Requiem for a (people of the) bookstore

The story of a family from Bratislava whose bookstore was the cultural center of the town for more than a century.

311_old bookstore (photo credit: Courtesy)
311_old bookstore
(photo credit: Courtesy)
This is the story of a family from Bratislava whose bookstore was the cultural center of the town for more than a century. A hundred years later, the glorious time of the bookstore is long gone. And Heinrich Heine’s saying that “people who burn books will eventually burn people” had become true for many of the family members as well. However, the family line continues to exist – not in Bratislava, but in Israel. And they have stayed true to their religious lifestyle, despite everything. Now, the last family member to have witnessed the glorious bookstore is selling its remnants. His name is David Sigmund Steiner. This is his story.
A Faustian tragedy
In 1938, a few days after the Nazi occupation of the Czech Republic, an elegantly dressed man – suit, vest, tie and a Borsalino hat – enters the Steiner bookstore in Pressburg (today’s Bratislava). Max Steiner, the owner, opens the door with a smile: It is a well-known customer named, ironically, Faust. They talk about politics, especially about the uncertainty of Czech Jews after the Nazi invasion. “Never,” the customer says in perfect German, “never will these barbarians close down this bookstore. Pressburg without the Steiner bookstore doesn’t exist. It is unthinkable!” David Sigmund Steiner, 12, watches this conversation from the side. Max is his uncle. Little did David know that by the time he would reach his bar mitzva, the bookstore would become Aryanized (transferred to a non-Jewish owner), the world would be witnessing another world war and the persecution of the Jews would begin. Little did David know that by the time he reached 16, the fate of the Jews would be sealed in the “final solution.” Little did David know that by the time he reached 18, most of his immediate family would be killed, with only his father Wilhelm and himself surviving – and the remnants of the bookstore.
“But then,” recalls David today from his Jerusalem apartment, “the bookstore was still standing in all its glory and its beauty, in the center of Pressburg, celebrating 91 years of existence.”
We walk down the stairs to his basement where they are, the books he took to Israel after the war, remnants of a glorious past, symbols of a Jewish culture that was at once rich in secular and religious education, at once Czech, German and Hebrew in its culture, a culture that symbolized both a people of the books and a People of the Book.
The beginning
The history of the Steiner bookstore, however, begins a century earlier, in 1830, in a town in Moravia called Kojetein. At the time, in the area of Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia, the so-called Familiantengesetz was in effect: It permitted only the first-born son of a Jewish family to get married. Due to this law, Sigmund Steiner – the great-grandfather of David, who is named after him – who was the second born (and thus, ineligible to get married in Moravia), was sent away by his mother so he could get married and found a family.
All she was able to give him was a tefillin bag and one sentence of advice: “Die ganze Welt ist dein – nur nicht in Kojetein” (“The whole world is yours, but not Kojetein.”)
Soon after, Sigmund reached the city of Pressburg in Slovakia (formerly Pozsony in Hungary, but not yet Bratislava, as it has been known since 1919) with nothing but the tefillin bag in his hands and great hopes. He soon did what he was prevented from doing in Moravia: get married. His wife, Josephine König née Bendiner, was the widow of a watchmaker.
Her brother-in-law had a tobacco store and an idea: Why not open a used bookstore next to the tobacco store? If it succeeded, the bibliophiles might pick up some tobacco on the way home, and vice versa: The smokers could walk away with a good book in their hands. Both Sigmund and Josephine were excited about the idea – they would manage the bookstore.
And so, in 1847, a modest bookstore with the name “Steiner” opened at Edlhof, in the Jewish quarter of Bratislava. Even before the granting of the Jews of Austria-Hungary equal rights in 1867, the Steiner bookstore and the Steiner family had already internalized the ideas of the Haskala, the Jewish Enlightenment: They lived a religious life and closed the bookstore on Shabbat, but raised their three children according to Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah im derech eretz (having a secular and Jewish education), an attitude reflected by the inventory of the bookstore: It had both religious Jewish items and classics of world literature.
Encounter with history
“This siddur belonged to my father, Hermann Steiner. As a great admirer of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, he kept editions of all his works and bequeathed them to me personally.”
David is close to tears when he shows me this prayer book, with the inscription of his father on the front endpaper. We have, by now, entered the basement, where classic deluxe editions of German literature – Goethe, Lessing and Heine – are standing next to different editions of the Babylonian Talmud and a few Bibles. The smell of hundreds of years of wisdom lies in the dusty air.
This siddur, however, stands out. It sums up Hirsch’s idea that Jews could be faithful to both their religion and to the secular state, receiving both a classic Jewish education and an education in the classics. However, it also sums up what author Amos Elon referred to as “the pity of it all,” the illusion that Jews would be accepted in European society.
Following the line of Hirsch was a challenge in Pressburg, the city of the Hatam Sofer, a renowned rabbi who was opposed to any secular study. David is torn about this issue, as were his parents and grandparents: The family always lived a strictly religious lifestyle – as they still do. They followed the religious tradition of the Hatam Sofer and his opposition to adapting religious laws to one’s own convenience.
And until this day, David keeps a collection of all Pressburg (Bratislava) Judaica, especially anything related to the Hatam Sofer.
But a classic European education was also at the heart of the Steiner family, especially when the bookstore was doing well, under the son of Sigmund (the elder), Hermann Steiner, whose children studied classical music, literature and art. This fit perfectly with Hirsch’s idea of adhering to all the mitzvot and being part of general society. In another historic irony, Hirsch had been rabbi of Moravia before moving to Germany.
The Austrian theater actor Rudolf Tyrolt wrote the following about Sigmund Steiner the elder: “My passion for books is due to meeting the head of a Jewish family who introduced me to the classics of literature. He is the reason I have today a collection of over 4,000 books...
He had wanted to become a rabbi. An angry teacher had beaten out one eye, the healthy one was so exhausted by reading and studying that it lost its ability to see as well.”
And so, the bookstore had both Jewish religious texts and classics of literature. One name, however, is mysteriously missing from the inventory – Franz Kafka. “The first time I heard the name Kafka was in Israel,” David recalls.
“In Pressburg at the time, he was completely unknown.”
The good times – and an abrupt ending
Under Hermann, both the family life of the Steiners and the bookstore flourished in an unprecedented way: The bookstore did so well that Hermann was able to acquire property at 22 Venturgasse, which became both the new building of the bookstore and the family residence for another two generations.
Hermann joined the German and the Hungarian booksellers’ associations. He had 10 children with his wife, Selma, all of whom received an excellent education. His children became lawyers, doctors, nurses and – two of them – booksellers.
David was born in 1926 to Wilhelm Steiner, one of the two children who went into the bookseller business (the other one was his uncle Max). He still remembers his bar mitzva, held at the family residence. This was after the visit of Faust, when it was clear to everyone that there would be a Pressburg without the Steiner bookstore.
Of the 10 siblings and their offspring, almost none survived the Holocaust. Wilhelm and David, however, survived in hiding. All that was left of the Steiner family in 1945 was a bookseller, his 19-year-old son and a room filled with books, remnants of a glorious past.
People of the Book(s)
Wilhelm died in Pressburg in November 1948. He had planned to immigrate to Israel and had lived to hear of the foundation of the Jewish state. His son did make aliya, taking the inventory with him. “I expected most of these books to be destroyed by the Nazis, and was hoping to make a living selling them as rarities.”
Life, however, had different plans for David: In Israel, he did not sell books. As it turned out, nobody was interested in German and Czech books in the newly founded state. David founded a family, had children, grandchildren and, recently, a great-grandchild.
“My family history,” he recalls, “is, in a way, the story of the Jewish people: My great-grandfather Sigmund Steiner went his way with nothing but a tefillin bag and his faith.
Then, the family – like the Jewish people – flourished, had economic and cultural success and thought it was fully integrated in European society. Until the Nazis showed that this had all been an illusion: A Jew will always be a Jew. And so, 100 years after the first Sigmund Steiner went his way with nothing but a tefillin bag, the second Sigmund Steiner, myself, went his way, leaving the only place he had known as home, with a tefillin bag – and some books.”
Now, almost another 100 years after the last Steiner left Pressburg (to be sure, one cousin still lives there), Israel has fulfilled the promise Moravia and Bratislava disappointed: It has become a permanent home for the Jewish people in general, and for four Steiner generations in particular.
The story of the Steiner family is a story of acquired homes and lost homes, of acquired fortunes and lost fortunes, of acquired status and lost status. And it is a story of books, of the love of books and of the vast wisdom only books entail. Now, David Sigmund Steiner is selling the last remnants of his bookstore. His children and grandchildren never learned German or Slovakian. However, they do – like the early Steiners – keep the Jewish faith, according to the principles of Torah im derech eretz. And so, while the Steiners are not the people of the books anymore, they are very much a part of the People of the Book.