Another in our occasional series describing work being undertaken on some of our less well-known collections.
Miriam Wildermuth, an Erasmus student from the Humboldt University, Berlin, has recently been working on several projects in Special Collections, including a catalogue of the Tobias Theodores papers. The Theodores papers are almost entirely in German, and thanks to Miriam’s translating and interpretation skills, we now have a catalogue of this collection available on ELGAR.
Miriam describes some of the challenges involved in cataloguing this collection:
“Tobias Theodores (1808-1886) was born in Prussia. He moved to England when he was sixteen and soon began teaching languages. He was a prominent member of the Jewish Reform movement and a founding member of the Reform Synagogue in Manchester. Theodores was closely involved with many charitable causes, especially with the Manchester Jews’ School. He was a professor of modern and oriental languages at Owens College for thirty-three years.
For the past two months, I have slowly been cataloguing the correspondence from Tobias Theodores to Gustav Gottheil. Theodores started writing to Gottheil after the latter moved from Manchester to New York to take up a position as a preacher in a Reform synagogue there. In the first letter, Theodores writes characteristically: he congratulates Gottheil on having survived his journey “trotz Wirbelsturm u. Wogendrang” (“despite whirlwind and wild seas”: letter of 23 Sep. 1873) and wryly describes the chaos and strife into which the Reform Synagogue in Manchester has been plunged in the search for Gottheil’s replacement.
At first, reading the letters was a real challenge, because they are written in the German Kurrent script (an old form of German handwriting based on late medieval cursive writing), which I had never had to read before. Initially, I decoded the writing letter by letter, then word by word, and finally I was able to read whole sentences fluently. It was especially frustrating to discover a letter in which Theodores had included a short missive to Gottheil’s daughter Dora (26 Aug. 1874), written in English cursive, and that was beautifully readable! [see illustration] But the content was well worth the work I put into deciphering the handwriting. Theodores not only writes about his friends and about his work; he also frequently comments on current events, and so opens up a window into a time now long gone.
As a native German, Theodores remained interested in the affairs of his motherland, even though he was proud to be English as well (he had naturalised in 1845). There is a series of letters in which he writes about two assassination attempts against the German Emperor in 1878 with great concern. He writes: “Im J. 1870 lasen wir, daß der 75-jährige Mann 9 Stunden lang zu Pferde auf dem Schlachtfelde sein Leben den feindlichen Kugeln ausgesetzte, unversehrt kehrte er in die Heimat zurück; u. jetzt mitten in Berlin von Landeskindern meuchlings überfallen zu werden!” (“In the year 1870 we read that the 75-year-old man sat astride his horse for 9 hours on the battlefield, exposing his life to enemy bullets, and returned unharmed to the homeland; and now, in the middle of Berlin, he is treacherously set upon by citizens!”: letter of 5 June 1878).
Theodores was ever vigilant about the situation of the Jewish community in Germany, and in the course of the fourteen years covered by these letters he comments on the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe. Theodores constantly criticises the government of Germany for encouraging, or at least not discouraging, spreading anti-Semitism. This is made most clear in the case of Adolf Stoecker, who was the court chaplain to Emperor Wilhelm I, and the founder of the extremely anti-Semitic Christian Social Party. Theodores felt that Stoecker was dangerous because he had succeeded in making hatred of Jews respectable in society (letter of 17 Mar. 1881: “den Herren Stöcker […] ist es gelungen die Meinung zu accreditieren, daß die Juden jetzt überall gehaßt werden.” Nor was Theodores blind to the faults in his adopted English society: In a letter written on 28 November 1881, he mentions recent anti-Semitic agitation in Manchester, with accusations of blood libel being made.
The letters are also informative about contemporary discussions within Reform Judaism; Theodores’ discusses theological issues, both directly by outlining his own views and indirectly through criticism of texts with which he disagrees. Theodores was familiar with the work of the most prominent theologians in England and abroad, Jewish and Christian, and is quick to criticise them when he does not agree with them.
Theodores was also very involved in Manchester society, and writes about local elections and charitable events, sprinkling his descriptions with gossip about prominent citizens. Alongside the more weighty topics of theology and international politics, Theodores also takes an interest in the normal life events happening around him: births, marriages, illnesses, and deaths. Even though Theodores often writes about the pleasure of a retired life, spent sitting alone in his cosy room, he was an enthusiastic contributor, through his correspondence, in important political and theological debates.
This correspondence is a treasure trove for those who are interested in Manchester in the late nineteenth century, its German and Jewish communities, relations between Christians and Jews in Britain and Germany, as well as Jewish, especially Reform, theology.”