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There is no whispering in this library.
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Can you hear it? This silence. It could be peaceful, if it wasn’t so tragic. It does not belong in this place. This library was once the beating heart of the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies. Now, all that is left is the building’s façade.

The books: looted or rescued? The students: deported or escaped? Their story: far from over. But let’s start at the very beginning.

On a book hunt ? This way

Chapter 1

We are at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century. This library is not a place for talking under your breath. It is a place of exciting debates, infamous parties, and, well yes, uproar over a sandwich. The Institute is not a stagnant place. It gives a decisive contribution to the advancement of modern, liberal Judaism in Germany. Away from “that’s the way it’s always been”, towards an individual approach to Jewish tradition. Here, a woman can study to become a rabbi. Or set the tone in the library. Even here, there are men who may not like this. But before we delve into the rumour mill, let’s stay in the library a little longer.

The beating heart of the Institute

If you want to understand what this library means to lecturers and students, we have to take a deep breath and think of the unimaginable: for a moment, let’s forget about the internet. This explains why scholars and students are so keen on books: They contain heaps of knowledge and provide the bases for intellectual sparring matches. Without books, no study, no research. And without the Institute’s library? There is almost no access to books.

Unless, of course, you are wealthy and can afford a private library. But we are talking about students here – like the young Leo Baeck, for example, who pinched candle wax from Berlin cafés at closing time, in order to have a light source at home. Publicly accessible libraries are only gradually established in the 1870s. At the time of the foundation of the Institute in 1872, there is still an absolute shortage of books in Prussia.

Student life? For Leo Baeck it meant getting “creative”

Given the Baeck family circumstances, Leo always was short of funds during his student days. He attended the University of Berlin with financial help from the Mendelssohn Foundation; […] At times Baeck envied those students with sufficient financial resources to buy the books they wanted, while he had to wait until the books became available at libraries. The Berlin coffeehouses then were liberal with theirrolls, and these became a staple of Baeck’s diet. Candles were the customary illumination in the coffeehouses then, and Leo would “liberate” – his description- the drippings from them to use in making his own candles. (Leonard Baker 1982)

The library of the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies also has to make do with book donations and gifts. Over time, the library comes to hold many rare and valuable books, manuscripts and other materials for the study of Jewish history, culture and religion.

It grows into one of the largest and most important Jewish libraries in the world – with a collection of about 60,000 books.

Readers in the library of the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies

Working in silence…a flexible concept

The library is always open for you. Let’s take a look! We’ll go to the fourth floor of the Institute. We don’t have to be quiet. The door of the reading room slams shut so loudly that it’s impossible to make a silent entrance. But don’t worry, the library staff won’t hold it against us, they like to chat with students. The reading room is also a social meeting place. People don’t just launch into speeches, they also take to the dancefloor. Some days you’d think the place was laid out more for partying than for studying …

The library premises are certainly spacious enough: 100 square metres for the book storage, plus a room for administrative work and loans. In the reading room, about 50 people at a time can browse through reference works and current issues of magazines.

Bibliophiles who look forward to running their fingers over a few book spines are however disappointed: until the 1950s, it was customary in German libraries to select the books via the catalogue and to have them delivered to the reading room by the staff.

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Students poring over books

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Subject areas

  • Biblical sciences (incl. Hebrew grammar and lexicography),
  • Halakhic-Midrashic? literature
  • Jewish literature
  • History of Judaism
  • Modern Jewish Question
  • Modern Hebrew literature
  • Oriental Studies?
  • Philosophy
  • History of Religion
  • Pedagogy
  • General Christianity
  • Systematics
  • History of Christianity
  • Practical Theology
  • Geography
  • Fiction?
  • School and administrative reports
  • Minutes
  • Yearbooks
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Languages

  • German
  • English
  • Hebrew
  • Latin
  • Greek
  • French
  • Aramaic?
  • Arabic
  • Hungarian
  • Italian

From reading room to ballroom

In no time, all the tables are pushed aside and the dancefloor is opened – extremely convenient for those who have come to party. And now for the bad news: in order to quickly convert the reading room into a ballroom, the library has dispensed with reading lamps on the tables. Therefore, the only illumination comes from the pendant lights on the ceiling – and the readers’ shadows cast themselves over the books …

Nathan Peter Levinson, one of the Institute’s last students, with his dance partner.

Ernst Grumach

Vote!

What about you in the library?

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*eye roll*

Even on ordinary days, the library’s noise level is a divisive topic. At the beginning of 1940, Ernst Grumach complains:

“Years of habit have established such a deplorable state of affairs here, that, at least for me, it is completely impossible to work in the reading room, and I know that all of our serious students feel the same way. […] However, we can only demand compliance with this requirement from the student body, if the library staff also follow it, instead of setting a bad example. We suffer from the fact that, for technical reasons, loans have to take place in the reading room, which is only acceptable if the conversations held in the reading room are limited exclusively to them and are conducted in whispers. All private and official conversations must take place in the room behind the issue desk and, as with telephone conversations, doors must be closed.”

A woman calls the shots here

The library staff, whom Professor Grumach describes as “setting a bad example”, also includes the head librarian, Jenny Wilde. But, as a woman of that era, we can’t blame her, can we? She simply had to make herself heard to get onto her chosen career path and become a librarian. She stands out for her professional competence, as well as for being the very soul of the Institute.

Jenny Wilde and her colleagues at the reference desk of the library of the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies

Jenny Wilde belongs to the first generation of professional librarians in Germany. A Berliner born and bred, she is keen to work, but her opportunities are limited. Because she is a woman. But also because she is hard of hearing. Her first job is with Salomon Neumann, one of the Institute’s founders.

He was said to have a rather coarse way of expressing himself. He was also said to be largely dissatisfied with the organisation and management of his private library. Jenny Wilde seems to do a good job.

She manages his collection until his death and movesto the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies in 1910.

Jenny Wilde befriends Leo Baeck, who likes to drop by the libraryfor a chat. But she also has an open ear for students and keeps in touch with many of them for decades. In the 1920s, Jenny Wilde takes over the management of the library. She is probably the first woman in Germany to head an academic library.

Pssst...

Ask around … the Institute’s students consider the librarian a motherly figure. But, as a woman, she must also constantly assert herself. A quote by her student assistant Fritz Bamberger speaks volumes about a man’s perspective in a male dominated world:

Library loan receipts
“From the Institute’s library, I have received: …”

“Jenny Wilde was no shining light as a scientific librarian. It was almost touching how hard she tried to cover up her professional weaknesses, She never conceded not knowing a book. She made us believe that she had read them all, including those non-existing ones whose titles we dreamed up. But hers was a warm and motherly heart. Her instinct told her when one of the students was in need. She knew how to win confidence and give aid – counsel, food, money, everything to an aspiring young man without humiliating him.”
– Student Fritz Bamberger

At this point, it is worth mentioning that, in his spare time, the very same Fritz Bamberger is a member of the Berlin Bibliophile Association. An association whose statutes prevent the admission of women throughout its entire existence. Even Jenny Wilde’s friend Heinrich Loewe does not always speak highly of her. To be precise, he questions her competence and claims that she has sought advice from him on library matters.

Before there were librarians, their work was done by professors in in their spare time. However, as librarianship becomes more complex, specially trained people are needed.

That may hurt a male ego. But fortunately, Jenny Wilde isn’t bothered and relies on the one and only thing that can really get her ahead: her professionalism. Because Jenny Wilde is more than just kind. She is an excellent librarian with ambitions.

If books do not appear in the library catalogue, they cannot be borrowed. What really matters, however, is the system. Jenny Wilde and her colleagues follow the so-called “Prussian Instructions”. This standardised system allows exchanges with other libraries. In other words, the library’s cataloguing system is state of the art, innovative and facilitates worldwide borrowing for students.

Follow in the footsteps of Jenny Wilde and find her handwriting in long lost books.

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the book hunt

A unique feature of the library of the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies are the so-called “book tails”. Many of the books are so narrow that no label can be attached on the spine.

And so, without further ado, a paper strip with the shelf mark is glued into the back of the book. Psst … such creative idiosyncrasies will become important later.

The rumour mill

Where there is a lot of chatter, word gets around. Even a certain Franz Kafka is said to have caused a stir here and there. Have you heard about it?

“To me the Academy for Jewish Studies is a refuge of peace in wild and woolly Berlin and in the wild and woolly regions of the mind. (I am just being asked about my condition and I can say of my head only that it is ‘coiffured like a lion’). A whole building of beautiful lecture halls, large library, peace, well heated, few students and everything free of charge. Admittedly, I am not a proper student, am only in the preparatory school and have only one teacher there, moreover go seldom, so that in the long run all the glory evaporates again; but even though I am not a student, the school exists and is a fine place and basically not at all fine, but rather odd to the point of grotesquerie and beyond that to the point of intangible delicacy (namely, the liberal-reformist tone and scholarly aspects of the whole thing).”

Postcard from Kafka to Robert Klopstock, December 1923

At the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies, students are encouraged to question things and develop ideas further. Guest student Franz Kafka seems to take this advice to heart. He draws attention to himself, by occupying the regular spot of a scholar, who likes to lunch there on sandwiches – Sour milk cheese (Harzer cheese)? included.

Kafka chooses precisely this seat when he is on site, because: What can the professor do? Eating in the library is actually strictly forbidden… This was probably one of the very few protests in the library to take place quietly.

But of course Kafka doesn’t come to the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies only to fuel generational conflicts. Sometimes, he also comes to get warm …

Curiosity is welcome

Okay, gossip is fun, but the library is known primarily as an enormous repository of knowledge for the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies. The Institute itself represents a modern current within Judaism. And – even if it may look like it – this is by no means a niche topic. It is about finding universal values in Judaism that bring together people from all over the world.

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Personal freedom

Individuality

Social

responsibility

In contrast to other branches of Judaism, liberal Judaism places less emphasis on traditional practices and rituals. Personal freedom, autonomy and the critical exploration of Judaism are much more important. Everyone is allowed to interpret Jewish tradition individually and to find personal forms of expression. Germany’s liberal Jewish community is open to societal change.

At the Institute, professors deal with questions such as “What is ethically correct behaviour?” and “Why should man be good?” The world’s first female rabbi, Regina Jonas, studies in Berlin and writes a thesis with the title “Can women hold rabbinical office?”. She herself is probably the best proof of this.

In 2023, Prof. Dr. Daniel Schwartz outlines how the Institute’s ethos set it apart from similar institutions:

“Well, some of those other places, they deal in history. Some of those other places, they deal in Jewish Law […], but we, we deal in ethics and in philosophy which are both universal. So we’re not dealing so much with the Jewish past and we’re not dealing so much with the Jewish Life as Jews as defined by Jewish. We’re talking about what Judaism has to say about universal ethics, universal philosophy.”

Drawing on Jewish traditions, the Institute aims to contribute to universal ideas that can unite people around the world.

In contrast to other branches of Judaism, liberal Judaism places less emphasis on traditional practices and rituals. Personal freedom, autonomy and the critical exploration of Judaism are much more important. Everyone is allowed to interpret Jewish tradition individually and to find personal forms of expression. Germany’s liberal Jewish community is open to societal change.

At the Institute, professors deal with questions such as “What is ethically correct behaviour?” and “Why should man be good?” The world’s first female rabbi, Regina Jonas, studies in Berlin and writes a thesis with the title “Can women hold rabbinical office?”. She herself is probably the best proof of this.

In 2023, Prof. Dr. Daniel Schwartz outlines how the Institute’s ethos set it apart from similar institutions:

“Well, some of those other places, they deal in history. Some of those other places, they deal in Jewish Law […], but we, we deal in ethics and in philosophy which are both universal. So we’re not dealing so much with the Jewish past and we’re not dealing so much with the Jewish Life as Jews as defined by Jewish. We’re talking about what Judaism has to say about universal ethics, universal philosophy.”

Drawing on Jewish traditions, the Institute aims to contribute to universal ideas that can unite people around the world.

A Higher Institute for Jewish Studies

Isn’t this field of study very specific? The founders might have answered in the affirmative at first. But in 1872 there was no place for Jewish studies at German universities.

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List of benefactors. A list of people whose donations allowed the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies to offer classes in 1897.

Catholic and Protestant theology are taught at universities, but non-Jewish academics do not allow the study of Judaism. The founding of an Institute for Jewish Studies outside the university system is, to some extent, a self-defence measure. Unlike the state-supported Christian teaching institutions, the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies depends on private donations. The effort pays off, the concept attracts immediate interest: people from all over Europe come to Berlin to study at the Institute. As a private institution, the Institute doesn’t have to comply with state requirements and can instead chart its own course.

Lecturer Ismar Elbogen describes the Institute’s founding concept on the occasion of its 50th anniversary. And it becomes clear: this is about more than a Jewish community. It is about worldwide understanding and rapprochement:

“Pioneering scientific work softens the contrasts between different peoples and builds bridges from people to people. Our Institute can and should actively participate in this messianic task, if it is to represent and continue millenary Jewish intellectual life in a worthy manner.”

Ismar Elbogen macht einen Ausflug mit seinen Studierenden

Openness as a guiding principle

At the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies, students can train to become rabbis or just research Judaism. This refreshing openness is a warm invitation to think for oneself.

Does this sound like a great place? You can personally create a monument to it today.

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What may be taboo in traditional debates on religion is welcome at the Institute: a critical look at the sources on which religion is based. No wonder that a diverse teaching staff is important to the founders. All branches of Judaism are represented amongst the first faculty members. And the students? Whether man or woman, Jew or non-Jew – anyone who is driven by curiosity can enrol. This unconditional freedom of research and teaching is also reflected in the Institute’s statutes:

“Independence appears to be one of the most essential bases for the thriving of such an institution, independent of state and municipal authorities and therefore also independent of any party endeavour, independent of divided and passing opinions. It can only truly flourish and bear noble fruit for the continued existence and further development of Judaism in the pure striving for true knowledge.”

Students of the Institute
Digression

Women at the Institute

Is that something special at the beginning of the 20th century?

In Prussia, women have been allowed to study since 1908. As a private institution, however, the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies does not have to comply with this. But it does. Among other things, women at the Institute can train to become religious education teachers. That was something special at that time.

Intellectual home

A place that welcomes all students needs one thing above all: a permanent location. 1907 is an excellent year to enrol at the Institute: it gets its own building at what is now Tucholskystraße 9 in Berlin. You can still see its distinctive façade today.

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9

Click the photos!

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Until then, the Institute was housed here and there, quite frankly in a rough and ready manner.
The move into the purpose-built building in what was then Artilleriestraße is cause for celebration.

What brilliant minds are all about

Find out which subjects are available, which career paths the students can follow once they graduate, which professors are waiting for them and get to know some of their fellow students.

Ismar Elbogen teaching the students

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Weekly hours
during term time

16

Subjects

Talmud? , Bible, History,
Philosophy of religion,
Homiletics? , Religious education

Preparatory courses

Greek, Latin, German,
Mathematics

Language courses

Hebrew

Future career profiles

Rabbinate? , pastoral care, teaching,
science, journalism

Wolfgang Hamburger's student ID

Digression

Why is it necessary to simultaneously enrol at the University of Berlin?

In short: so that students receive a holistic education – also known as the “Humboldtian ideal of education”. During his studies, Leo Baeck is at the same time enrolled at the Institute and at the University of Berlin. While studying for his rabbinical exam, he is also doing his PhD. Even today, students can probably imagine how exhausting that must have been. Speaking of today –you may well know the University of Berlin under its current name: Humboldt University.

Fact sheet: What students need to know

Those who want to study at the Institute have to take classes at the University of Berlin at the same time. Alternatively, they can choose to forego exams and attend lectures as guest students, like Franz Kafka did, for example. As a rule, however, a course of study looks like the overview in the top left-hand corner.

All this changes fundamentally in the 1930s. That’s when, at the Institute, it becomes possible to study almost all subjects that regular universities also have on offer. The reasons for this –political pressure and persecution – are sadly rather unpleasant.

But more about that later.

Many brilliant minds shape the Institute.

Abraham Geiger

Together with Ludwig Philippson and Salomon Neumann, Abraham Geiger is one of the Institute’s founders. Unfortunately, the rabbi and ground-breaking thinker only has two years to share his knowledge with the students, before passing away.

Leo Baeck

Baeck's biography is long and impressive and it would take us far too long to discuss it in detail here. What students learn quickly is that the man is busy. Besides being a lecturer, he works as a rabbi, as a religious councillor, as a writer, chairman of associations, speaker and negotiator ... He studied at the Institute himself. Now, he teaches the art of preaching.

Ismar Elbogen

Ismar Elbogen is a little more approachable. He likes to invite new students for a coffee and is known for caring a lot about the students' well-being.

Regina Jonas

Would like to become a rabbi and therefore the Institute is the right place for her, even though she is far ahead of her time. As a woman, she will have to fight to actually be able to practise her profession – but she will succeed. And become the world’s first female rabbi.

Heinrich Loewe

Studies at the Institute in the 1890s and befriends the librarian, Jenny Wilde. This meeting seems to have left a lasting impression, because books and libraries would go on to shape his life. He will later use his knowledge of libraries to build up Israel’s library system.

Abraham Joshua Heschel

Studies under Leo Baeck and Ismar Elbogen, until he eventually becomes a Talmud teacher himself. His religious philosophy revolves around ethical questions. Later on, he befriends Martin Luther King, whom he supports in his fight for civil rights. He also takes a clear position on the Vietnam War. Against it, that is.

Fritz Bamberger

Studies at the Institute in the 1920s and later works as Jenny Wilde's colleague in the library. He has harsh, but also warm words about the librarian.
Abraham Geiger

What makes tempers flare

Those who want to change the course of society can’t be afraid of headwinds. After all, doing academic work also means engaging in intellectual sparring matches. The lecturers and students at the Institute love to argue. They set new standards for the role of women and declare war on fake news and prejudices.

What drives the academic work of people at the Institute can best be understood from their publications.

Or from the research literature in their library. A few examples:

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Joseph Samuel Bloch

“The latest forgeries of k.k. Prof Rohling” (1883)

The title of the book goes back to August Rohling, a German Catholic theologian who liked to publish his strongly anti-Semitic views. The Austro-Hungarian rabbi, journalist and politician Joseph Samuel Bloch counters him. The “Rohling-Bloch controversy” in brief: Rohling bases his anti-Semitic views on his professed knowledge of Hebrew and Jewish religious texts. Bloch questions this knowledge. And rightly so! In court proceedings initiated by Bloch, it becomes clear that Rohling has neither as good a command of the Hebrew language, nor of Jewish texts, as he claims. His defamatory views lose their foundation. The controversy shows: Misinformation can lead to serious prejudices. Challenging them is hard work and it takes perseverance and sound knowledge to debunk them.
1883

Leo Baeck

The essence of Judaism

Baeck’s work explains Judaism and defends it against prejudice and misinterpretation in one breath. The title is a reaction to “The Essence of Christianity” by Adolf von Harnack, which Baeck criticises for its inaccurate and pejorative portrayal of Judaism. In his publication, Leo Baeck in turn emphasises the moral and spiritual depth of Judaism, its significance for the individual and its central role in the history and culture of the Jewish people. He also argues against the idea that Judaism is an outdated religion that has been superseded or replaced by Christianity. On the contrary, he presents Judaism as a living and dynamic religion that is still relevant and meaningful. In this way, “The Essence of Judaism” fights against external judgements and prejudices – a strong plea for the understanding and respect of Judaism in all its depth and complexity.

 

1930

Martin Buber

I and Thou

The Austrian-Israeli Jewish philosopher and educator was to have a significant influence on modern approaches to religion, philosophy and ethics. In his work “I and Thou” he presents two basic attitudes on how we can make sense of the world and other people. In “I-It” relationships, we view our counterpart as an object that we can use or manipulate. This view creates distance and alienation. If, on the other hand, we enter into an “I-Thou” relationship, we see the other person as a unique and irreplaceable “Thou” whom we treat with respect and reverence. Presence, encounter and closeness are crucial here. Martin Buber’s philosophy is significant for the exchange between different religions. It is not only about exchanging ideas on an intellectual level, but about the willingness to listen and to let oneself be touched and changed by the other.

 

1923

Regina Jonas

Can women hold rabbinical office?

The answer that her dissertation gives to this question is, in short: Yes! She argues that women should have the right to become rabbies, citing biblical and Talmudic examples of women who were already doing just that. Compassion, social skills and psychological intuition, together with being easily approachable by the young, are female qualities which she feels that the rabbinate needs. Jonas does not seek to turn away from Jewish laws and traditions, but bases her case for gender equality on these very sources. Her work shows that it is possible to recognise traditional religious authority while working for social change and progress. And that women have not only the right, but also the ability and competence to succeed in religious roles.

 

1905

Abraham Joshua Heschel

The Prophets

Heschel’s work deals with the nature and function of biblical prophets. Prophets are individuals who have experienced a profound and transformative encounter with the divine. This experience motivates them to spread the word of God and to protest against unfairness and injustice. He sees them not only as visionaries, but also as moral critics, for example of political and religious leaders of their time. Compassion for those who suffer, he says, is a central part of the prophetic calling and message. Today, of course, we have to look at this book in its historical and cultural context. Yet, Heschel’s ideas on the relationship between religion and ethics, on social justice and compassion, are still relevant today.

 

1936

A rare commodity: everyday life at the Institute

Students lead an idyllic life on campus, don’t they? But let’s not forget: everything you’ve seen up to this point is a mosaic of snapshots showing the Institute’s everyday life – not the difficult situations it had to navigate. And at the beginning of the 20th century there were many momentous events, like the First World War and the Hyperinflation crisis. But the heaviest blow is yet to come.

If you’ve come to the Library of Lost Books because you enjoy reading, you can spend some time in our reading room and delve into liberal Judaism, the biographies of the lecturers and students, and the history of the Institute.

And linger a little longer in this world of new beginnings, before we come to the most tragic chapter of the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies’ story.

1872

Foundation of the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies: teaching takes place in cramped, temporary accommodation until 1907.

1883

The Institute must call itself an “educational establishment”. In order to be eligible for a private donation, the Institute needs the state’s approval. The state subjects the Institute to a strict examination and finally refuses to grant it the same status as a university. The only good news is that the “educational establishment” is now allowed to accept the donation.

1894/95

Leo Baeck studies at the Institute.

1895

Jenny Wilde trains as a librarian.

1907

Relocation to Artilleriestraße 14, today Tucholskystraße 9

1910

Jenny Wilde starts working at the Institute’s library

1913

Leo Baeck starts teaching at the Institute

1914 (bis 1918)

Start of World War I

1923

Hyperinflation crisis The “educational establishment” is allowed to call itself a Higher Institute again. After World War I and the Hyperinflation crisis, a decade of growth begins.