The Hebraica & Judaica Collection of Frankfurt University Library
With some 350,000 items, the Frankfurt collection of Hebraica & Judaica is the biggest in mainland Europe. Its roots reach back to the 19th century, its earliest stock consisting of gifts and donations from Frankfurt’s Jewish community.
In 1918 Oscar Lehmann (1858–1928) described Frankfurt City Library’s collection of Hebraica & Judaica in the following terms:
Wherever in Germany a scholar or writer needs a Jewish or Hebrew book that is not available elsewhere, he turns to Frankfurt: here it will be – and here it is, too.
Today these valuable historical holdings are kept at the Johann Christian Senckenberg University Library. The collection has a remarkable history whose mid-19th century origins lie in the library of Hebrew and Jewish literature assembled above all from the gifts of Frankfurt Jews. Exemplifying Jewish philanthropy (tzedakah), their generosity at the same time expressed the community’s local roots and the desire to spread Jewish learning and knowledge of Judaism and its traditions among their fellow citizens and the general public.
A few items of Hebraica that came into the possession of the former City Library at an earlier date derive either from the estate of the Christian Hebrew scholar Job Ludolf (1624–1704) or from the libraries of secularized religious houses. Thus a 1494 Soncino Bible which once belonged to Johannes Reuchlin (1455–1522) came via the library of the discalced Franciscan friars.
The first major Jewish gift of books to the City Library came in 1861 from the private library of Isaac Markus Jost (1793–1860), a historian and teacher at the ‘Philanthropin’ (Frankfurt’s Free Jewish School), who was among the founders of Jewish studies in Germany. Counting more than 850 volumes, the Jost collection included early works of Jewish scholarship, as well as numerous pedagogic and instructional writings. It was followed a few years later by a collection of (mostly) rabbinical works from the Frankfurt rabbi and scholar Aron Moses Fuld (1790–1847). A further substantial extension of the City Library’s holdings was marked by the purchase – with the support of the Jewish community – of more than 9500 volumes from the private library of the Frankfurt community rabbi Nehemias Brüll (1843–1891).
Open until 27.02.2022: The exhibition "17 Motive jüdischen Lebens" (17 motives of Jewish life) in the Frankfurt University Library (© Thomas Risse, Adrian Ziemer)
In 1898 Aron Freimann (1871–1948) joined the City Library and, from that point on, the history of the collection is inseparable from his name. One of the most influential Jewish librarians and bibliographers of his generation, Freimann was at the same time a leading protagonist of Jewish studies. The growth of the Frankfurt collection was due above all to his commitment. As conserver and orderer of the library’s treasures, he devoted decades to researching and opening up the collection’s holdings with a view to compiling a comprehensive catalogue, the first part of which, covering the Judaica, appeared in 1932. A second part, covering the Hebraica, was planned but not published, and the manuscript on which it was based is now deemed lost.
A priceless manuscript – The Memoirs of Glückel of Hameln
Among the outstanding collections acquired under Freimann’s direction were some 5000 volumes from the library of Abraham Berliner (1833–1915), professor at the Berlin rabbinical seminary and Freimann’s academic teacher. After the death of the Frankfurt banker and collector, Wilhelm Carl von Rothschild (1828–1901), his widow, Mathilda von Rothschild (1832–1924), donated more than 3700 valuable manuscripts and Hebraica – handpicked by Freimann himself – to the library. The last major purchase of manuscripts and Hebraica was the c. 6000 volume library of Abraham Merzbacher (1812–1885), among whose special treasures was the manuscript of the Memoirs of Glikl bas Juda Leib (1647–1724), the late 17th century North German businesswoman more commonly known as Glückel of Hamelin.
Building on these and other smaller gifts, as well as on the continuing collection of contemporary scholarly literature, the Frankfurt collection gradually became the biggest of its kind in Germany. Indeed, Frankfurt University Library’s collection of Hebraica & Judaica is among the most important worldwide.
When the National Socialists took power in 1933, Aron Freimann was immediately dismissed, even before the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service came into effect. In the course of the 1930s Salman Schocken (1877–1959) considered buying the Frankfurt library’s Hebraica for the National Library in Jerusalem; but the project failed, not least due to the resistance of Frankfurt’s Jewish community. Nevertheless, Schocken was able to purchase ten incunabula. In connection with the establishment in Frankfurt of the National Socialist Institute for Research into the Jewish Question, steps were taken – with the active support of the library management and the City of Frankfurt – to acquire the collection for the Nazi’s ‘Jewish research’ program. In the end, however, the Hebraica and Judaica remained in the City Library, and considerable parts of the collection survived the National Socialists, the Second World War, and the turmoil of the post-war years. The Judaica remained almost intact; much of the Hebraica, however, had been lost to fire during the bombing of Frankfurt. Only parts of the collection were saved, among them more than four hundred Hebrew manuscripts and fragments, more than seventy Hebrew incunabula, and the library’s unique collection of Yiddish prints.
Digitisation of precious Hebraica and Judaica in the University Library Frankfurt (© Steffen Böttcher, Hessen schafft Wissen)
After the war, the role of the collection was initially ambivalent. Plans were made to sell it in order to finance acquisitions for the newly founded City and University Library, but these were not in the end realized. Eight particularly valuable Hebrew manuscripts were nevertheless sold. Apart from a short period (1957–1964) under the direction of Ernst Loewy (1920–2002), the institution lacked appropriate leadership. Nevertheless it remained a key research facility as a specialist collection for Jewish (1949 onward) and Israeli (1964 onward) studies. The role of national collector for these areas has since 2016 been assumed by the library’s Special Information Service (SIS) Jewish Studies. Alongside the ongoing acquisition of relevant literature, this has involved the creation of an information infrastructure with research-focused databases – an extension of the library’s already comprehensively digitized collections launched under the direction of Rachel Heuberger, the collection’s librarian from 1991 through 2019.
Three projects stand out in this respect as particularly innovative: the digitization of the Yiddish prints collection in the late 1990s, the Compact Memory press portal covering five hundred historical Jewish newspapers and journals developed in collaboration with RWTH Aachen University and Germania Judaica, and the Freimann Collection, a virtual reconstruction of the Freimann catalogue’s historical Judaica collection created jointly with the Leo Baeck Institute (New York and Berlin).
The digitization projects have not only facilitated access to the library’s unique historical holdings; they have also greatly enhanced the visibility – beyond a small circle of specialists – of Frankfurt University Library’s Hebraica and Judaica collections, and have indeed to some extent changed their character. In making the library’s extensive print and digital holdings available to scholars and the public at large, they have given a boost to the whole idea of digital research in Jewish studies.
Kerstin von der Krone is Director of Frankfurt University Library’s Hebraica and Judaica Department and of the Special Information Service (SIS) Jewish Studies.
© Title image: Steffen Böttcher, Hessen schafft Wissen