The Arty Semite

Walter Benjamin, Book Collector Redivivus

By Benjamin Ivry

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Enthused readers of the German Jewish intellectual Walter Benjamin are impatiently awaiting the announced May 9 publication date of a landmark translation of Benjamin’s “Early Writings” from Harvard University Press. Until then, readers afflicted with Benjamania can delight in a catalog published by the Kunstmuseum Solingen in Germany, “Stellar Immortality” (Die Unsterblichkeit der Sterne, to accompany an exhibit on display at the end of 2010.

To commemorate the 70th anniversary of Benjamin’s suicide in 1940 at the Spanish-French border, while fleeing the Nazis, “Stellar Immortality” comprises a remarkable project in which the Stuttgart antiquarian book dealer Herbert Blank reassembled a library for Benjamin, based on book titles mentioned in his writings. Blank took over 30 years to gather the more than 2500 books, many of them depicted and described in “Stellar Immortality.”

In 2001 the dauntless Blank achieved a comparable homage to a bookworm who died before exile was necessary, Franz Kafka. The present assemblage of what was lost when Benjamin had to run for his life movingly recreates a German Jewish creative milieu, far beyond eminent names to be expected in an intellectual’s working library (Erich Auerbach, Ernst Bloch, Alfred Döblin, etc).

There are also many Jewish writers currently less celebrated outside Germany, such as Salomo Friedländer, a philosopher who also published under the pen name Mynona, such enticingly titled volumes as “Kant für Kinder” (“Kant for Children”).

Other now-neglected literati represented on Benjamin’s shelves include philosopher Eric Gutkind, a pen pal of Albert Einstein’s; critic and editor Willy Haas; and Franz Hessel, with whom Benjamin would translate into German Proust’s “À la recherche du temps perdu.”

There is also the travel writer and rabbi Arthur Holitscher, whose “America Today and Tomorrow” (Amerika Heute und Morgen) reportedly furnished background material for Franz Kafka’s Amerika. Others collected by Benjamin include the Russian Jewish translator Alexandra Ramm-Pfemfert, whose German version of the novel “Chocolate” by Aleksandr Tarasov-Rodionov is in the reconstructed library, although Ramm-Pfemfert is remembered today, if at all, as a political ally and translator of Leon Trotsky.

Thanks to the Kunstmuseum Solingen, such figures are no longer totally neglected, and revivals of interest in the cultural historian Eduard Fuchs ; the Anglicist Leon Kellner, an ardent Zionist and Benjamin’s onetime father-in-law; or children’s author Tom Seidmann-Freud (born Martha Gertrud Freud, niece of Sigmund) may one day bask in a sliver of the intellectual limelight which Benjamin himself now enjoys.

Watch a 2009 Paris seminar on Walter Benjamin.


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