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The Book of the People of the Book: The Berlin Humash

Exactly one hundred years later, in 1933 in Berlin, a society of Jewish bibliophiles, the Soncino Gesellschaft der Freunde des judischen Buches, after three years of labor, completed its Humash. it ranks among the most beautiful Hebrew books ever printed. Founded in 1924, the Society was dedicated to typographic improvements of Jewish and Hebrew books, and it published volumes which were to serve as models of layout and typography. In 1928, the Society decided to publish "a monumental Hebrew Bible." As it proclaimed in a beautifully printed broadside issued on the 22nd of January of the following year, it was a matter of Jewish honor to undertake such an edition, as it had never been done before by Jews. The Officina Serpentis firm of E. W Tiffenbach was to do this printing by hand. The leading type designer, Marcus Behmer, would cut a new type based on that of the 1526 Prague Haggadah. Two years later, members of the Society received as their annual memento a double-page prospectus of the first two pages of the Bible being produced for them in a limited edition of 850 copies printed on special hand-laid paper and six copies done on vellum.

Even the proof pages are of breathtaking beauty. The type is strong yet elegant. The first word is framed in the first letter, both set in an ornamented rectangle. The inner margin is doubled in size by the upper, trebled by the outer, and quadrupled by the lower to provide a classically proportioned frame for the single and doubled pages. The completed Humash, the second part of which was completed in 1933, surpassed the promise of the prospectus proof pages. As he slowly turned the pages, the German Jewish bibliophile must have found satisfaction in having participated in such a noble enterprise, and felt a deep sense of appreciation to the scholars and artists who had fashioned it; but when he came to its last pages, a shudder of apprehension intruded.

This triumph of Hebrew bookmaking — possibly the most beautiful printed Hebrew book — was projected as the first Jewish sponsored bibliophilic Hebrew Bible, by the society of Jewish bibliophiles in Germany, the Soncino Gesellschaft, in 1928. In 1933, as the Pentateuch was being completed, Hitler came to power. The triumph of Nazism must have coincided with the printing of the last pages, for the printers were able to print in red the first and last verse of the Blessing of Moses, which concludes:

Your enemies shall dwindle away before you. You shall tread upon their high place (Hebraic Section, Library of Congress Photo).

The apprehension was foreshadowed by the Society's memento for the year 1932: a printing in Aldus Hebrew type of the Ninety-second Psalm, the Psalm for the Sabbath Day, "it is good to give thanks to the Lord." The Psalm is printed in black, but two verses are in red: "For lo your enemies A Lord, for lo your enemies shall perish, scattered shall be all the workers of iniquity." But the righteous "will be fruitful even in old age, blossoming in vigor." The last pages of the Soncino Gesellschaft Pentateuch are given over to the Blessing of Moses. Here again, only two verses are in red; the first and last of the Blessing.

This is the blessing with which Moses
the man of God blessed the children
of Israel before his death. (Deut. 3 3: 1)

Happy are you, 0 Israel! Who is like you
A people saved by the Lord, who is
The shield of your help,
And the sword of your triumph!
Your enemies shall dwindle away before you,
And you shall tread upon their high places.

(Deut. 33:29)

In 1932, the Nazis had gained their first victories at the polls; in 1933 the Nazis seized power in Germany and established the Third Reich.

The Soncino Gesellschaft Bible was never completed. The final pages of its completed Humash were both the cri de coeur of a dying community and the cry of faith of an Eternal People.

In 1937, the Nazi government of Prussia liquidated the Soncino Gesellschaft. Ten years later, in 1947, a Humash was printed in Munich, dedicated by the Vaad ha-Hatzalah, the Rabbinical Committee of Rescue, to American President Harry S. Truman. A special leather-bound copy with his name printed on its cover was sent to George C. Marshall, architect of the defeat of the Nazis. It is this copy which now rests in the Library of Congress.

In 1947, the Vaad Hatzala (Rabbinical Committee of Rescue) published a Pentateuch with commentaries for the saved remnant which survived the Holocaust, then still in the Displaced Persons Camps. It was dedicated to:

His Honor, the President of the United States of America, Harry S. Truman. His courageous and kind words, his noble acts and deeds in behalf of our people have served as a ray of hope in this trying, troubled and most critical period of our people.

As the gold embossing on the leather cover indicates, this copy was presented to Gen. George C. Marshall (Hebraic Section, Library of Congress Photo).

In 1963, thirty years after publication of the Humash in Berlin, a bibliophilic printing of the whole Hebrew Bible, the Koren edition, was published in the ancient city of Jerusalem, in the new State of Israel.

Sources: Abraham J. Karp, From the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress, (DC: Library of Congress, 1991).