- Thomas Ridder
From Attic to Museum – the Bottrop Book Hamper
Bottrop, Kirchhellener Strasse 46, January 1989: A big old house is for sale; the owner has moved into sheltered accommodation and the entire contents, gathered over decades, are to be auctioned. Two auctioneers come to make an inventory; they work their way through the house and finally tackle the attic. There they find an old hamper, so heavy they can’t move it; the bottom, worn with age, breaks in the attempt. Opening the hamper, the two men find a collection of some 150 books and journals, all carefully wrapped in paper: Jewish histories, religious and Zionist writings, literary works, Spanish and Hebrew primers.
Some of the books have names in them, and there are some receipts. From these and other chance finds, the history of the hamper and its contents ‒ and with it that of the house and its inhabitants ‒ could be reconstructed. The house belonged to the Dortorts, a Jewish family who owned a furnishing store. In 1940 their home was turned into a Judenhaus (Jewish house) by the National Socialists, and other Jewish families were forcibly quartered on them. Before their deportation, which took place on January 24, 1942, the people living in the house hid some possessions, among them the hamper of books, in the attic. No one involved survived deportation and the hamper remained undisturbed until its discovery in 1989.
The hamper as it was found in the attic in Bottrop in 1989 © WAZ Bottrop
References in two of the books led to the synagogal community in Essen and the Israelitic School there. So the first thing the auctioneers did was to contact the Old Synagogue in Essen. When it came to the auction, three parties were interested in the discovery: Essen’s Old Synagogue, Bottrop’s Municipal Archives, and the Documentation Center for Jewish History and Religion in Dorsten, which was already planning what would later become the Jewish Museum of Westphalia. All three had good arguments for their intended purchase, and in the end they agreed to a virtually Solomonic division: the Old Synagogue took the book hamper, examined its contents and planned an exhibition together with Bottrop Municipal Archives, which kept a few volumes of its own choice. Later the Dorsten Documentation Center bought the hamper for the permanent exhibition of its planned museum, where the hamper is kept and exhibited today.
Who did the books belong to?
Were these books privately owned, or did they largely belong to the small Jewish community in Bottrop? A few of them bear the names of their owners, among whom are members of the Dortort and Krauthammer families. One book has the dedicatory note: “A present for my Bar Mitzvah from my teacher Bear,” but the writer’s name is not recorded. None of the volumes are associated with well-known editors or printers.
Thematically, the books in the Bottrop hamper cover a number of areas, of which religious works ‒ prayer books for weekdays and holidays, individual devotional works, Passover narratives, and other biblical and interpretive texts ‒ take pride of place.
Of the eight different Haggadot (Passover narratives) in the collection, seven are bilingual German and Hebrew. One of these (Vienna 1936) was translated by Dr. Philipp Schlesinger, another (Frankfurt 1921) is a new translation by Dr. Selig Bamberger. The monolingual Hebrew Haggadah was printed in Vienna in 1922. Yet another version (Vienna 1908) with a striking art nouveau cover was made specifically for schools. Two further Haggadot with ex libris dated 1938 were published by the Association of Prussian Jewish Communities.
The hamper also contained three editions of the Torah (Pentateuch or “Five Books of Moses”), of which one also prints five further biblical texts: the five Megillot (scrolls) ‒ the Song of Songs, the Books of Ruth and Esther, the Lamentations of Jeremiah, and the Book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) ‒ in a translation by L. H. Loewenstein dated Rödelheim 1904. The third Torah text (Vienna 1904) is an edition for schools made by Rudolf Fuchs.
The collection also includes four different editions of the Shulchan aruch, a compendium of religious practices and legal prescriptions for the individual and community. The four volumes (dated Berlin 1872, Vilnius 1895, and Vilnius 1896) do not, however, comprise a single work. An abbreviated version, the Kitzur Shulchan aruch, compiled by Rabbi S. Ganzfried in the 19th century, is present in an edition published in Vienna in 1923. Another notable find is Rabbi S. Funk’s Talmudproben (Talmud Sampler) in a Sammlung Göschen edition of 1921.
Several books in the hamper address the interesting topic of Zionism, of which the early 20th century developed three important, competing strands: political Zionism, which saw itself as a liberation movement, practical Zionism, which sought answers to anti-Semitism, and cultural-intellectual Zionism, which was dedicated to the renewal of Jewish identity. All three strands are represented in the collection, whose most interesting work is Die zionistische Idee (The Zionist Idea), a volume of essays by key contemporary figures such as Moses Hess, Leon Pinsker, Max Nordau, or Martin Buber. Two related books are Leben und Werk. Ausgewählte Schriften, Reden, Tagebücher und Briefe (Life and Work. Selected Writings, Speeches, Diaries and Letters ‒ Berlin 1936) by Chaim Arlosoroff, who in 1930 founded the Jewish Workers’ Party, and Die Juden in der Gegenwart. Eine sozial-wissenschaftliche Studie (Jews Today: a Sociological Study ‒ Berlin 1920) by Arthur Ruppin, a leading Zionist economist and sociologist.
The Hebrew and Spanish primers would have been acquired in preparation for emigration. A similar purpose may have lain behind a textbook on business correspondence. Finally, the hamper contained an issue of the monthly cultural magazine Menorah for September 1928.
A mirror of Jewish life in Bottrop
The books in the Bottrop hamper have no coherent thematic identity; they are more of a random collection assembled against a background of threatening deportation. As such, however, they provide a modest cultural insight into the small ‒ largely Orthodox and “Eastern Jewish” ‒ community of early 20th century Bottrop. Since the 1890s, Jewish families had continuously settled in the burgeoning Ruhr Area mining town, among them a distinctive group of Eastern Jews from Poland and Galicia who had little in common with the older families in the area. Trading in textiles and furniture, these Jewish families defined the local commercial profile. Between 1890 and 1932 the Jewish community grew from 9 to 225 persons.
The only surviving member of the Dortort family was Josef, the youngest of the three children, who had fled with his brother Emil via Belgium to France. In 2004 he returned for the first time to his former home and paid a visit to our museum. Seeing the hamper, he confirmed that the family store had sold baskets of that kind. To his great pleasure we were able to show him a small drawing he had made as a child and a brochure in which he had stamped his name.
Thomas Ridder M.A., is curator at the Jewish Museum of Westphalia in Dorsten
Title image: © Jüdisches Museum Westfalen