What Was This Russian Operative Doing at a Tiny American College?

The son of a famous performer, Kirill Chenkin fought in the Spanish Civil War and was recruited by Soviet intelligence prior to joining the faculty of Black Mountain College. He later became a 'refusenik' spokesman...

Kirill Chenkin, Black Mountain College faculty file, 1940 (Courtesy: Western Regional Archives, State Archives of North Carolina)

In the early 1970s, a new figure appeared among the “refuseniks” – Jewish activists in the USSR who were denied exit visas to Israel, yet were still persecuted and lost their jobs.

Kirill Khenkin, unusually fluent in foreign languages, served as their liaison to the foreign press and Western dignitaries. Among his mentions that turn up in the online Historical Jewish Press collection of the National Library of Israel and Tel Aviv University, one item noted another oddity for a refusenik: his 20-year tenure as a Radio Moscow commentator.

In the fall of 1973, Khenkin and his wife-colleague Irina finally had their visa requests approved, arriving in Israel two days before the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War.

Demonstration to free Soviet Jewry, ca. 1970. From the Oded Yarkoni Archive of the History of Petach Tikva, part of the National Library of Israel’s Digital Collection

Yet the mystery around Kirill Khenkin thickened following a recent random discovery in the state archive of North Carolina in the United States: a photo dated 1940 of a debonair young man named Kirill Chenkin, who had a faculty file at Black Mountain College (BMC) as an instructor of French.

Could this be the same person, and what was he doing in the rural American South?


Black Mountain College

Founded in 1933 in the Appalachian foothills, the experimental, unconventional BMC lasted less than 30 years, but earned an iconic niche in American arts and education.

Design drawing of Black Mountain College, 1938 (Public domain)

A museum and arts center in nearby Asheville is dedicated to BMC’s heritage, and publishes The Journal of Black Mountain College Studies. We asked the journal’s editors whether it had ever published anything about Chenkin.

They replied:

“No, and we have always wondered about him. Would you like to clear up this mystery?”

We took up the challenge, which led us through a range of archives and personal collections on three continents. The intriguing results, which have just been published in Volume 12 of The Journal of Black Mountain College Studies, read much like a spy novel.

Kirill Chenkin, about to turn 24, applied out of the blue to BMC from New York in late January 1940. He introduced himself as a Russian brought up in Paris, a graduate of the Sorbonne who also learned Spanish during “two years of residence in Spain.” The college, always strapped for cash, took him on (at room and board plus $10 a month), on the strength of the excellent American references he had provided, all of them connected to the theatrical background of his parents.


Son of a celebrity

Kirill’s father Victor Chenkin, the son of a Jewish scrap-iron dealer from southern Russia, was a largely self-taught singer and actor, who displayed the impressive talent it took for a Jew to enter the mainstream theater in imperial  Russia. Performing in The Bat – the satiric revue company of Konstantin Stanislavsky’s celebrated Moscow Art Theater – he met actress Elizaveta Nelidova, the scion of a Russian aristocratic dynasty. To marry her under Tsarist law, Viktor must have converted pro forma, and their son Kirill, born in 1916, was thus registered as Russian-Orthodox.

But after the Revolution, when the Chenkins were allowed to go abroad while retaining Soviet citizenship, Victor won international renown with a one-man show that appealed especially to Jewish audiences.

Advertisement for Victor Chenkin’s show published in the December 4, 1931 edition of The B’nai B’rith Messenger. From the National Library of Israel Digital Collection
Promotional photo of Victor Chenkin appearing in the April 27, 1929 edition of The Forward. From the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

After they settled in Paris, Kirill was raised and influenced mostly by his mother while his father embarked on long, critically acclaimed tours across the United States and elsewhere, including Mandatory Palestine.


War and espionage

“Lida” Nelidova tended more to political activism, and was recruited to run pro-Soviet fronts among fellow expatriates. Kirill too, while still at university and scoring good reviews for his own stage debut, joined a Communist youth movement. Following the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, Kirill was recruited by a comrade of his mother’s in the NKVD secret police and intelligence agency.

Kirill Chenkin during the Spanish Civil War (Screenshot: White Emigrant International Brigades in Spain, Russian-language documentary film by Aleksei Shlianin, NTV-MediaMost, 2000)

He volunteered for the Soviet-backed International Brigade of the Republican Army fighting in Spain and was directed to join the agency’s outfit within the Brigade. There he acquired combat experiences, as well as expertise in explosives and undercover operations. This was the “residence in Spain” that he cautiously referred to in applying to Black Mountain College.

Only after learning of the prevailing pro-Republican attitude at the college did he disclose having fought for that cause. There is no evidence that he ever revealed his NKVD connection while at BMC, though he did flaunt “red” sympathies.

The dashing war veteran made quite a splash among the students but left few recorded footprints. Kirill kept out of group photos and kept to himself, though he did participate in the almost Soviet-style project in which the students built their own campus. He repeatedly declared intent to remain and naturalize in the United States, but shortly after the construction was completed, he suddenly served notice that he was going back to the Russia that he had left as a child.

Kirill Chenkin at Black Mountain College’s construction site, 1940. From the collection of French researcher Loic Damilaville, who befriended Chenkin in his old age

None of the explanations that Kirill provided for his abrupt departure – from homesickness to family constraints – seem to add up.

For Kirill and his parents, “repatriation” was ostensibly risky at best. Stalin’s purges were at their height, and, among many others, the NKVD agent who had recruited Chenkin had been recalled, arrested and shot.

Yet, if they did have reason to return, why the circuitous, year-long route they took across America, the Pacific and Siberia to Moscow? A series of clues we detected during the course of our research seems to indicate a plausible answer.

Following his service in Spain, Kirill’s NKVD boss Nahum (aka Leonid) Eitingon was tasked with planning the assassination of Stalin’s arch-rival Leon Trotsky, who was then in exile in Mexico. Eitingon set up an elaborate clandestine network in America for this purpose.

NKVD General Nahum Eitingon (Original image: The Forward / CC BY-SA 4.0)

As part of the network, Kirill was apparently prepositioned in an unobtrusive cover location in case his explosives expertise might be called for. He confided to a BMC student that he might be going to Mexico.

Trotsky was murdered in August 1940. There was no need to activate the entire network and its members were gradually withdrawn in the pursuing months. Shipping reports for the Port of Los Angeles show that the Chenkins set sail for Vladivostok on January 11, 1941 with a group of undercover Soviet operatives associated with Eitingon.


From disillusionment to activism

During the German siege of Moscow, Kirill was attached to the NKVD’s  “partisan” combat units intended to stay behind if the Soviet capital fell, but he was soon transferred to assignments that made better use of his linguistic abilities – first teaching, then writing and broadcasting as part of the Soviet propaganda efforts. He evaded recall to operational duties by rediscovering his Jewish identity during the anti-Semitic paroxysm of Stalin’s last days, and was never fully trusted again by the Soviet authorities. He would later recount that his disillusionment with the Soviet system had begun in Spain, but was not firmly cemented until 1968, when – on duty with a Czechoslovak party journal – he refused to justify the suppression of the “Prague Spring”.

Soviet tank on fire during the “Prague Spring”, 1968 (Public domain)

Back in Moscow, he became a confidant and spokesman for such dissidents as Andrei Sakharov, the renowned nuclear physicist and activist who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975.

If Chenkin’s connection to Zionism and his Jewish heritage was genuine beyond simply being a means to obtaining a ticket out of the USSR, it was certainly short-lived.

After moving to Israel, attending an ulpan in Tel Aviv and making one speaking tour in the United States on behalf of Soviet Jewry, he all but disappeared from the Israeli and Jewish scene.

The Yom Kippur War, which he arrived in Israel just in time to witness, was the first event he reported on for the US-sponsored, Russian-language Radio Liberty. He and Irina soon moved to the station’s base in Munich. The harshly anti-Soviet line in his commentary and publications seemed extreme even to some of his colleagues.


Endings and questions

On January 11, 1941, prior to sailing back to Russia, Kirill had cabled the rector of Black Mountain College from the Port of Los Angeles:

“Thanks for friendship. Good luck to you and BMC. Shall write from home.”

There is no evidence that he ever did. The telegram is the last document in Chenkin’s personnel file at the college. It was only late in life that he confided to a friend that in retrospect, his time in North Caroline was one of the happiest chapters in his story and a missed opportunity to change course.

Kirill Chenkin at about age 84 (Screenshot: White Emigrant International Brigades in Spain, Russian-language documentary film by Aleksei Shlianin, NTV-MediaMost, 2000)

Until his death on the French Riviera in 2008 at the age of 92, Kirill gave varying accounts of his life story. None of them ever mentioned – much less explained – his strange interlude at a remote American college as a possible “sleeper” who was never activated for one of Stalin’s most infamous crimes.


An extended version of this article was published in The Journal of Black Mountain College Studies. It appears here as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

‘Toyve the Black Cantor’ and His 1930 World Tour

When celebrated African-American Yiddish soloist Thomas Larue crossed the Atlantic, he didn't know what was in store...

Billed as "The greatest wonder in the world", reactions to LaRue's appearances in Europe varied greatly (Poster image source: The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research)

Edvin Relkin the 50 year-old promoter of the provocative and attention-grabbing LaRue world tour, worked his way up from a childhood as a Yiddish theater candy butcher to become a leading director. The audacious tour idea seemed to offer unlimited possibilities with a heretofore untapped market: a European audience which had rarely even seen a Black person let alone one who spoke like a native Yiddishist.

After lining up two producers in Poland, Relkin, whom Variety dubbed “The East Side Yiddish showman”, lived up to that appellation and took what was already an eyebrow raising experience – an articulate and accomplished Black man who had mastered singing in Jewish languages and styles – and transformed it into a living musical diorama of Jewish history underscored by the chosen concert itinerary: Palestine, Egypt, Western and Eastern Europe.

“The Greatest Sensation in Europe! Just one concert of the famous American Black Cantor (Negro) Toyvye the Black Cantor in a program of cantorial compositions and Yiddish folk songs.” Advertisement appearing in Haynt, 9 October, 1930. From the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

For the tour, Thomas LaRue was transformed into “Toyve Ha’Cohen,” the last part added for its implied “in-your-face” inference of his Jewish priestly lineage. Gone, too, was the story of the inner city child of a single mother who favored the company of Jews, now rebranded with a more colorful creation myth which toggled between: “…a Jew descended from generations of the Ten Lost Tribes in the city of Bet El Set between Abyssinia and Arabia,” (Republika Lodz, November 26, 1930) to his being “…a Shabtis, [a descendant of the followers of the 17th century false messiah, Shabbtai Zvi] with a father who was a healer and made herbal elixirs as did Toyve himself in New York” (Dos Naye Lebn, Bilaystock, October 24, 1930).

In the November 21st edition of Unzer Grodner Express, Ha’Cohen’s father was “…named Petrosi, a very cultured man who was a high official in local Abyssinian government, while his mother Alia, died when he was young.” And in order to explain (however improbably) LaRue’s New Jersey residence, Unzer Grodner Moment Express on November 21 noted that his father “…wanted him to be a fully realized Jew, so he was sent to study with a Russian rabbi in Newark.”

After the initial announcement in the June 1928 issue of Variety, the tour was finally ready to begin.

On September 19, 1930 several Polish Yiddish papers ran the following story:

Cairo (Jewish Telegraphic Agency) En route to Europe, a concert was given here by the Black Cantor from New York where he is known as ‘Toyve the Black Cantor.’ The Black cantor’s program of cantorial hymns and Yiddish folk songs elicited great interest and his large audiences had many non-Jews.”


The tour’s first European stop was Warsaw, the jewel in the crown of cantorial cities, given its world-renowned synagogues. Warsaw Jewish audiences were tough. Their enthusiastic devotion to cantorial singing split the difference between being about spiritual or esthetic uplift and being an aggressive blood sport.

The Great Synagogue of Warsaw, early 20th century. From the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

It was the latter which LaRue would experience at his premier.

In an unsigned October 10 Unzer Express concert review, the author makes clear at the outset (and at the close too, for good measure) that Eddie Rankin’s Polish partners were two “shady characters” who had earlier produced a disastrous cantorial concert leaving angry attendees demanding refunds, with the promoters nowhere to be found. This, then, was the Warsaw community (and Unzer Express) declaring war on the impresarios via the Toyve concert.

Knowing that they had previously been conned by the “shady characters,” everyone figured that the “Black Cantor” was a scam, too.

When LaRue stepped onto the stage, Conservatory Hall was largely empty but for some comped guests, a handful of intrepid curious and the ubiquitous confrontational hecklers in the gallery (at one point, they derisively called out “Sing ‘Sonny Boy!'” referring to the Al Jolson hit of the previous season).

Warsaw Conservatory, early 20th century (Public Domain)

And, despite LaRue not being the primary target of the boycott, the collateral damage he experienced was decisive, resulting in a truncated 50 minute concert with what little audience there was streaming out. It was capped off with a corrosive poison pen hit-piece in Unzer Express chastising LaRue for his stage mannerisms, his cantorial singing being influenced by 78 rpms, and even his Jewishness.

On the Unzer Express humor page, opposite the scathing review, a cartoon (which may appear offensive by today’s standards) continues to jab at the producers accused of booking someone who doesn’t even know how to read from a prayerbook:

“The ‘Cantor’ With His Apprentice. Impresario: Ivan! [shorthand name for a Gentile] Black Man! Turn the prayerbook right-side up. How are you holding it?” Published in the Unzer Express, 10 October 1930. From the National Library of Israel Digital Collection


“Toyvele, the Black cantor demonstrated here that the defamation he faced in the pages of a well known Warsaw newspaper was completely without merit.”

So ran the lead line in the October 29 review of LaRue’s Bialystock concert. The paper, Dos Naye Leben (The New Life) had been fans of LaRue’s since 1921 when they re-ran an ecstatic review from New York’s Morgn Zhurnal about LaRue in “Yente Telebende.”

The paper rolled out the red carpet for LaRue giving him three features including an October 24 sit down with their editor:

“…he is a genial young man of not just looks but his speech makes it seem as if the waters of the Jewish Diaspora have cascaded down upon him…”

The writer also deflated the charge in the Warsaw paper about LaRue’s reliance on commercial sound recordings by deftly acknowledging it:

True, his cantorial prayers sound as if he learned them off phonograph records and lack the burning immediacy of traditional cantorial improvisation, but the same can be said for a hundred percent of modern cantors even those who are currently practicing.”

And finally, a stellar October 29th concert review:

“...the audience gave him several standing ovations not allowing him to go on with the rest of the concert…. He is an unrivaled master worthy of the kind of praise heaped upon opera singers. In bestowing sincerity, honesty and artistic heart in each of his songs, you experience his true artistry.”


After appearing in Grodno on October 25th, then traveling to Leipzig and Berlin at the beginning of November, Larue returned to Grodno towards the end of the month amid a flurry of intense local interest, with Unzer Grodner Express (Our Grodno Express) reporting on November 20:

” …the Black cantor arrives here direct from Berlin where his concerts in their largest concert hall generated such a colossal response that he had to increase to 12 his scheduled three concerts… The Berlin music critics were effusive in their praise of the Black cantor in the Berliner Tageblatt, Vossische Zeitung, Morgen Post and many others. Reviewers were captivated by the concerts so it would stand to reason that in Grodno – where we know a thing or two about cantors – his imminent arrival has generated so much interest.” 

The tour ends

Following a performance in Lodz, LaRue would end his European tour where it started in Warsaw, as a guest of the Polish state radio in a concert of cantorial songs, thus having the last word in the city which gave his European tour its terrible start.

There would be a small European coda when LaRue returned to Europe the following year. An Associated Press dispatch in the April 13, 1931 New York Times noted that Toyve Ha’Cohen had just sung at the Hungarian Academy of Music in Budapest. Curiously, there appear to be no mentions of LaRue in the New York Times for any of his local New York performances.

In 1936, LaRue’s old employers, Jacobs and Goldberg (for whom he did Dos Khupe Kleyd and Yente Telebende), brought him back to the theater in the drama Di Falshe Tokhter (The False Daughter) at Brooklyn’s Parkway theater, having lost their Harlem Lenox Theater during The Depression. LaRue’s appearance – in a specially created “cabaret” scene – not only made it into the Yiddish press, but was also carried in the October 10th edition of the African-American newspaper The Amsterdam News.

One preview notice for a 1936 New Year’s eve concert and dinner dance at a synagogue in East Orange, New Jersey reveals the kind of complicated dynamic between LaRue and the communities he served. Atypically, LaRue is not singing cantorial and Yiddish music, but leading something called “The Bumble Bees Radio Broadcast Orchestra” and, in a reprise of an appearance at their last New Year party, organized and MC’d a minstrel show replete with “coon shouters” (blues singers).

The last known LaRue appearance is for a December 1953 Hanukah concert in his native Newark.

LaRue remains a cypher, occasionally visible in articles and display ads in period newspapers as a performer but also naggingly invisible there, too as a man.

LaRue inhabited a curious niche within the Jewish community, an uneasy mix of being apart from and a part of it.

Did he marry? Did he have children? Did he attend a synagogue when not performing synagogue music? What did he do between the ever-decreasing Jewish concerts? For that matter, was he even Jewish?

The kind of music culture in which LaRue had invested himself would, in the outwash of the Holocaust, go into a freefall with post-War Jewish audiences for whom the old time florid soloistic cantorial style gave way to milder “congregational singing,” while Yiddish, a major Jewish language and its attendant culture would decline after a majority of its speakers were murdered and its fecund old world communities destroyed.

Thomas LaRue’s final resting place was recently discovered in Linden, New Jersey, yet it is tragic that when he passed away, he certainly may not have been honored in the traditional way, which would have greatly resonated: to the strains of “El Mole Rachamim,” the prayer for the dead, a cornerstone intonation in the traditional cantorial repertoire, and something with which LaRue would have been intimately familiar.


A version of this article appeared on Henry Sapoznik’s Research BlogIt appears here as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

How Did This Jewish Scholar Defend the Cossacks and Survive the Soviets?

The complicated and all-but-forgotten legacy of Saul Borovoi

"Throughout his research, Borovoi underscored how the calcified myths of Jewish life in Ukraine blind historians to the true way of life at the time." (Composite image: Borovoi in 1947, from Vospominaniia / Russian propaganda poster, ca. 1900)

In the late 1980s, an all-but-forgotten scholar named Saul Iakovlevich Borovoi (1903-1989) helped lead a revival of Jewish studies in the Soviet Union, his life having already spanned the entire history of the USSR, and then some.

Borovoi’s younger colleagues widely praised him. His voluminous work included such diverse topics as the origins of banking in Russia, Alexander Pushkin, and aristocratic culture of the nineteenth century.

“Saul Iakovlevich Borovoi’s contribution to our nation’s historical scholarship was so broad and multifaceted that one can only regret that fame and appreciation during his life were not extended to him in full,” wrote noted Russian scholar R.S. Ganelin after Borovoi’s passing.


Surviving the Soviets

Borovoi was a survivor, thriving as a Jewish academic despite numerous public and professional denunciations. Countless colleagues were forced to flee or were repressed in various way. In explaining his survival, Borovoi simply claimed that he benefitted from extraordinary good fortune.

Borovoi. From Vospominaniia (Memoirs), part of the National Library of Israel collection

Yet in reality, he protected himself by “meeting the needs” of the Soviet historical establishment, selectively interpreting the past, adopting aspects of the Soviet ideology from his time, and presenting Jews in ways that conformed to the political climate and demands of the Communist Party. In fact, he became an accepted member of the intellectual elite, despite not becoming politically subservient in retaining his integrity as a serious scholar of Ukrainian and Russian-Jewish history.

In general, the Soviet intellectual milieu in the 1920s was characterized by contradictions.

Judaism was condemned and its representatives – rabbis, communal leaders, and teachers – were repressed. Yet at the same time the government offered support for secular and pro-Communist Jewish culture. The Communist government frequently funded Jewish schools, museums, and scholarly institutions. In Kiev and Minsk, special scholarly institutions dedicated to the Yiddish language and culture were established. Scholars were employed and valuable libraries and artifacts (expropriated from other centers) were collected for study.

Strides made by scholars in the last years of tsarist Russia significantly advanced Jewish studies, yet the Soviet government aimed to keep scholarly work within strict ideological bounds. In particular, the authorities prohibited mentioning Zionism or using Hebrew, while promoting Yiddish as the language of the Jewish working class.

A group of well-known Jewish intellectuals, including renowned Hebrew literary figures Hayim Nahman Bialik, and Yehoshua Ravnitsky, shortly before leaving the Russian Empire for good via Odessa, 1921. From the National Library of Israel Photography Collection

In the mid-1920s, there was a push to integrate Jewish scholarship into the general literary life of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. The production of Judaica in Ukraine noticeably increased. In this way, the government showed sensitivity to Ukrainian language and culture as part of a policy to cultivate the loyalty of national minorities.



As a historian, Saul Borovoi had come of age in the period between the Bolshevik Revolution and the start of World War II. He was born in Odessa to parents who enthusiastically supported modern Hebrew literature. Family guests included Mendele Mocher Sforim, Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Ravnitsky. Borovoi’s father was a funder of Moria, the renowned Hebrew publishing house.

Borovoi as a young man. From Vospominaniia (Memoirs), part of the National Library of Israel collection

In 1924, the younger Borovoi received a law degree, enrolling in the Institute of Archeology around the same time.

Although there were voices against his promotion, influential scholars supported his advancement and he obtained a faculty position at Odessa’s Commercial Institute in 1932.

Not until 1940, however, did Borovoi defend his doctoral thesis on the Jews of Ukraine in the 16th  and 17th centuries.

Aerial view of Odessa, ca. 1940

During World War II, he spent three years in Samarkand, and after his return to Odessa, he resumed employment. In 1952, Borovoi was targeted for arrest during the Doctor’s Plot, but apparently escaped harm by virtue of his cramped living quarters. According to his account, NKVD agents were disappointed to find that he lived in a communal apartment, when as a professor he could have acquired a three-bedroom flat.

In fact, he left Odessa to escape arrest and stayed with relatives in Moscow. Stalin’s death saved him from further harm and within a year he was rehired at the Commercial Institute.

Unable to publish on Jewish history, Borovoi turned to general economic history.

His memoirs, Vospominaniia (Memoirs), published posthumously in 1993, provide a masterful portrayal of Jewish Odessa, vividly transmitting the atmosphere of pre-Soviet and then Soviet Odessa, Borovoi portrays notable portraits of the age as well as disquisitions on central historical themes and academic problems that he himself experienced.


Converts, Nihilists and Revolutionaries

In his articles from the early and mid-1920s, Borovoi portrayed the types that would reappear throughout his work. They include tsarist-era converts to Christianity, Jewish nihilists and revolutionaries, Jewish advisers to the tsarist government, and even merchants who collaborated with anti-Semites – “bad Jews” – in the words of Shulamit Magnes, a specialist on modern Jewish history.

Borovoi also focused on the internecine fighting among non-religious Jews from various factions, including radicals and government workers. Each side attacked the other using denunciations and gossip even though they had the same goal of radical russification.

In the mid-1930s, Borovoi faced a perilous political situation directed against historians who “deviated” from the party line. Arrests for “bourgeois” leanings and “nationalist deviations” were just some of the trumped up charges.  During this period Borovoi began his analysis of Jews in the Ukrainian uprising in the seventeenth century. Although he portrayed Jews who broke from the Jewish collective, here he also emphasized Ukrainian-Jewish unity.


Defending the Cossacks

Making use of documents that had not been available to earlier scholars, Borovoi took issue with the conventional interpretation that Jews were innocent victims, torn between Polish noblemen and Khmelnitsky’s Cossacks. According to Borovoi, Jews were fully engaged on the side of the Polish landlords whom they served and on whose victory their livelihood depended.

At the same time Borovoi made an unexpected discovery – that there existed Jewish Cossacks who aided the Ukrainians. In his view, two kinds of Jews lived among the Cossacks. One group consisted of Jews who converted to Russian Orthodoxy and joined as fighters (rarely) or as Christian clergy. For such Jews, membership in the 17th and 18th century Ukrainian Cossack state known as the “Hetmanate” offered escape from the fear of being captured and sold as slaves or for ransom.

Painting of 17th century Zaporozhian Cossacks by Ilya Repin, ca. 1890. Click image to enlarge

According to Borovoi, Cossacks also found allies in merchants who abetted the exploitation of peasant labor. Jews, who earlier had bought and sold the peasants’ produce for the Polish lords, fulfilled the same function for the Cossacks. In this way, Jews helped expand trade with the Turks in the South and Europeans in the West. Eventually Cossack fortunes fell as the tsarist government shifted trade routes to avoid a Cossack transit tax.

Although documentary evidence offers little information about Jews who came to live in the Hetmanate, Borovoi identifies certain individuals by name – for example, Moisei Gorlinskii and Musia Iosifovich.

Surprisingly, he claims that Jews who worked for the Cossacks were not objects of discrimination:

“Our materials testify with enough conviction that Jews in the Sech (Cossack camp) at this time were not subject to any special discipline and did not experience any special inhibition in their activities. Therefore, we have the right to speak of Jewish ‘equality’ in the Sech, of course in that framework where equality could exist for the non-Cossack population of Zaporozh’e [that was] restricted in participating in its political life.”

Oddly Borovoi uses the term “ravnopravie”— “equality,” a goal of Jews in tsarist Russia—to describe a coercive reality based on fear of Cossack violence.

Rather than criticize Jewish Cossacks for betraying their co-religionists at a time of crisis, Borovoi focused on their unity with the Ukrainians. Although the number of Jewish Cossacks was statistically insignificant, Borovoi exaggerates their importance, presumably to demonstrate the friendship between Jews and Ukrainians.

It would be too dogmatic to see Borovoi as an apologist of Ukraine. What he argues instead is that control by the military officials known as “Hetman” in Southern Ukraine in the late 17th century did not do away with Jewish trading in the area, but actually increased it.

According to Borovoi, for those Jews who found work trading with the Cossacks, conditions in those territories might have been superior to conditions elsewhere in Europe. The records show much rougher economic and social conditions in Poland, for example. By making these comparisons, Borovoi could in some way justifiably proclaim that there was “no persecution” in dealing with the Cossacks.

“The Cossacks Plunder”. From the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Throughout his research, Borovoi underscored how the calcified myths of Jewish life in Ukraine blind historians to the true way of life at the time.

When it came to some of the tragic events of his own lifetime, Borovoi refused to differentiate between Ukrainians and Russians, underscoring the link between Jews and non-Jews. Although noting examples of collaboration by officials and certain intellectuals, he expressed pride in the help extended by Odessa’s non-Jewish population during World War II, writing:

 ”Towards the end of spring of 1942, they [Jews] began to receive a tiny ration [around 200 grams of bread, frozen potatoes, and so on]. Furthermore, their position gradually worsened.  Although Jews lived and worked in isolation, nonetheless, between them and the local population some contact developed. The majority of the local population related to Jews with sympathy, and this was something fundamental, almost essential, that helped save those whom the bullet of the executioner and epidemics had missed. Thanks to the peasants, they [Jews] could somehow feed themselves and hold out until liberation day.”

Borovoi also gave special praise to Soviet partisans who perished in the fight against Fascism, noting that a number of these patriots were Jewish.


Remembering Jewish Suffering

Yet Borovoi never forgot Jewish suffering during this period. Having acknowledged the pain inflicted on all Soviet peoples by the Nazi invasion, he described the martyrdom of the Jewish people in particular. Transmitting eye-witness accounts of mass shootings, the suffering of marches in the terrible cold, and other impossible horrors, Borovoi mapped out the areas of Odessa and its suburbs that had been transformed into a killing field:

”The Domanev territory located in the north-eastern part of Odessa county was the most abandoned and far from Odessa’s train routes. It was designated as the best place for the creation of the ghetto – or to put it precisely – the place of mass extermination.  Bogdanovka entered into our tragic history forever as the Majdanek of the Transnistria… The other terrible place that one should remember is Akhmechet Headquarters – a real death camp located twelve kilometers from the village of Akhmechet on a pig farm. It was not a coincidence of course that pig farms were chosen as places of extermination. In this [decision] the ‘humor’ of the fascist executioners was expressed.”

Although Borovoi had at times minimized the significance of the Jewish collective, here he expressed his deep sympathy for the martyrs. At the same time Borovoi expressed his deep distain for Jews who denied their heritage to save themselves. It is possible that Borovoi felt survivor’s guilt.

Bodies of Jews murdered in Transnistria, October 1941

With his escape from Odessa as a member of the institute’s faculty, he left his father and brother in danger. His father died on the road and thousands of his neighbors went to their graves because they did not have sufficient influence to acquire a spot on the list of the saved. In any case he now praised the Jewish collective that he had earlier viewed with skepticism.

Regarding his own life, Borovoi asserted that antisemitism did not play a significant role, yet the recollections in his memoirs of post-war Odessa are chilling:

“I looked hard at the traits of my native city.  A great deal was new, that was difficult to get used to, and to which one could not become reconciled. On the gates of many houses one could see crosses painted haphazardly. It signified that the house had been cleansed of Jews. The house managers and officials were not hurrying to erase them. They were still visible almost a year after liberation. More than once and for a long time one could hear from behind, ‘The pests have come back.’  The word ‘pest’ in the mouth of Odessites who had survived the occupation acquired a distinctly ethnic connotation.”


Longevity and Legacy

In the last years of Stalin’s rule the Jewish theme was off-limits even to Borovoi. His book on the Jews in Ukraine in the 17th century was never published, although a leading Moscow publishing house, the Sabashnikov Brothers, had accepted it for publication. Nonetheless, parts of the book appeared as articles in journals.

Borovoi’s longevity was due in part to his low profile and his refusal to join to the Communist Party during the purges. He also refrained from defending his dissertation until he was thirty-five. However, he always affirmed his loyalty to the Soviet Union.

Borovoi, 1962. From Vospominaniia (Memoirs), part of the National Library of Israel collection

In his memoirs Borovoi stated:

“Nonetheless I have been happy in my life. I survived the difficult years of revolution, civil war, hunger, and epidemics. I was not repressed in the thirties or the early fifties, and that was a happy coincidence. The most serious illnesses passed me by. I was able to spend my life engaged with my favorite subject. I was lucky to meet many good, kind, and smart people…”

Although Borovoi’s research conformed to what was considered acceptable by the Soviet authorities,  it would be wrong to view him as an ideological spokesman for the party.

He depicted Jewish individuals differentiated by class and identity, educational achievement, and professional status. Even so-called “bad Jews” were symbols of modernity and radical change.

Borovoi offered compelling studies that showed the fissures, internecine conflicts, and internal weaknesses among the Jews of Eastern Europe. His treatment of history was far from one-dimensional.

A version of this article appeared in Russian-Jewish Tradition:  Intellectuals, Historians, RevolutionariesIt appears here as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

The Jewish Book That Revealed the Secrets of the Heavens

In 1600, three scholars from completely different worlds met in the “New Venice” castle outside Prague. The meeting lasted three weeks and resulted in a Hebrew astronomy book, as well as in a lesson about the unifying power of love for the sciences and the quest for knowledge

Our story begins in 1599, when Tycho Brahe, the Danish astronomer and nobleman, arrived in the city of Prague in Bohemia (now the Czech Republic), at the invitation of Emperor Rudolf II, after he was forced to flee his own country. Rudolf II, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, was known for his interest in art, the sciences and alchemy. After moving his court from Vienna to Prague, the city became a magnet for artists and scientists. At the time, Prague was an oasis of tolerance in an empire divided by religious tensions. The city’s splintered religious communities managed to live together in relative harmony.

The same calm prevailed in the Jewish Quarter. Its Hebrew printing house, which was one of the first of its kind in Central and Eastern Europe, had transformed Prague into a center of Hebrew learning. At the same time, the Prague Beit Midrash (a Jewish “house of learning”), headed by the famous Rabbi Judah Loew Ben Bezalel, also known as the Maharal of Prague, attracted scholars from across the Jewish world. One of the Maharal’s students was David Gans, who despite his rabbinical education, was drawn to Renaissance culture and began writing studies on history and the sciences in Hebrew.

The crowded living conditions and various plagues that swept through the Jewish Quarter led the curious scholar to leave Prague, but he diligently continued his studies. At some point, he heard that the most famous astronomer of the day, Tycho Brahe, had relocated his great observatory and astronomy research center to the “New Venice” castle north of Prague, not far from the village where Gans was then living. With a dose of good old-fashioned Jewish chutzpah, the industrious self-taught Gans, who had no formal scientific education, decided to pay a visit to the castle and see how he might gain access and perhaps learn some of the secrets of the universe.

The “New Venice” castle today in Benátky nad Jizerou, Czech Republic

Surprisingly, Gans received a warm welcome, and he remained at the castle for three weeks (likely excluding Fridays and Saturdays), learning from the best minds of the time. He described impressive and complex measuring tools beyond his imagination, as Brahe was known to have made his many discoveries without the aid of the telescope, which was still in its infancy as a scientific tool. While at the observatory, Gans also met and studied with Brahe’s assistant, Johannes Kepler, who was himself destined for greatness in the field of science. Gans also made his own humble contribution by translating Hebrew astronomical texts that were otherwise unavailable to Brahe and Kepler.

Illustration from the Jessnitz print edition of Gans’ book, Neḥmad VeNa’im

Gans wrote the Hebrew book Neḥmad VeNa’im (“Nice and Pleasant”) in which he recounts his meeting with the two great scientists and what he saw and learned while he was in their company. He describes in detail the impressive observatory, and how Brahe would “seclude himself there with his wise men . . . and . . . sit with twelve men, all wise and astute in science . . . and the great analytical tools never before seen and the thirteen rooms all in a row which the emperor had built him, and a special tool in each room.” Gans also explains how the tools were used to calculate astronomical and geographical measurements, thus separating the Ptolemaic cosmological knowledge he was familiar with, from the innovative Copernican astronomy he encountered.

In that time, the distinctions dividing science and mysticism, as well as astronomy and astrology, were fairly blurry. In fact, many scientists and scholars, Brahe and Kepler included, dabbled in occultism. Gans devoted some of his sketches to an explanation of the zodiac, but these were clearly separate from the main content of his book. Apparently, this distinction was intended to alert readers to the value of scientific observation over mystical divination. Furthermore, Gans makes a number of statements in the book that deny the use of astronomy as a means of foreknowledge and argues that this form of knowledge is misguided, and that even the slightest use of the zodiac [as a scientific tool] was wrong in his view. It seems that Neḥmad VeNa’im’s purist, Copernican viewpoint led to a later printing in 1743, 130 years after Gans’ death.

Brahe died about a year after his encounter with Gans and was buried in splendor in the Church of Our Lady before Týn, in the Old Town of Prague. Kepler moved to Prague for a few years where he served as a scientist in service to the court. He resided just a few minutes’ walk from the Jewish Quarter, where Gans had returned to live. We know that Kepler and Gans maintained a correspondence, apparently communicating in German peppered with Hebrew, which Kepler remembered from his studies at the University of Tübingen. According to Neḥmad VeNa’im, Kepler even claimed that the solar system moved elliptically, similar to the Hebrew letter khaf (כ). In 1613, the same year that David Gans died, Kepler left Prague in order to further his research and thus ended the story of these three scholars – a Danish nobleman, a German burgher and a rabbinical Renaissance man – brought together through their curiosity and love of knowledge and science.

One no longer need infiltrate a remote castle to discover what Gans was so eager to learn. His book can now be read on the National Library of Israel website in the original Hebrew. A number of manuscript copies of Neḥmad VeNa’im are also available.

Illustration included in a manuscript copy of Neḥmad VeNa’im


Further Reading:

Jewish Thought and the Scientific Revolution of the Sixteenth Century: David Gans (1541-1613) and His Times, André Neher, translated from the French by David Maisel, Oxford University Press, 1986