Reading in All Directions – Library of the Israelitische Cultusgemeinde Zurich
What is a Jewish library? Many people first think of the religious connotations of the word “Jewish,” but the library of the Israelitische Cultusgemeinde Zurich (ICZ) is more than that. With some 70,000 books, it covers the entire spectrum of Jewish cultural history – itself an integral aspect of global cultural history – from religion to science, from works of literature to children’s books, and from musicology and art history to genealogy. With books in Hebrew, German, Yiddish and English, our users read in both directions and meet at the center. Among them are kindergarten children and university students from every faculty, as well as rabbis and booklovers of all ages.
Inaugurated in December 1939, the ICZ library became a symbol for the preservation of European Jewry in the midst of banishment, persecution, and destruction – the destruction of German Jewish culture that left no library unscathed. The ICZ library is, in fact, the only German-speaking Jewish library that remained open between 1939 and 1945 and its collection contains some rare and even unique works from that period.
L. to r.: Else Croner, Die moderne Jüdin (The modern Jewish woman), Berlin, 1913; E. Flanter, Im Strahlenkranze der Menorah. Ein neues Chanukka-Buch (The halo of the Menorah. A new Hanukkah book), Berlin 1920; Megillath Esther – the Purim story for children, told by Eddy Goldschmidt, Hamburg 1931
The original stock of some 2000 books has now grown to 70,000. The library’s books, journals, CDs, and DVDs cover a wide area of Jewish themes and interests, with a special focus on Swiss Jewry. As well as numerous specialist journals, our archives hold every issue of the country’s Jewish newspapers and periodicals from their first number to the present.
In both its functions, serving scholars as well as the wider community, the ICZ library is a lending library. Alongside general surveys and introductions to Jewish religion, history and literature, it offers numerous editions of the Bible, rabbinic writings, and commentaries, as well as research literature for Jewish studies. Specialist focus areas include the history of individual communities, as well as topics like the Middle East conflict and interreligious dialogue. We acquire German-Jewish children’s literature as fully as possible, and our Israeli readers enjoy a constantly updated supply of Hebrew fiction.
Since 2016 our holdings have been included in swisscovery, the joint electronic catalogue of Swiss academic and science libraries. This enhances our profile as a specialist resource, and scholars often come to us for an item only available in Switzerland at the ICZ. Since 2009 the Swiss Federal Department of Home Affairs has listed the ICZ library, on the basis of its historical holdings, as “an institution of national cultural significance.”
Special collections and holdings
The Breslau Collection
Our largest and most important special collection comprises some 6000 volumes dating from the 16th through the 20th century from the former Jewish Theological Seminary in Wrocław (Breslau). Founded in 1854, the rabbinical college fostered the efforts of the Jewish Enlightenment to establish an academic discipline of Jewish studies – a resolve reflected in the collection. In 1937 this contained some 40,000 volumes covering the Torah and Talmudic literature, as well as works of secular classicism, philosophy, philology, astronomy, mathematics, and Christian theology.
From the Breslau Collection: Eliʻezer Belin Ashkenazi, Sefer Evronot – the Book on Time Calculation, Offenbach 1722
The illustration below shows how to calculate Jewish months with fingers and palm.
The National Socialists plundered and closed the rabbinical seminary in 1938. In the 1950s the organization Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, which was dedicated to the rescue of Jewish cultural goods of untraceable ownership in the American zone of post-war Germany, was able to transfer part of the surviving collection to Switzerland, where the Schweizerische Israelitische Gemeindebund (SIG: Swiss Jewish Confederation) distributed the 6000 volumes among Jewish community libraries in Basel, Geneva and Zurich. Since 2017 the entire collection – the largest single surviving collection of books from the former rabbinical seminary – has been reunited at the ICZ library. It remains under the ownership of the SIG.
The Breslau Collection contains rare individual items of inestimable value, and the many handwritten notes, dedications, and owners’ names entered on its pages are of unique interest. But it is above all valuable as a single entity, standing for the attempt to destroy European Judaism and for the successful re-establishment of Jewish culture in Europe.
The ongoing work of cataloguing the Breslau Collection is accompanied by a monthly blog presenting the unique features of the collection – e.g. the first Hebrew translation of Shakespeare.
The Max Ettinger Collection
The Jewish composer Max Ettinger (1874–1951) from Lwiw (Lemberg) fled in 1933 from the Nazis to Switzerland. He lived for some years in Ascona and later in Zurich. Ettinger left his entire musical and personal estate to the ICZ. This included manuscript scores of numerous operas, as well as chamber music and lieder, all of which is available for research in the library catalogue. The musicologist Ivana Rentsch published a commented catalogue of Ettinger’s works in 2010.
The Walter Mehring Collection
Some material from the estate of the German writer Walter Mehring (1896–1981) is held in the closed stacks of the ICZ library. This includes above all late book editions, as well as a few documents and original items. The major portion of Mehring’s physical estate is held by the Berlin Academy of Arts.
This collection of some 8000 brochures, photocopies and offprints containing rare and unique articles, minutes, announcements etc. in German, Hebrew, and Yiddish provides a unique insight into Jewish community life in Switzerland and other countries, as well as into early Zionism and the fight against anti-Semitism.
Brochure of the Agudas Israel Women’s Group, 1941, with a call for donations for “our suffering brothers and sisters,” the Hanukkah candle blessing, and a special pouch with a fold-out of the Hanukkah song “Maoz Tzur” (Rock of Ages)
Another impressive collection comprises more than 3000 Yiddish books donated to the library in 1996 by Marc Richter. Mostly literary works by well-known Yiddish writers, the collection also includes some Yiddish translations of Russian literature and nonfiction. Currently entered on a card index, the collection awaits inclusion in the library’s electronic catalogue.
Library of the Swiss Society for Jewish Genealogy (SVJG)
Founded in 1986, the Swiss Society for Jewish Genealogy has established a specialist library of some 420 volumes which are publicly accessible on permanent loan to the ICZ library. Focused above all on the European area, the collection consists largely of reference works in German, family chronicles, biographies, and cemetery registers, as well as general works on Jewish genealogical research.
A collection of several hundred anti-Semitic works available for research in the library.
The librarian Kerstin A. Paul, together with Oded Fluss, runs the library of the Israelitische Cultusgemeinde Zurich (ICZ)
The book about the library
Quelle lebender Bücher. 75 Jahre Bibliothek der Israelitischen Cultusgemeinde Zürich (Fount of Living Books. 75 years of the library of the Israelitische Cultusgemeinde Zurich), eds. Yvonne Domhardt and Kerstin A. Paul. Biel: Edition clandestin, 2014.
Images © ICZ