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About Schwadron (Sharon)

The National Collector: Avraham Schwadron and the National Library's Autograph and Portrait Collections
 
Gil Weissblei
 
 
The personality of Avraham Schwadron is an enigma: how could so many contrasts coexist in one person? Chemist, poet, zealous ideologue and sensitive composer, emphatic and retiring – all these were facets of this talented individual, making him one of the most colorful characters to inhabit Jerusalem during the British Mandate period. And from this remarkable blend of traits emerged a singular direction, one even harder to explain. What was it that made this young Jew from a wealthy family devote his entire life to obsessive collecting of portraits and autographs, donate the collections to the National Library, uncompensated, and continue his unrestrained and far-reaching collecting until he reached the end of his life, alone and destitute?
One question Schwadron was often called upon to answer was why he became a collector. A composite of his various answers depicts a young boy born in eastern Galicia in 1878 to a rich industrialist family that was descended from a dynasty of rabbis and scholars. At the age of sixteen, Schwadron would say, he read a book by the historian Moshe (Moritz) Güdemann in which he encountered a historical document interpreted in a manner that seemed inaccurate to him. The young Schwadron was so bold as to send the noted Jewish scholar a letter containing an alternative interpretation. To his great surprise, the boy received a letter in response, thanking him in appreciation for his astute interpretation. The great pride he felt upon receipt of this letter encouraged the young Schwadron to continue sending letters to other known Jewish scholars and writers. The responses he received from them accumulated into a veritable collection, and spurred him to seek out letters, manuscripts and autographs of other personalities, for which he paid in full.
 
Schwadron's autograph collection led him to begin developing another collection – portraits of the same famous individuals. When he discovered that the large museums and libraries of Europe held national collections of manuscripts and portraits, it occurred to him – he would assert years later – that it was his responsibility to establish such a collection for the Jewish people. He set about fulfilling this self-imposed mission with an abiding seriousness, though his words may seem filled with pathos to us today.
 

 

World War I, in which Schwadron fought in the ranks of the Austrian army, reinforced his nationalist Zionist leanings. The founding of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the National Library contributed to his decision to leave home and move to Palestine in order to fulfill his dream of a becoming the national collector in Jerusalem. In 1927 Schwadron moved to Palestine, bringing with him his collections of portraits and autographs, which already numbered in the thousands and were extremely valuable. He donated the collections, uncompensated, to the National Library, and subsisted on a modest stipend sent to him from Poland. In the period leading up to World War II, Schwadron worked tirelessly to acquire and valuable portraits and manuscripts and bring them to Palestine from Europe. This activity saved many of the items from perishing. The extensive network of relations he developed with collectors, merchants and people of note all over the world helped realize the dream of a boy from a village in Galicia. The Schwadron collection of autographs and portraits became the largest such Jewish collection in the world. Rabbis, authors, statesmen, artists, scientists – all are represented in this diverse and rich collection of some 40,000 items. Joseph Karo and Karl Marx, Moses Mendelsohn and Naphtali Hertz Imber, Herzl and Freud, the poet Rachel and Franz Kafka – all are part of the fascinating mosaic of Jewish characters whose writing and portraits are preserved in the Schwadron Collection. The collection has recently been scanned and made available to the general public via the National Library's website.