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Vilna Stories
Mattityahu (Mathias) Strashun (1817-1885):
Scholar, Leader and Book Collector

Mattityahu Strashun's Biography

A Brief History of the Strashun Library

The Story of Hebrew Printing

Samuel and Mattityahu Strashun: Between Tradition and Innovation
By Dr. Mordechai Zalkin

Mattityahu Strashun's Biography
Excerpted and translated from Ir Vilna by Hillel Noah Maggid
Steinschneider (Vilna 1900)

Mattityahu, son of Rabbi Samuel Strashun was born on Hoshana Rabbah
Day of the year 578 (1817). Since childhood he showed evidence of
exceptional memory and great talent in the study of Talmud. His father
employed an excellent tutor, Rabbi Yeshaya David of Lebedev,for him
and his older brother Eliyahu. One day the great Gaon, Rabbi Menashe
of Ilya, a relative, visited the Strashun family. All the dignitaries
of Vilna came to meet Rabbi Menashe and hear his Torah learning. Rabbi
Menashe examined young Mattityahu about his studies in the presence of
this large crowd, and he replied correctly and accurately to every

At age sixteen, he started to study science and mathematics on his
own. Soon he began to correspond with several maskilim, such as the
writer Isaac Ber Lebensohn and Samuel Joseph Fuenn, who quoted him in
their articles. Strashun, often writing under a pseudonym, also became
a regular contributor to several scholarly Hebrew periodicals that
began publication in the 1850s.

When he was 14 years old, Mattityahu married Sarah Hanah, daughter of
the wealthy Yosef Eliyahu Eliasberg (1798-1881). The couple had two
daughters, Gita and Itta, who both died at a very young age. With the
help of his father-in-law, Strashun started a business, which was
mostly managed by his wife and her brother. The Russian Census report
of 1851 lists Strashun's capital as at least 8000 rubles.

Strashun's economic success enabled him to purchase thousands of
books, which he read avidly and memorized. His house became a
destination for scholars, who flocked to hear his erudition and to
consult his books. In 1848, he was appointed head of the Burial
Society, whose records were in disarray. Strashun hired someone to
take care of the account books and record the names of the deceased. A
few years later, he became the head of the Charity Committee of the
Vilna Community, Tsedakah Gedolah, which was in charge of all
community affairs. In 1868, he was appointed member of the Vilna
branch of the State Bank, and was honored ten years later for his
exemplary service with a gold medal (17 February 1878). In addition,
he served in the Vilna City Council (Duma). Mattityahu died childless
in December 1885, and his wife died a few months after him.

In his will, Strashun left 5000 rubles to the Tsedakah Gedolah, 1500
to the Old Age Home, 1000 to the Yeshiva in the Butchers' Kloyz, and
500 rubles each to four Talmudic schools. His books and house were
bequeathed to the Vilna Kehilah to become a public library. He also
left an endowment to pay the salaries of a librarian and an assistant.
Following are a few excerpts from the introduction by his nephew and
executor, David Strashun to Likute Shoshanim, Being the catalogue of
books collected by Mathias Strashun of Vilna, published in Berlin,

[The Title] Likute Shoshanim [Selections of Roses] was chosen by my
late uncle while he was still alive...the numerical value for Likute
Shoshanim is 861; the numerical value of Mattityahu is also 861, as is
the value of Strashun. This is the reason why I called this catalogue
Likute Shoshanim, and this will be the title of all his collected
writings, which, with the help of God we will begin to publish...

[My uncle] strived throughout his life to bring honor to God and to
his people and share with them his learning and his fortune... Such
people are great not only during their lifetime, but also in their
death, when they leave their lifelong legacy and the fruit their
learning to the entire community. These are the heroes whose memory is
a blessing for ever and ever. My uncle, the genius Rabbi Mathias
Strashun was one of these great sages.

A unique man, who had the two-fold privilege of being both a great
Torah scholar and a great communal leader. He chose to leave his great
book collection, comprising of thousands of volumes, full to the brim
with delicious food for mind. In addition, blessed be he who had the
privilege to see the commentaries and annotations to 63 books that he
wrote during his lifetime. His wisdom shines like stars and his memory
and good name will be of glory and blessing forever and ever.

I promised my dear uncle that after his death I would take good care
of his books and see that they serve the entire House of Israel. When
I made my promise, I thought that this would be an easy assignment.
But soon I learned that, in addition to there being difficulties
involved in obtaining a license to open a library, my uncle had left
his library unorganized and uncataloged. It took us many months to
prepare this catalogue. Since cataloging is a skill rather than a
wisdom, the people who did this work asked me not to mention their
names... I pray that my genius uncle's memory will enable us to open
the library as soon as possible...

In the shulhoyf [courtyard] of the Great Synagogue of Vilna stood a
two-story building. The sign on its door read: "The Library of Rabbi
Mattityahu son of Rabbi Samuel Strashun." For forty years before the
Holocaust (1901-1941), this building served as one of the most
important cultural institutions of Jewish Vilna. The library was
established through the generosity of Rabbi Mattityahu Strashun
(1817-1885), a renowned Vilna philanthropist, communal leader,
scholar, and bibliophile. It included many rare Hebrew books and
manuscripts, which Strashun had painstakingly collected over a period
of 50 years, beginning with his bar mitzvah. By the time he died in
1885, the magnificent library had amassed 5739 books and manuscripts.

In his will, Strashun, who was childless, bequeathed his books and his
home to the Vilna Kehilah [Community] and appointed his nephew David
Strashun as the executor. David Strashun hired scholars to catalog
this collection. The catalogue was published in 1889 under the title
Likute Shoshanim [A Gathering of Roses]. In 1892, the Strashun library
was opened to the public in Mattityahu's former home. However, it soon
became clear that the building was too small for its purpose, and, in
1899, the trustees of the library decided to erect a new building
inside the synagogue courtyard. The document authorizing construction
of the new building is displayed in this exhibition.

In 1901, the library moved to its new building in the shulhoyf. The
original Strashun collection of rare books was housed in a special
room, while the main reading room served the general public. The Vilna
Community assumed responsibility for the property in perpetuity. The
Strashun Library immediately became a popular place for study and
leisure reading. The average daily number of readers was more than
200, mostly high school and seminary students, and there was always a
line of readers outside the door. In the evenings the Library served
as a Jewish cultural center.

The Library directors were Samuel Strashun and, later, Isaac Strashun.
The chief librarian was Khaykl Lunski, who served in this post until
the demise of the Library under the Nazis in 1941. The collection
continued to grow, primarily through gifts and bequests, since there
was little or no budget for new acquisitions. Beginning in 1928, the
Library received from the Vilna University Library all Hebrew and
Yiddish books published in Poland. In the 1930s, the number of books
was reported to be 35,000.

The Nazis occupied Vilna on June 23, 1941 and, soon thereafter,
ordered the Jews to move into a ghetto. Both the YIVO Library and the
Strashun Library were taken over by the Einsatzstab Rosenberg, a Nazi
task force assigned to systematic looting of Jewish cultural
treasures. The Nazis forced the librarian and a few others to select
and crate hundreds of thousands of Jewish books and archives. The
wooden crates were shipped to Frankfurt-am-Main, where they were
stored in a huge warehouse, waiting to be incorporated into the future
"Library of the Extinct Race." In 1945, the American army discovered
three million Jewish books in the Offenbach warehouse, among them
25,000 books from the Strashun Library collection and 15,000 books
from the YIVO Library collection. These volumes were rescued from the
ruins of Europe and brought back to YIVO in New York in 1947.

In the 1970s, the YIVO Library hired the well-known bibliographer,
Rabbi Chaim Lieberman, to catalog the rabbinical portion of the
Strashun collection, while the secular portion remained to be done. In
early 1999 YIVO moved to its new home at the Center for Jewish
history. Later that year it received a generous grant form the
descendants of Mattityahu Strashun in the United States, that enabled
the YIVO Library staff to computerize Lieberman's catalog cards, as
well as catalog the books which were never cataloged before. We are
very pleased to offer greater access to this important historical
collection and to display some of its treasures for the first time.