80 years ago in the night of November 9-10, 1938 Nazi Germany unleashed terror on its Jewish citizens. The ‘Reichskristallnacht’ marked the beginning of the Nazis’ implementation of their ‘final solution’, the annihilation of the Jewish population and with it the destruction of Jewish culture and civilization. In this post we look at the Soncino-Gesellschaft as an example of the rich Jewish culture which was destroyed by Nazi Germany.

The Soncino-Gesellschaft der Freunde des jüdischen Buches was the first and only Jewish society of bibliophiles in Germany. Founded in 1924 and dissolved in 1937, it was an exponent of the Jewish Renaissance in Germany, an expression of Jewish self-confidence and identity as part of German culture. With over 600 members, it was one of the larger bibliophile societies in Germany. The society took its name from the Jewish family of printers active in Italy during the 15th and 16th centuries and used the Soncino printers’ mark, a tower, as its symbol.

In its short history, it managed to publish 105 titles covering all aspects of Jewish culture. This ranged from a play by Arnold Zweig to an elaborate Hebrew edition of the Bible. The society commissioned small printers for its publications, carefully chose appropriate typefaces and took great care with the production of its books as befits a bibliophile society. Often individual members sponsored a particular title and this fact would be recorded in a detailed colophon, as in the example below (click on the image to see enlarged version).

The University Library does not hold many books published by the Soncino-Gesellschaft. However, the titles we do hold give a good indication of the activity of the society. The Library is particularly proud to have a copy of the most important and prestigious Soncino publication: Ḥamishah ḥumshe Torah (The five books of the Torah, BSS.140.F31-).  For this edition, the society commissioned Marcus Behmer to design a new appropriate Hebrew typeface. In the 1931 Mitteilung an die Mitglieder the society set out the considerations and effort that went into the making of this publication.

Click on the image to see enlarged version

Ḥamishah ḥumshe Torah was issued in two fascicles, the first published in 1931, the second in 1933. The work was set and printed by Officina Serpentis, one of the finest German private presses, in a limited edition of 850 copies. This typographical masterpiece is deemed by many to be one of the most beautiful Hebrew books ever printed and the finest Hebrew Bible printed in the 20th century. Click on the images below to see enlarged versions.

The activity of the Soncino-Gesellschaft came to an end in 1937 when the Nazis forced its dissolution. However, its legacy lives on in the publications it managed to produce during the short period of its existence.

In recent years there has been growing scholarly interest in the Soncino-Gesellschaft resulting in the publication of two substantial monographs both held by the Library:

  • Soncino, Gesellschaft der Freunde des jüdischen Buches: ein Beitrag zur Kulturgeschichte edited by Karin Bürger, Ines Sonder and Ursula Wallmeier (C213.c.3919)
  • Ein Kanon der jüdischen Renaissance: Soncino-Gesellschaft der Freunde des jüdischen Buches by Bernhard Jensen (C213.c.7170)

The library of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, which is fortunate enough to hold all the publications of the Soncino-Gesellschaft, has recently digitized its Soncino collection which will be made available online (see here). This will enable a wider appreciation of the legacy of the Soncino-Gesellschaft der Freunde des jüdischen Buches.

Christian Staufenbiel


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