Lionel Kochan

Jewish historian who deplored the 'Holocaust industry'
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The Independent Online

Lionel Kochan was one of the most significant Jewish historians since the Second World War. He argued for the particular importance of his professional role. Writing in a 1992 essay, he reflects on "The Task of the Historian":

A variety of means is brought into play to effect the transmission of historical memory and to affirm its continuing vitality: education, religious liturgy, social institutions, dress, even food. When the study of a Talmudic tractate is completed, the event is customarily marked with a celebratory meal. And what would the Friday night inauguration of the Sabbath be without the traditional chicken soup? Even more important, however, in the process of transmission . . . of historical memory is its remembrancer, chronicler and scribe, in other words, its historian.

But Jewish history was only the third of Kochan's careers. Until the age of 37, he was a publisher and journalist. Then he took up academic appointments in Central and Eastern European history at the universities of Edinburgh and East Anglia. Only with his third and final position from 1969 as Bearsted Reader of Jewish History at Warwick University did he undertake what was to become his life's main work.

Born in London in 1922, of a Polish father and an English mother, both Jewish, he won a scholarship from Haberdashers Aske's School to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where he read Modern Languages. On his graduation in 1942, he served with the Intelligence Corps in Germany and Belgium. He remained mysterious about his duties, but is thought to have used his ability in languages to translate intercepted messages and for work relating to interrogations.

After the war, he read for a BA in Russian Studies at the School of Slavonic Studies, then obtained a doctorate at the London School of Economics with a dissertation on "German-Russian Relations, 1926-1936" published four years later as Russia and the Weimar Republic (1954). He worked for a number of publishers including André Deutsch, Paul Elek and Thames and Hudson. For some time he was a journalist for the Jewish Observer and Middle East Review.

Ideally, he and his wife Miriam Buechler, a Reuters journalist whom he married in 1951, would have liked to continue their joint careers as freelance writers and scholars. Instead, with three young children to feed, Kochan belatedly went into academia. He was successful both as a teacher and as a prolific writer - the author of The Making of Modern Russia (1962), an ever popular work, The Struggle for Germany, 1914-1945 (1963) and Russia in Revolution 1890-1918 (1966).

It was a commission from the Weiner Library to write a study of Kristallnacht, the Nazi outrages against the Jews of Germany on 10 November 1938, that was to change Kochan's professional and personal life. This study, Pogrom, published in 1957, and the fact that he was by now a father, awakened an interest in Judaism and its history. Until then, he and his wife not only were unobservant Jews, they were doggedly anti-religious - a reaction on his wife's part against a distinguished but sternly orthodox grandfather who had been the head of London's orthodox seminary Jews' College.

The family started to light the traditional candles on Friday nights. Kochan (in the 1960s, at the University of East Anglia) supplemented his knowledge of French, German and Russian by teaching himself Hebrew. And he started to go to London to take lessons in the code of rabbinical law, the Talmud. It was not that Kochan had become religious. Rather, he wished to live according to age-old Jewish traditions - as a practising, middle-of-the-road, orthodox Jew - and to be able to study the history of the Jews from the original sources.

Lionel Kochan's personal journey reflected his views on Jewish history and helps to explain his later opposition to the establishment in the United Kingdom of 27 January as a national day of Holocaust remembrance and more generally to what he condemned as the "Holocaust industry".

Kochan reacted to working on the Nazi pogrom of 10 November 1938 and the widespread destruction of synagogues on that night by asking about the centuries of Jewish life in Germany that preceded that terrible destruction. Though his first excursion into Jewish history concerned the end of German Jewry, he felt it vital to examine Jewish life and culture, not Jewish death. The problem, as he saw it, with works on anti-Semitism such as the magisterial work of Léon Poliakov - The History of Anti-Semitism (1974-85), a volume of which his wife had translated from its French original - was that they diverted attention from the lives and achievements of the Jews by concentrating on their oppressors.

In a work published in 1992 (The Jewish Renaissance and Some of Its Discontents), Kochan cited as an example of what he most disliked the saying of Sir Lewis Namier, "There is no modern Jewish history, only a Jewish martyrology." By contrast, he admired the recollection of Professor Steven Schwarzschild of his childhood in Nazi Berlin:

Neither at that time nor at any other time has anti-Semitism ever played the slightest role in my life. Of course, the Nazis could tyrannise me . . . but . . . they could never reach me where I was, or am.

Survival and regeneration, not massacres, were for him the keys to millennia of Judaism. He believed that the multi-cultural values of modern Britain, while opening the door to assimilation, also have created the conditions for a new Jewish renaissance. This is seen in the greatly increased number of Jewish children attending Jewish schools, in the growth of institutions such as the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies (with which he was associated). In order to grasp the opportunities, he argued that Jews must avoid the natural obsession with their role as victims.

At the centre of any positive Jewish history must be an account of the self-governing Jewish communities of Europe. These communities (kehillot) successfully responded to parlous circumstances. The exchanges of questions and replies by rabbis in different communities about practical and religious questions of the day are a vital historical source. These documents are preserved in the form of published sets of responsa and in a variety of manuscripts.

As a survivor of the Holocaust, I sometimes sparred with Kochan (usually during chance meetings in north Oxford). I felt he had overstated the focus of Jewish history on the Holocaust and had over-reacted to what admittedly has developed (in the hands of some but by no means all) into a "Holocaust industry". But he surely was right to insist on a scholarly approach to Jewish history, entailing the burdensome tasks of learning the languages and becoming aware of the religious texts that formed the basis of Jewish life in Europe.

Kochan spent many years on mastering these tools and it was in his final years that he produced what probably will come to be seen as his major works. Beyond the Graven Image (1997) was a study of Jewish art as influenced by rabbinical teachings. He answered the question of why it was the Jewish practice to break the nose off a statue. By its imperfection, the statue would acknowledge that perfection was a monopoly of the Almighty.

The Making of Western Jewry, 1600-1819, published only in 2004, uses a staggering variety of sources to analyse and to bring to life the workings of Jewish kehillot in Germany, Holland, Italy and Britain. This work will probably be influential for many years and will not only assure his lasting reputation but also encourage other scholars to imitate his demanding but extremely rewarding approach.

Kochan was President of the Jewish Historical Society of England in 1980-82 and at the time of his death President of the Society for Jewish Study. But he was not a committee man and was most at home with books and typewriters.

Michael Pinto-Duschinsky