Rediscovering Grandpa Schocken

A tribute, on the occasion of the 130th anniversary of Salman Schocken's birth.

Racheli Edelman
Racheli Edelman
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Racheli Edelman
Racheli Edelman

Grandpa (Salman) Shlomo was closer to his books than to his family. He lived in America. He came to Israel once a year. Once we went to visit him at his Schocken Library in Jerusalem. He led me into a spacious hall where tens of thousands of books were kept in cabinets lining the room from floor to ceiling. I looked at the grand hall, at the gleaming marble floor with the rays of light falling from the window.

And then he said: "I have no books for children."

I must have been about 10 years old then. I looked at him and thought: How could it be that there were no books here that would interest children?

"Not one, Grandpa? Are you sure?"

"I do have one book," he said, leading me to a low shelf behind the entrance. He pointed to a slim volume with a greenish alligator on the cover. "This is the only book here for children," he said. Why, I wondered, would I be interested in that book and not in all the others?

I did not like Grandfather.

Sometimes, when he was in Israel, he would invite us to dinner. He used to reserve a special room at the Sharon Hotel in Herzliya. The room had a round table that was set for all of us - his three sons in Israel, their wives and children. He would run up the stairs, while each of his sons would try to tell him something, he would sneer in German: "Gross artig, gross artig" - that is to say, "I'm not impressed."

I did not like Grandfather at all.

In the dining room, at the height of Israel's austerity period, the table would be sumptuously set. Lined up beside each plate were three silver cutlery settings. Wine glasses sparkled and waiters hovered over us. The food was always the same: pot roast, potatoes, and carrots and peas, which I hated. The formality was unbearable. They said the air was so thick you could cut it with a knife. I remember the atmosphere, but not what they talked about. On the way home, I said to my father: "Can't you see he's not interested in what you have to say? Why does everyone fawn over him like that?" My father looked at me and said: "You 'third generationers' are free of him."

A few years later, my brother Amos and I went to visit him. At the time, he collected ancient coins, which he kept in a small box. He showed us a coin of Alexander the Great with hair curling around his face, and told us there were only two such coins in the world, opening a book and showing us a huge picture of the other. He pointed out the differences between the two. "Mine is better," he said. When we visited him the following year, he again pulled out the coin box. I said: "Grandpa, you had more coins last year." He answered angrily: "Don't you understand the difference between quality and quantity?"

Grandfather then opened a book in Rashi script and read it out fluently. "Grandpa, you said you don't know Hebrew. How can you read Rashi like that?" I asked. Today I understand this. He knew readers' Hebrew, unlike someone who speaks the language fluently.

Once he came to our house for dinner. All evening he was angry and fuming. When he left, I asked: "What's the matter? He's rich. He travels all over the world. Why is he always angry?" My father replied: "You have something he doesn't have." "What could that be?" I asked. "Your whole life ahead of you," he answered.

Second acquaintance

Years later I understood that throughout my childhood he tried to get back his department stores, which had been confiscated by the Nazis. After he recovered some of them, supervising their operation from his office in New York, he realized that he was getting old. He came to Israel in an attempt to convince one of his sons to take over the business in Germany. They all refused. During that visit, his last hope for someone to continue his life's endeavor was dashed.

In the late 1980s, toward the end of my father's life, he said to me: "After the unification of East and West Germany, you will have to deal with the claims for recovering our property in East Germany."

Thus began my second acquaintance with Grandpa.

I took the claims letter my father submitted before his death and began to look up on the map the cities where Grandpa's department stores were. I went to see them with my husband. In the first and second cities, we searched according to the address. After that, we knew that the stores were always in the center of town.

After going in to a few stores, we already knew what items were sold on the first floor: textiles, accessories and housewares. On the second floor were men's suits, then women's clothing and so on. The signs in each store were identical. In every store we entered, we were greeted by scuffed parquet floors. For 50 years after the war, the communists had not changed a thing. Everything froze when the Nazis seized everything in 1938.

In one city, we told an old woman standing near the store that I was Schocken's granddaughter. She looked at me and said: "Schocken's grandchildren are alive? Who would have believed it?" She burst into tears. When she was a little girl, she said, the Nazis smashed the display windows with rocks and her mother called her home to shield her from seeing it. "We had it so good when you were here. Things were so bad during the war and the communist era. Hurry and come back. Please come back." She called her neighbors out to see us.

"Schocken's grandchildren are alive," she said, her voice quivering.

Looking for a store in another city, we came upon another woman, a kind of wicked witch, sitting on an old bench. "You want that store? Well, you won't get it," she said. And just like in the old, cruel fairy tales, 17 years have gone by and we still haven't got it back.

An old lady came out of a house and someone told her we were Schocken's grandchildren. "Do you want to throw me out?" she asked. As I looked at her, it crossed my mind that this woman was once the pretty wife of a Nazi officer, who had been given this house to live in, after evicting one of my grandfather's business managers.

When I returned home, I began to read through my grandfather's archives. From these files, I discovered him anew. I met the young man for whom the pursuit of knowledge was everything, until 1901 when his brother asked him to help run the store in Zwickau and he gave up his plans to study. I read what he wrote after he had worked for a year in their second store. At night, living alone above the store, he asked himself: "Am I going to spend my whole life standing at a counter showing off bolts of cloth and asking the lady: Do you like this? Is that my mission in life?"

For a long time, in the early 1990s, I felt like I was living a parallel life. I had one foot in the present and the other in the difficult years of inflation after World War I. I studied my grandfather's business affairs down to the last detail. I learned about the goods purchased around the world and how prices compared with those of the competitors. I read the sales statistics for all the stores in the chain; I studied the ads, the laundry labels, and the instructions for using all kinds of appliances. I read about the laboratory he established to insure that the merchandise delivered to his stores was of good quality. I examined photographs of window displays, and economic feasibility reports drawn up for each city to decide where to open the next branch. In my imagination, I took part in the party for employees who had been with the chain for 25 years and received a gold watch as a token of appreciation. In my imagination, I joined the employees for a holiday at the vacation resort my grandfather built in the mountains. He had innovative ideas about social benefits for his employees.

I read his speeches about modern marketing to the Association of German Department Stores, of which he was head. In files faded with age but organized with meticulous German precision, I discovered a smart, pragmatic man with great ambitions, who opened a new store almost every year.

While traveling between his stores, he would take along a private tutor who taught him everything he had missed since the age of 14. He opened book departments in his stores and in memos to his staff, recommended books for them to read.

I read about the books and artwork he collected, about his financial support of authors and poets, and about how he underwrote activities of the German Zionists and their newspaper Der Jude. I discovered a man with an insatiable curiosity and thirst for knowledge. Alongside his growing success in the business world, he built up a collection of unique Judaic books, first editions of German literature and manuscripts of great German writers. His last flagship, in Chemnitz, was opened in 1931. The building, designed by Erich Mendelsohn, is considered one of the gems of modernist architecture. Thanks to the opening of this store, the local newspapers reported that the public's buying power had increased: Schocken stores sold high-quality goods at low prices.

Loss of an empire

His flourishing commercial ventures did not blind him. He realized that the future of the Jews in Germany was not certain. In 1929, he insured all his holdings in England, to safeguard against political or anti-Semitic property seizures.

Grandpa saw what was coming and made preparations to leave Germany. He urged his 250 Jewish employees to leave, too. He supported some of them financially. Most of them did get out in time, and scattered around the world. He sold half the chain to a British company in a fictitious deal. From Palestine, he continued to run the business by correspondence. He tried to sell the other half, but the Nazis got wind of it and confiscated the business in 1938.

Reading the minutes of the board meetings from those days sends a chill down one's spine. It says: "The director general (usually a relative) informs the board of his resignation. In his place will be Mr. (a Nazi representative)."

When the war was over, Grandpa began corresponding with his workers at the stores. They wrote him that they hardly had anything to eat, about who returned from war and who didn't. In a letter to one of his managers, Grandpa writes: "I am happy to hear that you have returned safe and sound from prison in Russia." To other workers, he sent food packages from America. It gave me shivers to read these letters in 1990. Imagine sending food parcels from America to Germans in 1946.

Grandpa kept his emotions to himself. But between the lines, one senses his bitter disappointment over the loss of his empire. A loss for which no amount of money can compensate. From 1949 until he sold the business, he sent dozens of letters each day to his store managers containing instructions. One sees the tremendous effort he invested in maintaining his ties with what he had left in Germany, whose culture he worshiped, but did not want to live there after the war.

In Palestine, Grandpa remained an outsider. He wanted to establish a business for each of his children. He bought Haaretz newspaper in 1935 and installed my father Gustav (Gershom) as editor in chief. He bought Taya Cosmetics. He bought a ship and started a shipping company that would export oranges to Europe.

His son Gideon Schocken joined the Jewish Brigade and later the Israel Defense Forces. He was the first head of the IDF Manpower Division, and drafted the General Staff regulations. He had the soul of an artist, not of a general, and had no interest in business. My uncle Herzl Rome, who was supposed to run the shipping company, contracted tuberculosis and moved to the U.S. My uncle Theodor Schocken, who interrogated Nazi prisoners during his service in the U.S. Army, settled in America, eventually becoming the publisher of Schocken Books in New York.

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem elected my grandfather to chair its Executive Committee. This position could have been the pinnacle for a man who dreamed all his life of learning and knowledge. But for him it was disappointing. His temperament was not suited to fundraising. Nor did he find the political scene in Palestine to his liking. He wanted to reach an agreement with the local Arabs through dialogue, but could not find anyone who shared his views. In those days, all the political parties were pushing for a solution, each with its own ideology.

My grandfather, a Prussian businessman, wrote in 1930: "In such disorder, it is impossible to establish a state." In the 1950s, after visiting Israel, he wrote another letter: "Now I see that establishing a state is possible even in such disorder."

Although Grandfather knew very well that he would be remembered only for his patronage of writers and his unique collections of Judaic books. The man who wished that the Schocken Library would become one of Jerusalem's most important tourist sites was unable to convey the significance of this Jewish cultural legacy to his own offspring.

When we were children, only my father would take us to the library. We would go on Shabbat, when he would browse through the books and pull out volumes to show us. My father's other siblings were totally indifferent toward it.

And yet, how simple it is to tell a child who comes to the library: Look at the Passover Haggadahs with their fabulous drawings. They were created to prevent children from falling asleep during the seder. Or: Let me show you the life stories of Jewish families as they were written on the inner pages of prayer books from hundreds of years ago - who was born, who got married and who, unfortunately, passed away. Do you know that Christopher Columbus who discovered America was a Jew from Genoa? A 500-year-old book reveals that. Or: Let me show you Albert Einstein's manuscript on the theory of relativity. Or: Look at the etchings of William Blake for the Book of Job.

I know about all these from what my father, or from what librarians who worked there showed me, but unfortunately not from my grandfather.

Racheli Edelman is the publisher of Schocken Publishing House, Tel Aviv.