David Simonsen - a short biography

Author: Eva-Maria Jansson

In March, 1925, the Copenhagen physician Louis Frænkel planned a trip to the Middle East. His main purpose was to take part in the inauguration of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, but his itinerary also included Alexandria and Cairo. Before his departure, Mr. Frænkel approached Rabbi David Simonsen, inquiring about his acquaintances in the area. The next day, Frænkel received a letter from Simonsen. After the Rabbi mentioned one or two rabbis in Alexandria and Cairo (he had met one of them at the Marienbad spa in1922), Rabbi Simonsen turned his attention to the people that Frænkel might meet in Jerusalem:

In Jerusalem and its surroundings, my name is familiar to the two Chief Rabbis, Kuk and Jacob Meïer, further to:
The author Agnon, who is a very pleasant man, the secretary of Mekize Nidramim. Due to a fire, which destroyed his manuscripts, he has for the present moved from Homburg to Jerusalem.
About the Marain family and about Dr. Neumann, I spoke yesterday.
I know quite well old Dr. Maize and the Board of the Schaare Zedek Hospital.
The authors, Rabbi Assaf and Dr. Junowitsch.
As for the university, Dr. Magnes and nearly all the professors at the Institute of Jewish Studies.
Of course, also Dr. Chajes.
In the library, apart from Dr. Bergman, the young, erudite, and modest Dr. Baneth. (Letter from David Simonsen to Louis Frænkel, March 12, 1925)

One could call this list the “The Jerusalem Who’s Who of 1925”. Reviewing them in order, we find that “the two Chief Rabbis, Kuk and Jacob Meïer” are better known as Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935, one of the prominent figures of religious Zionism) and Jacob Meir (1856-1939); in 1921, they were the first to be appointed as Chief Rabbis, respectively, of the Ashkenazi and of the Sephardic communities, in the British mandate of Palestine. “Bialik” refers, of course, to Chaijm Nachman Bialik (1873-1934), author and editor, who is to this day considered as the National Poet of the State of Israel. “The author Agnon” (Shmuel Yosef Agnon, 1888-1970) was Nobel Prize Laureate in Literature in 1966. The “Mekize Nirdamim” Society (“rousers of those who slumber”) was founded in Lyck in 1864 and reestablished in Berlin in 1885; after moving to Jerusalem in 1934, its purpose continued to be to publish scientific editions of classical medieval Hebrew texts, and David Simonsen was heartily committed to its activities. “The Marain family”, who in their letters apparently refer to themselves as “Marein”, is represented by five members in David Simonsen’s correspondence, but the identity of “Dr. Neumann” has not yet been ascertained. “The Schaare Zedek Hospital”, apparently with “old Dr. Mazie” on its staff, was at that time - and still is - one of the larger hospitals in Jerusalem (<www.szmc.org.il>), and the David Simonsen Archives include letters from its board, acknowledging donations of varying amounts. “The authors. Rabbis Assaf and Dr. Junowitsch” are probably Simcha Assaf (1889-1953), a scholar and editor of Rabbinical literature, particularly interested in the Geonic period (approx. 600-1000 AD), and Juda Junowitsch (1878-1948), whose main field was philosophy. “Dr. Magnes” is Judah Magnes (1877-1948), who became the first Vice Chancellor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; Louis Frænkel attended the inauguration and later described it in a postcard to Simonsen. “The Institute of Jewish Studies” was one the first three departments to be established at the university (the other two being microbiology and chemistry). Among its staff was Gershom Scholem (1897-1982), the scholar who virtually single-handedly turned the Jewish mystical tradition (kabbalah) into an accepted area of research. “Dr. Chajes” is probably Zvi (Hirsh) Perez Chajes (1876-1927), another well-known name in Jewish Studies. “The library” is the Jewish National and University Library; it was established in 1892 as a repository of Jewish literature and booklore in its broadest sense, and had from 1920, some years before the university was founded, acquired the status of a university library. “Dr. Bergmann”, or Hugo Bergmann (1883-1975), Professor of Philosophy, was its first director, and “the young, erudite and modest Dr. Baneth” is apparently the future professor of Arabic language and literature, David Hartwig Baneth (1893-1973). This list is only a small sample of David Simonsen’s contacts; in fact, less than one-half of one percent of the approximately 4.700 names that have been identified, thus far, in his correspondence.

The life and work of David Simonsen have recently been described in some detail, and only a short biographical overview will be given here. David Simonsen (1853-1932) was born in Copenhagen as the son of the exchange-broker Jacob Simonsen (1821-1880) and his wife Rose (b. Hahn, 1826-1869). After he studied Oriental languages at the University of Copenhagen, he began his rabbinical education at the Jewish Theological Seminary (Jüdisch-Theologisches Seminar) in Breslau. This seminar had been established in 1854 and was one of the centers of the movement advocating the scientific study of Jewish history, literature and culture, as well as of the classical sources of Judaism (“ Wissenschaft des Judentums”) - in analogy to studies of other cultures and religions. After his graduation in 1879, Simonsen chose to return to Denmark, where he came to hold a position of Rabbi in the Jewish Congregation. In the same year, he married Cora (b. Salomon, 1856-1938); the marriage was childless. For ten years (1892-1902), David Simonsen also held the office of Chief Rabbi, without interrupting his scholarly work and other interests. In 1903 he was awarded the title of professor by the University of Copenhagen. 

Through his correspondence with scholars in a variety of disciplines, in particular with teachers and former students of the Breslau seminar, David Simonsen’s archives have come to reflect the history of several sciences over a full half century. As can be seen from the list above, many of the persons whom he recommends are directly or indirectly connected with the new university and its library. The list of correspondents, as it stands today, contains the names of leading scientists within Oriental and Jewish Studies, but also from other areas. David Simonsen’s private library of approximately 45.000 volumes, which was acquired by The Royal Library, also testifies to his wideranging scholarly interests. His position within the scientific community can be appreciated in the Festschrift with which the Jewish Congregation honoured him on his 70th birthday. Like the brief note to Louis Frænkel quoted above, the table of contents of the David Simonsen Festschrift lists almost all the leading scholars of Oriental and Jewish Studies in Europe and the United States. Of particular interest is the bibliography of David Simonsen’s own works, compiled by the librarian of the Jewish Congregation, Josef Fischer. He lists 114 titles, ranging from 1875 to 1922, but as he strongly emphasizes, it is incomplete:

The bibliography presented here cannot claim to be complete. No attempt has been made to include Professor Simonsen’s many articles and contributions in newspapers, often polemical in nature. Within the short time available to me, this task would have been impossible. Likewise, the bibliography has not been checked by the one person most capable of it, since - for once - it was not possible to seek help from him.

Another field of interest for David Simonsen, and one in which he was active for many years, was relief work, both in Denmark and abroad. His correspondence, and the archives in general, contain many references to committees, boards and societies, whose aim was to collect funds and to distribute them to those who suffered hardships. Simonsen apparently acted as “the spider in the web”, maintaining all the important contacts in Denmark and abroad, between organizations and individuals. During the war 1914-1918, he was able to "connect" relatives on different sides of the front, as is also evident from the letter and telegram registers from these years. Among the organizations are also found elements of the Zionist movement, including those that would later play a decisive role in the establishment of the State of Israel. David Simonsen was also concerned about the immigrants to the British mandate area of Palestine, and several of his letters bear witness to help being sent to their institutions. But also “ordinary” Danes wrote to him asking for help. Judging from the preserved letters, few did so in vain.

The history of the Danish Jewish community can be followed through those parts of the David Simonsen Archives that stem from the Jewish congregations in Copenhagen and in other Danish towns. In addition, Danish organizations without any Jewish connection are represented in the archives, together with several leading personalities within the fields of literature, culture and science.

If we turn again to the letter to Louis Frænkel, no secret should be made of the fact that David Simonsen asked for some small services in return for his advice: “Some fine postcards (old and new); issues of different periodicals published in Palestine, the name of a bookseller (for recent materials)”. Further reserach in his archives and library will no doubt reveal how these modest wishes were fulfilled.