Mattityahu (Mathias) Strashun (1817-1885):
Scholar, Leader and Book Collector
Mattityahu Strashun was an accomplished son of nineteenth-century Vilna. As a member of a wealthy rabbinic family, he was able to combine a life in business and community leadership with a life of Jewish learning. He was also fortunate to have the financial means for collecting books to support his love of learning. It is said that he began to collect books from the age of thirteen, and by the time of his death, he had amassed a library of close to 6000 books, primarily in Hebrew. During his lifetime his house served as a center for maskilim, enlightened Jewish intellectuals, who often came to use his books and to discuss rabbinic and bibliographic issues.
Shortly before his death, he decided to bequeath his entire collection to the Vilna Kehilah [Community], rather than sell it for profit. The Vilna Kehilah obtained permission to build a new building to house the marvelous collection. The new building opened in 1901 and, for forty years, continued to serve thousands of readers of all ages. It soon outgrew its space, and, as reported by librarian Khaykl Lunski (1881?-1942 or 1943), users had to wait in line for a vacant seat.
When the Nazis invaded Vilna in June 1941, they shut down all Jewish institutions, including the libraries and confined the Jews into a crowded ghetto. A special unit, known as the Einsatzstab des Reichsleiter Alfred Rosenberg, or Rosenberg Squad, plundered Jewish libraries for treasures to use in the "Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question" in Frankfurt-am-Main. The YIVO building in Vilna, located outside the ghetto, was converted into a processing center for ransacked Jewish libraries and archives from Vilna and the surrounding area. This was where almost all of the Strashun books were crated and shipped by rail to Germany. In 1947, with the help of the American Army, YIVO in New York managed to recover some of the confiscated materials, including a substantial part of the Strashun Library.
In 1999, the YIVO Library had the great fortune to meet descendants of the Strashun family in New York, who, like their ancestor were book lovers and community supporters. Thanks to the support of Tanya Corbin (nee Jacobs) and her brother Irwin Jacobs, the YIVO library computerized the catalog cards created thirty years earlier by Rabbi Chaim Lieberman. Funds were also provided to catalog portions of the collection that had never been cataloged. This computerized cataloging project enables YIVO to uncover the treasures of the Strashun collection and share its wealth with the entire world.
It is therefore a great pleasure to introduce the exhibit, which is part of the dedication of the Strashun Library in its new home at the Center for Jewish History. This joyous occasion also brings together Strashun’s descendants, from all over the world, who come to salute their ancestor and to take pride in their family heritage. It is a privilege of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research to welcome the members of a great family with Vilna roots, and to show them their family tree, which goes back all the way to Rabbi Judah Loew, the MAHARAL of Prague.
The books on display constitute highlights from Mattityahu Strashun’s original collection. While it does not follow a strictly thematic arrangement, the exhibit visually highlights the transmission of knowledge from medieval to modern times in Jewish culture and the remarkable changes engendered by the technology of the printing press.
I would like to offer my gratitude to Dr. Mordechai Zalkin, who wrote the accompanying essay; Dr. Dror Abend-David, who translated it from Hebrew; Yermiyahu Ahron Taub, who edited the entire catalog; Marilyn Goldfried, for additional proofreading; Marek Web, who located some amazing original documents; Samuel Goldenberg who prepared the captions in Yiddish; Krysia Fisher, who selected the photos and designed the exhibition; and to Stanley Bergman and Tatiana Alisonova for their preservation and installation work. Finally, I would like to express my deep gratitude to Ms. Tanya Corbin, and to her brother, Mr. Irwin Jacobs, for their generous support of the computerization, restoration, and exhibition of the illustrious Strashun Collection. Ms Corbin, who initiated the entire project, has shown great leadership and interest in its progress. She had the foresight to invite many Strashun descendants to the dedication events, so that all of them will be able to celebrate their family heritage.
Aviva E. Astrinsky