Salman Schocken: Forefather of Haaretz Newspaper and a Modernist in Love With Tradition

A documentary about Schocken wisely focuses on the aesthetic he cultivated as owner of department stores in Weimar Germany and bibliophile who published Agnon, Kafka, Buber and others

Yitzhak Laor
Yitzhak Laor
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Schocken store in Stuttgart
Schocken store in Stuttgart.Credit: Courtesy of Schocken Institute
Yitzhak Laor
Yitzhak Laor

Enthusiasm ran high in the building on Salman Schocken Street in south Tel Aviv when the chief editor of Haaretz, the late Gershom (Gustav) Schocken, was a guest on the radio program “Memories from My Father’s House.” Schocken had the fascinating interview transcribed and printed on a double-page spread. Anyone who wanted a copy was free to take one.

I remember only one story from the interview. In the Spartacist Uprising of January 1919, which followed the fall of the German Empire in Berlin, a revolutionary council (Soviet) was also established in Zwickau, the Schocken family’s hometown. The family’s servants, who participated in the revolution, rushed to the city square, and to be on the safe side, locked the Schocken family, including 6-year-old Gershom, in the house.

Salman Schocken.Credit: Alfred Bernheim

Afterward, the revolt ended and the servants returned to free the family from its house arrest. Perhaps they were concerned for the Schockens’ safety, though it’s also reasonable to assume that the uprising – before it was drowned in blood by the central government, with the aid of army units of the proto-Nazi right – was a pretty quiet affair, of the sort about which Lenin said later, “When the German workers will want to seize the trains, first they will buy entry tickets to the platform.”

In any event, this incident, the experience of Salman Schocken’s family in the revolution of 1919, which was so central to the life of young Gershom Schocken – who would shape the character of Haaretz and lay down the conservative line it took during his lifetime, notably hostility toward trade unions and workers’ strikes – is not mentioned in a new documentary entitled “Schocken, on the Verge of Consensus,” which premiered at this fall’s DocAviv film festival and can be streamed via the website of the Kan public broadcaster’s Channel 11 (in Hebrew, with Hebrew and German subtitles). I have no complaints of the filmmakers.

Viewers of the 75-minute documentary can focus on what the writer/director, Noemi Schory, has wisely chosen to spotlight: the aesthetic for which Salman Schocken was responsible, both as a businessman and a philanthropist. The parallel that is drawn with the present-day Haaretz seems to me an unnecessary diminishment of the important icon at the center.

Both the director of the film and its editor, Michal Oppenheim, have done a fine job transitioning between black-and-white footage, background narration and colorful scenes from the present day (the offices of Haaretz, Zwickau, high-school students in eastern Germany listening attentively to a talk about Schocken). The filmmakers have done amazing work in using animation to visually fill up empty structures with shifting contents of people and objects. That is certainly the most potent image in this movie, and it recurs from time to time in different locations.

The splendid aestheticization befits a work about Salman Schocken the modernist, whose worldview embraced the belief that democracy means aesthetics for all. This applied to workers who would buy inexpensive clothes as well to books in Hebrew – indeed, a beautiful new font would be designed to enhance the reading of them.

Poles apart

Salman Schocken was born in 1877 in East Prussia, part of Bismarck’s Greater Germany, in a small town near the city of Posen, today in Poland. For hundreds of years the region swung back and forth between the rulers of Poland and Germany, and its residents were divided into ethnic Poles and Germans. Jews in this region were “Poles” in our parlance, or “Ostjuden” – eastern Jews, in the language of German Jews. “Schocken, on the Verge of Consensus” does not specify whether its protagonist spoke Yiddish or not. Similarly, dates, too, are barely mentioned (something of a flaw in Israeli documentaries in general, in which time is often divided between “now” and “long ago”).

What characterized the Ostjuden and interests us is their cultural richness, which included even broader linguistic knowledge (three languages at least) than other German Jews possessed. The enmity toward them on the part of the latter was such that some German Jews “accused” the Ostjuden of being the cause of the antisemitism that befell all of the country’s Jewish population during the first decades of the 20th century – rather like what some Israelis say about the ultra-Orthodox in our time.

Aerial view of Schocken department store, Chemnitz.Credit: Courtesy of Schocken Institute

Because the documentary seeks to draw a line connecting the spirit of Salman Schocken with that of the contemporary neoliberal Haaretz, we should bear in mind that he brought to German Jewry the modernist’s commitment to the past, as it exists in the present.

What’s generally noted is the influence exerted by Eastern European Jews on Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin and Martin Buber. To this list we should add the wonderful 1927 book by the Austrian writer Joseph Roth about Galician Jewry and also the German novelist Alfred Döblin’s book about his 1925 visit to Jewish Poland (“Journey to Poland”). The film under review fills a lacuna that existed in the consciousness of the “new blood” that flowed from Eastern Europe to Germany: the successful businessman. That’s the context in which Salman Schocken should be read and observed.

He was fond of S.Y. Agnon and underwrote and published him. He developed new Hebrew fonts. He published Franz Kafka and Buber and the stories of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav. He created the largest surviving collection of Jewish manuscripts. This was a case of Ahad Ha’am’s “cultural Zionism” triumphant. Indeed, Schocken actually lived in this country for only a very short time – he had left for New York by 1940, six years after his arrival – but where is such a vast collection of Jewish literature kept and preserved? In Jerusalem. And it’s his glory.

The contradictions in Schocken’s personality, and there were certainly such, are not reflected in the movie, which focuses on a parallel between the man and today’s Haaretz (hence also its journalese title, “On the Verge of Consensus” – an unpleasant choice, to put it mildly). A clothing-store tycoon who used some of his profits to build beautiful residences for his employees may not have been all that rare in the Germany of that era (it’s worth reading Naomi Shepherd’s biography of the businessman and philanthropist Wilfrid Israel, from Berlin, to understand that philanthropy was part of the spirit of the time). But the connection drawn between those residences and the embarrassing monologue, midway through the documentary, of TheMarker’s Meirav Arlosoroff, the Joan of Arc of the liquidation of the welfare state, made me uncomfortable.

Let’s be precise: The father of the family behind Haaretz was not a neoliberal who viewed organized workers as a disruptive element. And, on the other hand, if we must have a comparison, we should remember that the Schocken Group was the pioneer in breaking up organized labor in the Israeli media during the 1980s.

Berlin Schocken store before the chain was expropriated by the Nazi regime.Credit: Courtesy of Schocken Institute.

Solid 'proof'

Let’s return to solid “proof,” which doesn’t require verbal testimony: the shots of the large buildings that housed the chain of Schocken clothing stores across Germany, designed by the architect Erich Mendelsohn, the father of German Art Deco.

In complete contrast to other department stores that sprang up in turn-of-the-century Paris (Galeries Lafayette), London (Selfridges) and Berlin (KDW) – all of them high-end, classicist, bordering on kitsch and selling luxury items – Schocken’s stores excelled across Germany and spread rapidly during three decades thanks to the their founding father’s modernist courage (and that of his brother, Simon). The buildings bore a distinctly modernist character, “functional,” illuminated and illuminating. The building on Mazeh Street in central Tel Aviv, where Haaretz was headquartered before the move to Schocken Street, evokes something of the beauty of those larger structures.

Schocken department store, Nuremberg, 1920sCredit: Courtesy of Schocken Institute

In “Schocken, on the Verge of Consensus,” Racheli Edelman, Salman’s granddaughter, notes that he was a great organizer, but his extraordinary hyperactivity also included many hours of reading (as Amos Schocken, Haaretz’s current publisher, relates) and an emphasis on aesthetics. That is, clothes for ordinary folk should be seemly without being expensive. Moreover, the books put out by the publishing house he founded – impressive series in German and Hebrew – were bound in a uniform color, without a picture or a photograph. Quite marvelous.

What is the significance of the “uniform” design of the books and the buildings? It’s something of a lasting personal seal, existing in a state of tension with the annulment of the “personal,” amid the seriality. This is a saliently modernist tension. Salman Schocken was a modernist, championing the persistent changes of the present together with a love of the past. Along with others, he triumphed over the assimilation and the idleness of Germany’s Jews.

Cinema is created for a big screen, that’s what the medium demands of us: big moments, big times, big people. In a movie, even small people come out big, all the more so Salman Schocken. The interview segments in this documentary are very different from one another. Prof. Dan Laor sounds as though he’s reciting from his book about Agnon; Prof. Dan Miron, who married Yael, the exquisite granddaughter of the film’s protagonist, who died young, relates, as always, fascinating anecdotes. And Deborah Schocken, the widow of Maj. Gen. Gideon Schocken (Gershom’s brother) is electrifying in her brief appearance.

I do have one annoyed comment about the saccharine in the film. Salman Schocken was a member of Brit Shalom; the narration explains that this movement advocated Jewish rapprochement with the Palestinians. Hello? Rapprochement? Brit Shalom, which was active from 1925 until the early 1930s, believed that Zionism had no chance unless Arab agreement was obtained for the immigration of Jews to Palestine and a binational state was established. The members of Brit Shalom were not on the verge of “the consensus”; they were in a truly adversarial relationship with all the branches of the Zionist movement. Indeed.

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