John Doyle Klier

Michael Berkowitz, December 2007

John Doyle Klier, a much loved and admired scholar of east European Jewish history, died September 23, 2007, in London. As Sidney and Elizabeth Corob Professor of Modern Jewish History in the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at University College London, Klier was a tireless advocate of Jewish scholarship in eastern Europe, and passionately worked to develop east European Jewish history in the United States, continental Europe, and the United Kingdom. He was the world’s leading authority on Russia’s perceptions and treatment of the Jews from the late 18th century until the demise of the Tsarist Empire. Generously collaborating with historians from Israel, the United States, and Europe, he turned the study of pogroms, political violence directed against the Jews, into a historical field in its own right. He was a supremely talented teacher, who supervised numerous master’s and doctoral dissertations, and whose lectures deftly interwove politics, religion, and social life with the greatest sophistication, yet remained accessible to a wide audience. He was co-editor of East European Jewish Affairs and held a number of important posts, including the presidency of the British Association of Jewish Studies and the Anglo-Jewish Historical Society. He was a consultant to Yad Hanadiv (now the Rothschild Foundation Europe) and Avi Chai Foundation, and a moving force on the boards of the Simon Dubnow Institute in Leipzig and the Sefer foundation, dedicated to advancing Jewish history and culture in eastern Europe.

John Klier was born December 13, 1944, in Syracuse, New York. His father taught aeronautical engineering at Syracuse University (Klier used to joke that his father had a t-shirt emblazoned with the slogan, "I really AM a rocket scientist"). Klier attended Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana, for his BA and MA in history. He then pursued doctoral study at the University of Illinois, where his interest in Russian Jewry was stimulated. He became aware, in his investigations of pre-revolutionary Russia, that little primary research had been conducted on Russian Jewry for most of the 20th century. His PhD dissertation examined the process by which the Russian state integrated Jews into the Russian state system, and fostered specific attitudes and assumptions about Jews. This work was expanded into his first book, Russia Gathers Her Jews: The Origins of the Jewish Question in Russia (Northern Illinois Univ. Press, 1986), now considered a seminal text in modern Jewish history. His co-edited work with Shlomo Lombroza, Pogroms: Anti-Jewish Violence in Modern Jewish History (Cambridge University Press, 1991), is widely regarded as the gold standard in a highly contentious field.

How could a historian have probed this subject during the so-called "Period of Stagnation," when forays into politically sensitive topics such as "the Jewish Question" were taboo? In a feat of utter brilliance, Klier officially purported to study "the Russian popular press," a seemingly innocuous subject. Therefore he gained access to the material necessary to produce a truly groundbreaking, substantive history of Russian Jewry. He made superb use of his experience as a postdoctoral researcher at Leningrad State University, USSR, in 1977–78 and 1980–81. He also became so proficient in Russian that he was regarded as an eloquent lecturer, almost in a class of his own among the non-Russian born scholars of east European Jewry.

In 1991, he was one of the first foreign scholars to undertake in-depth research on the Jews in Soviet archives, and mined resources in the coming years in Kiev, Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Minsk. In 1993 he received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to prepare surveys of Jewish materials in post-Soviet archives. Scores, if not hundreds, of researchers of east European Jewry have benefited from his insight and guidance. His second major monograph, Imperial Russia’s Jewish Question, 1855–81 (Cambridge Univ. Press) appeared in 1995.

In his last few months Klier completed the manuscript of Southern Storms: Russians, Jews and the Crisis of 1881–82, which also will be published by Cambridge University Press. Building on his earlier monographs, articles, and edited volumes, it explores the nature of pogrom violence in Russia and the responses to the events of 1881–82 by the imperial authorities, as well as by Russian and Jewish society. He was working, as well, on a study of Jews and military recruitment in the Russian Empire, focused on the cantonist battalions. Drawing on his original research he published a book in Russian, Rossia sobiraet svoikh evreev (Gesharim, 2000), a critical text for the Russian-speaking student and scholarly community in eastern Europe and Israel. Klier also was author, with his wife, of a popular history, The Search for Anastasia: Solving the Riddle of the Lost Romanovs (Smith Gryphon, 1995). He was bemused that this was by far the bestselling of his books.

John Klier began his university teaching career at Fort Hays State University in Hays, Kansas. While there he proved himself a prodigious scholar and excellent teacher, and was promoted to full professor. His great desire was to eventually relocate to Britain, in order to be nearer the sources of his research and because his wife wished to return to her native England. In 1989 a lectureship was established in east European Jewish history at University College London, the original and largest component of the University of London, and Klier sought the appointment—despite the drop in rank from professor to a "lectureship," which is roughly equivalent to an assistant professorship. By British standards his subsequent ascension was meteoric. He was promoted in 1993 to "reader" (now termed associate professor), and assumed the Corob Professorship in 1996. As the chair of the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies for most of the 1990s he was famed for nurturing a refreshingly supportive, open-minded, and convivial atmosphere.

John Klier was thoroughly devoted to his wife, Helen Mingay, and their two children, Sophia and Sebastian. He also is survived by family members in upstate New York and the U.K.

A true renaissance man, John Klier was an expert in many national literatures—which he preferred to read in their original languages. He also was well-versed in classical music, art, opera, and theatre. He was a skilled competitive fencer. He also could carry a spirited, incisive conversation about both English and American football. His sincere friendship and good nature were infectious. His loss leaves a profound sadness. His scholarship is certain to stand the test of time, and his warmth will be cherished and recalled throughout the world.

—Michael Berkowitz
University College London