The Jewish Bibliophiles’ Society - The Soncino Society at the Jewish Museum Berlin
Five years ago the library of the Jewish Museum Berlin (JMB) began to digitize selected holdings and put them online, starting with the Soncino Society’s collection of Jewish bibliophilia. The society took its name from a family of 15th century German-Italian printers, whose colophon it assumed as its logo.
The Soncino Society of Friends of the Jewish Book was founded by a group of Jewish bibliophiles in 1924. Since the turn of the century many such societies had sprung up in the wake of the international art book movement. A late starter, the society rapidly became one of the largest in Germany, with 650 members. The time was favorable: the birth pangs of democracy in the young Weimar Republic seemed a thing of the past, and the Eastern European publishers who had brought Berlin in particular a brief blossoming of Jewish book culture had left, under the impact of post-war inflation, with a palpable vacuum behind them.
The collector seeks long and undisturbed enjoyment of his or her collection and hopes to hand it down to the next generation.
Germany’s one and only Jewish bibliophilic society
The moving force in the founding of the society was the young law student Herrmann Meyer, who was keen to exchange news and views on a sustained basis with other collectors. His first contacts were Abraham Horodisch, a young publisher, and Moses Marx, who in 1926 left Germany for Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati. The Berlin university librarian Heinrich Loewe, father figure of the Zionist movement, proved a wise mentor.
From the society’s statutes. The final paragraph rules that, on dissolution of the society, its assets will pass to the Jewish National Library in Jerusalem (JMB, VIII.4. Sonci 15; http://dfg-viewer.de/show/?tx_dlf[id]=https://jmb01.intranda.com/mets/soncdefrd_00021831.xml)
Arnold Zweig, too – recently arrived in Berlin from Munich – initially supported the project, which promised to boost the Jewish renaissance to new heights. The first issue of Soncino-Blätter, a journal directed not just to society members but also to the general public, already appeared in 1925. Its advisory committee included such names as Leo Baeck, Chaim Bialik, and Martin Buber – rabbis and scholars whose reputations reached far beyond German-speaking Jewry.
Der Bücherfreund (The Bibliophile), a gift from the sculptor Jacob Plessner to the Soncino Society (Jewish Museum Berlin, VIII.4. Sonci 15,
Jewish tradition – modern bibliophilia
The Soncino Society issued more than a hundred publications covering every epoch and area of Jewish culture. These included a series of fifteen official publications of the society itself and sixty-one volumes sponsored by individual members and distributed at the AGM, as well as special issues, advertising brochures, and journals. Its most ambitious project was the development of a Hebrew typeface. In the person of Marcus Behmer the society soon acquired a competent book designer, albeit one whose non-Jewish background caused heated controversy with the art historian Karl Schwarz. Primacy was given to the production, in this new font, of the Book of Books, but the lengthy and wearisome correction process meant that the Hebrew Bible only appeared in January 1933, which left no time for any other editions in ‘Soncino Hebrew.’ However, the Soncino Society publications gradually formed around this Bible into a canon of interest to Orthodox, Zionist, and Liberal Jews alike.
Facsimile of title-page from Frucht vom Baum des Lebens, a collection of responsa known as Peri Ez Hayyim (Fruits of the Tree of Life) from Amsterdam’s ‘Ets Hayim’ Rabbinic Academy, abbreviated and translated into German by Menko Max Hirsch (Berlin & Antwerp: Officina Serpentis 1936). The printing of this, the last publication of the Soncino Society, began in 1932 and was completed in 1937, by which time Menko Max Hirsch had emigrated to the Netherlands (JMB, VII.5. Fruch 864; http://dfg-viewer.de/show/?set[mets]=https://jmb01.intranda.com/mets/hirsfruc_00033103.xml)
Willem Burgers’s Spinoza Antiquarian Bookshop
The JMB owes its complete holdings of Soncino Society publications to the Amsterdam antiquary and bookseller Willem Burgers (1929 –2013), whose Spinoza Antiquarian Bookshop, founded in 1970, began in the 1980s to collect Hebraica and Judaica specifically for the JMB, which was then at the planning stage. Burgers purchased the books, along with the – unfortunately only partially extant – archives of the society from the estate of the late Herrmann Meyer (d. 1972), through the offices of his daughter in Jerusalem. He replaced missing items and reserved the entire collection for the JMB until the museum was in a position to purchase it in 1993. The collection is not only complete, it also contains unique items such as proofs, special dedications, ephemera, and a press documentation invaluable for research purposes. A further acquisition by the JMB from the Spinoza Antiquarian Bookshop in 2001 was the collection of the Amsterdam Soncino Society member Sigmund Seeligmann, which sheds considerable light on the society’s correspondence.
JMB librarian Dr. Bernhard Jensen supervised the digitization of the Soncino Society’s collection, funded by the City of Berlin
Abraham Horodisch, ‘Ein Abenteuer im Geiste. Die Soncino-Gesellschaft der Freunde des jüdischen Buches,’ offprint from Bibliotheca docet (Amsterdam: Erasmus Bookshop Press 1963). http://dfg-viewer.de/show/?set%5bmets%5d=https://jmb01.intranda.com/mets/horoaben_00021654.xml
Vera Bendt, ‘Willem Burgers. Ein Amsterdamer Antiquar im Geiste von Spinoza,’ in: Imprimatur (new series) 24, 2015, pp. 11–54.
Bernhard Jensen, Ein Kanon der jüdischen Renaissance. Soncino-Gesellschaft der Freunde des jüdischen Buches. With an article by Vera Bendt (Göttingen: Wallstein 2017).
© Title image: Jüdisches Museum Berlin (DOK 93/502/24, https://objekte.jmberlin.de/object/jmb-obj-586366)