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Bernstein, Ignatz

(1836–1909), folklorist, bibliophile, philanthropist, and compiler of the largest published collection of Yiddish proverbs. Born into a well-to-do maskilic family in Vinnytsa, Podolia (Ukraine), Ignatz Bernstein moved with his parents to Warsaw in 1856. During a visit to Berlin in 1859, he came across a small German book of Jewish proverbs, which inspired his lifelong preoccupation with collecting Yiddish proverbs and assembling a paroemiological library. The fruit of his labor was the still unsurpassed 1908 volume, Yidishe shprikhverter un rednsartn (Yiddish Proverbs and Proverbial Expressions), containing 3,993 entries, and a personal collection of more than 6,000 titles dealing with proverbs in more than 100 languages.

Bernstein was generous in sharing his scholarship and his wealth. He opened his library to the young Samuel Adalberg, who was preparing the first modern collection of Polish proverbs (1889–1894). Bernstein later donated his own books and manuscripts to the Polish Academy of Sciences; today these materials are housed in the Jagiellonian Library in Kraków. Before his proverb collection was published, Bernstein made earlier manuscript versions available to Karl Friedrich Wilhelm Wander, who was compiling a massive lexicon of German proverbs (1867–1880), and to Mordkhe Spektor, who published a partial collection in the first two issues of his Hoyzfraynd (Family Friend; 1888–1889).

Bernstein used part of his fortune from the sugar business for his scholarly pursuits, but he also gave generously to numerous Jewish and Polish institutions. He was a founder and the main supporter of the library of the Great Warsaw Synagogue, one of the largest Jewish libraries in Europe, and he was the largest donor to that city’s Jewish hospital. He helped to finance study in Germany for future Polish rabbis and provided anonymous support for other Jewish students. In addition, he served as treasurer of Mazkeret Mosheh (the Moses Montefiore Testimonial Fund), which aided Jewish settlement in Palestine, and helped to found the first ethnographic museum in Poland—the Museum of Industry and Agriculture in Warsaw—for which he purchased a large African collection.

Bernstein’s proverb collection of 1908 presents material arranged alphabetically according to key words in Yiddish letters; it contains a Latin-alphabet transcription (based on the dialect of Podolia-Volhynia) on facing pages. Many proverbs are accompanied by comments and explanations in Yiddish and German, and there is a glossary in German to explain non-Germanic Yiddish words and expressions. The volume also includes a Yiddish word index, a short introduction in Yiddish, and a longer one in German.

A popular edition, containing just the Yiddish text, was also published in 1908 and has been reprinted several times. The scholarly version was reprinted most recently in 1969 by Olms in Hildesheim, Germany, with an introduction by Hans Peter Althaus. This edition also includes a collection of 227 erotic and “coarse” proverbs that Bernstein published separately in 1908 as a manuscript. In 1900, Bernstein published a beautifully illustrated two-volume catalog of his paroemiological library, then numbering 4,761 items. That catalog was reprinted in 2003 by Olms, with an introduction by Wolfgang Mieder.

Suggested Reading

Ignatz Bernstein, Jüdische Sprichwörter und Redensarten, ed. Hans Peter Althaus (Hildesheim, 1969); Ignatz Bernstein, Catalogue des livres parémiologiques composant la bibliothèque de Ignace Bernstein, ed. Wolfgang Mieder (Hildesheim, 2003).