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An Extraordinary Library

Remembering Mrs. Els Salomon-Prins Bendheim

Theodor Dunkelgrün
September 15, 2023
Els Salomon-Prins Bendheim Jerusalem, 2010


Els Salomon-Prins Bendheim Jerusalem, 2010


“Your library is your portrait,” asserted the Liverpudlian bibliophile George Holbrook Jackson. James Joyce once confided to Sylvia Beach that Leopold Bloom resembled Jackson, perhaps as a modernist pun—inverting the adage to make his Jewish protagonist look like a library.

The idea itself—show me your books and I’ll tell you who you are—was hardly new. In Eugene Onegin, for instance, Pushkin has Tatiana happen upon the hero’s library where she discovers his true thoughts by means of what Nabokov (in that neglected masterpiece, his commentary to Onegin) lamented as the lost art of deciphering the impressions of a reader’s fingernails in a page. Granted, Tatiana’s discovery of Onegin’s books is part of an elaborate set-piece of Russian literature. Yet to anyone who works with old books, it also rings true. A library collected in the course of a life contains a record of that life and to read another’s marginalia is to join their ghostly company. Indeed, Tatiana-like Pushkin scholars mine the poet’s books and annotations for keys to Pushkin’s own character, as my Cambridge colleague Rachel Polonsky has observed. And just as a portrait can spark affection for the sitter, so an encounter with another’s books can kindle various kinds of devotion: romantic love, philological study, and filial care.

Els Salomon-Prins Bendheim, who died this past January in her hundredth year, happened upon a spectacular library, a collection of more than 6,000 manuscripts, printed editions, and ephemera, when she first visited Jerusalem in 1949 at the age of 26. The library was the life’s work of the Dutch scholar Eliezer Liepman Philip Prins (Arnhem 1835-Frankfurt 1915). Els Salomon-Prins Bendheim was his granddaughter. With time, she discovered, the library had become an archive of sorts. The margins teemed with manuscript annotations and tucked between the pages she found letters from some of the most prominent rabbis and scholars of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The encounter with his books lit a double flame of love and learning within her, and she devoted the rest of her life to safeguarding her grandfather’s memory by editing his correspondence and his marginalia, in Hebrew and in Dutch, faithfully trying to capture the portrait in his library.

When we met, she was 88 and I was 33. It began as countless introductions have done: with a message from the inimitable Menachem Butler, an associate editor at Tablet magazine and program fellow for Jewish Legal Studies at Harvard Law School. “She is my uncle’s mother. I’d like to introduce you to each other … she likely has access to so much interesting stuff, and she’s always looking for someone to talk Dutch with!” I was living in Philadelphia, spending a year at Penn’s Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies. Mrs. Bendheim lived in Jerusalem, and after corresponding, she rang me very early one morning. Her Dutch sounded as if it had been frozen in time—in 1939, which was the year she fled Amsterdam for Montreal with her parents and brother. It was a Dutch hardly spoken anymore, a prewar Jewish Dutch vernacular in which I recognised the language of the elders of the decimated community into which I was born. She never granted me permission to call her “Els,” so she remained “Mevrouw Bendheim,” and I only ever addressed her with the formal second person (we never spoke English). And yet for all the rhetorical formality of our exchanges and the generational distance between us, our shared language and diaspora lent them a certain familiarity.

“Do you know my cousin Ralph?” she asked, upon learning I was from The Hague. Indeed, I did. Born and raised in Amsterdam, Raphael “Ralph” Prins (1926-2015) was Liepman Philip Prins’ brother’s grandson and a great-great-grandson of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, after whom he was named. He was interned in 1943 and deported to the East the following year. In February 1945, he was part of a small group of Theresienstadt inmates sent to Switzerland for a possible prisoner exchange. As Ralph told it, he was included after telling Karl Rahm, the Theresienstadt commandant, that if not for the war he would have been studying art in Zurich. He went on to do just that.

Eventually, Ralph settled in The Hague and worked as a painter, graphic artist, photographer, sculptor and an art teacher. He is best known for one of the most powerful pieces of public art in the Netherlands: the National Monument at Westerbork (1970). At the site of the transit camp through which he himself had been deported along with 107,000 of the prewar Dutch Jewish community of 140,000 and nearly all Dutch Roma and Sinti, Ralph made the train tracks curl upward towards the sky. By the time I came to know him, the old Jewish neighbourhood in downtown The Hague had become the city’s Chinatown. The Great Ashkenazi shul in the Wagenstraat, where my grandparents were married in 1941 by Rabbi Isaac Maarsen (Amsterdam 1893-Sobibor 1943), was rededicated as a Turkish mosque. Mizraḥ and qiblah unidirectional from northwestern Europe, an ornate miḥrāb now occupied a void once filled with Torah scrolls. But one old storefront deliberately recalled the bygone world: Ralph’s studio, the windows of which were filled with his charcoal portraits of rebbes, of musicians, and of Anne Frank as he remembered her (Ralph had attended her birthday party in 1941). He lived and worked around the corner from the house where my great-grandparents survived the war in hiding—on the same city block on which, nearly three centuries earlier, Spinoza completed his Ethics. For my father’s 65th birthday, I commissioned Ralph to make his portrait, too.

Mrs. Bendheim and I connected over such stories. She loved talking about her Dutch and Belgian family, which spanned the modern history of Jewish life in the Low Countries. Henrietta Jacobson, her grandfather’s first wife, was a direct descendant of Moses Uri Halevi of Emden, the legendary founder of the Jewish community of Amsterdam in the late 16th century. Her father, Iwan, a leading figure of Amsterdam’s Jewish haute bourgeoisie, had endowed the Jewish High School on the Herengracht in 1928, among numerous other benefactions. Her aunt Dientje Prins (Arnhem 1863-Bergen-Belsen 1944) married Jacques Eisenmann (Frankfurt 1859-Antwerp 1913), a student of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. In 1907, Jacques and Dientje had endowed Antwerp’s “hidden” Eisenmann shul as a place for the decidedly non-Hasidic Frankfurter nusaḥ of his teacher. (Survivors ascribed the shul’s undamaged emergence from WWII to the fact that no one ever schmoozed during davening, though the latter, if true, is surely the greater miracle.) Uncle Jacques was also instrumental in establishing a cemetery for Antwerp’s Jews in Putte, just across the Belgian-Dutch border, because Dutch law (unlike Belgian) allows for cemetery-zoning in eternity. Today, those graveyards are probably the largest Jewish cemetery still in use anywhere in Europe. Mrs. Bendheim would marshal nearly 20 contributors for a book she edited about Antwerp’s Eisenmann schul, The Synagogue Within (5764/2004). The backbone of all these stories was her astonishing command of the names and relationships of relatives dead and alive, and she spoke about her ancestors as if she had known them all in person.

Among the splendors of that family history were two of the most magnificent private Jewish libraries ever assembled. By the time I met Mrs. Bendheim’s cousin Jack Lunzer (1924-2016), Jacques and Dientje Eisenmann’s grandson, the Valmadonna Trust Library had been boxed up in preparation for auction. In their place at Fairport, Lunzer’s stately home in Hampstead Garden Suburb, my late friend professor Elliott Horowitz and I beheld a spectacular trompe l’oeil: walls covered with a photographic reproduction of his former bookshelves on a scale of 1:1. The centerpiece of his collection was the object of arguably the most ingenious feat of modern book collecting: a pristine copy of the first edition of the complete Babylonian Talmud, printed in Venice in the early 16th century, which had belonged to the Oxford Hebrew scholar Richard Bruarne (1519-65) and thereafter, for four centuries, to Westminster Abbey. For decades, the abbey had refused to sell it to Lunzer, until he found the one thing the abbey’s custodians would rather have: a copy of their founding charter, written in 1065, which Lunzer bought at an auction and which the abbey willingly traded for the Talmud.

As strikingly visualized in the way Sotheby’s put the collection on display, the Valmadonna Library was not only a portrait of Jack Lunzer but a landscape of all the places where Jewish printers had resided and all the books that had sustained Jewish lives across a millennium from pre-expulsion England to India. Rarely a week goes by that I don’t consult a digitized copy of a Valmadonna book through the invaluable website of the National Library of Israel.

In the Advis pour dresser une bibliothèque (1627), a pioneering manual on librarianship, the Parisian polymath Gabriel Naudé (1600-53) advised that “the quickest, easiest and most advantageous” way of acquiring books is to buy someone else’s library in whole or in part. (Mottos from Naudé’s manual illustrate Joshua Teplitsky’s wonderful study, Prince of the Press: How One Collector Built History’s Most Enduring and Remarkable Jewish Library (2019), of the way Rabbi David Oppenheim (1664-1736) built his own extraordinary library.) Lunzer took Naudé’s advice to heart, building on his father-in-law’s collection of Hebrew books printed in 16th-century Italy by acquiring substantial parts of another storied 20th-century private collection of Hebrew books.

Astonishingly, that library belonged to one of Mrs. Bendheim’s close relatives, too. The Prins family was echt Ashkenazi, committed in Amsterdam and Antwerp to the Frankfurt teachings and traditions of Rabbi Hirsch. But Mrs. Bendheim’s first cousin Selina Prins had married a scion of Iraqi Jewish nobility, David Solomon Sassoon. Born in Bombay, where his family established the famous Sassoon Docks as well as the gorgeous (and recently renovated) David Sassoon Library (named for his grandfather), Sassoon went on to build a magnificent collection of Hebrew and Jewish books and manuscripts from across the Sephardi and Islamicate worlds, especially from Syria. Unlike Lunzer, Sassoon was a scholar in his own right, and in 5692/1932 the Oxford University Press published his Ohel Dawid, the monumental catalog of his own library. Among its jewels was the so-called Codex Sassoon, the 10th-century Hebrew Bible manuscript that carries his name and was on display from Dallas to Tel Aviv in the run-up to an auction earlier this year.

“But do you know about the library of my grandfather, Eliezer Liepman Philip Prins?” Mrs. Bendheim asked me. I confessed my ignorance. Now, no serious scholar of Jewish history did not know about the Valmadonna and Sassoon libraries. Long before the epoch-making sales at chez Sotheby’s of the Babylonian Talmud for $9.3 million to Leon Black and of the Codex Sassoon for a stupendous $38 million to Alfred Moses (on behalf of the American Friends of the ANU Museum in Tel Aviv, where it is now kept), I had only ever heard the names of these collections spoken with eyebrows raised and hushed tones of awe and reverence. But Prins I had never heard of.

Mrs. Bendheim was disappointed but not surprised: That ignorance had long been both her nemesis and her motivation. As the remedy for my lamentable condition, she gave me copies of the three books (two in Hebrew, one in Dutch) that she had devoted to her grandfather: Liepman Philip Prins: His Scholarly Correspondence (1992), Liepman Philip Prins: His Scholarly Contribution (1999) and Marginalia: An Amsterdam Scholar from the Mediene (2001). Together, those books painted a portrait of a remarkable figure—a learned independent scholar, book collector, contributor to Jewish scholarly journals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries as well as to the Dutch Jewish press. From his home in Arnhem, he had set out to connect with the leading Jewish figures of his time. Eventually, his correspondents would include Solomon Buber, Meir Friedmann (Ish-Shalom), Solomon Geiger, Louis Ginzberg, Esriel Hildesheimer, British Chief Rabbis Nathan Marcus Adler and Herman Adler, Yisrael Meir Kagan (the Chafetz Chaim), Naftali Zvi Judah Berlin (the Netziv), his son Chaim Berlin, and Samson Raphael Hirsch.

It was through his membership of this modern republic of rabbinic letters that Prins had made his greatest contributions to Jewish scholarship, as a connector and go-between with unsurpassed knowledge about the worlds of Jewish scholarship and Jewish books. Aware of the Romm publishing house’s preparations for a new edition of the Babylonian Talmud and with an insider’s intelligence about Amsterdam’s Hebrew printers, Prins managed to secure a unique and invaluable source for Vilna editors to include: a copy of the Frankfurt 1720 edition of the Babylonian Talmud densely annotated by the brilliant Rabbi Jacob Emden (1697-1776) that had come into the possession of Amsterdam’s Proops printing family (Emden’s copy of the Talmud survived, and came to Jerusalem in 1934 when the National Library acquired books and manuscripts from the Romm printing house). The inclusion of her grandfather’s glosses on Tractate Hullin in the “Vilna Shas” and the acknowledgement of his contribution to what became the Talmud’s canonical edition in the Acharit Davar (the publishers’ general epilogue at the end of Tractate Niddah) were the source of Mrs. Bendheim’s greatest yichus. Several years later, Prins supplied the Moravian scholar David Kaufmann with one of two surviving manuscripts to use for the first edition (1896) of the memoirs of Glikl bas Leib of Hameln (1646-1724), the most important surviving ego-document of any Jewish woman written prior to modern times.

Menachem had been right: Mrs. Bendheim and I had much to talk about in our shared language and passion for the histories of Jews in the Low Countries and of the Hebrew book. I was fascinated by their entanglement with generations of her family. By that time, the study of libraries, marginalia and other reading practices had become a vital part of my own work (though I have yet to master Nabokov’s lost art of reading the traces of fingernails). But among the many things we left unsaid in too few conversations is something that has only become clear to me in the months since she died and which I have learned to see by listening to the experiences of my own frum female colleagues building academic careers: Mrs. Bendheim was a born scholar. She had it all, the modern and classical languages, the endurance and Sitzfleisch for painstaking research, an eye for the illuminating detail, an ethics of memory and a responsibility to primary documents, the ability to control a vast amount of information, a hermeneutic of suspicion and a reverence for erudition, a gift for storytelling, and as much commitment to the generations after her as devotion to those that had come before. But she was also a woman, born into a devout Orthodox world in which a life of scholarship, academic or rabbinic, was the prerogative of men, while a female illuy was rarely if ever nurtured.

Take her brother Herman: I don’t know whether the little bronze plaque with his engraved name still graces his old seat facing the Teba on the north side of the sanctuary of Shearith Israel on Central Park West. But Herman Prins Salomon (1930-2021) is still widely remembered for his indefatigable research into the Western Sephardi diaspora, whose members founded that community in 1654 in what was then New Amsterdam. Herman was one of the world’s finest scholars of the Portuguese Jews and conversos in the 16th and 17th centuries. By the time I came to study the Jews of the early modern world myself, Herman’s pugilistic footnotes and his discovery of the sole surviving copy of Uriel da Costa’s long lost Exame das tradições phariseas in the Royal Library in Copenhagen were the stuff of academic legend. (Herman edited Da Costa’s text together with his second cousin Hakham Isaac S.D. Sassoon, David Solomon Sassoon’s grandson.)

Mrs. Bendheim did not have that kind of career. In a memoir, Els Reminisces: Amsterdam, Montreal, New York, Jerusalem (2003), she called dropping out of Barnard College for the purposes of planning her wedding “a stupid decision for which I paid dearly” (she later went back to school to complete her degree). Herman held two M.A.s, a Ph.D. in history, tenure at SUNY Albany, an honorary doctorate from the University of Lisbon, a fellowship of the American Academy for Jewish Research, and a Dutch knighthood for services to historical scholarship. Els, mother of seven, took a certificate for a home study course in home decorating from the New York School of Design. This is not to denigrate the latter: Mrs. Bendheim’s photographs of Dutch flowers adorn the walls of Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem, which she and her late husband, Charles, generously supported. There was a vein of rebelliousness within her frumkeit, though, rejecting the sheitel and leaving her hair uncovered during the early years of her marriage (in later years, she would cover her hair with a sheitel). It is chastening to wonder whether after a phone call with me she mumbled to herself, “what I wouldn’t have done with that boy’s privileges!”

Without the support of any institution but assisted by an army of friends and relatives, Mrs. Bendheim did an immense amount of research. She wrote and edited books and had them professionally proofread and published with entrepreneurship that seemed to draw directly on the powerful female role models in her grandfather’s world: Glikl bas Leib and Deborah Romm, who directed the largest Jewish printing house of the 19th century in the years it produced the Vilna Talmud (she is the subject of an ongoing ISF-funded research project by Motti Zalkin and Ada Gebel at Ben-Gurion University).

With time, she discovered, the library had become an archive of sorts. The margins teemed with manuscript annotations and tucked between the pages she found letters from some of the most prominent rabbis and scholars of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Mrs. Bendheim wore her learning lightly, but there can be little doubt that she was only able to appreciate the significance of her grandfather’s life and work because she had enjoyed a traditional education herself. Indeed, the prewar Amsterdam milieu in which she had grown up strongly encouraged the intellectual development of women in Jewish and secular fields. Among Liepman Philip Prins’ correspondence that Mrs. Bendheim edited are two letters about Talmudic questions that he wrote to his granddaughter Selina Prins-Sassoon. Mrs. Bendheim (who would be one of the founders of the Yeshiva University High School for Girls in New York) had herself been a student of maggid Simon Hammelburg, a legendary Amsterdam teacher and the translator of the Mishna into Dutch. Hammelburg had only managed to publish Seder Mo’ed, with his commentary and notes, in 1939. He worked on the remainder until the day he was deported. Hammelburg was murdered with his wife and seven of his eight children at Sobibor on June 4, 1943. In the 1980s, using the manuscript obtained from Hammelburg’s sole surviving child in an act of filial devotion as much as of scholarship, Mrs. Bendheim collaborated on the posthumous edition of her old teacher’s translation of and commentary to Seder Nashim (Amsterdam in 5748/1987), taking responsibility for the bilingual Hebrew-Dutch layout and correcting the proofs. The publisher acknowledged her efforts as indispensable to the project. She herself called it “my first introduction to proofreading and editing” and among the numerous books she went on to edit were Nima Adlerblum’s Memoirs of Childhood: An Approach to Jewish Philosophy (1999) and Rabbi Avi Weiss’ Women at Prayer (2001).

Mrs. Bendheim’s own books appeared with Ktav Publishing House in Jersey City, while her brother’s books appeared from academic presses in Leiden, Paris, and Lisbon (they take up an equal amount of shelf space in my own library). While she never obtained a graduate degree, her daughters and granddaughters did. And she lived to see, as if from Pisgah, younger generations of frum women building successful lives of scholarship, even climbing the peaks of academic life, just as she lived to see the flourishing of Matan, Drisha, Nishmat, Midreshet Lindenbaum, and other institutions of rigorous higher Jewish education for Orthodox Jewish women.

Else Salomon was born in 1923 on the Van Eeghenstraat, the most beautiful street in Amsterdam (she dropped the final “e” of the original German spelling in favor of Dutch ‘Els’). The mansion at number 64, now a hotel, backs onto the ever-enchanting Vondelpark, the entrance to which was three houses down. Among the measures the Germans imposed between the occupation in May 1940 and the beginning of large-scale deportations in July 1942, was a sign above that entrance: “voor Joden verboden” (forbidden to Jews).

In 2020, at the annual memorial day, King Willem-Alexander spoke about that sign. Amsterdam’s Dam Square, usually packed with thousands of people on that most solemn moment in the Dutch year, was nearly empty on account of the coronavirus, but all the more watched and listened from lockdown at home. The King spoke about hearing the testimony of Jules Schelvis, one of only 18 survivors of the 34,313 Dutch Jews deported to Sobibor, of how his fellow Dutch citizens silently watched him and other Jewish neighbors being taken away. In his short, extraordinary speech, Willem-Alexander spoke of the slope of numerous gradual restrictions that led from segregation to genocide, telling millions of Dutch listeners that “Sobibor began in the Vondelpark.” For Mrs. Bendheim, this was no figure of speech: Her memoir included the names of more than 200 members of the Prins family deported and murdered in Sobibor, Auschwitz, and elsewhere. She had the immense fortune to escape, and to live. She and Charles were blessed with a large family, members of which often accompanied “Oma Els” on trips to Holland to visit the house, the park, and the beloved city of her prewar childhood.

Once or twice, ungenerously I confess, I wondered whether we weren’t having a conversation so much as I was listening to an ongoing story that she had told countless times before and for which I merely supplied external corroboration, like an emissary from a vanished world. Yet as I look back on our encounter and consider her life and her writings, it is Mrs. Bendheim who has become that emissary. She was herself a she’arith yisrael, a remnant of a prewar Dutch Jewish world, and she built a memorial of her own to the destroyed “Mediene,” the rich Jewish life in the provinces beyond Amsterdam. That memorial took the form of scholarship about her grandfather’s scholarship: her editions of Eliezer Liepman Philip Prins’ correspondence, marginalia, and related documents. For the launch of her Dutch book about her grandfather, Mrs. Bendheim chose his hometown, Arnhem, whose small postwar Jewish community included Dr. Elie Aron Cohen, a physician and Auschwitz survivor who wrote one of the earliest clinical studies of the camps (translated from Dutch into English as Human Behaviour in the Concentration Camp, 1954, 1988) and pioneering psychological studies of camp survivors.

As for Prins’ library—more modest than the Valmadonna but substantially larger than David Oppenheim’s—it rests, the librarian Mrs. Nechama Friedman assured me, in the original 29 glass-covered bookcases on the top floor of Michlelet Lifshitz in Jerusalem, the institutional heir of the Mizrachi Teacher’s College, to which it was bequeathed in 1930 by Georges Prins, another of Prins’ grandchildren, who had bought the library from Prins’ widow as a way of providing her with a proper pension. A manuscript catalog composed in 1887 fills nearly 300 pages of densely written Hebrew and Latin. After fleeing Germany, Akiva Posner, the last rabbi of Kiel—whose wife, Rachel, took the famous photo of a hannukiah looking out on Nazi flags, lit this year by their grandson in the company of German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier—served as librarian of the college in Jerusalem and produced a card catalog as well as the first biography of Prins. But the collection has been kept in suboptimal conditions and has yet to be cataloged digitally. Mrs. Bendheim put me in touch with the librarian, but when I inquired into a specific book—a copy of Jacob Abendana’s Mikhlal Yofi (Amsterdam 1661), which, according to a title page annotation reproduced by Mrs. Bendheim, the Utrecht theologian Gisbertus Voetius had bought from the author himself in the year of its publication—it could not be found. The Prins library would have merited a page and a photograph in the beautiful book, Jerusalem City of the Book, by Merav Mack and Benjamin Balint, with photography by Frédéric Brenner (Yale 2019), but even among Israeli scholars it is largely unknown. When F.J. Hoogewoud, the erstwhile curator of Amsterdam’s Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana, visited the library in 2000, he sensed what a unique and invaluable source the Prins collection would be for both the history of the Hebrew nook and the history of Jews in the Low Countries. But since then, Michlelet Lifshitz has permanently closed. The librarian assured me all the books from the Prins collection are still safe and sound in situ on the top floor of the old college building on Hillel Street. The collection’s future, however, is suddenly uncertain and one hopes a way can be found to transfer its custodianship to the new National Library of Israel.

In a city brimming with books and bookish scholars, a library of major historical importance has sat behind glass for a century, awaiting scholars who have Hebrew, Yiddish, and Dutch to uncover the stories and portraits it preserves. When they come, Mrs. Bendheim will hand them the key.

Theodor Dunkelgrün is a cultural and intellectual historian of Europe and the Mediterranean world, 1450-1900, with particular interest in early modern Spain and the Low Countries, the history of universities, and the history of the Jews.