Scripta Selecta

Kirjoituksia Kansalliskirjaston kokoelmista

The Hebraica Collection: A treasure trove of Russian Jewish literature from the period of Finnish autonomy

Niko Porkka

The Hebraica Collection of the National Library of Finland provides insight into the destroyed culture of Eastern European Jews. Consisting of books received as legal deposits from the territory of the Russian Empire between 1828 and 1917, this versatile collection includes Hebrew- and Yiddish-language literature from almost all areas of culture.

Book cover: Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes books in Yiddish. In the middle, Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper.

Book cover: Tolstoy’s The Living Corpse; in Yiddish A lebediger meys
Tolstoy’s The Living Corpse; in Yiddish A lebediger meys.

The National Library’s rare, unique and internationally significant Hebraica Collection is testament to the rich Jewish literary culture and publication activity in the Russian Empire during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The 5,000-volume collection, printed in Hebrew script between 1828 and 1917 and obtained as legal deposits, consists of not only books, but also newspapers, magazines, almanacs, advertisements and sheet music. The versatile collection includes copies of the Bible, prayer books, religious literature, textbooks in various fields, fiction, dictionaries, reference works and periodicals. Most of the books were printed between 1870 and 1912. Hebraica is one of the National Library’s 12 special collections consisting of legal deposits from the period of Russian rule.

The majority of the works in the collection are written in Hebrew and Yiddish. The books usually contain bibliographic information in both Hebrew and Cyrillic script, in addition to which the latter is found, for example, in notes of approval by government censors and in translation equivalents provided in Hebrew primers and dictionaries. Spanning a century, the collection offers a great deal of interesting material for research and resources for examining developments in various domains. In the 19th century, the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment movement, remained influential, the basis for the Zionist movement was created, Hebrew- and Yiddish-language fiction emerged, and Hebrew developed as a language of secular and scholarly writing.

Natan Levin’s Hebrew primer
The cow says ‘moo’ in Natan Levin’s Hebrew primer ha-Tsa’ad ha-rišon (‘First step’). The Hebrew letter mem is at either the beginning or the end of syllables

The Hebraica Collection contains about 1,000 works of fiction, mostly written in Yiddish. Hundreds of small booklets printed on cheap paper and originally sold at newspaper stands comprise one of the collection’s most interesting and valuable treasures. These pulp booklets with their lurid and sensational headlines were the light, educational entertainment of their time that often told stories of passionate love, betrayal, theft or murder, always with happy endings. Because of their disposable nature, they are now rarities: most never reached the shelves of European libraries and their readership disappeared in pogroms and in Stalin’s and Hitler’s persecution campaigns.

Cataloguing of the Hebraica Collection began in the 1960s. As a result of efforts by Aino Hentinen, Tapani Harviainen and Hannu Juusola, about 4,000 volumes have been catalogued to date, the collection has been classified into 10 different themes, and author and title cards are available in the National Library’s Special Reading Room. Work on the collection recommenced in autumn 2022 with the aim of cataloguing the remaining works digitally in the National Library’s search service so that, together with the card index, the whole collection will finally be available to everyone. 

Hebrew text book
 Adam and Eve banished from Paradise. Gustave Doré’s drawing in Avraham Barukh Temkin’s Hebrew textbook Bet ha-sefer ha-šalem (‘The whole school’).


Cohen, Nathan (2012). Sherlock Holmes in the Pale of Settlement: Yiddish Crime Stories 1860–1914. Aptroot, M., E. Gal-Ed, R. Gruschka & S. Neuberg (Eds.). Leket: yidishe shtudyes haynt / Jiddistik heute / Yiddish Studies Today. Düsseldorf University Press, 253–278.

Derman, Ushi (2017). Schund Literature: The Yiddish Pulp Fiction. ANU: Museum of the Jewish People.… (accessed 4 Jan 2023).

Harviainen, Tapani (1978). Hebraica. Handbook of Oriental Collections in Finland: Manuscripts, xylographs, inscriptions, and Russian minority literature. Scandinavian Institute of Asian Studies Monograph Series, No. 31. London, Malmö: Curzon Press, 289–294.

Harviainen, Tapani (1991). The Hebraica collection of Helsinki University Library. Diana Rowland Smith & Peter Shmuel Salinger (Eds.), Hebrew Studies: Papers Presented at a Colloquium on Resources for Hebraica in Europe held at the School of Oriental and African Studies University of London 1113 September 1989/1113 Elul 5749. British Library Occasional Papers 13. London: The British Library, 58–61.

Harviainen, Tapani (2004). Delicate pearls in Hebrew script. Leena Pärssinen & Esko Rahikainen (Eds.), Printed in the Memory: Literary Treasures in the National Library of Finland. Helsinki: Otava, 94–97.

Hentinen, Aino (1962). Helsingin yliopiston kirjaston Hebraica-kokoelma: alustava tiedonanto. Bibliophilos 3, 57–61.

Juusola, Hannu (1998). Ainutlaatuinen Hebraica-kokoelma. Bibliophilos 3, 30–34.

Patterson, David (1976). Hebraica in Helsinki. Times Literary Supplement, 29 October 1976.

Shochat, A., J. R. Baskin & Y. Slutsky (2007). ‘Haskalah’ in Berenbaum, M. and F. Skolnik (Eds.), Encyclopaedia Judaica, 2nd ed., vol. 8, Detroit, MI: Macmillan Reference USA, 434–444.


Click here for the Finnish version of the text.