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Salo Wittmayer Baron Original image: Wikipedia
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A Memoir of My Library

The great 20th-century scholar remembers a life among books

Salo Wittmayer Baron
September 08, 2015
Original image: Wikipedia
Salo Wittmayer Baron Original image: Wikipedia

Many friends and acquaintances who visited my homes in New York City and Canaan, Connecticut, and found the rooms full of books, often three deep on my shelves, asked me why and how I had obtained such a large collection. For the most part my answer was: it came to me by hereditary reverence for the written word. I happen now to be engaged in the writing of my autobiography, which tries to find answers to these and related questions. Even its title, “Under Three Civilizations,” supplies in part the answer to the next question; namely, why this collection covers so many different areas, periods, and subjects.

As a child of four (in 1899) in Galicia I was introduced to the study of the Bible and its various interpreters. Less than two years later my father paraded me before relatives and friends as a student of the Talmud together with its commentaries. At the same time I excelled in mathematics and the game of chess. These activities did not interfere, however, with my participation in group games with boys of my age and older, particularly during the lengthy summer vacations, when my parents took the family to spas, predominantly to Czechoslovakia’s Marienbad, or to Germany’s Baltic and North Sea beaches, where I swam, exercised, and played.

Soon thereafter the Russo-Japanese war (1904-1905) introduced me to the world of journalism. I began to devour every page on that subject in the Polish, German, and Hebrew newspapers and magazines that arrived at our home. For some reason, when I was about nine years old, I became an admirer of the British Empire. For hours I would pore over a map, figuring out how many days it would take to travel by ship from London to Sydney, for example. Later on I also became an ardent Polish nationalist. I learned to recite from memory, for example, five chapters of Pan Tadeusz, Adam Mickiewicz’ masterly epic. And before long, at the age of twelve, I composed Polish poems, to which I afterwards added poems in German and Hebrew. Unfortunately, all of these works were lost under Hitler’s occupation of Austria.

But not until I was a teenager did I became a passionate buyer of books. Both of my parents had been book-lovers. My mother had a good general knowledge of Polish and German literature, which she cultivated throughout her life. She also spoke French fluently. With her aid I learned to buy books by mail, especially from major German booksellers. Since I received a small weekly allowance from my parents, I established at the age of fourteen or fifteen a regular exchange with one particular book dealer in Berlin, who sent me his catalogues; from them I would choose one or more items. Later he would choose one or two recently arrived titles that he knew would be of interest to me. He sent them directly to me with the understanding that I could return them, in case I found them less than desirable. In this way I assembled quite a collection of German and later also Hebrew books. This marked the beginning of my book-collecting mania.

This exchange ended with the outbreak of World War I. Our family moved to Vienna, where I was to remain for the next twelve years as a full-time student at both the University and the Seminary. As a student I had at my disposal the very rich library of the University (also on occasion the famous Imperial Library), and for Jewish subjects the libraries of both my Seminary and an adjoining Jewish community center. Consequently I had neither the need nor the occasion to acquire many new books from the modest allowance out of my father’s account at one of the leading Viennese banks. Moreover, through the University I gained access to certain research institutes, which continued to subscribe throughout the war years to newspapers and books from abroad, including “enemy” publications. It was in this manner that I succeeded in reading the London Times. Thus I had the unique experience of being able to compare the reports of foreign newspapers with those printed in Austria on the progress on the battlefields.

All these “outside activities” did not prevent me from pursuing my studies at the University with the necessary devotion in time and effort. As a result, in the first nine years of my residence in Vienna (1914-1923) I obtained three doctorates (a Ph.D. in history and Middle Eastern languages, a doctorate in political science, and one of law), as well as my ordination as a rabbi. At that time, I also worked for five years as a Docent at the Paedagogium, and published two books (Die Judenfrage auf dem Wiener Kongress, 1920, and Die politische Theorie Ferdinand Lassalles, 1923) and a dozen articles, mostly in Hebrew.

All along, my love for books grew. Although I spent a great many hours in the Vienna archives and libraries in search of materials for my own work, I also devoted almost all of my spare time to the catalogue and reading rooms of the University and the Jewish libraries in search of source material. In time I became such a part of the catalogue room that even outsiders occasionally asked for me when I was absent. Among these strangers was a dignitary named Cwiklinski who, as a chief of a major section was next in rank to the Minister of Education. He suddenly started paying visits to that catalogue room. Approaching retirement he had decided to write a book on some phase of the history of ancient Greece. He was happy to meet another Galician with whom he could converse in Polish.

Early in 1927, after I accepted Stephen Wise’s invitation to be the Professor Jewish History at his Jewish Institute of Religion (JIR), I decided to transfer a whole section of my small library to New York. That same year the librarian of the Institute resigned and returned to the University of Cambridge, England, whence he had come to the Institute several years before. I was asked to serve as librarian in addition to my teaching duties. Working almost daily with an assistant librarian and a secretary (who was also to help me in my own research and writing), I continued to build up that young but substantial collection. In this connection I could return to my hobby of reading the numerous catalogues sent to the Institute from all parts of the United States and Europe. In this way I also learned the techniques of the American book trade. I became officially acquainted with the excellent New York Public Library, especially with its notable Jewish division, which had been flourishing under its long-term librarian Abraham Solomon Freidus (1867-1922). The library’s modern Jewish division was almost comparable to that of the Jewish Theological Seminary, built up by my friend Alexander Marx into one of the greatest Jewish libraries in the world.

My career took a sudden major turn, when in December 1929 I received an invitation from the President of Columbia University, Nicholas Murray Butler, to occupy the newly established chair of Jewish history, literature, and institutions. I accepted the invitation, but arranged first that I would finish my classes at JIR and devote the time before the start of the new academic year to acquiring for Columbia a good collection of textbooks and journals.

Columbia at that time had only a small collection of Hebraica and Judaica, largely donated by Temple Emanu-El. This collection was valuable from an antiquarian standpoint, but could hardly be of any use to a class of predominantly unprepared students. Because all this took place during the Great Depression, when prices generally were going down, I was confidant that the amount set aside out of the Miller Fund would suffice for a presentable Jewish collection. In fact, not long thereafter I was approached by a distinguished Galician rabbi, who was also a dealer in Hebrew books. He informed me that he had for sale a collection of precious manuscripts from various parts of the Eastern Mediterranean. I suggested to the President the purchase of the whole collection. Thus Columbia, which at that time had on its shelves only a little more than 400 various Hebraic manuscripts, now got an additional 600 items. With its expansion to 1,000 or more titles, the University’s holdings had become one of the leading collections among the country’s universities.

Independently I continue to collect books for myself, after losing most of the books I had assembled before World War I during the brief Russian occupation of Tarnov in 1914. I succeeded in assembling a presentable collection on my shelves in New York after I became established there as a teacher at the JIR and at Columbia. Since I regularly spent my vacations in Europe, I maintained my apartment in Vienna for several years. This arrangement facilitated the shipment of most of my Viennese books to New York. At the same time I attended a few books auctions in Berlin, Paris, and London as well as in New York. For a number of years I also had an account at Sotheby’s in London. I thus accumulated a sizable number of rare and other desirable publications. In addition to my own purchases, I received birthday and other gifts from family and friends.

Now the problem of space became predominant. I was fortunate to have been assigned by the University an office that I considered a godsend. It consisted of a room, located on the top of the building, which was thirty feet long and eleven feet high with just one window in the front and a door in the back. Thus I had two entire walls available for shelf space. I was fortunate in occupying that office from 1932 to my retirement in 1963.

Before I stopped by purchases in Germany in 1933, I had one more sudden increase of my library. Unexpectedly a young man came to me one day. Introducing himself as a representative of one of the leading book firms of Leipzig, which was known for an accumulation of 1.5 million books stored in its warehouses, he offered to sell me mainly pamphlets and reprints on the Middle East. He explained that the firm came to the conclusion that was not profitable for them to deal, as they had all along, with this kind of material. They found that the printing costs of one title in a catalogue cost them more than a mark. On the other hand, they could hardly sell such an item for more than that. They arranged therefore to proceed as follows. They hired a student from the Middle East department at the University to separate the material according to areas and make packages of eight to fifteen pamphlets. Then they sold the entire package for a few marks. The ultimate result was that I acquired from him packages totally some 500 pamphlets for a very reasonable sum.

Although I completely suspended my dealings with German firms, I continued to receive books and manuscripts from my old supplier in Frankfurt, who had moved to London because of the Nazi onslaught. One such delivery caused me considerable surprise. It consisted of a letter written by the historian Heinrich Graetz. It briefly described his experiences in a summer resort, where he exchanged ideas with other visitors. One of these, with whom he spent a good deal of time, was another guest by the name of Karl Marx. I published this letter in an article entitled “A Noteworthy Letter of Heinrich Graetz” and it appeared in the Jubilee volume for Raphael Mahler, a well-known scholar with Marxist leanings.

In time, however, the question of space for books became ever more pressing, especially after my retirement in 1963 from Columbia and the loss of that long, tall office. The confusion created by shelving books three rows deep became ever more intolerable, as I could not recall the row and position of a particular book. Finally, University of London Professor Chimen Abramsky, then on a visit from Stanford, where he was a guest lecturer, suggested that I dispose of my library of Judaica for the teaching of Jewish studies. I began seriously considering this move. We agreed that the Western United States were far behind the older and more venerable libraries of the East in the large and growing field of Jewish Studies. Stanford seemed a congenial setting, and so we were able to conclude the negotiations that brought my collection to the West Coast.


From David L. Langenberg, ed., Of Many Generations: Judaica and Hebraica from the Taube-Baron Collection. Reprinted by permission. Copyright © 1989 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University.

Salo Wittmayer Baron (1895-1989) was the first professor of Jewish history at an American university, serving as the Nathan Miller Chair in Jewish History, Literature, and Institutions at Columbia University. He is the author of the 18-volume Social and Religious History of the Jews.

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