Jewish American Heritage: A Surviving Text

Title page of the first of nineteen volumes of the Talmud. The drawing at the bottom of the page shows a Nazi labor camp lined with barbed wire; the image at the top portrays palm trees and a panorama of the Holy Land. 1948.

Title page of the first of nineteen volumes of the Talmud. The drawing at the bottom of the page shows a Nazi labor camp lined with barbed wire; the image at the top portrays palm trees and a panorama of the Holy Land.

May marks Jewish American Heritage Month, and this year’s theme, designated by the Jewish American Heritage Month Coalition, honors the 100th anniversary of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).

From its founding in 1914 to aid starving Jews in Palestine and Europe during World War I to life-saving rescues during war years to settling immigrants in search of freedom, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) has worked to aid Jewish communities.

After World War II ended, JDC began vast relief efforts to serve the hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors worldwide, including Displaced Persons camps in Europe and immigrating survivors to the new State of Israel.

The Library of Congress has a complete copy (in 19 volumes) of an entire Talmud printed in the American Zone just after World War II in a Displaced Persons camp that had formerly been a concentration camp. The edition, often called “The Survivors’ Talmud,” was printed by the JDC, with the active help of the United States Army.

The Talmud (literally, “the study” or “the learning”) is the chief cornerstone of mainstream Judaism. It comprises a huge compendium of legal traditions going back to Jewish antiquity. It was transmitted orally from generation to generation until around 500 A.D., when Jewish sages in Babylonia – then the chief center of world Jewry – committed it to writing. The first complete printed set was accomplished in Venice, between 1521 to 1523, by printer Daniel Bomberg.

Immediately after the liberation of the concentration camps, the survivors tried to rebuild their lives and look to the future. One of their first priorities was to reconstruct their cultural life, so schoolbooks, religious texts, newspapers and periodicals began to be published soon after the camps were liberated.

The most ambitious of these projects was the publication of a full size folio edition of the Babylonian Talmud in 19 volumes. There was an agreement signed in September 1946 by U.S. Army Gen. Joseph T. McNarney and the JDC for a set of the Talmud to be produced under the auspices of the Army. It took longer than expected to produce because of the shortage of paper and the difficulty of finding a complete set of the Talmud in Germany at the time. Eventually it was printed in Heidelberg in 1948 and is the only Talmud to have been published by a national government. Ironically, it was printed by the Carl Winter Printing Plant in Heidelberg, which had previously printed Nazi propaganda. According to the exhibition catalogue “Printing the Talmud: From Bomberg to Schottenstein” from Yeshiva Univeristy Museum in New York, only 100 copies were printed.

From the first volume of the Survivors’ Talmud: “In 1946 we turned to the American Army Commander to assist us in the publication of the Talmud. In all the years of exile it has often happened that various governments and forces have burned Jewish books. Never did any publish them for us. This is the first time in Jewish history that a government has helped in the publication of the Talmud, which is the source of our being and the length of our days. The Army of the United States saved us from death, protects us in this land and through their aid does the Talmud appear again in Germany.”

Each volume of the Talmud also included this dedication: “This edition of the Talmud is dedicated to the United States Army. The army played a major role in the rescue of the Jewish people from total annihilation and after the defeat of Hitler bore the major burden of sustaining the DPs [displaced persons] of the Jewish faith. This special edition of the Talmud published in the very land where, but a short time ago, everything Jewish and of Jewish inspiration was anathema, will remain a symbol of the indestructibility of the Torah. The Jewish DPs will never forget the generous impulses and the unprecedented humanitarianism of the American forces, to whom they owe so much.”

For a look into more of the Library’s Jewish history and cultural collections, visit www.jewishheritagemonth.gov.

(Ann Brener, Hebraic area specialist in the Library’s African and Middle Eastern Division, contributed to this blog post.)

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