Several years ago, Theodor Dunkelgrün had his first phone conversation with an elderly woman with whom he had been corresponding in the course of his scholarly pursuits. “Her Dutch,” Dunkelgrün recalls, “sounded as if it had been frozen in time, . . . a prewar Jewish Dutch vernacular in which I recognized the language of the elders of the decimated community into which I was born.” He tells her story:
Els Salomon-Prins Bendheim, who died this past January in her 100th year, happened upon a spectacular library, a collection of more than 6,000 manuscripts, printed editions, and ephemera, when she first visited Jerusalem in 1949 at the age of twenty-six. The library was the life’s work of the Dutch scholar Eliezer Liepman Philip Prins (Arnhem, 1835–Frankfurt, 1915). Els Salomon-Prins Bendheim was his granddaughter.
With time, she discovered, the library had become an archive of sorts. The margins teemed with manuscript annotations and tucked between the pages she found letters from some of the most prominent rabbis and scholars of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The encounter with his books lit a double flame of love and learning within her, and she devoted the rest of her life to safeguarding her grandfather’s memory by editing his correspondence and his marginalia, in Hebrew and in Dutch.
[S]he gave me copies of the three books (two in Hebrew, one in Dutch) that she had devoted to her grandfather. . . . Together, those books painted a portrait of a remarkable figure—a learned independent scholar, book collector, contributor to Jewish scholarly journals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries as well as to the Dutch Jewish press. From his home in Arnhem, he had set out to connect with the leading Jewish figures of his time. . . . It was through his membership of this modern republic of rabbinic letters that Prins had made his greatest contributions to Jewish scholarship, as a connector and go-between with unsurpassed knowledge about the worlds of Jewish scholarship and Jewish books.