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Obituary: Lionel Kochan (1922-2005)


Lionel Kochan will be well-remembered and well-loved as a very special and significant figure in the life of the University of Warwick. He was appointed Bearsted Reader in Jewish History, a post specifically created for him in 1969, and an important statement on the vital role of the subject, in contrast to more conservative wisdom which places it at distinct arms-length from the mainstream.

During his 19 years at Warwick, Lionel proved how wrong the detractors could be, attracting droves of students to his courses on modern European Jewish History and the British mandate in Palestine. For the more impressionable among them, he appeared the very model of their academic imaginings, with his striking goatee beard, pipe-smoking self-absorption, and apparent absent-mindedness. What they actually encountered was a formidable, authentically cosmopolitan scholar softened by genuine kindness and affection towards them. For this student, inspired by Lionel's mentoring to undertake further postgraduate work, that generosity of spirit was extended to the Oxford home in which his co-scholar wife, Miriam, and their children were the clear and sparkling source.

Lionel arrived at Warwick, with a substantial reputation founded on highly accessible studies of Central European and Russian history, most famously The Making of Modern Russia (1964). His growing immersion in a field then considered marginal, reinforced by his adamant and critical refusal to support the fashionable Holocaust route, says much about Lionel’s disinterest in academic trends. He made a point of finishing his European Jewish survey in 1933, focussing on a celebration of the inner Jewish experience, its culture, language, society, and above all, religion – and thus contra those who sought to wipe it out. This approach informed his later works including, most recently, in The Making of Western Jewry, 1600-1819 (2005). Lionel developed a singular understanding of Jewry’s inner life whose potential for further scholastic engagement is yet be fully mined and realised.