Did an Illicit Relationship Lead to the Expulsion of England’s Jews?

The story of two courageous converts, their Jewish wives and institutional anti-Semitism

"There was a priest who… desired a very beautiful woman…" (Image source: Rijksmuseum / Public Domain)

Little is known about Robert of Reading, a 13th century Catholic preacher who converted to Judaism and married a Jewish woman, an act that some have claimed led to the Edict of Expulsion, which legally barred Jews from England for nearly four centuries.

King Edward I of England, also known as “Edward Longshanks”, issued 1290’s Edict of Expulsion, one of many sad events in Jewish history to take place on and around the somber day of Tisha B’Av (Dulwich Picture Gallery / Public Domain)

In truth, there were apparently two Roberts of Reading who converted to Judaism in 13th century England, each adopting the Hebrew name “Haggai” and marrying a Jewish wife.

The First Robert of Reading

The first Robert was a deacon and student of Hebrew at Oxford. Following his conversion to Judaism, this Robert was brought before the Archbishop of Canterbury, where evidence was presented against him, and according to the papers of preeminent English legal historian Frederic William Maitland:

“When it was seen that the deacon was circumcised, and that no argument would bring him to his senses… a cross with the Crucified was brought before him and he defiled the cross, saying, ‘I renounce the new-fangled law and the comments of Jesus the false prophet,’ and he reviled and slandered Mary the mother of Jesus, and made a charge against her not to be repeated.”

By this account, Robert was taken out and decapitated, though his wife managed to escape the same fate. The executor reportedly lamented, “I am sorry that this fellow goes to hell alone.”

The Next Robert

A few generations later, another Robert of Reading – also known as Robert de Reddinge – a Dominican friar in London, appeared on the stage of history. Like many others, Robert was tasked with trying to convert Jews to Christianity. In order to do so, he was sent to learn Hebrew.

Yet the Church’s plan seems to have backfired, as the more Hebrew and Jewish texts he mastered, the more drawn he apparently became to the maligned faith. Handed over to the Archbishop of Canterbury by King Edward himself, Robert “defended his new faith with great warmth,” according to the historian Heinrich Graetz, who believed that the conversion was genuine and not undertaken due to ulterior motives, such as the desire to marry a beautiful Jewish woman…

Illustration of Edward I appearing in A Chronicle of England, B.C. 55-A.D. 1485, available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Though this Robert’s fate remains unknown, Graetz believed that both he and his wife actually escaped to safety. Modern scholars, including Richard Huscroft in Expulsion: England’s Jewish Solution and Robin Mundill in England’s Jewish Solution: Experiment and Expulsion, 1262-1290, have concluded that Robert actually died in prison.

Either way, his acts clearly further enflamed the already ubiquitous English anti-Semitism.

According to Graetz’s account, the Dominicans were so embarrassed following Robert’s conversion and marriage that they quickly approached the “bigoted, avaricious queen-mother, Eleanor, [who] …first expelled the Jews from the town of Cambridge which belonged to her, and personally fostered the hostile feeling against them throughout the whole country, especially among Christian merchants.”

In fact, in 1275, the very same year that Robert converted, King Edward decreed a number of new anti-Semitic laws known collectively as Statutum de Judaismo (Statute of the Jewry), which among other things restricted the types of occupations permitted to Jews and the areas in which they were allowed to live.

An illicit relationship and its repercussions

Many historical sources draw no connection between Robert of Reading, his Jewish wife and the expulsion of English Jewry. In fact, the couple is often not even mentioned at all in that context.

Yet, a very direct connection between this convert, his wife and the king’s edict does appear quite prominently in a popular early 16th century work called Shevet Yehuda, written by Solomon ibn Virga a chronicler who was among those expelled from Spain. In ibn Virga’s story, there is a beautiful “Jewess” at the very center of this tragic event:

“There was a priest who… desired a very beautiful woman… and he would talk to her every day [but] she told him that she would not marry an uncircumcised one. The priest, who desired her and loved her and listened to her and secretly converted and married her. When his [fellow priests] heard about this thing, it was a disgrace – adding to their hatred of the Jews – and they demanded to harm the Jews…”

Ibn Virga further describes how the defamed Christians went to the king’s mother who tried to persuade her son to expel all of the Jews, though he wasn’t so easily swayed because of how important he knew the Jews to be for his kingdom.

Illustration of Edward I of England on his throne appearing in Chroniques de France ou de St. Denis, ca. 1400 (British Library / Public Domain)

She then went to his ministers to try and persuade them. Though they also understood the Jews’ importance to the kingdom, they were afraid of her and agreed to work together to convince the king to banish the Jews, ultimately succeeding.

Historian Joseph Hacohen tells a similar tale in his Emek Habakha (Vale of Tears), a chronicle of Jewish history traditionally read by some Italian Jews on Tisha B’Av. In that version, the priest even dresses up as a Jew in order to be able to speak with the object of his desire.

A work attributed to 16th century Italian Jewish scholar Gedaliah ibn Yahya ben Joseph may have mixed up the stories of the two Roberts, and taken additional poetic license as chroniclers of that time were known to do:

“A priest in England consented to be circumcised in order to be married to a Jewess, with whom he was desperately enamoured. The affair became known to the citizens, who were desirous of burning them. But the king chose to execute the revenge in a different way, and decreed that within three months, they should change their religion: those who circumcised the priest were burned and many of the Jews changed their religion.”

[Translation from “The Jews in Great Britain”, page 391]


Connections and questions

The causal connection between Robert of Reading’s conversion and marriage and the expulsion of English Jewry seems tenuous at best, among other reasons due to the fact that his conversion in the summer of 1275 took place a full 15 years before Edward I’s edict.

Rabid, wide-spread and state- and Church-sponsored anti-Semitism was not new to England and would culminate with the expulsion in 1290.

Prior to the expulsion, English Jews were forced to wear tablet-shaped badges like those appearing in this illustration of Jews being beaten, which appears in the Chronicle of Rochester, 1355 (British Library / Public Domain)

While Robert’s conversion and subsequent marriage were definitely notable given the king’s personal involvement, it does not seem that one friar converting and marrying a Jewish woman would have been – nor was it – the determining factor that brought about the expulsion.

Though the Jewish chronicle texts above can certainly not be taken as full historical truths, they raise fascinating questions about how and why such tales specifically captured the imagination of Jewish writers and their readers, and what role these courageous converts and their Jewish wives may have actually had in the broader context of this most tragic period in English Jewish history.

Many thanks to National Library of Israel expert Dr. Yacov Fuchs for his assistance untangling countless editions of 16th century manuscripts.

This article has been published 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.

Who Was the Real Model for Kafka’s Gregor Samsa?

A leading theory ties the identity of the insect from Franz Kafka's classic "The Metamorphosis" to the author’s Hebrew teacher

Mordechai Langer as a Hasid and after he returned to a secular lifestyle, the Mordechai Langer Collection at the National Library of Israel

One of the most famous stories ever written in Prague is Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, which tells of a man who wakes up one bright morning to discover that he has become a “monstrous insect.” Reams have been written about the infinite symbolism of this story, which many see as a kind of great modern parable about rootlessness and the absurdity and helplessness of the human being faced with an irrational world. The best and brightest have offered complicated and bizarre interpretations about the grotesque insect that must face the hardships of reality and his immediate surroundings. Yet, it may be that the story’s inspiration is based on a real person—a Jew who lived in the city of Prague.

That Jew is Jiří (Georgo) Mordechai Langer, a local intellectual from a family that could be defined as Jewish, Czech, and even a bit German. They lived a comfortable bourgeois life outside of the Jewish Quarter, which many Jews in Prague had left behind in the as part of the Jewish emancipation process toward full citizenship. But something about Langer was different. He saw himself, first and foremost, as a Jew with a spiritual destiny. Langer’s spiritual journey took him to the Hasidic courts of Poland, and when he returned to his family in Prague, he looked like someone who had undergone a transformation. He had adopted the way of life, as well as the clothing, of a Belz Hasid. This was completely alien and even embarrassing to the Jews of Prague, who had left the ghetto life behind. Langer even behaved like an ascetic, eating only bread and onions, and walking at a fast pace, as was the Hasidic custom.

A statue of Franz Kafka indicating the place of his birth in Prague, photo: Dor Ben-Ari

At the same time, in Prague Langer acquired a deep and even poetic knowledge of Hebrew, while writing about the world of Kabbalah and Hasidism. He made a name for himself throughout the city thanks to his vast scope of knowledge, and among his Hebrew students was the as yet unknown writer Franz Kafka, who in one of his letters referred to his teacher as “the Westjude [lit. Western Jew] who assimilated into Hasidism.” Kafka witnessed Langer’s feelings of alienation from his own family, and one can note many similarities with the character of Gregor Samsa, the protagonist of The Metamorphosis. Langer’s brother, the writer František Langer, also noticed the resemblance. In any case, scholars today see a close connection between the city of Prague and the stories of Franz Kafka, and between Kafka and the Jewish community of Prague.

Photograph of Mordechai Langer from his book Me’at Zari [Hebrew], Davar Publishers

Nearly a century has passed since Kafka’s Hebrew lessons and fascinating encounters with Langer. Nevertheless, their respective literary legacies can be found under the same roof at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, alongside the archives of other members of Prague’s Jewish intellectual circle of those days, among them the writer Max Brod and the philosopher Samuel Hugo Bergmann. Prof. Dov Sadan deposited Mordechai Langer’s archive at the National Library, a collection which includes letters, copies of manuscripts, a few photographs and, for the most part, printed material related to the literary activity of the man who might very well have been the inspiration for Kafka’s best-known story.


‘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.