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.

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.

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.