A Soviet stamp of war hero Gen. Ivan Chernyakhovsky.
A Soviet stamp of war hero Gen. Ivan Chernyakhovsky.
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A few years ago, Prof. Dan Amir began to explore his family tree. A professor emeritus of mathematics, he has served as rector of Tel Aviv University. Dealing with genealogy can be addictive and nerve-racking and it demands patience and time - as well as, in some cases, a financial investment. It is a black hole in which even totally rational individuals can drown, and Amir, who is 80 today, was bitten by the bug.

Although family documents he had in his possession after his parents died did not sufficiently satisfy his curiosity, he did have one important clue: a vague memory that his great-grandfather - his grandmother's father - was somehow related to the Chernyakhovsky family. Not the family of the celebrated modern Hebrew poet, Shaul Tchernichovsky, but rather the family of a famous Russian general, Ivan Danilovich Chernyakhovsky, a hero of the Soviet Union who was killed in January 1945 not far from Koenigsberg in East Prussia (the city, which is now called Kaliningrad, is today part of Russia ). The news of his death was widely publicized, and Winston Churchill even sent a message of condolences to Joseph Stalin.

During his lifetime, Chernyakhovsky was well-known and much admired, not only in the USSR but also in the West. A few months before his death, Time magazine described him as the "iron-muscled and iron-willed young Jewish general, Ivan Chernyakhovsky."

There was, of course, something captivating in the assumption that a Jewish general led the Red Army in the battle to capture Berlin. However, when Time reported Chernyakhovsky's death, no mention was made of his Jewish background, and The New York Times published a correction, to the effect that Moscow dispatches had corrected reports that Chernyakhovsky was Jewish, and said he was a member of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

The Jewish press in British Mandatory Palestine was also considerably preoccupied with the issue of his possible Jewish identity. Many of the daily Davar's readers sent queries to the newspaper on that subject and, on August 25, 1944, the editors replied to all these queries with the statement that Chernyakhovsky was not Jewish. However, a few weeks after his death, doubts began to emerge among the editorial board. "Was he Jewish?" Davar asked on February 22, 1945, reporting that the Soviet ambassador in Washington, Andrei Gromyko, had raised a glass in Chernyakhovsky's memory as he explicitly declared that the deceased general was indeed a member of the Jewish people.

Since that time, the controversy over Chernyakhovsky's possible Jewish background has continued unabated. Books and articles that have appeared over the years, especially in English, have tended to repeat the idea that Chernyakhovsky was, in fact, Jewish. Among other things, they relied on the celebrated Jewish historian Salo Baron, who became widely known in Israel when he testified at the trial of Adolf Eichmann. An article by a former deputy president of the Israel Labor Court, Judge Saul Kubovy, published in August 2006 in Haaretz, mentioned Chernyakhovsky's Jewish background as a well-known fact.

For his part, Dan Amir was greatly encouraged by the mass of articles and biographies written over the years about Chernyakhovsky, and was hopeful that he would find some basis in them for his own exploration of his family tree. He was not interested in looking for famous ancestors. "I have no need for a general in the family," Amir said this week - after all, he is the son of Yisrael Meir, the first commander of the Israel Air Force.

As a mathematician, Amir loves puzzles. Moreover, the issue of Chernyakhovsky's possible Jewish identity was not the only mystery surrounding the general: His entire childhood is one big question mark, and Amir gradually became addicted to the story of Chernyakhovsky's early years. The more he delved, the more strange contradictions he discovered - especially in the biographies written in Russian. Even the date of the Soviet hero's birth was unclear, with two alternatives being given: 1906 and 1907.

The story continued to fascinate Amir and he simply could not let go. After having traveled the length and breadth of the Internet highway, and requesting information from countless persons by email and telephone - he finally decided to invest his research budget in an attempt to unravel the mystery and hired two researchers, Boris Morozov and Aleksander A. Maslov. The research project took four years. Amir's documentation and diaries ballooned into thick volumes that today contain thousands of names and dates.

The task was a demanding one. Again and again, the researchers encountered Jews who claimed to be related to the general. One, from Holon, said Chernyakhovsky was his cousin and that the Soviet hero's first names were not Ivan Danilovich but Izak Davidovich. According to this man, his daughter had heard that name in a conversation with Chernyakhovsky's widow.

In one archive, the two researchers Amir hired found testimony given by the general's widow. Although no proof emerged from that testimony as to his possible Jewish identity, the widow did offer an explanation of the mystery surrounding his childhood. Apparently, his family background was deemed unsuitable for a hero of the Soviet Union: He was the son of farmers, not factory workers. At an early age, he became an orphan and a sort of nomad, who did not attend school. Once he even laid himself down on railway tracks in the hope that a train would end his life. And the family that adopted him also did not even belong to the proletariat. Every biographer invented a different biography for Chernyakhovsky, each could always remain vague about his possible Jewish origins.

One of Amir's researchers traveled extensively in Ukraine, visiting village churches and remote registry offices, blowing the dust off population registry books that were slowly being eaten away by age, and going through sheaves and sheaves of yellowing documents. The results of this intensive detective project appear in the latest issue of a prestigious British journal of military history: The Journal of Slavic Military Studies. Unfortunately, the findings leave little room for doubt: The Chernyakhovsky family is registered in the registry books of the Russian Orthodox Church. Unless contrary evidence can be produced, Ivan Danilovich Chernyakhovsky cannot be regarded as a Jew.

Amir is disappointed, of course. He had been hoping to enter into the chronicles of history the greatest Jewish general of all time - at least, since the time of Judah Maccabee.

There is, however, one small consolation. Those Jews of liberated Vilna who survived the Holocaust have testified that Chernyakhovsky related to them with great warmth, and tried to assist them. They all believed that he was Jewish. Amir says that some of the findings of his historical research project lead him to think that Chernyakhovsky also considered himself a Jew.