Ludwig Rosenberger Collection — a 'political, social, and cultural history of Jews'

Sem C. Sutter

Fritz Stern... has argued that the history of the assimilated Jews of Germany was much more than the history of a tragedy; it was also, for a long time, the story of an extraordinary success: 'We must understand the triumphs in order to understand the tragedy.'

Amos Elon, 2002

It is almost impossible with my life history not to become interested in the troubles of the Jewish people. It wasn't anything but natural that a person thinks about the underlying problems.

Ludwig Rosenberger, 1980


ver the course of some 60 years, Caxtonian Ludwig Rosenberger (1904-1987) formed a remarkable Judaica collection of some 17,000 titles. Its genesis, growth, and scope were inextricably and unmistakably intertwined with his own experiences and with the story of Jews in Germany so eloquently delineated in Amos Elon's The Pity of it All. Throughout his life, Rosenberger thought deeply and read, almost incessantly it seems, about the political, social, and cultural history of the Jews and about approaches to "the Jewish question." This he construed in its Zionist framing as the central issue for Jews living in the Diaspora — the Jewish dilemma, how to live with dignity and self-respect without having a national homeland — but also in its anti-Semitic sense — the Jewish "problem," posed by a group with its own cultural identity living in an ostensibly homogeneous "host" nation.

The avid reader became an ardent collector, building and shaping the Ludwig Rosenberger Library of Judaica, which he donated to the University of Chicago Library in 1980. His collecting encompassed the social and cultural history of Jews throughout the world, and his Library includes sizeable sections devoted to France, Britain, Palestine, Israel, and the United States. But his own life experiences led him to understandable fascination with the significance of German Jews in modern history and documenting this story became his passionate priority as a collector.

Born in Munich, young Ludwig attended a private boys' Gymnasium, where he was the only Jewish student. After graduation, he completed a thorough two-year apprenticeship in the banking firm of Heinrich Aufhäuser and then worked in its securities division. As a teenager and young man, he took a serious interest in civic and Jewish affairs, becoming active in the local Zionist group. Early in 1924 Rosenberger quit his bank job and went to Palestine. When his initial experience in a kibbutz threatened his health, he moved to Jerusalem to work for a commercial shipping agency. He pursued his interest in Jewish history, enrolling in courses at the new Hebrew University and making contacts at the Jewish National and University Library, especially with Abraham Schwadron, curator of a large manuscript and portrait collection. Among the authors that especially influenced his thinking were Simon Dubnow, who introduced a sociological and economic approach to Jewish history, and sharp-witted journalist Shmarya Levin.

But the slow rate of emigration and squabbling among representatives of various Zionist groups in Palestine eventually brought Rosenberger to doubt the movement's ability to solve "the Jewish question," at least under conditions then prevailing. In 1928, he returned to Germany, and late in 1929, he emigrated to the United States. After one year in New York, he moved to Chicago, which became his home for the rest of his life.

Established in Chicago in the housewares trade and eventually owning a wholesale business, Rosenberger pursued his reading, buying new, out-of-print, and rare books on subjects that interested him or sparked his curiosity. As he evolved into a sophisticated and systematic collector, he remained a voracious reader, at least intending to read everything he purchased, even at times when his rate of acquisition made this impossible.

Rosenberger bought imaginatively and sometimes nearly exhaustively, in specialized areas that fascinated him most. He would have agreed wholeheartedly with Elon's thesis:

'The major revolutions in European and American Jewish life during the nineteenth century, from religious reform to political Zionism, originated in Germany or Austria among Jews passionately devoted to German culture. As their own tribal idols crumbled, they did not simply borrow those of the Christian majority but invented new ones — communism, psychoanalysis, and other systems based on the utopian conviction that the world could be rationally reordered and vastly improved on a scientific basis."

Rosenberger wanted to read books by and about men and women who had distinguished themselves in arts and letters, like Mendelssohn and Heine, or pioneered in the sciences and social sciences, such as Einstein and Freud. While collecting major authors, he was also likely to notice a less prominent social reformer or to delight in a slightly off-beat figure, such as a Jewish chess champion. He had a keen and abiding interest in Karl Marx and in socialist and communist theorists and activists, whether or not they had acknowledged or repudiated their Jewish origin, and he sought works by or about democratic political figures from many lands: Benjamin Disraeli, Walther Rathenau, Léon Blum, and David Ben Gurion.

Some of these spheres, such as Marxist and socialist thought, lie outside traditional definitions of Judaica, but this did not concern Rosenberger. He discerned roots in Jewish history or reactions to it and wanted to know more. The same is true of his interest in the literature of conversionism and anti-Semitism. While books on these topics cannot be called Judaica, Rosenberger believed that both were such significant and persistent factors in Jewish history that a thoughtful and historically-minded reader could not ignore them.

Like most astute collectors, Rosenberger acquired his books from a great variety of sources. His business trips — to New York or to small Midwestern cities — typically included visits to local dealers, whether that meant H. P. Kraus, Argosy, or simple, one-room used bookstores. He pored over catalogs that he received from Europe, checking them carefully against his holdings. Gradually he discovered dealers with specialties akin to his own and cultivated long-term relationships with them so that they offered him sought-after or unusual titles directly and privately.

Ludwig Rosenberger's support for the University of Chicago Library dated from the early 1960s and correlated closely with his bibliographic and personal friendship with Caxtonian Robert Rosenthal, Curator of Special Collections. As he discovered available materials that lay outside his own collecting scope, he sometimes bought them as gifts to the library or encouraged Rosenthal to acquire them.

In 1976, the library mounted an exhibition selected to portray the breadth and richness of Rosenberger's library and to introduce it to a larger audience. By 1980, he had decided to make the University Library his collection's permanent home. Still an avid reader, he wanted the books near him for consultation, and he was eager to place them where they would be available to scholars from the widest possible range of disciplines.

At his death in 1987, Ludwig Rosenberg endowed a chair for Jewish studies, strengthening instruction in this field at the university. But his most personal legacy is the library that grew out of his own life and experience. It will continue to touch and to educate generations of students and scholars, who, like him, are curious and open-minded readers.

The University of Chicago Library maintains a webpage devoted to the Rosenberger Library [] including an online version of the 1976 exhibition. Records of most titles in the collection are available online through the University of Chicago Library catalog []. Works in the collection are arranged by topic in a printed catalog prepared by Rosenberger: Judaica: A Short-Title Catalogue of the Books, Pamphlets and Manuscripts Relating to the Political, Social and Cultural History of the Jews and to the Jewish Question ... (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1971; and Supplement, 1979).

Ludwig Rosenberger. From the Ludwig Rosenberger Library of Judaica, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library, through whose courtesy these illustrations are used.

Mendelssohn's Lettres juives. . . recueil memorable concernant le judaisme (1771), a rare French edition of the philosopher’s reasoned refusal of J. C. Lavater's challenge to convert to Christianity.

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