Exploring the LBC Library Collections

Some thoughts on Die Schrift – Buber and Rosenzweig’s translation of the Bible

from Librarian Cassy Sachar


Books can tell us stories in different ways. The essential and most familiar way is through their content. The words on the page create tiny pathways to take us to distant lands, through arguments or into the heart of the matter. The words of the bible, spoken read and trodden on for centuries, take us from the the belly of the whale to the battlefields of kings, from theology to love poetry, from a mythic past to a visionary future. The version that we encounter – the language, the editing, the censoring, the place of publication, the time, the commentary, the lack of commentary – not only shapes our experience of the text but has been a matter of life and death as what may be God’s word and what is man’s has been argued over.


The version I am looking at from LBC Library are two volumes of the German translation by two of the most influential German Jewish thinkers of the last century, Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig. A translation from an authorised version whether Hebrew, Latin, Greek into any vernacular language, is often an attempt to make the text more accessible to a wider audience by putting it in more familiar terms. Buber and Rosenzweig wanted to go much further, to create a new type of language that would convey the biblical sense of each individual word and allow a new modern encounter with it, to create a deliberately Jewish version, to transform the Bible from a possession into a storm, as Buber himself described it. Celebrating the translation begun in 1925, which Buber finally completed in 1961, Gershon Scholem described it as both a gift to German speakers and a tombstone, after the destruction of its intended audience during the intervening world war.

Books can tell us stories in different ways. Although we are discouraged from judging a book by its cover, the designed elements are often meaningful in themselves. The medieval curves and crossbars of the cover lettering allude to runes, to words scratched with sticks, to something ancient, mythic magical. The minimalist yet bold typography of the internal pages by contrast says this is current, contemporary, for today. The beautiful font, the frames of white space on the page emphasise the primacy of the text. The removal of commentary forces a return again and again to individual word themselves. The typographic design becomes an extension of the translators’ vision, the functional elements of the book harnessed to their agenda.


Books can tell us stories in different ways. If we look closer we can follow the journeys that these specific copies have themselves taken, and discover another layer of narrative. Like people, books bear the marks of their experiences. The title page tells us they were published by Verlag Lambert Schneider and began life in Berlin. But on the front cover there is label: capital R 217. A bookseller’s mark? No, it turns out a library marking, for we find an ownership stamp with the swastika and eagle of the Nazi regime and the blackletter name of the Reichsinstitut für Geschichte des neuen Deutschlands. An instrument of propaganda rewriting the Jewish German past but also documenting Jewish life in the belief that after the war it would not exist. The Institute was notorious for violently requisitioning material from archives and libraries. The stamp is present not once but twice. It is with a chill that I, who have been an enthusiastic stamper of books in my career, wonder about the hand that held and accessioned this book, what our similarities and differences might be.

The Nazi stamp is crossed through, a firm ballpoint administrative cross, rather cleanly, marks the end of Final Solution, and we find another stamp, also a circle but in the straight talking sans serif font of the Americans and we learn that this book was at the Offenbach Archival Depot. It was here that the Allies sorted through millions of books and artefacts that had been looted by the Nazis and attempted to return them to their owners or find new homes for them.


The third stamp in stocky black capitals reads Library Leo Baeck College. The book has come out of the circles of war and become part of our library. The embryo of the Leo Baeck College Library were 200 or so books that somehow survived the war, were gathered by the Allies at Offenbach and made their way to London via the Society for Jewish Study. Like Leo Baeck himself and many of the college’s teachers and graduates, those for whom Buber and Rosenzweig began their bible translation, these books bore witness to the destruction of European Jewry and became part of the renewal and regeneration that occurred with the establishment of the college and continues with the work of our students and alumni in creating for every generation a renewed Judaism.

The words of Die Schrift tell us the story of the Israelites, the design of this edition tells us of its authors’ vision and these copies, which contain both story and vision and the marks of history, tell us the story of the Jewish people in the twentieth century.