Gustav Karpeles (1848 - 1909)

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Birthplace: Ivanovice, Ivanovice, Brno, South Moravia, Czech Republic
Death: Died in Nauheim, Darmstadt, Hesse, Germany
Managed by: Randy Schoenberg
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About Gustav Karpeles

Gustav Karpeles, the son of Elijah Karpeles, was born Nov. 11, 1848, at Eiwanowitz (Ivanovice na Hané), Moravia. A historian of literature and an editor, he had studied at the University of Breslau, where he also attended Jewish theological seminary. He embraced the profession of journalism, and was successively attached to the editorial staffs of "Auf der Höhe," the "Breslauer Nachrichten," the "Breslauer Zeitung," the "Deutsche Union," and Westermann's "Deutsche Monatshefte"; in 1870 he was also co-editor with S. Enoch of the "Jüdische Presse." In 1883 Karpeles settled in Berlin, where in 1890 he became editor of the "Allgemeine Zeitung des Judenthums."

Karpeles stimulated into active life the Jewish literary societies in Germany, but made himself most widely known through his writings on Heinrich Heine. In addition to several editions of Heine's works (1885, 1887, 1888, 1902) he has published the following monographs: "Heinrich Heine und das Judenthum" (Breslau, 1868); "Heinrich Heine, Biographische Skizzen" (Berlin, 1869); "Heinrich Heine und Seine Zeitgenossen" (ib. 1887); "Heinrich Heine und der Rabbi von Bacharach" (Vienna, 1895); "Heinrich Heine's Autobiographie" (ib. 1898); "Heinrich Heine: aus Seinem Leben und aus Seiner Zeit" (Leipsic, 1899). The following are among his general writings: "Ludwig Börne" (Leipsic, 1870); "Goethein Polen" (ib. 1890); "Allgemeine Gesch. der Weltliteratur" (ib. 1891); "Literarisches Wanderbuch" (Berlin, 1898). He also edited the works of Schiller (Leipsic, 1895), Lenau (ib. 1896), and Eichendorff (ib. 1896). His special contributions to Jewish literature include: "Die Frauen in der Jüdischen Literatur" (Berlin, 1870; 2d ed., ib. n. d.); "Gesch. der Jüdischen Literatur" (ib. 1886); "Die Zionsharfe" (ib. 1889); "Ein Blick in die Jüdische Literatur" (Prague, 1895); "Jewish Literature and Other Essays" (Philadelphia, 1895); "A Sketch of Jewish History" (ib. 1897).

Karpeles also entered the dramatic field, in which he wrote "Deutsches Leben" and "Deutsche Liebe," comedies (1873); "Im Foyer" (1876); and a dramatization of Grabbe's "Don Juan und Faust" (1877).

The work of Gustav Karpeles on Heinrich Heine is discussed in Berühmte israelitische Männer und Frauen in der Kulturgeschichte der Menschheit: Lebens- und Charakterbilder aus Vergangenheit und Gegenwart by Adolph Kohut.

GUSTAV KARPELES. In Gustav Karpeles, who died suddenly on July 21, 1909, at Nauheim, of heart disease, the household of Israel lost one of its best and truest sons, one of the ablest and most wholesouled promoters and defenders of its cause. Few were gifted to the extent that he was with fine mental acumen and deep insight into persons and things; few combined, as he did, with a wide range of knowledge and a high degree of general culture, great powers of the pen and the tongue that brought conviction home to the reader and hearer. Still fewer were those who were as indefatigable, as he was, in endeavoring to awaken interest and love for the history and literature of Judaism in the indifferent masses and to win at least the respect, if not the admiration and recognition, of the outside world for the faith, institutions and life of the Jew. If a reawakening of the Jewish spirit is felt all over Germany to-day and the enlightened German Jew manifests again a certain pride in Ms religions and intellectual life as a Jew, it is largely due to the labor and zeal of Gustav Karpeles, who traveled from one end of the land to the other to revive the dormant self-consciousness of the Jew and with his own ardent enthusiasm to rekindle the religious flame upon many an altar. The secret of his success lay in his unconquerable optimism born of implicit faith in man. He was in the best sense of the word an idealist He believed in the ideals of humanity for which Judaism ever stood, and all the agitations of the anti-Semitism, all the passion and hatred of the creeds could not swerve him from his path. There was a wholesome freshness of wit and humor in what he said, and he would pity those who in their self-sufficient conceit indulged in cynicism, or succumbed to a halfconcealed skepticism which falls like mildew upon the best intellectual efforts. He believed in progress, yet he never forgot what he owed to the past. His own views underwent a gradual transformation, and while at first decidedly conservative, he espoused towards the close of his life the cause of liberal Judaism with all the impassioned love of his soul.

Gustav Karpeles was born on November 11, 1848, in Eiwanowitz, a small Moravian village. His father, Elias Karpeles, known as a great Talmudic scholar, imparted to him not merely the elements of but also the love for the Rabbinical and Jewish literature which formed the ever-refreshing well-spring of his intellectual life. He studied in Vienna and Breslau with the view of becoming a rabbi, but the broad field of general literature appealed to him more. When only twenty years old he published his first work entitled "Heine und das Judenthum," Breslau, 1868. Renan relates that as he reached maturity he stood at the parting of the ways, hesitating whether to turn to the Acropolis of Athens or the temple at Jerusalem for the object of his life's study; he decided in favor of the latter, but regretted it thereafter. Karpeles also seems to have wavered between his Heinrich Heine and his Judaism, and he took up both successively with credit.

The general public knows Karpeles chiefly as the thorough student and meritorious editor of Heine's works. The more an ungrateful and narrow-minded mother-country allowed racial prejudice so to blind her as to disown one of her most brilliant and gifted sons, the more would Karpeles persist in espying new material and bringing out new interesting features in the life of his hero who, despite his baptism and his cynicism, was " at heart a Jew." Thus he wrote, besides the work mentioned above: "Heinrich Heine: Biographische Skizzen," Berlin, 1869; "Heinrich Heine und seine Zeitgenossen," Berlin, 1887; " Heinrich Heine und der Rabbi von Bacharach," Vienna, 1895; "Heinrich Heine's Autobiographic," Vienna, 1898, which casts altogether new light upon Heine's youth; "Heinrich Heine: Aus seinem Leben und aus seiner Zeit," Leipzig, 1899, a work in which the influence exerted by Heine's personality and writings upon many famous men, among whom especially Richard Wagner in his best known compositions, is shown. Besides several editions of Heine's works in 1885, 1887, 1888 and 1892, of those of Schiller (1895), Lenau (1896) and Eichendorf (1896), he also wrote books on Ludwig Boerne, 1870; " Goethe in Polen," 1890; and a " Universal History of Literature," in 1891.

But after all in this broadening out of his mind the deeper longing of his innermost soul found no satisfaction. He had even tried his rich powers of the pen on dramatic subjects, on comedies, illustrating German life and German lore. All these more or less successful literary efforts, however, made him feel, after all, that his Judaism was more to him than his Heine, and Jewish literature more than all the literary treasures of the wide world. And so he wrote in the year 1886 his "History of Jewish Literature," in two volumes, with the view, as he says in the preface, of assigning to Jewish literature its appropriate place in the world's letters. Indeed, while perusing this work, written in a beautiful and lucid style, one feels that here the heart dictated the words as well as the head; that the author, after having feasted his eyes on all the grand books of the East and the West and refined his taste by studying them all, points to the treasures of his own people as excelling them all in valor and inner worth. All his other works on Jewish life and literature, such as " Die Frauen in der juedischen Literatur," 1870; "Ein Blick in die juedische Literatur," 1895; "Jewish Literature and Other Essays," published by the Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1895; "A Sketch of Jewish History," idem, 1897; and "Jews and Judaism in the Nineteenth Century," idern, 1905, give evidence of the same genuine love and zeal for Judaism. The former "Literar-historiker" became, as he advanced in knowledge and experience, the most ardent and efficient preacher and teacher of Judaism, his congregation extending all over Germany and beyond.

When in 1890 he became the editor of the "Allgemeina Zeitung des Judentums " he fully realized his great opportunity as the spokesman of progressive Judaism, and availed himself of it with honor and success, as Prof. Martin Philippson, the son of Ludwig Philippson, the founder and life-long editor of the periodical, and other prominent leaders of Berlin Jewry testified at his grave. He was not as vigorous in protesting against wrong doing towards and maltreatment of the Jew, as was his predecessor, but he was ever watchful and solicitous of the honor and insistent on the rights of the Jew whenever the occasion prompted. Regarding the internal questions and disputes of Judaism he was outspokenly liberal, but always fair and just towards those with whom he differed. Only in the Zionistic movement, "the expression of despair," as he called it, he beheld great danger.

He looked to America as the land of the future for Jew and Judaism and often gave expression to this in his addresses before the B'nai Brith Lodges, as well as in his private correspondence. He followed with keen interest and fine powers of observation the destinies of American Israel, as the writer often had occasion to leam. The eulogy he delivered on Lea N. Levi, late president of the Order of B'nai Brith, was a masterpiece of oratory and of historical insight into American life. For a number of years he was a corresponding member of this Society, and greatly interested in its work. How closely he kept pace with the progress of scientific research in all matters pertaining to Biblical and Jewish literature, as well as Jewish and general history, ever anxious to improve his knowledge and enlarge his mental horizon, is shown in the second edition of his " History of Jewish Literature" and especially in the bibliographical notes thereto, as well as in the instructive literary review he wrote each year in the German Yearbook for Jewish History and Literature.

Above all his other meritorious work ranks the creation of Societies for Jewish History and Literature in all the larger towns of Germany and Austria, to which he devoted the best of his time and labor, and upon which he built his hopes for the future regeneration of Judaism. Two hundred and fifty such societies owe their existence chiefly to his powerful influence and pleading, and he succeeded in organizing them into one central body to render them the means of accomplishing still greater things. So he conceived the idea of founding a society for the promotion of Jewish science (" Gesellschaft zur FOrderung der Wissenschaft des Judentums"), whose object should be the creation of a "library of Jewish knowledge" along the lines of similar authoritative works published by other denominations with the view of enlightening the Jewish and non-Jewish public on all questions pertaining to Jew and Judaism and presenting therein the results of the best possible modern research in a popular form. For six years he was the presiding officer, the soul and inspiration of this Society for which he made all possible efforts to engage the best available workers in each field of study, and which, to judge from what has been achieved and planned, promises to become the source and center of a great renaissance of Judaism. Surely Gustav Karpeles, the author and worker for the Torah and for wisdom, has won a conspicuous place among Israel's immortal ones.

And yet the best in him was the man, the friend, the charming and soul-winning personality, ever ready to acknowledge the merits of others and encourage every noble endeavor. It was my good fortune to make his personal acquaintance shortly before he started on his fatal journey to Nauheim, and the glorious days I spent with him in conversation and intimate intercourse will be treasured in my memory as one of the great boons of my life.

K. Kohler.

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Gustav Karpeles's Timeline

1848
November 11, 1848
Ivanovice, Brno, South Moravia, Czech Republic
1909
July 21, 1909
Age 60
Nauheim, Darmstadt, Hesse, Germany
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