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Jews and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

© Michael Jolles (2004)

In September 2004, a substantial contribution to Anglo-Jewish biographical compilation was made by the publication of the new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (“Oxford DNB”), which has fully replaced the original DNB. The Oxford DNB contains 54,922 biographies, adding some 16,315 to the original DNB’s 38,607 entries (up to 1996), all of which latter have been revised. Fortunately every single person who had appeared in the original DNB has been retained, a boon to researchers who are spared the torment too often experienced whilst using revised editions of other reference works, such as the [New] Grove Dictionary of Music, where some entries have been summarily withdrawn. For example, the composer Simon Waley (1827-1875), who had six column inches in the 1910 Grove, was suddenly “disinvented” by Grove between the 1975 and 1980 versions; by contrast an article on Waley has been retained by the new Oxford DNB, who have demonstrated the more responsible policy to their readership.

What is the Jewish content? The on-line version offers a search of ‘religious affiliation/faith’, as opposed to ethnicity. Under Judaism, there are 804 entries. This contrasts with over 2000 people in Hyamson’s ‘Plan for a Dictionary of Anglo-Jewish Biography’ (1949), and with a greater number in Jolles’s ‘A Directory of Distinguished British Jews’ (2002). The ascription of Judaism as the faith for the 804 is inherently problematic, and so it is futile to take issue with the selection of those included as Jews, even though quite a number converted, or eventually lost their ancestral faith. I am not clear, incidentally, whether there is documentary evidence for Elias Parish-Alvars being of the Jewish faith or ancestry, and I am not surprised to note that “Emden-ascribed Jews”, Manuel Garcia, and Sir Michael Costa have not been categorised as Jews. The 804 Jewish entries compares with 22 adherents to Buddhism, 80 to Hinduism, 94 to Islam and eight to Sikhism. There are 899 Quakers.

One should be made aware that some often considered by the public as Jews are not categorised as Jews, for faith and race are not synonymous, however identified the subject is with feeling Jewish. Amongst many Jews who are not included in the 804 entries mentioned above as of the Jewish faith are: architect Berthold Lubetkin, whose parents perished in Auschwitz; Sigmund Freud, who married the granddaughter of Haham Isaac Bernays; pianist Mark Hambourg, who played in the Hammersmith Synagogue vestry hall in 1891; pianist Myra Hess who in her youth, accompanied by her sister, gave recitals in a Jewish Convalescence Home; physicist Professor Michael Polanyi FRS, who resigned from his post at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin in 1933 in protest against anti-Jewish legislation; and Sir Gerald Nabarro, MP. Each of these was very well aware of their Jewish identity or ancestry.

Are there any patterns of systematic omission of persons or any reticence about certain subjects? This would take more than a glance to establish, but provincial nineteenth century mayors such as Sir Israel Hart and Sir Charles Semon are excluded whilst Sir Jacob Behrens is in. A larger share of women now appears to have been included. Leo Baeck has no entry. What about Anglo-Jewish historians? Israel Abrahams, Albert Hyamson and V. D. Lipman are excluded, but so are numerous other deserving individuals, Jews and non-Jews alike.
Has Anglo-Jewish biographical research been effectively completed? Certainly not, and nowhere near! We need more detailed research with less reliance on re-upholstered obituaries, which crystallise both fact and fiction. Indeed, whilst the JHSE Transactions may constitute a thesaurus of biographical information, the twentieth century has hardly been addressed; a glance at its indexes (first 39 volumes) discloses no entry on Haffkine, and only one reference, for that matter, to the existence of Auschwitz (and that is in a book review). And there is, in no publication that I have managed to detect, a biography of the first Lord Rothschild (1840-1915) consisting of more than a dozen or so pages in length.
What is the quality of the articles? Most of the articles I have read are excellent. They are authoritative, readable, and informative. Many contributors have been absolutely uncompromisingly dedicated to the perfection of their article or articles, to the benefit of the world readership, most of whom will never have an inkling of what enormous pains have been taken by the contributors and editors. Is this quality maintained throughout? I can only state my own initial observations, based on my knowledge of the subjects, and my answer is ‘no’. Two instances may be adduced to demonstrate my various concerns.
Firstly, inspect the much-neglected Nathaniel Wallich FRS (1785-1854), who was the eminent director of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Calcutta. He was, inter alia, one of the earliest pioneers researching Assam tea shrubs (c1840), from which the ensuing trade of this much-appreciated commodity derived. A single sentence in his entry in the Oxford DNB on his involvement with Assam Tea includes: ‘he made an extensive exploration of Assam with reference to the discovery of the wild tea shrub’, exactly as recorded in the original DNB a century ago. That is correct, but it is an understatement, so readers are deprived of the details of his real importance, the details of his activities, and of any bibliographical reference to it. Antrobus [1] stated that Wallich “had the most far-reaching influence in the discovery of the tea plant in India and its development subsequently for the first few years”. A paragraph on this topic would have been in order.
Wallich’s article demonstrates another important shortcoming, applicable to many other articles. This is the paucity of family history. Close relatives (apart from parents) are not mentioned frequently enough. Family history and bereavement history, to my mind, constitute an important ingredient in any person’s biographical epitome. The Wallich article simply mentions his father and mother. It took very little resourcefulness for me to establish from the Danish DNB [2] where he has an entry, that he had a brother, Arnold, a noted theatre artist. In that Danish volume, which interestingly contains genograms for a few of the entries, I could detect, without knowing a word of Danish, that the Wallich family had connections with the Kalisch and Wessely families (many Wesselys were not Jews). Reference to Wininger informed me that Wallich had another brother, Immanuel, a St Petersburg physician. More extensive research revealed that apart from his (mentioned) oceanographer son, Charles, Nathaniel Wallich had another son, Dr N.D.S.Wallich, who qualified at St. Bart’s in 1847, and who died fighting at Bagshai in 1863. The Wallich entry also fails to mention that he came from a Jewish family. His father’s name is incorrectly recorded: ‘Kobmand’ is not his father’s first name, but the Danish for ‘merchant’, presumably cognate with Kaufman/Chapman. This is an article that needs early revision.
Entries in the Oxford DNB are unfortunately inconsistent with regard to the inclusion of family members. One could contrast, for instance, the entry on athlete Harold M. Abrahams with Sir Matthew Nathan’s. The Abrahrams article mentions his three brothers whereas the Nathan article regrettably omits a single name or fact about his brothers (or half-brothers), all of whom were knighted for services in the fields in which they were eminent (Sirs: Robert, Nathaniel and Frederick). This is, however, a minor omission compared with an entry in the Belgian DNB on the geologist Professor Lucien Cahen (1912-1982) MBE, which does not even mention his parents’ names, let alone his religion. It is not the Oxford DNB’s remit to record those who have fell in military service, or minor family members, but it does behove the researcher to bear in mind the considerable extent of omission of significant family history details.
Let us now inspect the second entry, that of the famous Baron Maurice de Hirsch (1833-1896), who lived only briefly in England. Hirsch is a good example of someone who has been overlooked as the subject of a full biography, a fact claimed by historian Kurt Grunwald as surprising, for Hirsch was one of the most reputed Jews in Europe during his lifetime. The excellent article (1963) by S. Adler-Rudel on Hirsch as a philanthropist is indeed cited, although incorrectly [volume VIII (1963), not as stated]. Grunwald himself wrote an important 139-page book (1966) on Hirsch, which is not mentioned in the list of sources.
The reader may well feel justifiably vexed if the ‘Sources’ are simply a short list of ‘source references’ used in the preparation of the article, especially if more comprehensive potential sources, useful for further reading have been ignored. May I mention, in a similar vein, that in the entry (not written by me) on Nathaniel Isaacs, the omission of the citation of my book ‘Samuel Isaac, Saul Isaac and Nathaniel Isaacs’, (1998) will render readers (e.g. in South Africa) completely ignorant of the extent (70 page section) and content of the biographical research on this individual and his immediate family conducted by me in England? Likewise the entry on Sir George Jessel omits a reference to Israel Finestein’s very exacting research on him (published 1958). If the central task of the Oxford DNB is to summarise and clarify the latest state of knowledge, then it has not been universally achieved.
In the neighbouring article, that of Hirsch’s wife, Clara, the identities of their ‘adopted’ children, an obscure set of events in any case, are confused. Raymond did not become a MP, and Maurice did not die in 1912. An inspection of the Belgian DNB entry on Streatham-born Georges Montefiore Levi (1832-1906), will disclose a reference (not necessarily any less cryptic, however) to the Hirsch ‘children’ and the Bischoffsheim family. This entry extends to 21 columns, and, staggeringly, in contrast to the Oxford DNB, has a full column devoted to source references. This demonstrates the need for caution against imagining that biographies of prominent subjects need no verification, and may somehow correct themselves, - for they do not!
A much-underused resource, that of other national DNBs, needs highlighting. There are a number of Jews (many of whom were British natives or who had British connections) in various European DNBs, as well as in the anglophone Australian, Canadian and New Zealand DNBs. Marcus Arkin has, to his credit, set out in his ‘South African Jewry’ (1984; p.186) a list of Jews who have entries in the South African DNB. I must say that the Oxford DNB is, all told, vastly superior to all of these counterparts, although their subjects do, just occasionally, have longer articles than those in the Oxford DNB.
A particularly valuable feature in the Oxford’s selection of subjects is the inclusion of non-indigenes and transmigrants. Entries for Ezekiel Hart (Canada), who possibly never set foot in England, Rabbi Kook (stayed a few years only) and Freud whose last year was spent in London are included. This set of entries alerts one to the need for the urgent consideration of a particular research desideratum. This could be styled the ‘geographical jurisdiction of biographical compilation’. The British Empire, just a century ago, was vast. One may thus ask which individuals or institutions are prepared to take it upon themselves to research, formally or informally, the biographies of those who constituted the Jewries of numerous ex-imperial entities. Where are the collective biographies of the Jewries of, say, Gambia (1664), Honduras (1783), Sierra Leone (1787), Gibraltar, Ceylon (1796), Mauritius (1810), Falklands (1833, - if any), Andaman Islands, [British] New Guinea (1884), Zanzibar (1888), Brunei (1888), Burma, and a host of Pacific, Atlantic and Caribbean islands? It is immaterial how transient the rule was. Let me state that such collective biographies are not, as far as I can see, prominently placed (assuming they may in any event exist) on the bookshelves in the last few Jewish specialist libraries I have visited. This needs prompt attention. Will London, once the hub of the Empire, seize this initiative? I proclaim the need for this ‘imperial’ compilation, as well as for a structure required for its investigation.
The Oxford DNB is accessible both on-line and in print (60 majestic volumes). The on-line version enables one to search by choosing, for example, ‘person’, ‘text’, ‘sources’, ‘contributor’ a name, word or phrase, anywhere in the 62 million words. So search for, say, ‘Bakstanksy’, ‘Faudel’, ‘Hermann Landau’ and you will find these names are absent altogether, whereas ‘Zionism’ and ‘Zionist’ yield 65 and 113 mentions respectively. Search for ‘Balfour Declaration’, and this may lead you to Lucien Wolf, the first president of the JHSE, where we learn that Wolf was due to succeed Nansen as president of the advisory committee of the League of Nations high commission for refugees, a committee of which he had been a co-founder. Curiously, the article on Lionel Walter Rothschild (once a JHSE member, incidentally), omits any reference to his having been the addressee of the Balfour Declaration, a rather important moment in his life. Search in the text for ‘Moss Bros’, and it will not disclose its founder, Harry Neville Moss, for the text of his entry does not include that household name.
The Oxford DNB is a reflection of Britain’s national history, and articles on Jews should not be introspective or self-indulgent with regard to a subject’s own standing in the Jewish community. It is a strength indeed that many Jewish contributors have written on non-Jews, and vice-versa. It is because of this cross fertilisation of specialisations amongst the authorships, that a number of Jewish subjects heretofore mainly known only to ‘non-Jewish History specialists’ have now come to light. The spy Sidney George Reilly (pseudonym) was a descendant of the Vilna Gaon. There was also J. S. Weiner who exposed the Piltdown forgery, and the composer Charles Williams (Isaac Cozerbreit), who wrote ‘Devil’s Galop’ in 1944. I had no idea that Margaret Chubb, the founder of the Margaret Pyke family planning clinics, married G. N. Pyke, the son of the Chatham born Jew, Lionel Pyke, QC. Sara Pyke House, by the way, is named after the daughter of another Chatham resident, Simon Lazarus Magnus (1801-1875). So, plenty of fascinating and informative serendipity awaits the user of the Oxford DNB.
For my part, I was not contacted by a research editor, but I contacted the research director on my own initiative, and prepared my article (on Nathaniel Charles Rothschild) which was accepted. May this embolden others to contact the DNB with more material! Why not join Isaiah Berlin who wrote on J. P. Plamenatz, or the Nobel laureate, Bernard Katz, who wrote on A. V. Hill? With regard to the JHSE, credit should be given to E. Samuel who has contributed 20 articles on Jews born before 1800, and to S. Kadish has written 21 articles on Jews born after 1800, six of whom were rabbis. Of those “JHSE” authors quoted as a Source, I have noted, subject to oversights naturally, that C. Roth was the most quoted (58 times), followed by G. Alderman (DNB research editor) (29), P. H. Emden (26), D. S. Katz (24), A. Hyamson (22), Lucien Wolf (21), W. D. Rubinstein (19), E. Samuel (19), V. D. Lipman (14) and T. Endelman (11). The 163 year old Jewish Chronicle is mentioned only 120 times as a source, whilst Michael Adler’s mammoth 1000-page British Jewry Book of Honour is not mentioned at all.
Of those Jews whose articles are searchable by selecting any one of the seven denominations of Judaism provided, a total of 150 entries will be found (out of 804). Descriptions of these 150 reveal that 26 are rabbis (hahamim, theologians, etc). Using this particular search routine, the only Hasidic Lubavitch rabbi is M. A. Chaikin, and the only Liberal rabbi is Israel Mattuck. There are thirteen orthodox rabbis, with a further five described as orthodox United Synagogue rabbis (four chief rabbis, and Rev S. Singer). The two reform rabbis are Rabbi Gryn and Prof D. W. Marks. Of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation, there are four: J. Abendana, B. Artom, Moses Gaster and Raphael Meldola. (The seventh denomination is Karaite to which no rabbi is attributed.) There is no mention of David Nieto in the above search, but he does appear if a different search method is employed, that is by entering [Judaism]+[[Field of interest:] religion]. This yields 82 names, most of which are of non-rabbis, such as biblical scholars; it only adds five more rabbis, totalling 31. Adopting a pragmatic and inductive approach to searches may yield further dividends.
What about the ethos of accuracy and the ethics of correction? Take the article on Sir Hermann Gollancz (1852-1930) which concludes with a suggestion that the subject’s posthumous reputation may have been dealt a disservice by his publishing ‘Personalia’ as well as a separate 36-page account of his own considerable and generous contribution to University College London and in particular to the Mocatta Library (part of the Jewish Studies Library). What had happened was that in 1929 a quasi-official history of the college was published, but failed to refer, except for one nominal mention, to Gollancz, who had had an association with the college for several decades. Gollancz reacted by privately publishing (1930) a record of his contribution to the college, as well as that of others who had been disregarded (e.g. S. Schechter, Prof. D. W. Marks). Gollancz’s justification incorporated the dictum of a Jewish sage: “Where there is no man” (to do the right thing and to defend a cause), “be thou the man”. Comparable dilemmas will have confronted many biographers. Should one either make the printed record more accurate, representative and complete, as Gollancz did, at his own expense, or should one fear the charge of immodesty, thereby distorting or rendering less accessible, permanently perhaps, one’s own record, and incidentally those of the achievements of several others? In my opinion, Gollancz was not only right, but nobly so, and the pains he took in preparing the rectification should have been praised by the biographer. A full and accurate record is, after all, the nucleus of a proficient biography.
Authors are all too aware of the prevalence of errors, and the ease of creating them, large and small. Surely an epistolary culture that facilitates correction leading to the publication of a more complete record, without implying personal criticism, must be a welcome development. After all, some may consider that there are, personal inhibitions aside, far too many external impediments (including the epidemic degrading of paper records to microfilm) to the accurate and comprehensive recording of a subject’s life and works. For instance, in the last consecutive 51 obituary articles in the Jewish Chronicle (up to 29.10.2004, incl.), 46 failed to mention the subject’s mother’s maiden surname. Considering the stress laid on the authenticity of the faith of a Jew’s mother, these omissions are not only surprising, but are, from a biographer’s point of view, a regrettable fault, which will inevitably daunt and detain the future researcher. Editors should always consider the collective future readership.
Between one and two per cent of the Oxford DNB entries pertain to Jews. As I have now had the opportunity to read only the tiniest proportion of them, my comments reflect my initial personal impressions and observations. Readers can forward comments, corrections, additional material, and suggestions for future entries to the editors by post or email. Corrections of errors and omissions will be incorporated in the on-line version, which is due to be updated regularly; it is hoped that readers will be conscientious enough to pass comments on.
The Oxford DNB has presented a most welcome, valuable, wide-ranging and authoritative contribution to Anglo-Jewish biography. Readers will find themselves totally absorbed in and enchanted with the Dictionary’s entries. The Oxford DNB is clearly one of the publishing masterpieces of our time. Congratulations and thank you, Oxford DNB.

[1] Antrobus, H. A., ‘A history of the Assam Company 1839-1953’, (1957), p.396.
[2] In this article, the often-lengthy titles of the dictionaries of non-British national biographies have been conventionalised to ‘Danish DNB’, etc.

First published in the JHSE Newletter, December, 2004. Republished with thanks to the JHSE.

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