The Library of the Lublin Yeshiva
The fate of the library of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin, or, Academy of the Sages of Lublin, is one of the greatest mysteries from the postwar history of Lublin, if not from the history of Jewish heritage in Poland. Some, with no exaggeration, compare it to the Amber Room—the Yeshiva book collection consisting of tens of thousands of volumes, including priceless and extremely rare, old Hebrew prints, vanished almost without a trace. For years, historians and journalists have been searching for it in vain, trying to unravel some of the many threads of this convoluted mystery. Was the library burned down by the Germans? Maybe it was secretly transported to Germany, stored somewhere, then scattered around the world or partly destroyed? Or maybe the entire collection was not lost at all, but saved and for several decades it has simply been lying forgotten, waiting to be rediscovered?
Reading room of the Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin Library (H. Seidman, Szlakiem nauki talmudycznej, Warsaw, 1934).
The Lublin Yeshiva was to be, and for several years indeed was, one of the largest yeshivas (higher Jewish religious schools) in the world. The goal of its builders, headed by Rabbi Meir Shapira, was to create a leading and modern—within the limits of the religious and social conditions of that time—space for educating future rabbis. Lecture halls, dormitories, a canteen and an infirmary were to be located in the spacious six-story building. The teachings were to be provided by the most distinguished scholars, and the method of teaching itself drew on the best Talmudic and Hasidic traditions. Such a great project required an equally great book collection—the Central Torah Library, which was to become the richest and most diverse collection of books on Jewish learning in Poland. These were not, of course, works concerning secular subjects, which were not taught in the Yeshiva at all. They were religious literature, Biblical and Talmudic commentaries, and treatises of a philosophical and moral nature intended for regular study. This library would not have existed—and certainly could not have been completed so quickly—had it not been for generous donors from all over Poland and abroad. Rabbi Benjamin Gut of the Chasam Sopher synagugue in New York, donated as many as four thousand volumes and one thousand dollars to the library. Special committees established throughout Poland sent thousands of books to Lublin, including priceless old prints and manuscripts, which they collected from institutions and private donors. In 1930, when the Yeshiva was opened with a grand ceremony, the library already included several thousand volumes (probably books and periodicals) and was constantly growing. Additionally, after Shapira's death in 1933 it was supplemented by his own private book collection. Although by the end of the 1930s the Yeshiva probably had not managed to collect the planned one hundred thousand volumes, it had become one of the largest and most valuable Jewish religious libraries in Poland at that time.
Every few years, single books from the former Lublin Yeshiva Library appear at auctions or in antiquarian bookshops in Israel and the United States, each time commanding high prices, ranging from hundreds to dizzying thousands of dollars. These books never fail to cause a stir among researchers, who look with interest at their library stamps and speculate about the fate of the rest of the collection. No one seems to believe that it is stored somewhere in its entirety and a real sensation is caused by finding at least a few books with the Yeshiva stamps. This was the case in the early 2000s when, in the former Chevra Nosim synagogue in Lublin, Prof. Adam Kopciowski unexpectedly found five volumes from the Yeshiva Library. For years these five books were probably the largest known “collection” of books that once belonged to the Yeshiva.
Books with the Lublin Yeshiva Library stamps found in the Chevra Nosim Synagogue (photo by A. Kopciowski).
Rabbi Meir Shapira in the library of the Yeshiva.
In the library of the Yeshiva. From right – the librarian, Shloma Halbershtadt (during the war he was a member of the Presidium of the Judenrat in Lublin), Y. Ch. Shtern, a student from Bratislava (on the ladder), and Shabsay Sheynfeld, the secretary of the Yeshiva (Album Yeshivas Chachmey Lublin, edited by N. Gurman, Warsaw, 1931).
From the beginning I assumed that the library of the Lublin Yeshiva had survived World War II in some capacity—and I was not alone in this assumption. Indeed, I could not ignore the documents and press reports from the late 1940s that spoke explicitly of its survival and preservation in Lublin. And I had a hard time accepting the widespread, but very poorly attested, version that they were destroyed. In fact, the only information about the burning of these books comes from February 1940, when the Nazi youth magazine Die Deutsche Jugend-Zeitung reportedly published a—never confirmed by other German authorities—virulent and boastful note about the Yeshiva Library being thrown out of the building and burned in a fire that lasted twenty hours. Although the note from Die Deutsche Jugend-Zeitung is cited by many researchers, no one seems to have seen this newspaper in person. A magazine with this title appeared in 1927 in Breslau, Germany, but it was apolitical, irreligious, and devoted to the interests of pubescent male youth, and ended its life after just a few issues. Apart from a publication from the second half of the nineteenth century from Hamburg, the catalogs of German libraries remain silent about other periodicals bearing this title. Moreover, the account of the burning of books from the Yeshiva Library is given not directly, but after the Palestinian daily Hatsofe, which indeed quoted an alleged note from Die Deutsche Jugend-Zeitung on January 6, 1941 (p. 2). The fact that such a quotation appeared in Hatsofe, a year after the alleged events in Lublin, does not mean, however, that it was not fabricated or based on false sources. Another problem is the ambiguity of the title “Die Deutsche Jugend-Zeitung” (German youth newspaper), which, in reality, could have meant "a" or “some” German youth newspaper bearing an unknown title.
Even if the information about the burning of the Yeshiva Library had actually appeared in some German newspaper (according to some, it did appear in the Frankfurter Zeitung, but only in March 1941, three months after the publication in Hatsofe), it would not have meant that the books had actually been burned. The Nazis destroyed Jewish and non-Jewish books and relics, but just as often—especially when the items had considerable value—they looted them. Besides, the chronology and the account from the ghostly Die Deutsche Jugend-Zeitung are contradicted by the fact that the Germans—namely, the head of the German Staatsbibliothek (State Library) in Lublin, Wasyl Kutschabsky—hired Aron Lebwohl, a Rabbi and the Yeshiva graduate, to catalog the Yeshiva collection, as late as April 1941. The version about the burning is also clearly contradicted by documents and press reports that started to appear soon after the liberation of Lublin. In August 1944 as many as twelve hundred Jews lived in Lublin and the numbers, due to the influx of refugees from other parts of Poland and the East, were constantly growing. At that time, Lublin served as a temporary seat of the new Polish government, and, for that reason, was the epicenter of the rebirth of Jewish life in liberated Poland. The very first postwar Jewish social, cultural and religious institutions, with the Jewish Committee at the forefront, were established in Lublin in the late Summer of 1944. The Jewish Committee, at least officially, had the authority to represent the entire surviving Jewish population of Poland. Aided by the government and the Joint, it was responsible for securing housing, clothing, food and occupation, as well as organizing cultural initiatives, education and other aspects of Jewish life.
An artistic rendering of the destruction of the Yeshiva Library. A detail from a 1954 certificate of appreciation from Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin in Detroit (established by the Lublin Yeshiva students after the war) to Rabbi Eliezer Silver (Cincinnati Judaica Fund).
Young Aron Lebwohl (marked with number 1) giving a speech in the name of all the students during the opening ceremony of the Yeshiva (Album Yeshivas Chachmey Lublin, edited by N. Gurman, Warsaw, 1931).
Already on August 15, 1944 the Jewish Committee in Lublin reported on the Torah scrolls and Jewish religious books stored in the building of the then National Museum at 4 Narutowicza Street (now the Łopaciński Voivodeship Public Library) and the need to "get them out" (see the Archive of the Jewish Historical Institute, WKŻ Lublin, 355/3, protokół 4, p. 15). On November 23, 1944, the first post-war Jewish newspaper in Poland, Lublin's Bulletin of the Jewish Press Agency (Biuletyn Żydowskiej Agencji Prasowej, no. 3, p. 1) stated in a note entitled Liberated Books (Wyzwolone książki): ”While fleeing, the Germans left in Lublin crates containing, among other things, 16 thousand books from Jewish libraries in Białystok. Now an organized effort to collect and sort out Jewish books has begun. About 80 thousand volumes have been collected so far. About 100 Torah scrolls have also been found. [...] The Ministry of Education at the PKWN [the Communist government] has taken charge of all the rescued volumes, among which is also the library of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin." The same statement was read out on January 13, 1945 during a Yiddish radio program on the Polish Radio in Lublin (see AŻIH, CKŻP, Wydział Kultury i Propagandy, 303/XIII/71), and in February the Gazeta Lubelska (no. 14 of 25/26 February, p. 4) reported on Jewish religious books in the Łopaciński Library building.
Even if the numbers of books reported in the Bulletin and on the radio were exaggerated or inaccurate, it is quite certain that the Yeshiva Library was not destroyed by the Germans, but rather carefully secured, prepared for transport, and, partly or entirely, abandoned because of the advancing Soviet offensive. Many researchers have long considered this possibility, but the question remained what happened to the book collection, which was still in Lublin in 1945.
A surprisingly clear answer to this question appears in the report on the activities of the Culture and Propaganda Department of the Voivodeship Jewish Committee in Lublin for the year 1946: "With the beginning of the year 1946 normal work began in our Department. One of the first tasks was to create a library that would satisfy the hunger for books among the Jewish population in Lublin. The sum of 52,046 PLN [...] was used to collect, transport, and organize the collected books. The Łopacinski Library in Lublin aided us greatly and donated Jewish books to us. This also included 40,000 Judaic books from Yeshivat Chachme Lublin, which were rescued and stored in the Łopaciński Library. These books were sent to Warsaw." (see AŻIH, CKŻP, Wydział Kultury i Propagandy, 303/XIII/237).
Rumors about sending the library of the Lublin Yeshiva to Warsaw had surfaced earlier, but were never before confirmed by any documents. Neither these rumors nor the above-quoted documents explained where in Warsaw such a huge book collection would have been actually sent to. The documents—held mainly in the archives of the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw—said one thing but there was no trace of the library. It was difficult to move beyond this stage of the search for the library of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin. Over the past seventy-some-odd years, literally anything could have happened to this book collection—it could have been dispersed, gone missing, been sent to an unknown destination, or even crumbled from old age. So where did these books end up and what was their fate?
The Bulletin of the Jewish Press Agency from November 22, 1944; a transcript of the Yiddish radio broadcast from January 13, 1945; and the 1946 report of activities of the Culture and Propaganda Department of the Jewish Committee in Lublin (the Archive of the Jewish Historical Institute).
Once again, the old Polish saying that the darkest place is under the lantern proved to be true when two years ago, during a rather routine search through the resources of the digital library of the Jewish Historical Institute, I came across several books with clear stamps of the Lublin Yeshiva. In the course of laboriously researching more than six hundred old books digitized by the Jewish Historical Institute, those few Yeshiva books grew to one hundred and twenty-nine volumes, which, in the context of the "lost library," was an enormous and hitherto unimaginable number. I immediately understood that this was one of the most important discoveries in the recent history of the Yeshiva Library and that the volumes among the holdings of the Jewish Historical Institute surpassed—by a wide margin—the number of all heretofore discovered Yeshiva books. The story also suddenly became very clear: to where, if not the Central Jewish Historical Commission—an institution established in Lublin and later moved to the capital, and renamed the Jewish Historical Institute in 1947 and housed in the prewar building of the Central Jewish Library—was the Yeshiva Library to be sent in Warsaw? Today, it seems obvious, and it is probably this obviousness that has successfully confused researchers for several decades.
Although the mystery of the Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin missing library seems to be almost solved, some of its aspects remain unclear. First of all, it is not known exactly how many books from the Lublin Yeshiva ended up in Warsaw and how many of them are now in the collection of the Jewish Historical Institute. Did as many as forty thousand volumes from Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin, as the Jewish Committee in Lublin reported in 1946, really get there? At present, the Library of the Jewish Historical Institute holds about eighty thousand volumes, of which a large number are probably postwar and contemporary works. However, out of six hundred and forty-one old prints and nineteenth century works digitized and published in the digital library of the Jewish Historical Institute, as many as one hundred and twenty-nine (about twenty percent) have the Yeshiva's stamps.
Are there more books in the collection of the Jewish Historical Institute that were once part of the Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin library? There probably are, but for the time being it is impossible to estimate whether there are several dozen, several hundred or more. Part of the former Yeshiva collection, on the initiative of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the Central Committee of Polish Jews and the Jewish Religious Association in Poland, was sent at the end of the 1940s to Israel, where it was to serve future generations of students. There, the book collection (of unknown size; in the course of my research I was able to uncover ninety Yeshiva books in the holdings of the National Library of Israel) was further dispersed and eventually dissipated in countless poorly accessible libraries, religious schools, and, probably, private collections. At least one book that belonged to the Yeshiva—Megaleh Amukot, which was penned in the seventeenth century by Rabbi Nathan Nata Spira of Kraków—is located in the holdings of Freie Universität Berlin. Although it is possible that the Nazis did transport part of the Yeshiva Library to Germany, and more such books are held in German libraries, this particular book was purchased by the university from a London-based antiquarian in 1966. The fate of the catalog that Rabbi Lebwohl, commissioned by the Germans, prepared, and even the number of books he cataloged, remains a mystery. In the collection of the Jewish Historical Institute there is, indeed, a six-part catalog of the library of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin, but it was created between 1925 and 1929 and covers the initial holdings, rather than the more robust collection of the Yeshiva from the end of the 1930s. The list of mysteries includes a few dozen old Jewish books from other libraries and private collections in Lublin (mainly from the collection of a certain Szmul Dawid Jakubowicz of 16 Szeroka Street), which were also found in the library of the Jewish Historical Institute and the National Library of Israel. These books were most probably secured by the Jewish Committee soon after the liberation of Lublin and later moved to Warsaw together with books from the Yeshiva.
Various designs of Yeshiva Library stamps and labels.
"A donation of Jewish books from Poland that were saved from destruction during the years of extermination," a label on one of the Yeshiva books, attached in 1947, most probably during the shipment of a part of the collection to Israel.
Most of the books found in the collection of the Jewish Historical Institute are seventeenth- and eighteenth-century works printed primarily in Western and Southern Europe, but the collection also includes a few older ones, such as the Talmudic treatise Menachot published in Venice in 1548. Many of these books have handwritten notes made by their owners over the centuries, beautiful title pages and printing marks and stamps of the libraries from which they were donated to the Yeshiva collection. This is a priceless treasure trove of works of printing art and, above all, the heritage of Jewish thought, which shaped and inspired the intellectual life of many generations. Other books that were once part of the Yeshiva's library are still waiting to be discovered—many of them in the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, others probably in libraries and religious schools around the world. Paradoxically, although this book collection is probably extremely scattered, today, thanks to the progress of digitalization, it is possible as never before to reunite it and make it accessible. On our website we catalogue and feature almost five hundred books that once belonged to the Library of the Lublin Yeshiva—one hundred thirty from the holdings of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, more than one hundred from the National Library of Israel, more than two hundred from private collections, seven from the Jewish Community of Lublin, and two each from the Majmonides Library, the Chabad-Lubavitch Library and Yeshiva Har Etzion. Although modest and, perhaps, impossible to complete, the Yeshiva Digital Library is also a way to symbolically restore this valuable book collection to Lublin. After all, it was in Lublin and because of Lublin that the Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin library was created.
edited by Leora Tec
B. Finkelstein, Did Nazis Burn A Lublin Yeshiva's Library? The Mystery Behind The Lost Books Of A Cherished Lublin Yeshiva, The Forward, August 31, 2017; A. Kopciowski, Zaginiona biblioteka jesziwy – lubelski „złoty pociąg,” Gazeta Wyborcza Lublin, October 27, 2018; K. Zieliński, N. Zielińska, Jeszywas Chachmej Lublin (Lublin, 2003).