Germania Judaica – Presenting the whole spectrum of Jewish life
Germania Judaica (GJ): Behind the Latin name – which can be read as both “Jewish Germany” and “German Jewry” – stands a unique treasury of books and other media. GJ is one of the world’s biggest specialist libraries for the history and culture of German-speaking Jewry. Its mission – to serve both academic and general public interests – makes it unique in Germany.
Today the library holdings cover five centuries, from the Enlightenment to the present. Some 100,000 items – including e.g. newspapers and CDs, as well as books – are available on open shelves or closed stacks. Both the size of the collection and its worldwide reputation are beyond anything the library’s founding fathers (and mothers) would have dreamt. Its beginnings were difficult and the organization was more than once threatened in its very existence.
A Cologne citizens’ initiative and a later Nobel laureate
The project was launched in the late 1950s by a Cologne citizens’ initiative, following an original idea from bookstore proprietor Karl Keller. Again and again young people had come into his shop looking for literature on Judaism, but he had little to offer them. Keller saw the need for a serious library dedicated to German-speaking Jewry. At that time no German institution had a collection specifically focused on the period before the Nazi dictatorship and Holocaust. Nowhere – neither in a university library or otherwise – could those interested in the history and culture of German-speaking Jewry find the resources they needed to deepen their knowledge.
Keller found committed allies in the writer (and later Nobel laureate) Heinrich Böll and his fellow-author Paul Schallück, as well as the journalist Wilhelm Unger, the Head of Cologne’s Department of Culture, Kurt Hackenberg, and the publisher Ernst Brücher. By 1959 the citizens’ initiative had become a registered private association with the purpose – as expressed in the statutes – of “contributing to the elucidation of the German-Jewish relationship.” In pursuit of that goal a collection of books was to be established and made accessible to laypeople and scholars alike.
L. to r.: Library Director Dr. Jutta Bohnke-Kollwitz and librarian Günter Derendorf at Germania Judaica’s original location, Merlostrasse 24 in Cologne (Photo: Andrea Kahl, © Germania Judaica); Dr. Jutta Bohnke-Kollwitz in conversation with Heinrich Böll at the second location, Hansaring 97 (Photo: Max Jacoby, Germania Judaica); Federal German President Gustav Heinemann visits Germania Judaica, August 12, 1971 (Foto: Max Jacobs, © Germania Judaica); first issue of the Germania Judaica Bulletin (1960–1961, Germania Judaica)
The group wanted to do something substantial in the face of the residual – and at the time resurgent – anti-Semitism in German society. They sought to combat inherited prejudices and ignorance, as well as false knowledge, of Jews and Judaism. Speaking at the library’s 25th anniversary celebrations in 1984, Böll said they had set out “to name the Nazis’ eradication of European Jewry . . . for what it was.” And they were vividly aware that “the perception of those events . . . was becoming weaker, not stronger” (Collected Works [German], Cologne Edition, vol. 22, p. 391).
And they were vividly aware that “the perception of those events . . . was becoming weaker, not stronger”.
The library’s founders were also spurred into action by an outbreak of anti-Semitism across the young Federal Republic at the end of the 1950s, in the wake of which Cologne’s recently rebuilt and reopened Roonstrasse Synagogue was defiled with anti-Semitic slogans.
A library for all
The quality of the current collection is decisively due to the fact that the library started to build up its holdings so soon after the end of the Nazi dictatorship. Despite the organized murder and persecution, and despite the widespread destruction of material resources and treasures, much had still survived both the Holocaust and WW2 – often in the countries where Germany’s Jews had found a new home. In this way Germania Judaica came to possess not only a wide selection of standard works but also numerous rare books and other items – with particularly wide holdings of precious prints and manuscripts – as well as some 500 newspapers and journals ranging from local community newsletters to rarities like Sulamith, the first German-Jewish “periodical for the promotion of culture and humanism among the Israelites,” dating from 1806. Items such as this would be unobtainable today, or would be beyond the library’s means.
Book titles from Germania Judaica’s holdings
2nd row center: Borech Riwkin, Jidische Dichter in Amerike (Yiddish Poets in America), Buenos Aires 1959 (Yiddish); below: Hagadah, oder Erzählung von Israels Auszug aus Egypten, neu bearbeitet und mit Musik-Beilage von Isaac Offenbach (Haggadah, or the Story of Israel’s Departure from Egypt, new edition with musical supplement by Isaac Offenbach), Cologne 1838
The library’s spectrum is wide; its goal has always been to present Jewish life in all its variety. The collection’s holdings cover the following areas:
history of German-speaking Judaism from the Enlightenment to the present
general Jewish history and culture: religion – art – education – sociology – Jews outside the German-speaking area
Zionism and Israel: Palestine – establishment of the State of Israel – Middle East conflict – immigration – settlement structures – culture – travel reports
Jews and Judaism in literature and film: novels – plays – young people’s literature – secondary literature
periodicals: more than 500 German-Jewish newspapers and periodicals of various kinds; c. 150 current subscriptions
anti-Semitism: including a specially reserved collection of anti-Semitic writings held in the closed stacks.
Unusually large for an academic library is the belles lettres section, which includes classics as well as recent works from both German and Israeli authors. Germania Judaica also carries a wide selection of children’s literature.
Depository of the Jewish cultural heritage
The library’s later success story was not at first apparent. Financed solely from donations and membership fees, its existence hung from a thread. When Jutta Bohnke-Kollwitz took over as Director in 1960 the library consisted of a glass-fronted bookcase with 180 volumes. Browsing through antiquarian booksellers’ and private libraries, she found many works that had survived the Nazi era. GJ was actively supported – and above all provided with a stock of books – by the Wiener Library in London and the Leo Baeck Institutes in London and New York. Continuous help also came – and is still coming – from Israel.
Gradually the founders’ idea came into being: an educational and scholarly library that was at the same time a depository of the Jewish cultural heritage. Motivated by the project’s resounding public echo, the City of Cologne undertook in the 1970s to support GJ on a permanent basis; the State of North Rhine-Westphalia also provided support for many years.
Through to the present day Germania Judaica has preserved its special character as an academic library with a broad acquisitions policy, and at the same time an open public resource. In this respect the governors and board of GJ welcomed the library’s move to the premises of Cologne City Library. There, at the heart of its city, GJ has had its home since 1979.
Dr. Constanze Baumgart
WDR (West German Broadcasting) TV program on Germania Judaica’s sixth birthday (1965)
WDR 5 (West German Radio, Channel 5): Jutta Bohnke-Kollwitz, first Director of Germania Judaica, looks back on her work (2008)
Title image: Germania Judaica, Photo: Jörn Neumann, © Stadtbibliothek Köln