Jonathan Sarna: Science of Judaism Texts Lost in War Are Surfacing in New York

Source: NYT, 3-7-11

 

Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

Lotte Strauss’s husband, Herbert, owned one of the books in the collection on the Science of Judaism.

In 1932, as the Nazis rose to power in Germany, a Jewish librarian in Frankfurt published a catalog of 15,000 books he had painstakingly collected for decades.

Ruby Washington/The New York Times

Renate Evers, head librarian of the Leo Baeck Institute, where titles were found.

Ruby Washington/The New York Times

Some of the titles missing from the University Library Frankfurt that were discovered at the Leo Baeck Institute.

Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

The German identification card of Herbert A. Strauss, who had a Science of Judaism book in his collection.

Ruby Washington/The New York Times

A mid-20th-century map of central Europe that was found among papers in New York.

It listed the key texts of a groundbreaking field called the Science of Judaism, in which scholars analyzed the religion’s philosophy and culture as they would study those of ancient Greece or Rome. The school of thought became the foundation for modern Jewish studies around the world.

In the tumult of war, great chunks of the collection vanished. Now, librarians an ocean away have determined that most of the missing titles have been sitting for years on the crowded shelves of the Leo Baeck Institute, a Manhattan center dedicated to preserving German Jewish culture.

The story of how the hundreds of tattered, cloth-bound books with esoteric German titles ended up in New York includes impossible escapes, careful scholarship and some very heavy suitcases. And while the exact trails of many of the volumes remain murky, they wind through book-lined apartments on the Upper West Side, across a 97-year-old woman’s cluttered coffee table and into a library’s cavernous stacks.

For Jewish scholars, the collection of Science of Judaism texts (in German, Wissenschaft des Judentums) is a touchstone marking the emergence of Jewish tradition as a philosophy and culture worthy of academic study.

“We’re all heirs to the legacy of Wissenschaft,” said Jonathan D. Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University.

The University Library Frankfurt still houses the bulk of the collection, but experts there have determined over several decades that they were missing some 2,000 books listed in the 1932 catalog. In the last two years, a team led by Renate Evers, head librarian at the Leo Baeck Institute, found that her shelves had more than 1,000 of the lost titles….READ MORE

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