In any given week of research I probably peruse scholarly articles and monographs of a dozen or more authors. Aside from the few whom I might personally know, the vast number of these authors are little more to names to me. I read, consider, accept or reject their arguments based on my opinion of their merits. While I recognize that there are actual people behind these arguments – and while I try to read the fruits of their labor generously – they largely remain simply names on a page. Their own stories are not relevant to the academic work of sorting, adjudicating, and building on their arguments.
Yet every once a while an author has such a compelling backstory that it becomes difficult to simply ignore the person behind the argument. Gershom Scholem, for example, was such a force of nature that it is hard to separate the man from his writings. There are not many such scholars and I am sure that each academic has their own list. Of the hundreds or even thousands of authors a researcher might consider each year, though, only very rarely does the person behind the argument loom large.
Twenty years ago I encountered such a scholar who continues to haunt me. His name was Lazar Gukowitsch. He is hardly well-known. He wrote in German in the first half of the twentieth century. He did not produce much and only a single work of his was translated into English (or any other language, for that matter). His major field was Hasidism and its roots, and he attracted a brief notice from Scholem, who dismissed his ideas. His writings are also very hard to find; there are relatively few copies of them available in the United States, all on yellowing and crumbling paper. In the course of some research into how to interpret the character of the “hasid” in Talmudic texts I was led back, through a chain of footnotes, to a few of his essays, especially Die Bildung des Begriffes hasid, “The Portrayal of the Conception of the hasid.” Recently, for work that I’m doing now (and will discuss in my next post), I returned to this work. It is not groundbreaking but does a nice job collecting sources and is a bit ahead of its time methodologically.
It is not his scholarship but his story that jolts me. Twenty years ago I looked him up in a series of reference books because I was curious but today nearly all of that information is on his Wikipedia page. He was born in Russia in 1898 and moved to Germany where he received his secular education (in Jewish studies and ophthalmology!), ultimately becoming a professor in Jewish studies at the University of Leipzig. That was in 1932.
In 1933, along with most other Jewish academics, he was dismissed from his post. The very next year, though, he got back on his feet in an unlikely place. In response to the fall of Jewish studies in Germany, the University of Tartu in Estonia created an Institute for Jewish Studies. They hired Gulkowitsch to be its first chair and he moved there with his wife and two children. His most academically productive years were at Tartu.
But there were not many. In 1940 the Soviets took over Estonia and the next year his chair was abolished. Shortly after, the Nazis conquered Estonia and murdered him and his family.
The broad outline of Gulkowitsch’s story is not distinctive. Many German Jews went east after the Nazi rise to power, most, like Gulkowitsch, futilely. But the image of the refugee community rebuilding the academic study of Judaism in Estonia with barbarism raging all around is striking. Did Gulkowitsch find solace in his work? He apparently traveled during this period, including to the U.K. Did he ever think about not returning to Estonia? We may never know the answer to these questions, but I recently noticed that there is a file on him in the Archive of the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning at the Bodleian Library at Oxford (MS. S.P.S.L. 494/1 ). Maybe someone will tell his story more fully.
His memorial page at Yad Vashem can be found here. May him memory be a blessing.