A place of dreams – hidden away – many-sided: The Library of Judaism in Buchen (Odenwald/Germany)
A flight of uneven sandstone steps leads up to the weathered wooden door of the Old Beguinage, the dream-filled but by no means somnolent home of Buchen’s Library of Judaism (Bücherei des Judentums).
On the ground floor stand almost 100 meters of shelves brimming with works of fiction and poetry, biography, and autobiography. A few dozen steps farther up the spiral staircase brings you to a room divided into several sections where you will find some 7000 specialist books with a focus on regional Jewish history worldwide, religion and Judaeo-Christian dialogue, the National Socialist Pogrom and Holocaust, and the history of Zionism and the State of Israel up to the present day. For more than twenty years visitors and townspeople, tourists and scholars alike have expressed their astonishment at the 10,000 volume treasury hidden behind these ancient convent walls.
© Bücherei des Judentums
The town of Buchen
Buchen is a small town in the part of Odenwald Forest that belongs to the State of Baden-Württemberg. Its highlights range from buildings by the post-war architect and designer Egon Eiermann to the status of regional center during the annual Fastnacht (or Shrove) celebrations. Otherwise it is a country town of picturesque quarters and quiet streets.
Regional historical research lives from so-called ‘gray’ (i.e. not formally published) literature, a genre richly represented on the Library of Judaism’s shelves. My current favorite is the booklet Textiles Gedächtnis. Neue Funde zur jüdischen Vergangenheit in Aschaffenburg (Textile Memory. New Finds from Aschaffenburg’s Jewish Past).
Rebekka Denz, library team member and expert in Jewish Studies
In the – predominatly rural – Jewish history of the region, Bödigheim District Cemetery deserves special mention: among its interesting features is even an early 20th century hearse (restored 2019). During the Weimar Republic (now 100 years ago), Jacob Mayer – Jewish merchant, local patriot, and poet of the Odenwald dialect – wrote the town’s Fastnacht and Schützenmarkt rhymes: hallowed texts sung annually at the Shrove and Marksmen’s feasts. In addition, Buchen Regional Museum features a collection of portraits of Jewish personalities from the 1920s and 1930s by the local photographer Karl Weiss.
My most cherished book, published in Buchen in 2016, is the biography of the esteemed and deeply rooted poet and chronicler of the town: Jacob Mayer – Mundartdichter, Lokalpatriot und Chronist der Stadt Buchen. Impressively, his story exemplifies the life of a Swabian Jew from the age of Imperial Germany, through the Weimar Republic, to its tragic end, lonely, banished, and persecuted, in the Third Reich. In particular the work shows how Mayer’s life and work were a unifying force in the development of Buchen and its dialect: on many levels, then, a valuable contribution to local history.
Tobias-Jan Kohler, municipal archivist and Foundation administrator
© Bücherei des Judentums
The origins of of Buchen’s Library of Judaism
How did a specialist Jewish library become established in Buchen? The library was founded and endowed by the town’s Catholic pastor, Herbert Duffner who, as a student in Munich, attended a lecture by Martin Buber that impressed him so deeply that he developed a profound interest in the religion and culture of Judaism and a commitment to Jewish-Christian dialogue. Duffner built up a private library that he also made available to the people of the town. When he retired, he negotiated with the municipal council the conditions under which the library still functions. In 1998 he established the Library of Judaism Foundation, which manages the library, including its acquisitions and ancillary events programs. The town has provided accommodation for the library and actively supports its administration.
The world of Judaism was opened to me through the work of the Jewish religious thinker and co-founder of the philosophy of dialogue, Martin Buber. In particular I was struck by Buber’s The Way of Man: According to Hasidic Teaching, where he takes up fundamental questions of human existence and the quest for meaning in life.
Dr. Georg Kormann, psychotherapist and theologian, library team member
Who uses Buchen’s Library of Judaism?
The Library of Judaism is a reference and lending library with an online catalogue; it can be used by the people of Buchen and the surrounding region during regular opening hours.
I don’t have a single favorite book, but I do have a favorite series – the ‘Jewish miniatures.’ Concise, clear and informative, they tell you all you want to know, for instance, about buildings and personages, or about the wider topics of history and religion, culture and politics. I have several times given readings from these short books on Jewish Culture Day and always had positive feedback, though no particular example comes to mind just now.
Gisela Brech, longstanding library team member
The library team members are an honorary body, some of whom have introduced themselves in this blog with their favorite books. They offer regular tours of the library, which widens the target group for the library’s holdings and focal themes. For the same reason, the Library of Judaism Foundation presents a varied program of public events related to different aspects of Jewish studies.
The Foundation also awards two scholarships: “Writing in Buchen,” offered since 2016 in collaboration with the Ernst Ludwig Ehrlich Studienwerk (ELES) in Berlin, gives ELES alumnae/alumni and scholarship holders the opportunity to use the Library of Judaism facilities uninterruptedly for a two-week period, at the end of which they can present their work in a public lecture. Six young scholars have already taken advantage of this offer.
For my part, I have no particular favorite among the library’s holdings. But I have a deep interest in everything historical. My role as chairperson of the Foundation comes from my desire to do something meaningful in my retirement. And is there anything more meaningful than making Judaism known in this way to a wider public?
Hermann Schmerbeck, founding library team member
The library team and the Foundation
The Library of Judaism team consists mostly of retired people who share Hermann Schmerbeck’s interest and commitment. They ensure that the library can open regularly and that new acquisitions are entered in the online catalogue. And they organize the events and lectures program in cooperation with officials from the town and the Foundation. Two experts in Jewish studies act as consultants for acquisitions, cataloguing, and event planning.
Rebekka Denz is expert in Jewish Studies and library team member
© Title image: Bücherei des Judentums