A German Yahuda Collection?

For some time I thought that German libraries had stopped acquisitions of manuscript collections after World War 1. The currency was devalued heavily during the first few post-war years, and, as universities are dependent on state funding, they were hard pressed to make ends meet. However, as I discovered recently, this hiatus of acquisition was much shorter than I anticipated in some collections. In this post, I will try to make the case that even one of the most influential manuscript traders of the early 20th century might have sold to a German university.


After World War I, German orientalists felt left behind their other European and North American counterparts. Due to the effects of “the War and the Treaty of Versailles”, namely the devaluation of the German currency, it had become difficult, if not outright impossible to acquire current secondary literature or newly printed editions from the Middle East.

In 1922, the Harrassowitz publishing house thus presented a proposal to create an “exchange bureau for oriental literature” (“Austauschzentrale für orientalische Literatur”). In 1923, this proposal was printed in the Journal of the German Orientalist Society (ZDMG). As foreign literature remained unreachable for German orientalists if not paid for in gold, they should make use of the “gold” of which they had most: their books:

“Das Gold, das der deutsche Gelehrte besitzt, ist seine Bibliothek, sind seine Bücher. Sie sind ein Goldzahlungsmittel, mit dessen Hilfe er sich ausländische Bücher beschaffen könnte. […] Wenn auch nicht alle, so doch viele Gelehrte besitzen in ihrer Bibliothek gewisse wertvolle Werke, die sie für ihre Arbeit nicht mehr unbedingt benötigen. […] Die angebotenen […] Werke werden zu Listen vereinigt und diese von der Zentralstelle an alle Orientalisaten [sic!] des In- und Auslandes versandt. Der Gegenwert für auf diese Weise verkaufte Werke wird dem Auftraggeber auf Schweizer Frankkonto gutgeschrieben und à Konto dieses Guthabens werden ihm die gewünschten ausländischen Bücher besorgt.”

Nachrichten über die Angelegenheiten der D. M. Gesellschaft, Zeitung der Morgenländischen Gesellschaft 77 (1923), xxi-xxii.

However dire the situation seemed to be at the beginning of the 1920s, several university libraries resumed acquisitions of printed works and manuscripts later in the decade. Tübingen University Library seems to have begun buying manuscripts again as early as 1924. By 1929, it had acquired around 25 manuscripts, a number that is very much dwarfed by the collection’s largest purchase, the final collection of Johann Gottfried Wetzstein (some 270 manuscripts), in 1864 (on this, see this German blog entry) .

Nonetheless, it was an important period of the collection’s development. Most of all, it led to a long-standing connection with Oskar Rescher (1883-1972) from whom Tübingen University purchased 19 manuscripts in the 1920s and 12 more in the early 1950s.

The 1920s were even more important for the collection of Heidelberg University Library, which acquired at least 320 manuscripts over the course of the 1920s. The Library’s acquisition history is a lacuna but it is certain that there was a peak of acquisition in the years 1926-1929.

During this period, the Library received manuscripts as gifts, in exchange fo the books or by purchase—either of individual items or in bulk. And they often received those manuscripts through intermediaries connected to the University. University professors such as Julius Ruska (1867-1949), Richard Hartmann (1881-1965) or Gotthelf Bergsträsser (1886-1933) added to the collection in one way or other. Ruska donated parts of the estate of the Bible scholar Adalbert Merx (1838-1909), Hartmann sold manuscripts and helped with identifying others, and Bergsträsser brought over photographs of an Istanbul manuscript which, once again, Oskar Rescher had ordered, assumedly for Heidelberg academics.

Manuscript traders

Besides Oskar Rescher who also sold manuscripts to Heidelberg, another person known for his role in the manuscript trade added to the Heidelberg collection: Abraham Shalom Yahuda (1877-1951).

Yahuda was born in Jerusalem and went to several German universities, culminating in his Ph.D. which he received from the University of Strasbourg in 1904. He taught at the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies in Berlin until 1913, after which he was appointed the first ever professor for Rabbinic languages and literature at the University of Madrid. Following his resignation from this post in 1922, he resided in Heidelberg until 1930.

Although Yahuda did not work on Arabic-script manuscripts during this period as such, he nonetheless engaged with them on multiple occasions. Overall, he gave to Heidelberg University ten manuscripts as either gifts, in exchange (for instance, for Snouck-Hurgronje’s book “Mekka”), or as substitutes. He also donated two of his own print publications.

Name Plate for one of Yahuda’s publications, donated to Heidelberg University Library. Courtesy of Heidelberg University Library.

The substitute is interesting, as it opens up the question what did he substitute this manuscript for—and why? The short answer is that he substituted it for another manuscript he had sold to Heidelberg University. I am currently trying to find out how many manuscripts he actually sold to the University.

Yahuda Collections exist at a number of institutions. Princeton University has by far the largest with over 5,000 manuscripts. Other institutions include the British Library, Chester Beatty Library, and the National Library of Israel. For more information on these and the other collections, you can check here: https://yahuda.princeton.edu/.

In the coming months, some more posts on Yahuda and his various activities will follow.

Cite this article as: Torsten Wollina, "A German Yahuda Collection?", in Damascus Anecdotes, June 6, 2021, https://thecamel.hypotheses.org/2246.

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