Founded in the 19th century by a wealthy Russian Jewish family with close ties to the tsars, the Günzburg collection is one of the world’s most impressive troves of Judaica. The Russian State Library in Moscow has just concluded an agreement with the National Library of Israel to digitize it and make it available to the public, as Ofer Aderet writes:
The Günzburg collection is a rich and unique collection of books and manuscripts that contains over 14,000 items, including thousands of rare Hebrew books as well as manuscripts in Hebrew and many other languages. It includes medieval works in science, philosophy, and Jewish studies, midrashim, copies of the writings of Moses Maimonides and the [13th-century Catalan talmudist and communal leader] Shlomo ibn Aderet, biblical commentaries, books of Hebrew grammar and halakhah, medieval poetry, and kabbalistic and medical texts. . . .
In 1917 a contract between the B’nai B’rith Library [the precursor to the National Library] and the Russian authorities was signed for the purchase of the collection. Half a million gold rubles were transferred to the Russians (about $15 million according to today’s gold value) through donations by Russian Zionists.
The books had already been placed in cartons in preparation for their dispatch to Palestine, but delivery was delayed due to World War I. With the outbreak of the Bolshevik Revolution the books were seized, nationalized, and transferred to the Lenin State Library in Moscow. Albert Einstein, Chaim Weizmann, and later Benjamin Netanyahu tried in vain to persuade the Russians to return the collection. . . .
The digitization project was funded by the Peri Foundation, headed by Ziyavudin Magomedov, a Russian Muslim billionaire businessman from Dagestan, who is active in cultural preservation.