The Founding of the Jewish Library and Reading Room

Alice Jankowski

Source Description

This appeal is part of the files on the administration and organization of the Jewish congregations of Altona, Hamburg, and Wandsbek, which are housed at the Staatsarchiv Hamburg. Among these files (signature 522-1 Jüdische Gemeinden 1691-1945, lot 887 “Jüdische Bibliothek und Lesehalle 1908[!]-1928”) which document the forming of the political will to found and run a library among the congregational committees and its ultimate success, is this printed “circular”/“flyer” (No. 176) from 1905 addressed to Hamburg’s Jewish citizens. What is notable about this appeal is that it marked the beginning of a—at the time—new kind of Jewish institution in Hamburg intended to cater not only to specifically Jewish needs but to general German ones as well. Moreover, it highlights the great willingness on the part of Jewish associations and individual Jewish Hamburg citizens to participate in this process.

  • Alice Jankowski

Prehistory and first support


This printed appeal dated October 1905 opens very formally with the abbreviation “P.P.” (praemissis praemittendis), Latin for “premising what is to be premised”, a phrase particularly common in the 19th century in place of formal address and/or titles. It is addressed—although not explicitly so—to Hamburg’s Jewish public and introduced the idea of a “Jewish Library and Reading Room”. The undersigning Jewish associations thus joined the larger reading room movement Reform movement in Germany toward the end of the 19th century, which called for a new orientation and opening up of the reading rooms. in Germany, whose slogan, “Create Reading Rooms” [Schafft Bücherhallen], had attracted some attention. In the late 19th century, facing social upheaval caused by industrialization, specialization, and professionalization and the resulting new need for communication, education, and literature, associations for public and workers’ education, progressive individuals, and major industrialists such as Krupp, among others, acted on the demands and findings of the reading room movement Reform movement in Germany toward the end of the 19th century, which called for a new orientation and opening up of the reading rooms.— the latter did so not least to ensure the loyalty of their employees by establishing company libraries. A broad spectrum of the population was supposed to have easy access not only to academic knowledge, but particularly to practical information, to read books and journals in the reading rooms (which stayed open late for their working patrons), and to gather topical information from a large number of newspapers and magazines. This popular trend had now gotten hold of the Jewish metropolitan public. Its model was Berlin’s Jewish Reading Room, which, after an initial failed attempt, had been founded in 1894/95 and offered modern, secular writings on history, economy, science, and art along with works of fiction. In 1899, Hamburg had seen the opening of a “Public Reading Room” initiated by the Patriotic Society [Patriotische Gesellschaft], an association to support the local community, and the city’s Jewish community did not want to fall behind. They had made a first (unsuccessful) attempt to open a reading room in November 1900, because the committee—with support from the Henry Jones-Loge [Henry Jones Lodge], which was part of Unabhängiger Orden B’nai B’rith [B’nai B’rith]—felt that the general reading rooms paid little attention to the kind of literature of interest to “the Jews as such”, namely on “events in Jewish history all over the globe” and the “customs of our tribe”. Following the long and difficult process of emancipation and acculturation of the 19th century, both the successes and limits of acculturation began to show at the turn of the century. In addition, the confrontation with ubiquitous antisemitism further compounded the situation. How could one live as both a Jew and a German, and what did “being Jewish” mean in this environment? Questions like these were asked ever more frequently while the efforts to assimilate made by older generations were viewed more critically. There was a new, growing interest in the nature of Judaism and in the question of its place within the national contexts of Germany and Europe. Jewish culture and tradition were hoped to be “rediscovered” and often revived in the ideal of a cultural and intellectual “renewal of Jewish community spirit”, for which Martin Buber coined the term “Jewish Renaissance” Reinvention of Jewish culture and tradition, formulated as a concept by Martin Buber, who sought to champion an intellectual-cultural understanding of Judaism.. As the “Jewish Renaissance” Reinvention of Jewish culture and tradition, formulated as a concept by Martin Buber, who sought to champion an intellectual-cultural understanding of Judaism. flourished in the Weimar Republic, the renewed efforts in 1905 to found a library in Hamburg grew from the same need to find and assert Jewish identity. The necessity to create a specifically Jewish institution meeting modern requirements is highlighted in the second paragraph of the appeal. Jewish newspapers and journals in particular were to be provided—for the benefit of Hamburg’s large community of Jewish merchants, among others. The purpose of a new kind of Jewish library is outlined briefly and precisely. Although displaying the educational intent (“to steer the always existent desire to read”) strongly present in the general reading room movement Reform movement in Germany toward the end of the 19th century, which called for a new orientation and opening up of the reading rooms. (“Richtungsstreit”) [mission dispute], it was emphasized that the reading room was to spread “education and ideal enjoyment [...] without bias or interference”.

Signatories of the circular


However, the project could not succeed without the financial means to acquire books and pay administrative costs, so the undersigned asked for financial support (the “attached form” did not survive). It is not known how successful the appeal was initially. What is documented is that the Jewish Library and Reading Room, financed by an association of the same name, was opened on July 1st, 1909, after a library commission had began preparations the previous year, and on April 1st, 1910, a newspaper editor was hired to take on additional duties as librarian. On April 10, 1910, the congregation council and the Jewish Library and Reading Room Association signed an agreement in which the congregation pledged to loan its books to the reading room. Among the undersigning and supporting organizations willing to loan their books were cultural associations (Verein für jüdische Geschichte und Literatur) [Association for Jewish History and Literature], (Gesellschaft für jüdische Volkskunde) [Society for Jewish Folklore], but also important philanthropic ones (Israelitisch-humanitärer Frauenverein) [Israelite-Humanitarian Association of Women] and political movements (Hamb. Zionistische Vereinigung) [Hamburg Zionist Association] as well as the Israelitisches Gemeinschaftsheim [Israelite Community Association] An organization modeled on the English settlement movement to promote jewish group feeling., an organization modeled on the English settlement movement offering social support based on the ideal of Jewish solidarity, and the Israelitischer Jugendbund [Israelite Youth Association]. A professional organization, “Lehrer-Vereine Mendelsohn” [Teachers Associations Mendelsohn], was involved as well. Several names were added (later) by hand, among those individuals were two women (Mrs. Tuch and Goldschmidt), merchants (Gustav Tuch), physicians (Dr. E. Fink) and teachers (J. Feiner), Liberals (Dr. D. Leimdörfer) and Orthodox (Hermann Gumpertz), supporters of the Centralverein [Central Association of German Jews] as well as the Zionists. Regardless of their often diverging views, they all supported this appeal based on their commitment to Hamburg’s Jewish community and a progressive educational idea.

History of the library after the circular


The general reading room movement Reform movement in Germany toward the end of the 19th century, which called for a new orientation and opening up of the reading rooms. in Germany garnered particular support from various educational associations who optimistically hoped to provide “worthwhile” education and thus be able to minimize educational barriers. The Jewish Library “charter” proves that this movement was seized on and adopted by Hamburg’s Jewish community, who then adapted it according to their own ideas. This made them one of a very small number of Jewish congregations who advocated the establishment of a modern Jewish library and reading room shortly after the beginning of the 20th century. Their dedication to the cause was reinforced by the Jewish “Revival” movement Reference here is to the Jewish movement of renewal in the early 20th century, whose principal aim was to bring Judaism into the modern world in the framework of the social movements for reform. and its search for sources of meaning and identity. The reading room was not supposed to be limited to religious writings; instead it was intended to open up to the world through its media, to inform Hamburg’s Jewish readers about political, cultural, and social events, to impart knowledge on both professional advancement and private interests and provide entertainment.

The library’s fate in the years to come, though not documented in the files, was and still is closely entwined with the situation of (not just) Hamburg’s Jews: it flourished at the end of the Weimar Republic, was then threatened, under National Socialism attempts were made to destroy it and displace the books, there were efforts at restitution beginning in 1945, followed by the library’s unexpected restitution from the former GDR to Hamburg in 1957, in the midst of the Cold War. Yet the Jewish community—undecided as to whether the right decision after 1945 was to stay or leave Germany—struggled to build a new foundation for the current “Library of the Jewish Community of Hamburg”. In 2013, it received a new stimulus with the beginning cooperation between Hamburg’s Jewish community and the Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Carl von Ossietzky, resulting in the library’s restoration, cataloging, and display of a part of its holdings. It is to be hoped that the founding idea of more than 100 years ago still has a place in the present as well as a future.

Selected bibliography


Alice Jankowski, Die Hamburger jüdische Gemeindebibliothek, in: Judaica 70 (2014) 1, pp. 2–14.
Alice Jankowski, Die Konfiszierung und Restitution der Bibliothek der jĂĽdischen Gemeinde Hamburg, in: Regine Dehnel (ed.), JĂĽdischer Buchbesitz als Raubgut, Frankfurt am Main 2006, pp. 213-225 (Zeitschrift fĂĽr Bibliothekswesen und Bibliographie; Sonderh. 88).
Alice Jankowski, „ Bibliothek, Buch, Leser“, in: Theresienstädter Studien und Dokumente (2005), pp. 179-212.
Alice Jankowski, Die JĂĽdische Bibliothek und Lesehalle in Hamburg. Eine Gebrauchsbibliothek als Spiegelbild jĂĽdischen Lebens, Kultur und Geschichte der Hansestadt, MA-thesis, Humboldt-Univ., Institut fĂĽr Bibliothekswissenschaft, Berlin 2003.

This text is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - Non commercial - No Derivatives 4.0 International License. As long as the work is unedited and you give appropriate credit according to the Recommended Citation, you may reuse and redistribute the material in any medium or format for non-commercial purposes.

About the Author

Alice Jankowski, Dr. phil., studied African Languages and Cultures (focus on Ethiopia), ethnology and Prehistory in Marburg and Hamburg. Until 2009, she managed the library of the Institute for the History of the German Jews in Hamburg. Furthermore she taught at Hamburg University of Applied Sciences (HAW) and Helmut-Schmidt-University of the Bundeswehr, Hamburg.

Recommended Citation and License Statement

Alice Jankowski, The Founding of the Jewish Library and Reading Room (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, September 22, 2016. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-22.en.v1> [November 19, 2017].

This text is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - Non commercial - No Derivatives 4.0 International License. As long as the work is unedited and you give appropriate credit according to the Recommended Citation, you may reuse and redistribute the material in any medium or format for non-commercial purposes.