November 13, 2003

Schocken & Kafka

Culture, sometimes, can be a near run thing. We are perhaps all familiar with Franz Kafka's instructions to his friend Max Brod:

Dearest Max, my last request: Everything I leave behind me... in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others'), sketches, and so on, [is] to be burned unread....

Brod did not fulfill his friend's wish, for which we can all be grateful -- otherwise, we would know Kafka only through a handful of tales. I was less familiar with the subsequent story of how Kafka came to be published, and of the role of Schocken Books in the story. The brief, linked essay was published in this relatively recent translation of The Castle, and tells us,

Between 1933 and 1938 German Jews were barred from teaching or studying in "German" schools, from publishing or being published in "German" newspapers or publishing houses, or from speaking and performing in front of "German" audiences. Publishers that had been owned or managed by Jews, such as S. Fischer Verlag, were quickly "Aryanized" and ceased to publish books by Jews. Kafka's works were not well enough known to be banned by the government or burned by nationalist students, but they were "Jewish" enough to be off limits to "Aryan" publishers.

When the Nazis introduced their racial laws they exempted Schocken Verlag, a Jewish publisher, from the ban against publishing Jewish authors, on condition that its books would be sold only to Jews. Founded in 1931 by the department store magnate Salman Schocken, this small publishing company had already published the works of Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig as well as those of the Hebrew writer S. Y. Agnon, as part of its owner's interest in fostering a secular Jewish literary culture.

Max Brod offered Schocken the world publishing rights to all of Kafka's works. This offer was initially rejected by Lambert Schneider, Schocken Verlag's editor-in-chief, who regarded Kafka's work as outside his mandate to publish books that could reacquaint German Jewry with its distinguished heritage. He also doubted its public appeal. His employer also had his doubts about the marketability of six volumes of Kafka's novels, stories, diaries, and letters, although he recognized their universal literary quality as well as their potential to undermine the official campaign to denigrate German Jewish culture. But he was urged by one of his editors, Moritz Spitzer, to see in Kafka a quintessentially "Jewish" voice that could give meaning to the new reality had befallen German Jewry and would demonstrate the central role of Jews in German culture.

The demonstration was not to last, however.

Inevitably, many of the books Schocken sold ended up in non-Jewish hands, giving German readers-at home and in exile-their only access to one of the century's greatest writers. Klauss Mann wrote in the exile journal Sammlung that "the collected works of Kafka, offered by the Schocken Verlag in Berlin, are the most noble and most significant publications that have come out of Germany." Praising Kafka's books as "the epoch's purest and most singular works of literature," he noted with astonishment that "this spiritual event has occurred within a splendid isolation, in a ghetto far from the German cultural ministry." Soon after this article appeared, the Nazi government put Kafka's novels on its blacklist of "harmful and undesirable writings." Schocken moved his production to Prague, where he published Kafka's diaries and letters. Interestingly, despite the ban on the novels, he was able to continue printing ad distributing his earlier volume of Kafka's short stories in Germany itself until the government closed down Schocken Verlag in 1939. The German occupation of Prague that same year put an end to Schocken's operations in Europe.

Salman Schocken moved to Palestine in 1939, and brought his library with him. I found this brief sketch of interest:

The Schoken Library is a rare book and research library serving scholars in Israel and throughout the world. The nucleus of the collection contains the private collection of the late Zalman Schoken whose dedication to public affairs was immeasurable. Unlike other collectors, Zalman Schocken neither collected books for collection's sake alone nor for the sheer purpose of exhibiting them. He was guided by a deep sense of respect and awe towards the books in the “Wandering Jew's” travelling sack. Those books became the portable homeland of the people in exile - setting it apart, as well as uniting it.

The Schocken collection is unique among private collections, both in its immense size, as well as its importance. The collection consists of several hundred manuscripts, a Hebrew incunabula collection (housed in The Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem), and more than fifty thousand volumes including numerous first editions, and unique research material. The Schocken Library ranks as one of finest Judaic libraries in the world.

The Schocken collection is the only collection of Jewish books which escaped the hands of the Nazi's. In 1935 the collection was smuggled out of Germany in a complex operation. During the Holocaust the library in Jerusalem served as a hideaway for Jewish writers and researchers on the run from the hands of Hitler.

When Zalman Schocken chose to build a home for the library in Jerusalem he contacted the renowned architect Eric Mendelsohn. The building was planned to include a research institute whose purpose was to publish material based on the Schocken collection. The library also includes a spacious exhibition and conference hall.

it's worth noting that Mendelsohn also designed the Kaufhaus Schocken in Stuttgart, which you can see thumbnails of. The building itself is no longer standing...

Posted by Ideofact at November 13, 2003 11:54 PM
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