who were against the Haskala’s principles. In Lemberg, in spite of opposition, a number of prominent Jews who were modernists and influenced by German culture founded a Reform-style synagogue in 1843. And this new community needed a rabbi.
Abraham Kohn was born in Zaluzany, a village in the region of Bohemia in the Austrian Empire (now part of the Czech Republic). Although his family was desperately poor, Kohn’s intelligence became apparent at an early age, and his parents managed to scrape together enough money to invest in his education. He arrived in Prague in 1828 in order to study philosophy at the Charles University, while simultaneously studying with Chief Rabbi Samuel Landau (ironically, Chief Rabbi Landau was a notorious hard-line traditionalist, who would vouch for Kohn’s religious commitment upon his ordination). Though lack of funds forced Kohn to drop out of the university, he continued his rabbinical studies and was given semikhah (ordination) by Chief Rabbi Landau in 1832. After his ordination Kohn was appointed as the rabbi of Hohenems, Austria, where he served in relative peace for over a decade. It was during this period that he published a number of sermons indicating that while his Jewish practice might have been traditional, he had begun espousing ideas that echoed those of the movement for Reform Judaism in Germany. In sermons and articles he criticized what he saw as an exclusive emphasis on religious observance, to the exclusion of good moral conduct.
Indeed, on Saturday, August 19, 1843, in his first sermon to the congregation in Lemberg, which had invited him as a candidate for the new rabbinic position, Kohn spoke about how many Jews in recent years practiced “false religion,” substituting rote ritual for the true spirit of the Torah. However, he argued, moral education (Bildung) and scientific study (Wissenschaft) had the potential to invigorate Jewish life and lead to a new, enlightened, “true” Judaism that combined Jewish ritual with the ethical laws of God. Kohn was an extremely talented orator, as well as an ambitious educator; not long after he delivered this sermon, Kohn was offered the position in Lemberg and by May 1844 he had moved to the city to begin working. Archduke Ferdinand de Este attended the first services led by Kohn, along with a number of other civil and military officials and Jewish community leaders.
After assuming the position, Kohn quickly began working on a series of reforms, advocating for Jews both within Lemberg and beyond. Kohn founded a Haskala-influenced Jewish school, in which the language of instruction was German and secular subjects were taught in addition to Jewish ones. Kohn’s efforts were quite successful, and the school soon enrolled over 700 students. He also advocated for the emancipation of Galician Jewry and the abolition of special taxes imposed on the Jews, particularly those on kosher meat and candles (which were used for the Sabbath and holidays).
In spite of this advocacy, Kohn became deeply unpopular among certain members of the Jewish community of Lemberg. The Hasidim resented his appeals to Austrian authorities to enforce the longstanding ban on traditional Hasidic dress, his advocacy for German proficiency (the Hasidim tended to speak Yiddish exclusively), as well as other activities that threatened their way of life. The non-Hasidic traditionalists were also angered by Kohn and his political work. While they may not have agreed with him religiously, perhaps the most pertinent fact is that many of Lemberg’s wealthiest and most powerful Jews were making significant amounts of money collecting taxes on kosher meat and candles—an income that was now being threatened by this Germanic modernizer. When Austrian authorities appointed Kohn as the chief rabbi of the Lemberg district, things began to get ugly. Kohn was offered money to resign and, when he refused, he was attacked and beaten and received numerous death threats.
All of this took place against a backdrop of revolution, as nations throughout Europe began experiencing political and social upheavals. In a world where nothing was stable and life as many Jews knew it was changing dramatically, and sometimes violently, the official leader of their community was attempting to force them to change as well—most significantly, in a way that would be disadvantageous to the most economically powerful elements within the community.
Things came to a head on September 6, 1848 when Abraham Ber Pilpel, a Hasidic Jewish goldsmith, slipped into the rabbi’s kitchen. After receiving permission to light his cigar using the fire from the stove, Pilpel leaned over and poured arsenic into the soup. The entire family was poisoned. Kohn’s infant daughter, Teresa, was killed and Kohn died the following day, at age 41.
Pilpel was put on trial, along with two leaders of the Orthodox community who had been among Kohn’s fiercest opponents, Jacob Naphtali Herz Bernstein, and Hirsh Orenstein. Most historians believe that Pilpel had been hired to carry out the assassination but regardless, all of the defendants were acquitted. Kohn’s wife, Magdalena, fiercely fought for the verdict to be overturned, to no avail. Meanwhile, the Jews of Lemberg, along with their coreligionists throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire, were emancipated, and granted full civil and religious rights. Residence restrictions were lifted, and many of those who had lived surrounded by Jews and Judaism were suddenly able to access larger cities, expanding their educational, economic, and cultural opportunities. The battle against Kohn may have been violently won, but the world Kohn envisioned, whether modern and teeming with possibility, or Godless and dangerous, was just beginning.
Rachel Druck is the editor of the Communities Database at Beit Hatfutsot—The Museum of the Jewish People, as well as a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College. She is considering hiring a taste tester for her soup. Rachel can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Beit Hatfutsot Communities Database, “Lvov.”
Encyclopedia Judaica, “Abraham Kohn”
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