- Cordula Lissner
The Libraries in the Rabbi’s House
The Salomon Ludwig Steinheim Institute has found its home in the ideal setting of the historic Rabbi’s House next to the Old Synagogue in Essen, a major city at the heart of Germany’s Ruhr Industrial Area. As well as a working library, the Institute has several unique collections of books. These include more than 60 works from the Haskalah period, printed at the Jüdische Freyschule in Berlin, as well as the library of the writer and theater critic Wilhelm Unger, who returned to Cologne from his London exile in 1956.
The Salomon Ludwig Steinheim Institute for German-Jewish history at the University of Duisburg-Essen – to give it its full name – is dedicated to research into the history and culture of the German-Jewish communities of Central Europe from the Middle Ages to the present. Founded in Duisburg in 1986, and located since 2011 in the Rabbi’s House in Essen, it has a special interest in the application of digital methods and in the establishment of cooperative research-related infrastructures. The Institute’s library holdings are accessible via its own online-catalog, which will in coming years be integrated into the University Libray OPAC.
The Haskalah Collection – from the printing press of the Berlin Jewish Enlightenment
The first Jewish free school in Berlin was founded in 1778 with the support of Moses Mendelssohn. In 1784 Friedrich II granted the school permission to set up a printing press. Known as the “oriental book press of the Jewish Free School”, it played a crucial role in the Berlin Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah), and over the next thirty years developed into a major publishing house as the Haskalah spread to other Jewish communities in Europe.
In December 1997 staff members of the Steinheim Institute, on a visit to the well-known antiquarian booksellers, Spinoza’s, in Amsterdam, discovered a valuable collection of books which they were later able to acquire for the Institute library. In summer 1999, the collection was presented to the scholarly world at a small conference. The Steinheim Institute’s Haskalah collection comprises some 65 books – considerably more than half the main output of the Jewish Free School press – plus 35 or so items of 18th and early 19th century Berlin Hebraica and some contemporary printed works from Amsterdam, Prague and Vienna.
Books from the Haskalah collection (© Steinheim Institute)
Accessible online, the Haskalah catalog provides detailed bibliographical information on the collection’s holdings together with high resolution digitized images of all title pages.
Most of the titles from the Jewish Free School Press are Bible translations, but the collection also contains a wide spectrum of philosophical, medical, scientific, and philological works, including belles lettres and poetry. Encyclopedic treatises, school and teaching texts, and the many images graphically illustrating key historical aspects of Judaism, demonstrate the close connection between Enlightenment and education. The journal Ha-Me’assef (‘The Collector’), which first appeared in Königsberg (today Kaliningrad) and was then printed in Berlin by the Jewish Free School Press was one of the most important media of the Jewish Enlightenment. The Steinheim Institute Library holds every issue of this periodical.
Joel Brill Löwe (ed.) Sefer semirot jisra’el (‘Songs of Israel’), bilingual edition of the Psalms with German translation (in Hebrew script) by Moses Mendelssohn. Berlin: Jewish Free School, 1785–1791 (© Steinheim Institute)
Return from exile – the Unger Collection
A spacious, well-lighted seminar room lined with bookshelves at the Steinheim Institute makes a fitting home for the private library of Wilhelm Unger – a 20th century collection.
Born in 1904 in Hohensalza (today Inowrocław, Poland), Wilhelm Unger moved to Cologne with his family when he was three. On leaving school he completed an apprenticeship in publishing and bookselling before studying German, philosophy, and psychology in Cologne and Bonn. He worked as a journalist with the Kölnische Zeitung (‘Cologne News’) and West German Broadcasting. His first book, Beethovens Vermächtnis (‘Beethoven’s Legacy’, Cologne 1929), fell victim to the National Socialist book burning orgy of May 1933.
© Steinheim Institute
In 1939 Wilhelm Unger fled to England where, living in London, he wrote for the BBC, was active in the “PEN Center for German-Speaking Authors Abroad,” co-founded the exiles’ “Club 1943” and launched a Library of the German Language. His parents survived deportation to Theresienstadt (Terezín), but his two sisters Ella and Grete were killed in the Shoah. In 1956 Unger returned to Cologne, bringing with him to the Rhineland boxes of books bearing memories of his long British exile – hence the many classics of English literature, the “Penguin” and “Pelican” imprints peopling the collection’s shelves.
Books from Wilhelm Unger’s private library (© Steinheim Institute)
In contrast to most of Germany’s culturally active returnees from exile, Unger settled quickly back into his home city and soon established – as cultural editor of the Kölner Stadtanzeiger (‘Cologne City Gazette’, successor to the Kölnische Zeitung) and radio journalist – a wide network of cultural and media contacts.
Wilhelm Unger (r.) interviewing Max Brod, c. 1965. (© HAStK, Estate of Wilhelm Unger.)
As a Jewish re-emigrant, Wilhelm Unger played an important role in the historical task of coming to terms with Germany’s National Socialist past. The desecration of Cologne Synagogue at Christmas 1959 led him to initiate two public discussions “On the Present Situation in Germany” with the writers Heinrich Böll and Paul Schallück, and Rabbi Zvi Asaria. In this context he brought up the question of renewed anti-Semitism in the Federal Republic.
Together with Böll and Schallück, Unger also launched the Cologne Association for Christian-Jewish Cooperation, and in January 1959 he was among the founders of the city’s Germania Judaica Library. Wilhelm Unger died on December 20, 1985 in Cologne; he is buried at Bocklemünd Jewish Cemetery.
Thanks both to Konrad Schilling – Duisburg’s former Cultural Officer and a close friend of Unger’s – and to Meret Meyer, his literary executor, the Unger Collection was transferred in 1999 from Duisburg City Library to the Steinheim Institute, at that time still located in Duisburg. Many of Wilhelm Unger’s former friends and colleagues attended the presentation of the collection in its new home.
Another part of Unger’s estate, preserved in the apparent safety of the City of Cologne Historical Archives, was probably damaged beyond repair in the disastrous collapse on March 3, 2009 of the building containing that department, along with two neighboring blocks, into a pit being excavated for a new subway station. Forty-eight boxes of Unger’s manuscripts, letters, photos and audio cassettes were lost in this accident.
Cordula Lissner was appointed research coordinator of the Salomon Steinheim Institute in 2019. For her, the Unger Collection forms a tangible link with her long-term research project on “returning exiles”.
Harald Lordick, Thomas Kollatz and Beata Mache have written fascinating texts, whose value this blog gratefully acknowledges, on the library treasures of the Rabbi’s House inFurther reading
Harald Lordick & Beata Mache: Beständig bei seinen Büchern zu sein. Die Bibliothek des Steinheim-Instituts. http://www.steinheim-institut.de/edocs/kalonymos/kalonymos_2011_2.pdf#page=9
Uta Lohmann: „Bücher für billige Preise zu haben“. Die Orientalische Buchdruckerei - eine Initiative der Berliner Haskala. http://www.steinheim-institut.org/haskala/haskala-katalog/loh.htm
Thomas Kollatz: Die Haskalabibliothek im Steinheim-Institut – eine erste Präsentation. http://www.steinheim-institut.org/haskala/haskala-katalog/kol.htm
Thomas Kollatz: Spiegel eines Intellektuellenlebens. Wilhelm Ungers kostbare Bibliothek im Steinheim-Institut. http://www.steinheim-institut.de/edocs/kalonymos/kalonymos_1999_2.pdf#page=8
Wilhelm Unger: Wofür ist das ein Zeichen? Auswahl aus veröffentlichten und unveröffentlichten Werken des Kritikers und Autors, ed. Meret Meyer, Cologne 1984.
 https://www.bundesarchiv.de/nachlassdatenbank/viewsingle.php?person_id=39232&asset_id=44420 Unger, Wilhelm (1904-1985). Nachlass. Historisches Archiv der Stadt Köln.
© Title image: Steinheim Institute