Literary 'Patron'

Recently translated into Hebrew, Anthony David's biography traces Salman Schocken's journey from humble businessman to wealthy autocrat.

salman schocken 298.88 (photo credit: Jerusalem Post archives)
salman schocken 298.88
(photo credit: Jerusalem Post archives)
biography just published in Hebrew is likely to draw greater attention to the complex and significant figure of Salman (S pronounced as Z) Schocken, a German Jew whose amazing range of activities in the first half of the 20th century is not widely known. His story connects to modern Jerusalem through two important buildings in Rehavia - the Schocken Home and the Schocken Library. Decades ago, he was a player in the vital literary and social life of that neighborhood. The author of this uneven but ultimately fascinating biography, The Patron, published in English about two years ago, is Anthony David, an American who has edited and translated Gershom Scholem's letters. Now Schocken Publishing in Tel Aviv - an offspring of the one established in Berlin - has put it out with a good translation by Arie Hashavia. A business magnate (1877-1959) whose humble start in commerce was transformed into a chain of 19 department stores known throughout Germany, Schocken was able to implement a thoroughly modern vision that regarded the working man and woman as customers entitled to a variety of quality products. They should have access, for example, to colorful new fashions at reasonable prices. He pioneered methods of centralized buying and quality control. Spiritual nourishment was part of the package: The mass of buyers could purchase attractive Schocken-produced booklets to expand their knowledge and horizons. He engaged Eric Mendelsohn, a leading architect in the Bauhaus style, to design his stores. The one in Stuttgart became an architectural icon, sadly torn down after World War II. But he had a whole other side, as well: a true autodidact, a self-taught and driven person with a passion for literature and erudition. Growing up in a small town in the province of Posen, Eastern Prussia, his father was an Orthodox Jew and small-time merchant, not much of an inspiration. Having become a prominent collector and Maecenas (patron) of general and Hebrew literature, he remained sensitive about his lack of academic background. Schocken was a product of the German-Jewish Emancipation: He had a profound admiration for the great German writers, Goethe first and foremost. Secular in outlook, he was also drawn to the Jewish cultural heritage. The magnificent collection of books that he assembled was bi-polar: German literature and Hebrew literature. His zeal in forming the collection, including stellar early editions, manuscripts and art, actually led to significant scholarly initiatives. The Encyclopedia Judaica describes it as "one of the largest and most important collections of early Hebraica in the world." Israel's laureate writer, S.Y. Agnon, had a long and intense relationship with Schocken. The young Agnon arrived in Berlin before World War I and came to Schocken's attention. He recognized the writer's promise at this early stage. He not only provided Agnon with a stipend, which enabled him to focus on writing for years to come, but guided him in a course of reading through the treasures of literature, German and otherwise, aiming to expand Agnon's literary horizon. The patron-artist connection persisted even as Agnon gained fame. With Gershom Scholem, the renowned scholar, and philosopher Martin Buber, he had similarly prolonged relations. For Scholem, he established the Institute of Jewish Mysticism, providing an umbrella for the scholar's work. With Buber and others he ventured into publishing, the Schocken Verlag (publishing house) in Germany setting an example for Jewish and non-Jewish content and production. Leaving Germany in 1938 in the Nazi era, the publishing enterprise has continued to this day in Tel Aviv and New York. The resources in his private library also led to the establishment of a Research Institute for Medieval Hebrew Poetry, bringing to light previously unknown works. Schocken showed an early interest in Zionism, a forum in which he could indulge his penchant for lecturing on his vision and ideas. At the Jewish National Fund, he was credited with advancing the purchase of the Haifa Bay lands. Though reluctant to internalize what Nazism meant for the German Jewish future, he nonetheless came to Jerusalem in 1934 to build a new home. Mendelsohn, also in Jerusalem, was commissioned to design both a luxurious residence for the family and a spacious library nearby on Rehov Balfour. Both are regarded as jewels of Bauhaus architecture. Schocken had a charged relationship with the Hebrew University, serving for several years as chairman of its executive council, initially bringing order to its administrative affairs. This connection later soured over the non-granting of an honorary doctorate to Schocken. It seems that more astute handling could have won for the university the priceless Schocken Library. The Jewish Theological Seminary of New York was the beneficiary (minus some properties sold by Schocken's heirs), an arrangement that continues today. During the 1930s, Schocken acquired the daily Haaretz, founded a decade earlier. Though their relationship was strained, he turned it over to his eldest son, Gustav, whose Hebrew name was Gershom. The pride of Haaretz was the seasonal publication of new Agnon stories. Salman's grandson, Amos Schocken, is the publisher of Haaretz today. Despite his enormous erudition and love for the Hebrew past, Schocken was unable to pick up Hebrew conversation, but he became part of the Rehavia scene. His wife, Lilly, hosted social gatherings in their home (on what is now Rehov Smolenskin). In addition to Scholem and Buber, he had on-going contacts with leading Rehavia figures such as Arthur Ruppin and Hugo Bergmann. Yet, something prevented him from putting down roots in this country. He traveled, and in 1940, he and his wife left to take up residence in New York. His absence during the risky years of World War II did not help his image. In New York, Schocken Books made no impact. It was out of touch with the American literary market. The patron's once-powerful control turned into tedious insistence. Hannah Arendt, the brilliant German-Jewish migr whom he hired as editor, quit. Shuttling between New York, Jerusalem, Swiss hotels and even Germany, unattached to his wife - their marriage was never close - he was a wealthy autocrat whose influence had waned, and he died alone in his early 80s. A Swiss waiter with a breakfast tray found him in his room. In his hands, says biographer David, "he clutched the second part of Faust and the stories of Reb Nachman."