To California, Via Constantinople and Copenhagen

By Zachary M. Baker

Published March 28, 2003, issue of March 28, 2003.
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Some years ago I attended an extraordinary exhibition of Judaic treasures at the Library of Congress in Washington. “From the Ends of the Earth” was the title that the organizers gave their display — most aptly, since the books and manuscripts on view accurately reflected the dispersion of an entire people. While the world of traditional Jewish scholarship recognized differences, it truly knew no boundaries.

A remarkable library of rare printed Hebraica that once belonged to the Copenhagen Jewish community serves as a case in point. Eighteen months ago, at the urging of a New York colleague, I first inspected the collection of 2,000 volumes that lined the dining-room walls of a spacious Upper West Side apartment. By then the books belonged to Herman Samson, a Danish-born businessman who was in the process of relocating from New York to Tel Aviv. The time had come, he felt, to find a permanent domicile for them. It’s not every day that an intact European library of rare Hebraica comes on the market, and I was most eager to see it. Ultimately, Samson’s collection was acquired by Stanford University, in California — an ocean and a continent removed from its original home.

There’s an air of dignified formality about Samson, who is very much the European gentleman. His apartment reflected the sobriety of his Scandinavian upbringing: angular and well-worn leather sofas, 19th-century Danish genre paintings and a niche containing a small but choice collection of storybooks by Hans Christian Andersen. Fine Judaica objects and pictures of Israel and other Jewish scenes rounded out the decor.

The small but influential Jewish community of Denmark, Samson told me, maintained very close ties with the important German Jewish communities of Altona and Wandsbek, which were under Danish rule until 1864. These connections are amply reflected in the books that its members accumulated over a period of three centuries. Still, “the entire world sent books to Copenhagen,” he said, as he carefully removed several volumes from the shelves to demonstrate the accuracy of this observation.

The oldest book in the collection is a volume of responsa, printed in Constantinople in 1517 and compiled by the 14th-century sage Rabbi Asher ben Jehiel. The collection also contains a mid-16th-century edition of Tur even ha-’ezer, part of a legal code by Rabbi Asher’s son, Rabbi Jacob. That work possesses a commentary that Joseph Caro (the compiler of the Shulkhan Arukh) had sent from Safed to the printer in Sabbioneta, Italy. Samson pointed out the 200-year-old wine stains on the pages of a richly illustrated 18th-century Haggada from Amsterdam. Then, opening a compendium of laws regarding circumcision printed in Vienna in 1837, he turned to the handwritten registry of male births that a Danish mohel had inserted at the end of the volume. Rounding out the picture was a 19th-century edition of Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) in Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic, printed on blue paper in Calcutta. More than 115 places of printing are represented in this library.

Samson’s collection is especially strong in Bible and Talmud texts and commentaries, liturgical works, rabbinical responsa and halachic treatises. It also includes mystical publications, apologetics, scientific studies, bibliography and even poetry. Many volumes contain handwritten, marginal notations by rabbis and other scholars. “Each tome reflects successive owners’ histories, personalities and scholarship,” he remarked. The collection also contains printed ephemera and a small number of manuscripts documenting Jewish religious life in Denmark.

These days the Jewish world honors Denmark primarily for what did not happen there: 60 years ago, in October 1943, almost all of that country’s 7,000 Jews eluded the Final Solution when they were successfully evacuated by Danish Christians to neutral Sweden. Similarly, the Jewish community library was hidden by Christian Danes and returned in 1945. Thus, not only did Danish Jewry miraculously survive the war virtually intact, but their library also escaped the sad fate of other great collections of European Judaica. Some of those collections were recovered after the war; others were dispersed and still remain unaccounted for.

Samson was 6 years old in 1943 when he and his family were placed in a boat by their Danish rescuers and ferried to Sweden. He returned home after the war, but once again left Denmark at the age of 19 to pursue his studies and a career abroad, yet has frequently returned to his native land. In 1983, when he heard that the collection was about to be de-accessioned, he bought it lock, stock and barrel rather than see it broken up and sold off in lots at auction. After acquiring these volumes, he spent the following years poring over them and preparing a carefully annotated card catalogue.

Last month Stanford University announced that it is to be the new home for this library, to be known as the Samson/Copenhagen Judaica Collection. A grant from the Koret Foundation and funding from San Francisco’s Jewish Community Endowment Fund helped make the acquisition possible.

For Samson the decision to part with his library was fraught with emotion. “Four generations of my family have been deeply involved in the Copenhagen community,” he said. But now that the collection is “in the distinguished library of Stanford University, it will be available to students, scholars and all who cherish the printed Hebrew book,” he added. “At the same time it will add glory and honor to the proud history of the Jews of Denmark.”

According to Steven Zipperstein, Daniel E. Koshland professor in Jewish culture and history and co-director of the Taube Center for Jewish Studies at Stanford, “This library is a kind of compendium of all the significant rabbinical libraries in northern Europe consolidated in one place: Copenhagen.” Jews in Denmark required these Hebrew texts for study, worship, legal scholarship and enlightenment. Being in a somewhat remote European location, Zipperstein said, they “had to order books from all over the world to have in their library; otherwise they wouldn’t have access to them.”

In the years ahead the Stanford library will process and conserve the books and catalogue them online. The collection is also expected to be the subject of exhibits, published catalogues, public lectures and other events. Because of the Samson collection’s unique provenance and the outstanding editions it contains, I have already received a stream of inquiries about some of its works. Stanford can expect to become a “destination library” for scholars who are researching a wide range of topics relating to medieval and early modern European Jewish spiritual and intellectual life. The official inauguration of the Samson/Copenhagen Judaica Collection will take place, appropriately enough, in conjunction with the 60th anniversary of the rescue of Danish Jewry this coming autumn.

Zachary M. Baker is the Reinhard family curator of Judaica and Hebraica collections in the Stanford University Libraries. From 1987 to 1999 he served as head librarian of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York.

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