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Hermann Cohen in Jerusalem

On the Changing Perception of German-Jewish Heritage in Israel


In June 1952, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem commissioned Werner Braun to photograph the library of Hermann Cohen (1842–1918), one of the most influential German-Jewish philosophers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Cohen’s library had been transferred to Israel from Germany in 1949 and placed in the house of Leon Roth, a professor of philosophy who lent it to the university following the latter’s »exile« from Mount Scopus in the wake of the 1948 war. Carefully staged, one of the photographs depicts two young students immersed in reading, with Cohen’s books neatly arranged in the background.

Salvaged from Nazi looters after Germany’s defeat, the Library of Professor Hermann Cohen, an eminent philosopher, is now kept in the Roth house annex of the Jewish National and University Library. Photo: Werner Braun, 1 June 1952. Courtesy of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Salvaged from Nazi looters after Germany’s defeat, the Library of Professor Hermann Cohen, an eminent philosopher, is now kept in the Roth house annex of the Jewish National and University Library. Photo: Werner Braun, 1 June 1952. Courtesy of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The library was sent to Hebrew University of Jerusalem together with hundreds of thousands of Nazi-looted Jewish books by the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Inc. (JCR), the major Jewish agency for cultural restitution in the American Zone of Occupation in Germany. In this context, the photograph seems to have served a double purpose: as documentation of the transfer and as proof that the salvaged books had been preserved and were extensively used by the Israeli public in the newly established state. The fate of the Hermann Cohen Library in Israel in the following decades, however, proved much more complex than this message conveyed by Braun’s photograph. Indeed, the history of the library’s transfer to Jerusalem and subsequent accommodation within the collections of the Jewish National and University Library (JNUL) provides some interesting insights into the status of German-Jewish heritage in Israel in the second half of the twentieth century.

After Cohen’s death in April 1918, his widow sold his library as prescribed in her late husband’s testament. Following unsuccessful negotiations with the University of Marburg, where Cohen had held a professorship, the library was acquired by the Jewish community in Frankfurt am Main. It consisted of some 5,300 titles and covered a wide range of topics, from classical philosophy and mathematics to art, and from traditional Jewish texts to works of Protestant theology. Until the destruction of the community library in 1938, Cohen’s books constituted a core of the collection, which totaled 15,383 volumes in 1937.

During the November Pogrom, the library was plundered by an anti-Jewish mob. The bulk of the collection was later confiscated by the state police, similarly to Jewish book collections in other German cities. Such confiscations were the result of increasing interest amongst Nazi political elites in utilizing Jewish cultural artifacts for antisemitic research. The Frankfurt community library was coveted by both Alfred Rosenberg, who planned to use it at the Institute for Research on the Jewish Question in Frankfurt, and by Heinrich Himmler, who wished to acquire the Frankfurt collections for the library of the Security Service (SD) in Berlin. Eventually, the bulk of the library was taken over by the SD, but at least some books remained in Frankfurt and were incorporated into Rosenberg’s institute. During the war, a small part of the library was also transferred to the Munich branch of the Reich Institute for the History of the New Germany. It was in these three institutions that Cohen’s books were rediscovered by Allied soldiers in 1945. The books were then reunited in the Offenbach Archival Depot, established by the American Military Government in March 1946 as a central collecting point for Nazi-looted cultural objects with the intention of restoring them to their owners. However, since most German-Jewish communities had been destroyed in the Holocaust – out of some 30,000 Jews that lived in Frankfurt in 1933, only 602 remained in the city in 1945 – this raised the question of who should be regarded as the rightful heir.

The JCR was founded in New York in 1947 to tackle this issue. Following numerous difficulties in regulating the status of Nazi-looted cultural property, the JCR managed to achieve recognition as a trustee of heirless Jewish cultural assets. In 1949, it began distributing the looted books from Offenbach. It was at this time that Shlomo Shunami, the Hebrew University’s representative at the depot, proposed transferring Cohen’s library, in its entirety, to Jerusalem. The university strongly supported this initiative, even though the JCR’s distribution policy recommended that the recovered libraries should be divided in the following proportions: 40 percent to Israel, 40 percent to the United States, and the remaining 20 percent to other locations. As explained by Gershom Scholem, the request to exclude Cohen’s library from the general allocation rules was motivated by the desire to »honour the memory of this great Jewish thinker in the philosophical seminar of the Hebrew University.«NLI, ARC. 4*793/288/19, Gershom Scholem to Salo Baron, 31 May 1949. The university ultimately managed to persuade other members of the JCR and the Hermann Cohen Library was sent to Israel in September 1949. As recorded by Shunami, the collection included »1304 volumes of philosophical works, 340 volumes of theology, 2335 volumes of various sciences, 667 volumes of Judaica, 90 volumes of Hebraica, 393 non-Jewish newspapers and 117 Jewish newspapers (all together 5246 volumes).«

Diary of Shlomo Shunami, entry from 22 August 1949. Courtesy of Amnon Reichman.
Diary of Shlomo Shunami, entry from 22 August 1949. Courtesy of Amnon Reichman.

This collection was different from the other books requested by the university, which was interested primarily in rare Judaica and Hebraica. The interest in Cohen’s books might be better understood against the backdrop of the 1948 war, in the aftermath of which the university was separated from its library on Mount Scopus. Simultaneously, the transfer of the collection to Jerusalem seems to reflect the great esteem in which Cohen’s legacy was held by the intellectual elites in Jerusalem, despite the ambivalent attitude towards Germany that prevailed in the newly established Jewish state. This esteem is reflected in a paper written by Hugo Bergman, professor of philosophy and the first rector of the Hebrew University, on the fortieth anniversary of Cohen’s death: »If we today in retrospect weigh up the forces and appraise the men who conferred on twentieth-century German Jewry […] great authority and strong moral power, then the name that must take precedence over all others is that of Hermann Cohen.«Hugo Bergman, Hermann Cohen, in: Alexander Altmann (ed.), Between East and West. Essays Dedicated to the Memory of Bela Horovitz, London 1958, 22.

Once the books arrived in Jerusalem, they were placed in Leon Roth’s house in Talbiya until 1960, when the JNUL building was erected at the new university campus on Givat Ram in central Jerusalem. Having initially been displayed in the general reading room, the library was soon removed to the magazine, where the books underwent a long-awaited cataloguing process: Until 1975, about a third of the collection was registered under the abbreviation COH. However, the library thereafter appears to have lost its priority for the institution. The cataloguing process was discontinued and the books started disappearing from the library stacks. In 1999, only some 3,800 volumes of Cohen’s library were reported to remain in the JNUL magazines. There is no information available to explain what happened with the missing volumes, but it is clear that Cohen’s books kept disappearing from Givat Ram during the first two decades of the twenty-first century.

One of Hermann Cohen’s books that disappeared from Givat Ram and can today be found in private ownership. Photo: Anna Holzer-Kawalko.
One of Hermann Cohen’s books that disappeared from Givat Ram and can today be found in private ownership. Photo: Anna Holzer-Kawalko.

The disappearance of Cohen’s books from the JNUL reflects, among others, the waning of German-Jewish heritage in the State of Israel. Considered extremely valuable in the aftermath of World War II, the collection seems to have lost its significance for new generations of Israeli readers. Thus, the case of the Hermann Cohen Library invites reflection on the long-term outcomes of the mission to bring Nazi-looted libraries from Europe to Jerusalem. In 1948, the Hebrew University proclaimed: »These collections of books if they were to remain in Europe or be transferred to America would constitute either museums or archives of great interest, but they will lack a direct contact with the work of the Jewish community as they will have in Palestine where they will be used by wide circles of scholars and various strata of society.«NLI, AC-3382 (uncatalogued materials), Memorandum on the Policy of the Hebrew University Concerning Jewish Books in Offenbach and other Localities, undated (presumably 1948). As demonstrated by the fate of Cohen’s library, these hopes were hardly fulfilled. Today, it has yet to be determined whether the growing interest in salvaged books among contemporary Israeli historians and provenance experts could bring them back to the Israeli public’s attention.

Anna Holzer-Kawalko is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Leo Baeck Institute in Jerusalem. She specializes in the history of Jewish material culture, in particular libraries and book collections, in Central and Eastern Europe in the twentieth century. In 2012, Yfaat Weiss offered Anna – then a visiting undergraduate student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem – to engage in research on the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary in Breslau. What began as a small project later turned into a long-lasting interest in the history of Jewish libraries during and after World War II, which Anna developed under Yfaat’s thoughtful guidance as the supervisor of her MA thesis and later of her doctoral dissertation. For more than a decade now, Yfaat has been her most important teacher of Jewish history. Recently, Anna’s monograph »In Other People’s Houses. Poles and Jews in Lower Silesia after 1945« was published in Hebrew as part of the DI series »hefez. Studies on Jewish History and Material Culture.« | kawalko(at)leobaeck.org.

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