Resurrecting One of the World’s Oldest Jewish Communities

After decades in ruins, Nikos Stavroulakis set out to revitalize Jewish life on the Greek island of Crete

Composite image of paintings by Nikos Stavroulakis appearing in front of a photograph he took of the Etz Hayyim Synagogue ruins in Hania, Crete, prior to the restoration efforts he led (© Nikos Stavroulakis)

Jews first arrived in Crete from Egypt some 2,300 years ago, perhaps as part of Egyptian military campaigns. A century or two later, they came from the Land of Israel during the Maccabean Revolt.

At the time, Hellenized, Greek-speaking Jews were establishing communities throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, considered to be some of the oldest known Jewish diaspora communities.

Their descendants came to be known as “Romaniote Jews,” over time developing a distinct culture including liturgical traditions and songs, and speaking “Yevanic”, a Judeo-Greek dialect infused with Hebrew loanwords and written in Hebrew script.

A manuscript of Romaniote piyyutim (liturgical poems), 1853. From the National Library of Israel collection

Romaniote synagogues even have a distinct interior layout that differs from Sephardic and Ashkenazi synagogues.

Through ancient inscriptions, medieval manuscripts and other written and archaeological sources, we can trace some of the history of Cretan Jewry, which thrived under Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Andalusian Arab, Venetian and Ottoman control, before being nearly extinguished under German occupation in 1944.

Today, the Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Hania is practically the only remaining testament on the island to the rich Cretan Jewish heritage, which spanned two millennia.


Ancient sources

Jewish communities on Crete are first referenced in 4th century BCE epitaph inscriptions from Kassanoi and Kissamos where, in the city of Kissamos, a “Sophia of Gortyna, an elder and leader of the synagogue” attests to the leading role of women in diaspora communities.

A community in Gortyna is described in the First Book of Maccabees (15:23) dating to around 142 BCE, when Gortyna was the most prosperous city in Crete. Although only fragmentary inscriptions remain in Crete, inscriptions dating to the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE from an ancient synagogue on the island of Delos honor two citizens of the Cretan cities of Heraklion and Knossos, providing evidence of the existence of a Jewish community on the island during that period, as well.

Greek receipt for payment of Jewish tax, 30 August 110 CE (Archaeological Museum of Kraków / Public domain). Click image to enlarge

By the time of the Roman conquest of Crete in the 1st century BCE, Jewish communities were thriving in most of the major cities, including Gortyna, Kissamos, Hania, Rethymnon, Knossos and Sitia.

According to the renowned Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, the larger Greek islands, including Crete, were “full of Jewish settlements” (Legatione ad Gaium, 282).

Jewish communities in Crete are also referenced in the New Testament’s Acts of the Apostles (2:11) as having been present at Pentecost (Shavuot) in Jerusalem, as well as in the Epistle of Paul to Titus (1-9:16) in which Paul describes the “Jewish Christians” in Crete. After the fall of the Roman Empire in the West in 476 CE, Roman rule continued in the eastern part of the empire, later termed the Byzantine Empire, where its citizens continued to view themselves as “Romans”, a term that would eventually be associated with the Greek-speaking Jews, the Romaniotes.

Mosaic floor of a Romaniote synagogue in Aegina, ca. 300 CE (Public domain). Click image to enlarge

At the time, Crete was one of the 64 provinces of the Byzantine Empire, with its capital in Constantinople. Jews are not explicitly mentioned in extant historical accounts from the short-lived “Emirate of Crete” (825-961 CE), established following the Andalusian Arab conquest of the island, but they certainly remained.

During the late Byzantine period (961-1204 CE), historical sources indicate that Jewish communities were not permitted to live within the island’s walled cities, but were instead required to live outside the walls as close as possible to the main city gates which offered protection in times of danger.


Into and outside the Ghetto

In 1204, after the sacking of Constantinople as part of the 4th Crusade, which led to the temporary dissolution of the Byzantine Empire, Crete became a Venetian colony called the “Kingdom of Kandia” with Heraklion (Kandia) as the island’s capital. According to Venetian accounts, Crete’s Jewish population grew significantly in the 14th and 15th centuries due to the influx of Sephardi Jews from the Iberian Peninsula following the exodus of 1391, the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 and again after the Spanish Expulsion in 1492. It seems that these and other immigrant families were absorbed into the indigenous Romaniote communities through the adoption of the local language, culture and religious customs, along with intermarriage.

Map of Crete during the Venetian period, 1571. From the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel

By the 16th century, the three main Cretan cities, Heraklion (Kandia), Rethymnon (Retimo) and Hania (La Canea) were flourishing under Venetian rule, their populations steadily growing and the economy thriving due to trade and shipping.

At this time, Cretan Jews maintained already-established communities in the three major cities, though they were required to live in segregated ghettos or quarters called “Zudecca“, where they worked as grocers, artisans, tanners, butchers, money lenders and traders of silk, metals, dyes and leather. They were also active in intellectual pursuits including philosophy and theology and many individuals travelled widely, especially to places like Padua and Mantova in Italy, where they trained as doctors, lawyers and rabbis.

The Jewish ghetto of Hania as it appears on a 17th century Venetian map (Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana – Venezia / Public domain)

Alongside these urban communities were rural Jewish settlements, which produced kosher cheeses, wines, grains and citrons for both export and local use. By the end of the 16th century, there were approximately 1600 Jews in Crete who worshipped in up to nine synagogues around the island. At that time, Heraklion was the largest community with four synagogues. Hania had two: Beth Shalom (Sephardic) and Etz Hayyim (Romaniote), both of them located in the historic Jewish neighborhood of Evraiki.

The period of Ottoman rule in Crete (1669-1898), particularly in later years, brought economic hardship to the island’s general population, and as a result the Jewish communities in Heraklion and Rethymnon diminished.

Ottoman cannonball found in the Etz Hayyim Synagogue wall (Photo: Anastasios Skikos)

Many wealthy Jewish families moved to Hania, the new Ottoman capital of the island, and farther afield to Venice and elsewhere in Italy and to other Mediterranean port cities like Gibraltar, Istanbul and Salonika. Yet, Ottoman authority was also favorable to Crete’s Jewish communities, which were afforded some degree of religious autonomy, just like their Christian Orthodox neighbors, under the Ottoman millet system.

In towns like Hania, the former ghettos were opened and Jews were allowed to settle in neighbouring quarters where they were permitted to buy and legally inherit property for the first time.

This in particular may be what enticed Sephardic immigrants from North Africa and Izmir to the city at the time. However, by the 19th century, sporadic violent revolts against Ottoman rule in Crete led many Jews to emigrate elsewhere.

It is estimated that in 1817, there were 150 Jewish families divided between Heraklion and Hania; in 1858, there were 907 Jews on the island; by 1881, there were only 647 Jews in Crete, with the majority residing in Hania.


German occupation

The German occupation of Greece began in April 1941 and lasted until 1945. Following the failed Italian invasion of Greece in October 1940, Germany assisted its Italian and Bulgarian allies in their expansionist aspirations and invaded the country.

Crete itself was invaded by the Germans in May 1941 through a major airborne campaign, and the three main cities of Hania, Rethymnon and Heraklion were badly bombed. The Germans were met by fierce resistance from the local population and by the Allied forces, but they eventually prevailed and established their occupation regime in June 1941.

British troops in Crete prior to the German victory, 1940 (The Imperial War Museum / Public domain)

From this time onwards, most of Crete’s Jews, numbering only about 350 members, were residing in Hania where they increasingly faced restrictions imposed upon their daily lives. Some individuals managed to escape Crete for Athens during the occupation. Some survived there in hiding, while others were eventually arrested and sent to the extermination camps.

It was not until 1944 that the Hania community was to be deported to Auschwitz.

On May 20th of that year, the Cretan Jewish community was arrested and taken to a local prison for two weeks before being transported to Heraklion, where they boarded a German steamship, the Tánaïs, together with Italian prisoners of war and Cretan resistance fighters. The ship was to sail to Athens and the Jewish prisoners were then to be transported by train to the death camps in Poland. Due to the ongoing naval war in the Mediterranean, however, the ship was torpedoed by a British submarine not long after departing Heraklion and it sank with all of its prisoners in the early hours of June 9, 1944.

A British V-Class submarine, like the type that torpedoed the Tánaïs (Public domain). Click image to enlarge

Once the community had been deported, Hania’s Jewish neighbourhood was ransacked by the Nazis who also stripped the Etz Hayyim Synagogue – the island’s last remaining Jewish house of prayer – of its religious artifacts, books and the centuries-old community archive.

Etz Hayyim stood abandoned from then until the 1990s, when Hania resident Nikos Stavroulakis (an artist, art historian and founding director of the Jewish Museum of Greece) decided to rebuild and revive the synagogue.


Reviving Etz Hayyim and the Cretan Jewish tradition

Almost 50 years after the end of WWII, the fortunes of the Etz Hayyim Synagogue were to change thanks to Nikos, who managed to garner significant interest and funding to fully restore the synagogue in just a few short years.

Heading the work under the aegis of the World Monuments Fund in cooperation with the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece (KISE), Nikos secured support from leading European Jewish philanthropists – including the Rothschilds and the Lauders – as well as numerous other foundations, agencies and individuals.

A drawing of the Etz Hayyim Synagogue by Nikos Stavroulakis (© Nikos Stavroulakis)

On October 10, 1999 the synagogue was officially rededicated by Rabbis Jacob Arar and Isaak Mizan of Athens, and Rabbi Yacob Dayan of Salonika. Approximately 350 people attended, with members of the various Greek Jewish communities, representatives from the Orthodox and Catholic churches in Hania, along with local and international dignitaries, including the German ambassador to Greece.


Etz Hayyim today

Since 2010, the Etz Hayyim Synagogue has been operated by a non-profit organization in cooperation with the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece (KISE). The organization is registered as a charity in Greece and – because Etz Hayyim does not receive any public funding – it raises funds for the maintenance and preservation of the synagogue and for the various religious and cultural events held there.

Etz Hayyim Synagogue interior (Photo: Manousos Daskalogiannis). Click image to enlarge

Today, Etz Hayyim is both an active place of worship where a small multinational and multi-faith group called the “Havurah” share communal experiences, as well as a vibrant community and cultural center that hosts exhibitions, lectures, readings, films and concerts.

Its small team of dedicated staff undertake ongoing research into the history of the Cretan Jewish community, while engaging both local and international school groups and teachers as part of the synagogue’s ongoing educational outreach program. The synagogue welcomes Jews of all different backgrounds and non-Jewish visitors, who can take a guided tour of the synagogue and learn about Cretan Jewish history and traditions, or attend regular Kabbalat Shabbat and High Holiday services.

Nikos Stavroulakis with Rabbi Gabriel Negrin from Athens (© Etz Hayyim Synagogue)

Two decades after its rededication, Etz Hayyim has once again become a fixture in the religious and socio-cultural life of Hania as a place of prayer, study, recollection and reconciliation.


Remembering Nikos

Nikos Stavroulakis, founding director of the new Etz Hayyim Synagogue and legendary figure in Greek Jewish life, passed away in 2017. The Etz Hayyim staff is currently cataloguing Nikos’ private collection of artifacts, books, documents and other items. The Nikos Stavroulakis Collection will eventually be made available to researchers and the general public.

If you have any materials (photos, letters, documents, etc.) relating to Nikos or his work, please email the Etz Hayyim staff: [email protected].


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.

What Did ‘America’s Freud’ Think About Hitler?

Freud himself refrained from publicly psychoanalyzing the despot. Dr. W. Beran Wolfe didn't...

Though many if not most leading psychoanalysts at the time were German-speaking Jews, they offered very few public attempts to psychologically analyze Hitler. (Image: Dutch anti-Hitler propaganda, ca. 1940s / Public domain)

“Himself a homosexual, the Reichskanzler was to burn the books of Magnus Hirschfeld (who may have known too much) and exile him from the country.”

These words were published in 1935, two years after Adolf Hitler assumed the position of Reichskanzler.

They were written by Dr. W. Beran Wolfe, the Austrian-born Jewish psychiatrist known as “America’s Freud”. Wolfe was also a musician, prize-winning sculptor and best-selling author of books with captivating titles like How to Be Happy Though Human, Calm Your Nerves, and A Woman’s Best Years. Born in Vienna, he had moved to the United States as a young child.

How to be Happy Though Human was one of a number of bestsellers written by Wolfe

After completing medical school and serving in the US Navy, Wolfe returned to the city of his birth for post-graduate work under the renowned psychiatrist Dr. Alfred Adler. Wolfe would serve as Adler’s assistant, translating and editing many of his works in English.

While assertions that Hitler’s repressed sexual preference for men may have directly influenced his behavior and decision-making have been explored ever since his dramatic rise to power, it is certainly not accepted fact that he was gay. Both during his lifetime and more recently, these types of allegations have been used to disparage both Hitler and homosexuality.

Tucked into his thousand-word editorial piece entitled “Germany’s Nervous Breakdown“, Wolfe’s statement appears as fact, not opinion. It does not seem to be written with any sensationalistic intentions; but rather simply to serve as a descriptive element provided by a respected expert trying to make sense of Nazi Germany and its leader.

“Germany’s Nervous Breakdown” Published in ⁨⁨The American Jewish World⁩⁩, 8 March 1935. From the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Wolfe’s stance on homosexuality – expressed in other writings – would be controversial by today’s standards, yet he nevertheless volunteered a rare public psychoanalysis of the Reichskanzler just two years after Hitler took power.


Hitler’s ‘Boon Companion’ and Alleged Homosexuality

Allegations of homosexuality at the highest levels of Nazi leadership were nothing new in 1935. Just a year before, Hitler had ordered the extrajudicial execution of hundreds of members of the Sturmabteilung (SA), the Nazis’ paramilitary organization, in what is known as “The Röhm Purge” or “The Night of the Long Knives”. Its leader, Ernst Röhm, was an openly gay man rumored to have had a special relationship with the Führer. Röhm was allegedly allowed to call Hitler by the pet name “Adi” as opposed to the obligatory “Mein Führer”.

In one report after Röhm’s execution, he was eulogized as Hitler’s “boon companion“.

Hitler and Röhm, 1933 (Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1982-159-21A / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Hitler had defended Röhm’s appointment as leader of the SA just a few years before the purge, calling talk of his sexuality “irrelevant and absurd”, notes historian Andrew Wackerfuss in his 2015 book Stormtrooper Families: Homosexuality and Community in the Early Nazi Movement.

According to Ian Kershaw’s monumental biography of Hitler, at the time of Röhm’s appointment, the Führer rejected criticism of “things that are purely in the private sphere” and stressed that the SA was “not a moral establishment”. Nonetheless, after “The Night of the Long Knives”, Hitler and the Nazi propaganda machine emphasized the homosexuality of many of those who were executed, seeing it as a blemish on the “pure” movement and society they aimed to create.

SA march at a Nazi rally, 1933 (Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1987-0410-501 / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Over the decades, countless books, first-hand accounts, studies, satirical works and even a recently declassified CIA report, have alleged in one way or another that Hitler had homosexual tendencies. Psychoanalyst Norbert Bromberg summarizes a number of them in his book Hitler’s Psychopathology, including the fact that both Röhm and Rudolf Hess, another prominent Nazi figure who was known to cross-dress and to be referred to as “Fraulein Anna”, were allowed to use the personal form “Du” with the Führer.

Bromberg also notes a number of unsubstantiated allegations that Hitler engaged in pederasty during World War I, and that he had a portrait of his young male chauffer commissioned and installed in his Berghof residence in a similar manner to the portrait of his own mother.

Magnus Hirschfeld, “who may have known too much” according to Dr. Wolfe, was one of the world’s foremost sexologists, and an early activist on behalf of sexual minorities. He also happened to be gay, Jewish and German.

Magnus Hirschfeld (left) with Abraham Schwadron in Jerusalem, 1932. From the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel

On a speaking tour when SA troopers stormed his renowned Institute of Sexual Research in Berlin, confiscating books and records to be burned, Hirschfeld was never to return to Germany. It is alleged that his archives contained files specific to Hitler and his sexual propensities.

An SA soldier reviews explicit materials at the Institute of Sexual Research while plundering it (Public domain)


Freud and Friends on Hitler

With many if not most prominent psychoanalysts of that time being German-speaking Jews, it frankly seems quite surprising that there were not more public attempts to psychologically analyze Hitler. Freud did not venture to do so, perhaps in order to protect himself and his family. Though his books were burned soon after the Nazis took power, Freud was placed under “protective custody” once they came to Vienna.

Sigmund Freud. From the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel

Singled out by an Austrian Nazi paper as one who would be dealt with in a “more radical” and less expensive manner than being sent to a concentration camp, Freud nonetheless chose not to flee to England until mid-1938. He made that decision much later than many and only after his daughter had been picked up by the Gestapo and family and friends undertook considerable efforts to persuade him to leave.

Even once Freud was in England, he avoided questions related to Hitler and Nazism, which five years prior he had predicted “may not come out too bad”. Nevertheless, many drew natural conclusions between Freud’s teachings and Hitler’s behavior, with Wolfe claiming that the teachings of the father of psychoanalysis “point uncomfortably to the psychosexual infantilism” of the Führer.

“Dr. Freud won’t talk about… any ill-treatment of him by the agents of Hitler.” Published in ⁨⁨The American Jewish World⁩⁩, 17 June 1938. From the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Wolfe’s mentor, Dr. Alfred Adler, was another Vienna-born Jewish psychiatrist and one of Freud’s most prominent thought partners. The two famously disagreed both personally and intellectually on a variety of issues, with Adler considering sexuality an important element in the development of the individual, but less omnipotent than in Freud’s view.

Adler coined the concept of the “inferiority complex” and emphasized the importance of the individual. Over the years a number of scholars have quite naturally applied Adler’s teachings to explain Hitler’s “overcompensation”. Adler does not seem to have ever publicly discussed Hitler’s psychopathy or alleged homosexuality, a phenomenon which he believed was the result of feelings of inferiority.

Alfred Adler, ca. 1925. From the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel

Though they all escaped Nazi-occupied Europe, neither Freud, Hirschfeld, Adler nor Wolfe lived long enough to witness the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust. Freud was already sick when he fled to England. He died a few weeks after the Nazi invasion of Poland. Hirschfeld died of a heart attack in his adoptive home of Nice on his 67th birthday in May 1935.

Adler and Wolfe also both died unexpectedly, if not under mysterious circumstances.

The elder was on a speaking tour in Scotland when he suddenly dropped dead two years after Hirschfeld, also apparently of a heart attack. His cremated remains went missing and were not found until seven decades later.

Just a few months after explicitly calling Hitler a homosexual in print, Wolfe died in a car crash in Switzerland at the age of 35. A lengthy eulogy appeared on page 2 of the next day’s New York Times.

Though these four prominent figures did not live to see the full, devastating implementation of Hitler’s designs, it is hard to imagine that as the Nazis rose to power – persecuting friends, family and colleagues – they and other leading German-speaking Jewish psychoanalysts would not have tried to delve into the causes of Hitler’s behavior.

With very little left on record, it seems that the inner thoughts of men like Freud and Adler will remain conjectural, like the motivations of a hateful tyrant whose words and actions ultimately led to inconceivable brutality, suffering and loss.


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.

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.

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.