Born in a rural Hungarian village in 1934, Menahem Schmelzer survived the Holocaust in a forced-labor camp. Continuing his Jewish education after the war, he was later arrested by the Hungarian Communist government for his Zionist activities, and left the country shortly after his release. He served from 1964 until 1987 as the chief librarian of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, presiding over its vast collection of rare books and manuscripts. In his obituary for Schmelzer, who died earlier this month, Joseph Berger writes:
Professor Schmelzer looked after all these documents with striking tenderness. In 1984, he showed a Newsday reporter what he called, with tart humor, an “ugly manuscript—a battered volume of parchment pages that contained biographies of talmudic rabbis but that had no particular aesthetic appeal. It was written in about the year 1200, but what endeared Professor Schmelzer to it was its 20th-century history: it had been rescued from the destruction of Kristallnacht, the Nazi pogrom in Germany and Austria in November 1938 that burned down or vandalized 267 synagogues and 7,000 Jewish-owned stores and killed more than 90 Jews.
“This manuscript is a survivor, a real survivor,” he said. “It survived from 1200 to 1938, and in 1938 it survived the Kristallnacht. It’s a symbol of continuity, of how it survived the centuries and the tragedies.”
In his time as chief librarian, Professor Schmelzer, who spoke four languages fluently, taught seminary students, first as an assistant professor of medieval Hebrew literature and Jewish bibliography and then, after 1980, as a full professor. His particular expertise was in the liturgical Hebrew poetry known as piyyutim; when he received his doctorate at the seminary, his dissertation was about the work of an 11th-century Spanish rabbi famous for such poems.
Scholars from around the world consulted with Professor Schmelzer, often about arcane factual details, because of his familiarity with so many books and his near-photographic memory.