Some years ago, in a series of lectures on nationalism, delivered, appropriately enough, in Belfast, Eric Hobsbawm imagined an evocative “intergalactic historian,” an extraterrestrial visitor who arrives on planet Earth after a thermonuclear war has destroyed all life. Since the technology of advanced weaponry had enabled the belligerents to destroy people rather than property, our visitor is able to consult libraries and archives for the cause of the catastrophe. We can imagine him reading and sightseeing in Herder’s library in Weimar or in Garibaldi’s on the island of Caprea, off Corsica, where the Italian national hero spent the last years of his life in a little house facing France and not Italy, because, as a guide once told me, he could not bear what his compatriots had done with Italy after his retirement. At the end of his tour, Hobsbawm writes, the intergalactic visitor must conclude that “nationalism” had been the gravedigger of our planet.1

Perhaps our historian would also have passed through Jerusalem, the capital of a country that is almost permanently at war for reasons of its own national interests or those of its neighbors and, according to a recent report on the BBC, may possess as many as two hundred atomic and even a few thermonuclear bombs. I imagine him walking down Balfour Street, named after the British statesman who promised that the British government viewed with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, with the understanding that nothing would be done to prejudice the rights of the Arabs already living there. Balfour is a quiet, leafy street that cuts through a pleasant residential Jerusalem neighborhood. To his left, our historian would note the official residence of the Israeli prime minister, a bleak, forbidding stone block, more like a bunker or beflagged fortress, watchtowers on each corner, searchlights, and grim-looking guards whispering into cell phones.

In sharp contrast to this sobering sight, he would see directly opposite a true marvel of Bauhaus architecture—the lovely, delicate, wonderfully proportioned façade of the Schocken Library. The building was designed in 1935 by Erich Mendelsohn, a refugee from Nazi Germany best known internationally as the architect of the Einstein Tower in Potsdam, a landmark of modern architecture. In designing the Schocken Library Mendelsohn drew his inspiration from the open landscape surrounding the city, a vista of bare mountaintops and the soft contours of solitary Arab villages still perched on the hills in 1935, fitting perfectly into the landscape and so pleasing to the eye, if only from a distance. Mendelsohn also designed all the details within the building, elegant steel banisters and door handles, bookshelves in blond lemon wood, tables, chairs, umbrella racks, and Bauhaus-inspired washrooms and mezuzahs. The library, with its delicate, pristine lines, walls chiseled in rosy Jerusalem stone, and elliptical glass-enclosed staircases and windows, is perhaps the most memorable modern building in the city.

The library was commissioned in 1934 by another German refugee, the fifty-eight-year-old Salman Schocken. In establishing it, he wanted to promote a mixture of European and Jewish culture as the basis for the longed-for national state. He asked his re- searchers to go through long-ignored medieval sources of poetry, legend, and myth in search of a Jewish Nibelungenlied. Shocken was a largely self-educated, self-made department-store tycoon, bibliophile, philanthropist, and publisher. A genius of mass merchandising, Schocken had donated much of his immense fortune to a secular vision of Jews living in their own national country. He was a portly man of small stature; his strikingly powerful, bald head sat squarely upon a thick neck. His trilingual publishing houses in Berlin, Jerusalem, and New York specialized in Hebrew letters and Judaica, though their most precious copyright was the collected works of Kafka. Schocken’s contribution to secular Jewish nationalism and to Israeli cultural identity was immense. It is difficult to imagine the recent flowering of modern Hebrew letters without his philanthropic efforts during the first half of the twentieth century.

In the description of his son Gustav (later publisher-editor of Ha’aretz), Salman Schocken was a curious hybrid of a ruthless tyrant at home and a caring father, a hard-nosed businessman and wild-eyed romantic, a Prussian disciplinarian and a sensitive lover of poetry. He was happily assimilated to German culture, and in some ways perhaps more “German” than many other Germans. Yet he was a proud secular Jew. Politically, he was a liberal almost to the point of pacifism. “Millennia of ink, not Blut und Boden, had forged Jews into a nation,” Schocken declared. He was sympathetic to the efforts of the Brit Shalom movement of Martin Buber and others to arrive at a fair compromise between Jewish and Palestinian nationalism, yet never became politically active himself.

Anthony David has written a superb biography of Schocken and his prominent part in the invention of secular Jewish nationalism. He writes with verve and psychological insight. He can be critical and sardonic about Schocken but he shows a sympathetic understanding of his often towering contradictions. Schocken, he writes, was a “cosmopolitan Jew at a time when history had forced Jews to take up a national banner and join the new Jewish state.”


Schocken was acutely aware of the role of language in the construction of modern nationalism. He himself had some difficulty speaking Hebrew but read it fluently. Long before there were Israeli prime ministers, he built the library on Balfour Street to house his vast collection of classic Hebrew and German texts, bound volumes and original manuscripts of many periods, works by leading modern writers as well as precious first editions, priceless Hebrew incunabula (of one hundred extant examples, he was able to acquire forty for his collection), and three thousand twelfth-century text fragments from a Cairo genizah—the storeroom attached to a Cairo synagogue. The library also contained major works by Goethe and Maimonides, Schiller and Sabbatai Sevi, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Meister Eckhardt and Spinoza, Freud, Heine and Karl Kraus, Feuchtwanger, Wolfskehl, the rabbi of Bratzlav, and other legendary Hasidic rabbis resurrected from oblivion by the “well-practiced bathos and sentimentality” of Martin Buber, who had been on Schocken’s payroll for years. Some were books that had formed Schocken’s own views, notably Goethe’s Faust II (Thomas Mann was said to rank Schocken “chief among Goethe connoisseurs”), Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, and Schopenhauer’s World as Will and Representation. He had a marvelous collection of original manuscripts: Goethe’s Faust, Karl Kraus’s notes for The Last Days of Humanity, and Heine’s Last Testament, which he always carried with him on his many travels.

Heine, who detested all organized religion and requested no mass or kaddish at his funeral, was Schocken’s special favorite. In Schocken’s private office, upstairs in the library, Heine’s death mask sat on his desk. The walls were hung with Chagalls, Toulouse-Lautrecs, and engravings by Dürer and Rembrandt. His choice of a leading European avant-garde architect was not accidental. Anthony David describes how the Schocken department store chain, one of the largest in Europe with an annual turnover of over 110 million marks and more than six thousand employees, was a pioneer not only of modern marketing but also of modern design in fashion and household goods, from coffee pots to bedroom furniture. Shortly before Hitler’s rise to power, Mendelsohn had designed Schocken’s newest, largest stores in Stuttgart and Chemnitz; the latter was regarded as “Germany’s finest example of modernist architecture.”

Schocken had succeeded in moving these treasures in the nick of time from his former Berlin home to Jerusalem. In his own way, he was trying to preserve, or at least commemorate in the Jewish homeland, the aborted “symbiosis” of Germans and Jews. The library was, as he often put it, his “autobiography.” But there was much more to it. Schocken was the son of a poor, uneducated small shopkeeper in Margonin, a wretched village in the most remote eastern province of Prussia, close to the Russian border. He had grown up in a time and place where, after the rise of modern anti-Semitism, Jewish nationalism was born by analogy with the traditional nationalism of the Poles and the new-fangled nationalism of the Czechs. All were heavily affected by German Romanticism.

Schocken was a lifelong, if idiosyncratic, Zionist; but Zionist nostalgia for “authenticity,” for a long-past biblical Judaism, left him untouched. He was not “returning” to an “authentic” Judaism. He yearned to be a man of the future, leaving age-old beliefs and customs far behind. For him, hermetic, isolated cultures were as pointless as tariffs against superior English textiles. Shakespeare, Goethe, Nietzsche, and Dostoevsky were among his favorite writers. He was also an ardent reader of Herder and of Fichte’s Reden an die deutsche Nation, whose case for German nationalism he transferred to the Jewish situation. He spent his last thirty years—and a small fortune—in sponsoring what he believed was the sine qua non of any successful national movement: a national literature based on a command of language and a bedrock of legend and myth. As he put it, in the eighteenth century Germans, too, had lacked an established national identity and as a consequence had been politically impotent. But they “got books” as compensation. Bismarck, he felt, had only to shake the trees the poets had planted.

Schocken wanted to plant such trees for the politically impotent Jews. Ideally, as David writes, “German literati were to turn themselves into producers of national myths and epics for a newborn Hebrew language.” Quite apart from politics, Schocken was a genuine, even passionate, bookworm. Modern Hebrew, he felt, was a recent intellectual concoction, like modern Greek, and still too shallow culturally. His main task was to give it a stock-pile of myth and epic. Book dealers throughout Europe knew his interests. He was able to buy previously unknown important works by the medieval Spanish-Hebrew poets Ibn Ezra and Yehuda Halevi as well as the only complete extant divan, collected papers, of the eleventh-century scholar Ibn Gabirol.


He looked for scholars who would ferret a national myth out of these still barely explored treasures. Jewish scholars and Hebrew writers, including the future Nobel laureate S.Y. Agnon, the Kabbalah scholar Gershom Scholem, Martin Buber, and intermittently many others, were on his payroll for years. Agnon was his major acquisition; he spoke of him as “my writer.” Agnon would become a great epic writer, Schocken predicted, and others would freely borrow from his art. He did everything to support him, materially and otherwise. He tried to widen his horizons by sending him books and reviews and, on his visits to Germany, taking him to the theater, museums, and the opera. He made him read Shakespeare, Kafka, Goethe and Heine, Dostoevsky and Thomas Mann. He also tried to free him from religious piety, but in this he failed.

For his part, the grateful Agnon described his hectoring patron as “an expert on Germany and its wisdom,” but he cunningly smuggled not modern Hebrew but the language of the Mishna and Talmud into his prose. Schocken, whose Zionism resembled Hannah Arendt’s, scolded him sternly whenever Agnon lent his name to hard-line ultranationalistic causes. In this, too, he failed. He supplied “his writer” with a life stipend as well as with paper, canned goods, suits, underwear, and furniture from his stores.

Early in 1937 Schocken began an intense international campaign to get Agnon the Nobel Prize, soliciting the support of Thomas Mann, Herman Hesse, Arnold Zweig, and the chief rabbi of Sweden. He flew Dr. Kaplan-Kogan, the representative of the Hebrew University in Stockholm, to Jerusalem to meet with him. (A file documenting these efforts, which lasted for more than twenty years, is extant in the archives of Ha’aretz. I was able to consult them before covering the award ceremony for Agnon in Stockholm in 1966.)

Schocken installed in a wing of the library Gershom Scholem, the leading expert on Jewish mysticism, and his aides. They were engaged in a pioneering project of researching, for the first time, historically and philologically, what Enlightenment savants had dismissed as black magic: the Kabbalah. Among other subjects, Scholem did original work on the career of the Jewish mystic and pseudo-messiah Sabbatai Sevi (1626–1673). He had unprecedented insights into Jewish mysticism, some of which, in later years, were tragically misinterpreted by violent religious fanatics among the settlers in the West Bank, much to Scholem’s bitter chagrin.

In what seemed like a new version of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” some of the fanatics had been Scholem’s students. They convinced themselves that his teaching confirmed the imminent arrival of the messiah. Scholem’s book Redemption Through Sin was especially influential. He described the eighteenth-century false messiah Jacob Frank (circa 1726–1791) as a sexual pervert and unscrupulous cynic and yet concluded, “dialectically,” that Frank had led a noble, if misguided, proto-Zionist rebellion against the indignities of Jewish history. What appealed to the more violent settlers was the fact that, according to Scholem, Frank had “placed the redemptive power of destruction at the center of his Utopia.”2 Schocken, for his part, did not think much of mysticism, yet he hoped that the barely known Kabbalistic texts would prove to be a rich source of useful legend and poetry.

In another wing of the library the staff of Schocken’s Institute for the Study of Hebrew Poetry toiled on a related project. Here scholars were poring through volumes of medieval and pre-medieval Hebrew poetry, or deciphering manuscripts from the recently unearthed Cairo genizah, to discover what Schocken ardently hoped would turn out to be a Jewish Nibelungenlied. Time and again, David tells us, he reminded his researchers to look more deeply into possibly new sources for such a legend. It had to be there. They were bound to stumble on it.

Schocken was convinced that just as the legends of the Nibelungen or the Grimm Brothers were central to German national self-identity, so a similar cultural tradition for Zionism could be found in sixth- or tenth-century Hebrew poetry, in Kabbalah, or in the Hasidic legends. Martin Buber had first introduced him to the teachings of the great Hasidic zadik (saint) Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, who, perhaps under the influence of Jacob Frank and Sabbatai Sevi, had been a proto-Zionist pilgrim to the Holy Land in the late eighteenth century, and had speculated on tikkun (restoration) of the Jews and their lost heritage. Buber’s popular Tales of Rabbi Nachman, collected and freely rewritten by him and his Catholic Bavarian wife, ranked high on Schocken’s list of favorite books. He expected Buber’s research on Hasidic legends to accomplish what the Grimm brothers had done in Germany. Colorful legends, he felt, were likely to induce estranged young Jews to affirm what Buber, in a famous speech, called the spiritual essence of their ancestors.


Personally, Schocken was an obsessive loner who shunned human company. He preferred books to human beings. Martin Buber wrote a barely veiled, sarcastic poem about him in praise of bibliophiles able to be “always on top” and avoid the allzu menschliche (all-too-human). He ran his department stores by remote control, through exceptionally able directors headed by a chief of staff with the uniquely German-Jewish name Siegfried Moses. He employed graphologists to find suitable employees for his newest stores. He was also exceptionally kind to his workers, providing them with summer camps, health care, housing loans, and other benefits.

He spent long hours at home every day alone with his books. Family members were strictly forbidden to disturb him. A few Hebrew University academics were outraged that a mere “store owner” should hire serious scholars to “head his own philosophy department.” Schocken was not disturbed by such snide comments. Ever since he had toured Italy as a young man with Burckhardt’s Civilization of the Renaissance in hand, he considered himself a Renaissance merchant-prince, a man of the future and benefactor of the arts. Upon meeting him, critics were often surprised by his scholarly grasp of the details of their work.

Many were after his money. Some who took it failed to deliver. Like most philanthropists he was inundated with praise. Leo Baeck, the leading German reform rabbi, hailed Schocken’s ability to combine “abstract thinking with messianic fantasy.” Felix Rosenblüth, Israel’s first justice minister, said that Schocken was a “businessman with art in his soul.” Gershom Scholem lauded him as a “mystic merchant,” and later on as “our Don Quixote of the jet age.” Many were put off by his stiff Prussian demeanor, others by his pettiness about money. According to Anthony David, he demanded detailed written daily accounts of every penny spent, whether by researchers or by one of his own grown sons studying at an English university. His children were frugally brought up. He made them wear short pants that came down over their knees because, as he explained to an acquaintance, they grew out of them all too quickly. In their forties and fifties, his children were formally assembled in the library for his birthdays to hear him deliver long speeches on history and life.

As the Ha’aretz European correspondent during the 1950s, I was once summoned to his apartment in the Zurich Baur Lac Hotel and given a long summary of all that was wrong with the budding European common market. When, after a hour or so, I interrupted with a brief remark, he scolded me: “Donnerwetter, lassen Sie mich doch ausreden!” (Roughly: “Confound you! Let me finish a sentence.”) He then treated me to a fine lunch of French oysters and a bottle of Liebfraumilch and continued his discourse on Europe’s economy.

Some ridiculed what they called his conviction that there was a World Spirit at work. He believed, David writes, that “when all is done, history makes sense.” Some scoffed at the “outmoded eighteenth-century notions he had picked up from books as a boy,” or his Goethean ethics of self-improvement and his inflated notion of will. Hannah Arendt, who worked in his New York publishing firm, called him the “Jewish Bismarck.” He agreed to receive T.S. Eliot, whose poetry Arendt urged him to publish. Eliot was shown into his office and quickly shown out. Schocken was not interested. But he was the first to publish Walter Benjamin in English. Scholem promised Arendt to send her “gratis…an analysis of this remarkable character”3 but never did.

By rigorous Prussian-style self-sacrifice, iron discipline, long hours—and remarkable imagination—Schocken had worked himself up from being a door-to-door salesman in bleak Saxonian mining towns black with the soot of burning coal to head an enormous enterprise. Leaving home at fourteen after only a few years at grade school, Schocken was almost entirely self-taught, beginning with a literary guide, On Reading and Self-Cultivation, which championed the virtues of strong character and of Bildung, a rather loaded term popularized by Goethe, meaning the refinement of the individual self in keeping with the ideals of the Enlightenment.

From an early age, Schocken devoured the classics as well as Dostoevsky, Ibsen, Kierkegaard, Strindberg, Hegel, Hölderlin, and Kleist. He went on to John Stuart Mill, Adam Smith, and the English economist F.W. Taylor, the father of so-called Taylorism, the theory and practice of scientific management. Thirty-five years later, when Hitler came to power, Schocken’s chain was the largest privately owned in Germany. His fourteen stores offered relatively inexpensive but good-quality household items and clothes, designed by his own employees. They also sold books, but never pulp novels; and they were perhaps the first to buy up remainders and sell them at cut rate.

His department stores seemed to have so changed daily consumer life that they appeared in several novels. Their key to success was central ordering, bulk purchasing and design control, mass-produced fashion, and rapid turnover of capital. Schocken was often a few steps ahead of his competitors. His chain was the first that aimed at a lower-middle- or working-class clientele in small towns and grubby industrial slums. Small industrial cities of 80,000 or 100,000 inhabitants usually had only seamstresses and milliners catering to the middle class. Schocken’s chain changed this. For the first time, David writes,

workers could pick and choose from a variety of colors and styles, and all at prices they could afford. The sight of miners with walking sticks, and their wives in bright, elegant, fitted dresses made a big enough stir to attract the attention of the local paper.

From small towns, Schocken’s chain ingeniously expanded into the main cities and middle-class markets: Stuttgart, Nuremberg, Leipzig, and Chemnitz. Shortly before Hitler’s rise to power, a large Schocken store opened in Berlin, where he was the first to introduce a food department.

Schocken had begun as the proverbial Ostjude, one of the horde of “ambitious, trouser-selling” Jew-boys who, in the words of the anti-Semitic Prussian historian Heinrich von Treitschke (whom, by the way, Schocken admired), had, year after year, been spawned, in their “inexhaustible Polish cradle,” and swarmed across Germany’s eastern border. Eventually, Treitschke warned, they would control the stock exchange and leading newspapers. Even among those of the highest culture, he added, “the cry is everywhere the same: the Jews are our misfortune.”

Schocken was recuperating from a minor operation in Switzerland when, in January 1933, Hitler became German chancellor. Schocken saw no reason to interrupt his cure. He had never expected the Nazis to assume power and he felt certain that correct Prussian bureaucrats would not allow rabble-rousers to control state policy. Everything would go on as before. By April, he and his wife were still in Switzerland when a number of his stores were vandalized by uniformed SA men, led by Julius Streicher. They arrested some managers and took away their papers.

In May, Schocken finally returned to Berlin and was flabbergasted by what he found. He spoke of “the earth having vanished under [his] feet.” The vandalizing Nazis had declared all-out war on “Jewish” department stores. Schocken still compared them to the Luddites who, by smashing machines, had only slowed economic progress. “Today’s Luddites,” he said, “cannot save an obsolete system of distribution.” After some time the vandals were reined in and the volume of business in his chain rose again. Some of his children were still in school. He was still hoping that the tide would turn.

In the fall of 1933, he first began to think of emigrating. His eldest son, a student at Heidelberg, urged him to leave for Palestine. In Schocken’s decision, David writes, Hitler was less the catalyst than the more positive prospect of now taking a leading part in Palestine in the effort to revive the Hebrew language, which had been for centuries a stilted liturgical tongue. He was also tempted by an offer, first suggested by Albert Einstein, that he become chief administrator of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He started transferring his enormous collection to Jerusalem.

Palestine was experiencing a large influx of German academics turned into Zionists overnight by Hitler. The political and economic leaders of the new National Home were a kind of “government within a government” in British Palestine. Schocken knew them well from previous visits and from having attended all of the Zionist Congresses held since 1910. He may have preferred a more political role rather that of the chief university administrator, but he also knew that his political views would have little impact on people who conceived of Zionism in more narrow religious-nationalist terms. He and his family arrived in Jerusalem early in 1934 and settled in temporary quarters. Meanwhile, his loyal administrators continued to run his company smoothly, as though nothing was changed. Some of his stores hoisted Nazi flags. It did not save them from smashed windows. Erich Mendelsohn, who had fled to England, was summoned to Jerusalem to build the family a villa with, as David writes, “creature comforts otherwise unknown in spartan Palestine” around the corner from what would be the library. The villa would be the first in Jerusalem with air conditioning and a swimming pool.

Schocken threw himself into his new work with élan. During the following six years, Hebrew University, with Schocken as an administrator, undertook great building projects and grew immensely. From a modest American-style college it became a German-style research university. Recently arrived intellectuals from Weimar gave Jerusalem a new sort of cosmopolitan flair. The philosophers Hans Jonas and Leo Strauss, the historians Hans Kohn and Richard Koebner, Erich Mendelsohn, and many others enlivened social life.

Many found work at the university. Scholem had been there since 1923, along with Agnon. Now, there was also the expressionist poet Else Lasker-Schüler, who a few weeks earlier had won Germany’s top poetry prize, before being beaten up by Nazis. Schocken frequently entertained them at formal dinners in his sumptuous new villa and had them over to his library for readings of Karl Kraus, Walter Benjamin, and others. He bought the bankrupt Ha’aretz as a wedding present for his eldest son, Gustav. (It is still a family business, now run by his grandson Amos Schocken and often the lone voice of sanity in a badly traumatized country.) Yet before long, Schocken sank into melancholy. Something was going awry. He alternated restlessly between his office at the university and his treasure trove, his books and his manuscripts and his desk upstairs in the library.

He despaired of the Zionist politicians. He wrote to Chaim Weizmann, “95% of the leading Zionists reject compromise with the Arabs.” The scholars at the library concerned with myth and legend were still futilely seeking the Jewish Nibelungenlied. He grew bitter and restless, and spent almost half his time abroad, in Switzerland, France, and England. He found an “Aryan” front-man to buy his company in the hope of saving it from the Nazis.

But his Jewish employees were forced to leave. Schocken was uncommonly generous to all of them, granting generous compensation and tickets to any place they chose for themselves and their kin. He also found an “Aryan” director, a decent man, as it would turn out. This subterfuge worked surprisingly well at first. But not for long. In 1938 he was forced to sell out for an estimated 5 percent of the company’s real value to a consortium led by the Deutsche Bank. The largest private new stockholder was the former German Kaiser. Schocken’s Berlin publishing house was next to go. Under the Nazis, when many people rediscovered a Jewish identity, the publishing house had thrived as never before. Now, with some risk from smuggling subversive titles through Nazi censorship, the remaining stock was shipped to Jerusalem.

Early in 1940, Schocken toured the United States on behalf of the university. A few weeks after his return, the prestigious American rabbi Stephen Wise surprised him with an honorary doctorate in Hebrew letters from the American Jewish Institute of Religion. The honor made him feel even more how marginal his role in Palestine was. He grew bitter and restless. He was gripped by the fear of being trapped in Palestine for the duration of the war. He shipped some of the most precious items in his collection to a bank vault in Johannesburg. In October, the main civilian airport in Palestine was closed to traffic. He chartered the last seaplane left in Palestine and, taking off from the Sea of Galilee, flew with his wife over Cairo to Cape Town, and from there by circuitous sea routes to Australia, reaching New York a few months later.

His abrupt departure did little to improve his public standing in Palestine. He had promised the university that he would be back within three or four months. In fact, he settled permanently in the US and—after the war—in Switzerland, returning to Jerusalem for brief visits only. His department stores—or what was left of them—in the Western occupation zones of Germany were restored to him. He richly rewarded the director who through a Swiss cover address had reported to him throughout the war the state of his fourteen stores.

In 1953, when the company’s revenue again reached pre-war levels, Schocken finally sold his shares. In the summer of 1959, he began to complain of chest pains. He was too weak to leave his Swiss hotel room. On August 21, the room-service waiter knocked on his door but heard no answer. Schocken had died the previous night. His body was found slumped in a chair with Faust II and Buber’s Tales of Rabbi Nachman firmly clutched in his hands. Among his battered sons, at least the eldest, Gustav, now editor-publisher of Ha’aretz, felt relieved by his death. He confided to his own son that his father’s death had been the “happiest day of my life—that is, after getting my driver’s license.” His life was partly concealed and is hard to see as a whole: it had much drama and was at times tragic, idealistic, ironic, and absurd. Anthony David has done it justice.

This Issue

April 8, 2004