From Leeser Rosenthal to today's Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana

LEESER (ELIESER) ROSENTHAL, founder of the Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana, was born in Nasielsk near Warsaw on 13 Nisan 5554/13 April I794 to a family of teachers and rabbis. After a period in Berlin and Paderborn he spent the greater part of his life as a financially independent Klausrabbiner at the Michael David'sche Stiftung in Hanover, where he married Sophie (Zippora) Blumenthal. They had three children, George, Nanny and Mathilde. Rosenthal developed an enthusiasm for collecting Jewish books. By the time of his death he owned a library of more than 5,200 volumes, including thirty-two manuscripts, twelve Hebrew incunabula and a selection of rare and important Hebraica and Judaica in the field of religion, literature and history. After the sale to Britain of the famous libraries of David Oppenheim (which had been stored in the same room in the Bergstrasse at Hanover where Leeser Rosenthal later kept his books) and Heimann Joseph Michael from Hamburg in 1829 and 1848, respectively, Rosenthal's collection was considered the largest private library in this field in Germany.

Following Rosenthal's death on 19 Av 5628/7 August 1868 his son George (1828-1909), a banker in Amsterdam, commissioned the Dutch-Jewish bibliographer Meijer Marcus Roest (1821-1889) to compile a catalogue of the entire collection, then housed at Rosenthal's large borne on Amsterdam's Herengracht. This catalogue, the Catalog der Hebraica und Judaica aus der L.Rosenthal'schen Bibliothek appeared in two volumes in 1875 in Amsterdam. Rosenthal's own catalogue, Yodea Sefer, was added as an appendix. Leeser Rosenthal's heirs wished the library to continue undivided and to fulfil a suitable purpose in memory of their learned father. The German chancellor Bismarck was invited to house the collection in the Kaiserliche und Königliche Bibliothek at Berlin. He declined the offer.

Negotiations with libraries in Europe and America came to nothing. When, in 1880, the library of the city and university of Amsterdam moved to the former 'Handboogdoelen' (Archery Ranges) on Singel canal, where space was available for the Rosenthal collection, Rosenthal's heirs made the surprising gesture of presenting the library to the city of Amsterdam. It was accepted with' warmest thanks for a princely gift' and the following year Meijer Roest, who knew the collection intimately, was appointed curator.

Since becoming part of Amsterdam's University Library the Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana has continually been ex tended by as homogeneously as possible in an attempt to maintain a modern, functional library covering all fields of Jewish study.

Jeremias M. Hillesum (1863-1943) succeeded M. Roest after his death and proved an able curator with a keen eye for opportunities of adding to the library. In the middle of the First World War the library fund established by the Rosenthal heirs for the acquisition of new books folded. Most of its assets had been shares in Hungarian railways, It was left to the Amsterdam Municipality to take over the fund's task.

By 1940 the first five volumes of the subject catalogue of the Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana Judaica collection had been completed by Jeremias M. Hillesum's successor, Louis Hirschel (1895-1944). But then with the occupation of the Netherlands, disaster engulfed the country and the library. The Germans closed the Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana in the summer of 1941 and transported part of the collection to Germany, where it was earmarked for Rosenberg's 'Institut zur Erforschung der Judenfrage'.

Happily, these plans were thwarted with the German capitulation. Most of the boxes of books were in storage in Hungen, near Frankfurt am Main, where they were found and shipped back to Amsterdam. But the curator and his assistant together with their families had also been deported-for them there was no return.

In the autumn of 1946 the Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana reopened its doors. Isaac L. Seeligmann acted as curator until 1949 and was succeeded by Leo Fuks until 1974. New activities were developed, publication of the Judaica subject catalogue continued and the Publications of the Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana series began. The first issue of Studio Rosenthaliana, a six-monthly journal of Jewish scholarship in The Netherlands, appeared in 1967. Separate catalogues of manuscripts, incunabula and other specialized collections were published, and various exhibitions were organised.

Today the collection of printed works consists of more than 100,000 volumes (from the fifteenth century onwards), including some 1,500 periodical titles and about 500 broadsides. The manuscript collection consists of around 1000 items from the thirteenth to the twentieth centuries. In addition, there are an iconographical collection of some 2,000 engravings, drawings and photographs and an archival collection covering twenty meters of shelves.

In spring 1993 it was suggested that the 200th anniversary of Leeser Rosenthal's birth in 1794 be marked by reproducing some of the treasures of the collection in an attractive form. Some fifty specialists from Holland and abroad were invited to contribute short articles to the proposed illustrated volume.

The response was gratifying. An effort has been made to encompass as wide a variety of subjects as possible and these are presented in chronological order. Medieval manuscripts and early typography and printed books, including blue-paper editions, historical documents, an early Hebrew map, seventeenth-century etchings and copper engravings, original Spinoza editions and eighteenth-century calligraphy, Yiddish chronicles and fine bookbindings in silver and morocco, liturgical music, highlights of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Jewish literature, a celebrated auction catalogue, modern limited editions and prints are all featured.

Many other items from the library's splendid collection could equally well have been included too. For example: 1994 marks the centenary of the Dreyfus Affair, which shook the Jewish world to its foundations and on which there is an interesting collection in the library; 1994 is also the 200th anniversary of the birth of Leopold Zunz, founder of Wissenschaft des Judentums, whose publications were admired and collected by his contemporary Leeser Rosenthal. There is a splendid collection of illustrated editions of Flavius Josephus, as well as a superb selection of rabbinic Responsa literature, an almost complete series of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Dutch-Jewish almanacs and several fine illuminated marriage contracts. The library also has an impressive collection of Russian-Jewish early twentieth-century graphic art. The collection of Dutch-Jewish Mediene material is unique. But this publication is intended primarily to show a cross-section of the wealth of material at the Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana, and so we have had to make choices.

Through the enthusiastic cooperation of the numerous contributors, this volume will be certain to help stimulate interest in the wisdom and dignity, sobriety and splendour of Jewish culture as it is embodied at the Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana.