The Mystery of the Murder in Lviv

Yigal Amir's predecessor / Our people in the Ministry of Education / How Reinhard Heydrich was assassinated.

On September 6, 1848, Rabbi Abraham Kohn and his family sat down to lunch in their home in the city of Lemberg, as it was then called - or, Lwow in Eastern Galicia, and Lviv in Ukraine, today. The rabbi, his wife Magdalena and four of their five children managed to swallow only one spoonful of the soup when they already felt a searing pain. The rabbi's wife went into the kitchen, because she thought the cook had put too much pepper in the soup. By the time she returned to the dining room, she saw her husband and the children writhing in pain; she quickly called a doctor, but he was able to save only the wife herself and three of the children. The rabbi died toward morning as did one of the girls, Teresa. A laboratory test determined that the rabbi and his daughter had died of arsenic poisoning; the police opened an investigation.

This is one of the most controversial stories in the history of the Jews in modern times, but not many people are familiar with it. Until recently Kohn's death was generally described as food poisoning. With the collapse of the communist regime, Ukraine also opened archives that were closed to researchers until now, which is how Michael Stanislawski of Columbia University managed to get his hands on the Kohn file. The American historian is almost certain that the rabbi was murdered and that his murderer was a Jewish goldsmith named Abraham Ber Pilpel. He managed to sneak into the rabbi's kitchen, he leaned over the stove pretending to light a cigar, and at the same time poured the poison into the pot of soup.

In a charming and fascinating book that he has just published - "Murder in Lemberg" (Princeton University Press) - Stanislawski says he truly believes that this is not only a fascinating story in and of itself, but also one with abiding importance to all those interested in the modern history and the culture of the Jews, with all of its grandeur and successes, as well as its abundance of tragedy and violence-including internal violence, ultimately stretching from the assassination of Rabbi Abraham Kohn in 1848 to that of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

Rabbi Kohn was 41 years old when he died; he had arrived in Lemberg about five years beforehand, and his troubles began immediately. Because Kohn was a maskil (an advocate of the Enlightenment); he was considered one of the first leaders of the Reform movement, and was known for his battle against the traditional dress of the Jews, including the black coat worn by men. He also was influenced by the spirit of the liberal revolution of 1848 that affected all of Europe. He demanded of the authorities that they cancel the tax on kosher meat and on candles, which the Jews were forced to pay. All of these things aroused the anger of the ultra-Orthodox - particularly two of them: Orenstein and Bernstein, very wealthy men who made their money from the tax-collection system, among other things.

It was a political assassination; Pilpel and several other suspects were put on trial, appealed and were acquitted. The minutes of the investigations and the trials reflect community agitation full of passions, political conspiracies and financial greed, all on the background of the changes brought about by the Spring of Nations in Europe. Stanislawski wants to extract a historical lesson from the affair: The ultra-Orthodox link themselves to conservative, and occasionally even reactionary, politics. Abraham Ber Pilpel is portrayed as the predecessor of Yigal Amir. But the ultra-Orthodox establishment in Israel did not always link itself to right-wing politics, and Yaakov Yisrael de Hahn, whom Stanislawski also mentions, was in fact murdered because he adopted political views that were more moderate than those of his secular murderers, members of the Labor movement.

In any case, Magdalena Kohn turned to the high court of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Vienna and demanded that they rule that her husband's murderer acted under the influence of the rabbis who authorized him to assassinate a moser (informer). It was important to her to prove that Pilpel had not acted alone. She claimed that the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox Jews, Orenstein and Bernstein, had bribed the judges in the lower courts. Here is one woman who fought for her rights; a captivating story.

The widow's lawsuit was rejected. Stanislawski believes the heads of the ultra-Orthodox establishment considered Cohen a kofer (heretic) rather than a moser, and therefore it should not be assumed that they allowed him to be killed. There is no proof that the judges were bribed, but it is possible that Abraham Ber Pilpel acted as a hired assassin. Some people say he left his city, went to the Land of Israel and settled in Safed. Stanislawski is unable to confirm this rumor, and so here we have the basis for additional research, as serious historians like to say.

Here in Mapai

On February 24, 1952 a man named Y. Levin wrote a letter to the honored members of the central committee of Mapai (forerunner of the Labor Party): Y. Gouri, B.Z. Dinburg; Y. Smilansky; Y. Kesse, M. Kitron and Y. Sarid. And this is what he wrote: "At the meeting of the secretariat on Friday, February 22, 1952, you were appointed as a committee assigned to examine the nature of the organizational structure of the Ministry of Education and Culture. The opinion of the secretariat is that we must ensure that the key positions in the Ministry of Education not fall from the hands of party members. Moreover, you must respond to the demand of our member B.Z. Dinburg to begin working in the Ministry of Education. The coordination of the committee has been assigned to our member Yizhar Smilansky."

The document is preserved in the archive of Dinburg, later Benzion Dinur, the second education minister of the State of Israel, and was discovered recently in the central archive of the history of the Jewish people in Jerusalem. Yisrael Gouri, the chair of the Knesset Finance Committee, was the father of poet Haim Gouri; Yaakov Sarid was the father of Yossi Sarid; Y. Smilansky was the author S. Yizhar; Yona Kesse served several times as the secretary of Mapai; Moshe Kitron was among the party activists in Tel Aviv.

A history lesson

Two weeks ago, the following lines were published here: "After a long search, the burial place has been found of two Czech underground fighters who, in the summer of 1942, assassinated one of the masterminds behind the plan to annihilate European Jewry, Reinhard Heydrich. The two, Jan Kubis and Josef Gabcik, committed suicide before the Nazis could catch them, and were buried in unmarked graves in one of Prague's cemeteries. Not far from them is buried Karl Herman Frank, who came up with the Germans' revenge for Heydrich's murder: the destruction of the village of Lidice."

Antonin Hradilek, counselor for political affairs in the Embassy of the Czech Republic, found a series of errors in this passage. Only Jan Kubis was a Czech; Gabcik was a Slovak. The two were not underground fighters: They were serving in the Czechoslovakian army. The operation was an execution rather than an assassination, in accordance with the decision taken at the army headquarters in London; Kubis and Gabcik were parachuted from a plane that brought them from England for this purpose. On June 18, 1942 German forces located the hiding place of Kubis and Gabcik, and five other paratroopers in Prague. In a bloody battle that lasted for two hours Kubis was wounded and died in the ambulance on his way to the hospital. Gabcik did in fact shoot himself, with his last bullet.

It is hard to identify the two with certainty: Their heads were removed, they were placed in jars and were used by a German professor who disappeared from Prague at the end of the war, together with the jars. Rumor has it that the two heads may still be in the Anatomy Institute in Vienna.

"We didn't succeed in finding them," said the pedantic Czech diplomat, who also asked that another correction be made: The operation was not carried out in the summer, but on May 27; the summer begins only on June 21.