Salo Wittmayer Baron

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Salo Wittmayer Baron

Salo Wittmayer Baron (1895-1989), an Austrian-born American scholar and educator, was the foremost Jewish historian of the 20th century.

Salo Baron was born in Tarnow, Austria (now Poland), on May 26, 1895. From 1917 to 1923 he earned doctorates in philosophy, political science, and jurisprudence from the University of Vienna and a rabbinical degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary in Vienna. From 1919 to 1926 he lectured at the Juedisches Paedagogium (Jewish Teachers College) in Vienna.

Academic Appointments in the United States

In 1926 Baron traveled to the United States, where he was appointed professor of history and librarian at the Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City. In 1930 he became the first professor of Jewish history, literature, and institutions on the Miller Foundation at Columbia University, where he served with distinction until retiring in 1963. He was also the first director of Columbia's Center of Israel and Jewish Studies, established in 1950. After 1954 he was visiting professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. In 1934 he had married Jeanette Meisel.

Baron was an active participant in communal and cultural activities as a member of a UNESCO Commission and of the U.S. Office of Education's Citizens Federal Commission on Education. As founder and president of the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Baron labored to restore libraries and reclaim Jewish cultural artifacts following World War II. He served as president of the American Academy for Jewish Research, the America Jewish Historical Society, and the Conference on Jewish Social Studies. He was a leading prosecution witness in the Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in 1961, providing testimony that established the historical context underlying Nazi activities.

Major Works

The prolific author of hundreds of books, articles, and reviews on topics of Jewish history, Baron is best known for his masterwork A Social and Religious History of the Jews. Originally published in three volumes in 1937, 18 volumes of a second greatly expanded and revised edition were issued between 1952 and 1983. Comprising a universal history of the Jewish people from ancient to modern times, taking social, religious, intellectual, economic, and political factors into account, as well as the interaction of Jewish with non-Jewish history, the work surpasses in scope and magnitude all previous attempts at a history of the Jewish race.

In addition to the mammoth A Social and Religious History of the Jews, the 19th volume of which Baron worked on well into his 90s, his works include The Jewish Community: Its History and Structure to the American Revolution (3 vols., 1942), Modern Nationalism and Religion (1947), History and Jewish Historians (1964), Ancient and Medieval Jewish History: Essays (1972), and The Contemporary Relevance of History: A Study in Approaches and Methods (1986). He also edited a number of works, including Judaism, Postbiblical and Talmudic Periods (1954) and the two-volume Jubilee Volume: The American Academy for Jewish Research, a 1980 collaboration with Isaac Barzilay. From 1939 to 1989 Baron was a contributing editor of the quarterly Jewish Social Studies.

Legacy of Scholarship

As professor of Jewish history at Columbia University, Baron trained a generation of Jewish scholars who later occupied chairs in Jewish studies at leading universities throughout the world. His research as well as his concern for training others contributed greatly to the advancement of Jewish scholarship, especially in the United States. At the time of his death in November 1989, Baron was hailed as "undoubtedly the greatest Jewish historian of the 20th century, " by historian Yosef Hayim Yerushaimi, himself the product of Baron's tutelage and the holder of the Salo Wittmayer Baron Chair of Jewish History, Culture and Society at Columbia University, a position established in 1980 to honor Baron's long association with the university.

Further Reading

For a comprehensive account of Baron's life and career, see Robert Liberles, Salo Wittmayer Baron: Architect of Jewish History (1995). Baron's obituary appeared in the New York Times (November 26, 1989). □