Mattityahu (Mathias) Strashun (1817-1885):
Scholar, Leader and Book Collector
A Brief History of the Strashun Library
In the shulhoyf [courtyard] of the Great Synagogue of Vilna stood a two-story building. The sign on its door read: "The Library of Rabbi Mattityahu son of Rabbi Samuel Strashun." For forty years before the Holocaust (1901-1941), this building served as one of the most important cultural institutions of Jewish Vilna. The library was established through the generosity of Rabbi Mattityahu Strashun (1817-1885), a renowned Vilna philanthropist, communal leader, scholar, and bibliophile. It included many rare Hebrew books and manuscripts, which Strashun had painstakingly collected over a period of 50 years, beginning with his bar mitzvah. By the time he died in 1885, the magnificent library had amassed 5739 books and manuscripts.
In his will, Strashun, who was childless, bequeathed his books and his home to the Vilna Kehilah [Community] and appointed his nephew David Strashun as the executor. David Strashun hired scholars to catalog this collection. The catalogue was published in 1889 under the title Likute Shoshanim [A Gathering of Roses]. In 1892, the Strashun library was opened to the public in Mattityahu’s former home. However, it soon became clear that the building was too small for its purpose, and, in 1899, the trustees of the library decided to erect a new building inside the synagogue courtyard. The document authorizing construction of the new building is displayed in this exhibition.
In 1901, the library moved to its new building in the shulhoyf. The original Strashun collection of rare books was housed in a special room, while the main reading room served the general public. The Vilna Community assumed responsibility for the property in perpetuity. The Strashun Library immediately became a popular place for study and leisure reading. The average daily number of readers was more than 200, mostly high school and seminary students, and there was always a line of readers outside the door. In the evenings the Library served as a Jewish cultural center.
The Library directors were Samuel Strashun and, later, Isaac Strashun. The chief librarian was Khaykl Lunski, who served in this post until the demise of the Library under the Nazis in 1941. The collection continued to grow, primarily through gifts and bequests, since there was little or no budget for new acquisitions. Beginning in 1928, the Library received from the Vilna University Library all Hebrew and Yiddish books published in Poland. In the 1930s, the number of books was reported to be 35,000.
The Nazis occupied Vilna on June 23, 1941 and, soon thereafter, ordered the Jews to move into a ghetto. Both the YIVO Library and the Strashun Library were taken over by the Einsatzstab Rosenberg, a Nazi task force assigned to systematic looting of Jewish cultural treasures. The Nazis forced the librarian and a few others to select and crate hundreds of thousands of Jewish books and archives. The wooden crates were shipped to Frankfurt-am-Main, where they were stored in a huge warehouse, waiting to be incorporated into the future "Library of the Extinct Race." In 1945, the American army discovered three million Jewish books in the Offenbach warehouse, among them 25,000 books from the Strashun Library collection and 15,000 books from the YIVO Library collection. These volumes were rescued from the ruins of Europe and brought back to YIVO in New York in 1947.
In the 1970s, the YIVO Library hired the well-known bibliographer, Rabbi Chaim Lieberman, to catalog the rabbinical portion of the Strashun collection, while the secular portion remained to be done. In early 1999 YIVO moved to its new home at the Center for Jewish history. Later that year it received a generous grant form the descendants of Mattityahu Strashun in the United States, that enabled the YIVO Library staff to computerize Lieberman's catalog cards, as well as catalog the books which were never cataloged before. We are very pleased to offer greater access to this important historical collection and to display some of its treasures for the first time.