Doyen of Jewish historians
Lionel Edmund Kochan was born in Cricklewood, London, and educated at Haberdasher Aske School. His further education, which started when he was awarded a major open scholarship to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, (BA in modern languages, 1942), was interrupted by army service in the Intelligence Corps in war-torn Europe. He continued his education after demob, gaining another BA, this time in Soviet Studies, at the School of Slavonic Studies and a PhD at the London School of Economics. His doctoral dissertation was published in 1954 as Russia and the Weimar Republic. That year marked a turning point in his life. It saw the birth of his first child, a son, Nicholas, and the manifestation for apparently the first time, of an interest in Judaism and his Jewish origins, which later came to dominate his studies. In its early stages this showed itself in a deliberate effort to introduce elements of Jewish religious practice into the erstwhile unreligious London home set up when he and Miriam Buchler married In 1951. They had two other children, Anna in 1956, and Benjamin in 1957.
Lionel started late on an academic career, and not only because of the war. His original intention was to combine working in publishing and as a freelance journalist with the research that interested him. Despite success in both fields, they proved incompatible and financially unviable. He did not take a full-time academic appointment until 1959 when he joined the European History Department of Edinburgh University. Five years later he became Reader in European History at the new University of East Anglia in Norwich. By that time he had already built a reputation and gained recognition as an authority on Central and East European history, with several prestigious publications to his credit, including the Pelican The Making of Modern Russia, which remained in print for forty years. Although his first ‘Jewish’ work, Pogrom, a study of Kistallnacht, appeared as early as 1957, it was only during the Norwich period that the further shift in his interests became apparent when he began systematically to supplement his previously slight Jewish education.
With hindsight, it can be seen that he was already convinced that to write Jewish history required “an understanding of Judaism as well as the ambient cultures”, to quote one of his highly-respected teachers, Rabbi Norman Solomon. He was already more than competent to work with French, German and Russian texts; now, he sought outside help to learn Hebrew by the same stringent academic methods used to acquire his other languages. Ability to refer to original Hebrew sources was, he held, a sine qua non for a Jewish historian. With equal assiduity, he went on to study these sources, travelling to London to take private lessons, seeking out every available Talmud shiur, and spending all his long vacations attending yeshivot in Jerusalem. The establishment of the Bearsted Readership in Jewish History at the University of Warwick in 1969 enabled him to indulge his fast-growing ambition to concentrate exclusively on this area. He held the post until his retirement in 1988. From that base, he established Jewish history as an academic discipline, making Warwick the first British university to teach Jewish history as a specific academic subject in its own right. He himself tackled the subject with all the exacting tools of modern scholarship. His published works in the field won not only great respect for his scholarship but also for the intrinsic interest of his subject. The ultimate recognition of his pioneering work lay in the establishment of similar lectureships at a number of other British universities.
His opinions were sometimes controversial. He could be quite scathing in his criticism of the ‘Holocaust industry’, as he saw it. Though he had taught and published on aspects of the Holocaust, he opposed Holocaust Studies as an independent discipline, on the grounds that it inevitably led to distortions of history and misconceptions of Judaism.
The Warwick appointment brought the family to Oxford, drawn by the attractions of the Bodleian Library, the availability of good schools for the children and the proximity of the city to London, where it still had close connections. They soon succumbed to the charms of the local community and Lionel became a regular and respected member of the synagogue congregation. He was OJC’s representative on the Board of Deputies for a very brief period, but that was his sole involvement in communal organization; he was not a committee man. He preferred to leave that area to his wife. He continued working until the year of his death, which saw the publication of a major work, The Making of Western Jewry.