Jun 21, 2005 12:20 pm


Remembering Cecil Roth on the 35th Anniversary of his Passing

By Shelomo Alfassa

As one of the greatest historians of the twentieth century, he was much more inclined to read a stack of books, going through them at a "voracious" rate, then do anything else while growing up. Dr. Roth's literary idol was Edwin Gibbons, famed eighteenth century historian of world renown. He once said "I would gladly give up all the work I have done in return for the ability to produce one paragraph, or even one sentence in the style of Edward Gibbon." But Roth developed his own brilliant style which remains a shining example of prose written by a man who felt enthusiastically and emotionally linked to his subject matter. His style stood out on his own, one that is, sadly, rarely found in modern non-fiction prose. Many in the nineteen and early twentieth century valued non-fiction works, much the same as fictional prose is today regarded in contemporary society. It was a period when readers and writers valued wit and clarity of expression. Gentle mentions of current events would be sewn into the work for comparisons without taking away from the content or purpose, but yet adding a special intellectual flair to the subject matter.

Roth was raised in England into a family which valued British proper manners and had an intense commitment to Jewish nationalism. Although the Roth family was descendant from Reb Y.T. Roth of Poland, there existed a family tradition that they were descendant from Yossef Karo, the Sephardic author of the Shulhan Aruh, Code of Jewish Law. Nevertheless, Cecil, an observant Jew his whole life, adopted the Sephardic minhag which he had learned in Florence, Italy. He served in WWI in France and later would study at Merton College. As an observant Jew, Cecil helped convince Oxford University, which was not overly receptive to matters regarding Jews, to allow Jewish students to take exams on Sunday instead of Saturday. These Jews had to be sequestered so that they could not possibly learn what was on the exams, so many of them spent the time at the Roth home, a place popular among the students.

Until 1939 Cecil Roth had no permanent academic position, and was thus free to travel the world, which he did extensively, writing at his leisure. He traveled to multiple continents, studying the Jewish populations, becoming a desired visitor by many communities that would offer to host him. During this period he developed quite a reputation and developed friendships which would last his lifetime.

In London, the Roth family played host to a 'who's who' of Jewish and international society. Personalities such as the Angelo Sacerdoti, Chief Rabbi of Rome; Rabbi David Prato, Chief Rabbi of Alexandria; Nahum Goldmann who would become the president of the World Zionist Organization; Ehud Ben-Yehuda who continued the pioneering work of his father Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (father of modern Hebrew language).

A historian with seven decades of experience, intimate with the rarest of Jewish books and exposure to the world's best minds, he was able to locate some of the most unique particulars of history. One of these involves Austria's Archduke Ferdinand. Cecil said that before he was assassinated in an event which was said to have triggered World War I, Austria's Archduke was traveling with his wife in Sarajevo on the way to the National Museum to view the Sarajevo Haggadah, a collection of Jewish scriptures written around 1314 in Spain and one of the most valuable books in the world.

Long before Hitler's name was common place in the newspapers of the world, Cecil Roth became concerned about the situation in Germany, specifically, the rising tide of Nazism which he felt was not something that would retreat quickly. As early as 1933, Roth penned a letter of protest to the London Times against Hitler's declaration to boycott Jewish establishments. Roth wrote numerous articles and also developed books such as 'Jewish Contribution to Civilization' that was written specifically because it had the potential to show the Germans and the world how the Jews have contributed greatly to society, and possibly have the side effect of mitigating mal treatment against the Jews. Many years after WWII, it was told that Roth obtained German documents, the plans to occupy London, plans that listed names and addresses of Jews. He was shocked to have learned it was he who was on the very top of the list, he would have been the first capture by the Nazis.

Cecil's tireless advocacy for the Jewish people is apparent in the remarkable story of the keys of Florence, which his wife told long after his death. Upon the liberation of Florence, Winston Churchill's office telephoned Dr. Roth who was in possession of the original and ancient keys to the city. Mr. Churchill wanting a to make a great impression upon his arrival to Florence as a victor, wanted to know if Roth, a fellow Brit, would allow him to return the keys during a ceremony with the mayor of Florence. Roth had a "shocked" reaction to this curious request. He told the office candidly:

Please tender my sincerest respects to Mr. Churchill…I realize the keys should be returned to Florence, and I have made arrangements that the keys will later go back to the city of their origin, but only when the time will be ripe. As things stand, I do not as yet feel disposed to give such a gift to a people who until so recently tolerated the anti-Semitic regime under which so many of my dear friends were liquidated.

Roth wrote on topics that included Italian Jewry, Sephardic experiences, important Jewish figures, and was an authority on both the Dead Sea Scrolls and Jewish art. He was a professor at Oxford from 1939-1964, and was visiting professor at both Yeshiva University and Queens College, splitting his time in later years between New York and Jerusalem. Roth became the mentor and teacher to many of the great Jewish scholars of the twentieth century. Some of this students included Haham Gaon, subsequently the Haham of the Spanish and Portuguese Congregation of London, the Haham of the World Sephardic Federation, and later professor of Sephardic Studies at Yeshiva University.

In May 2005, Joseph Roth, Cecil's nephew, issued a new book, a collection of Roth's papers, entitled 'Opportunities That Pass.' The book is a fabulous tribute to the gentle scholar, a passionate educator who touched so many. In it, a poignant story is told by Joseph Roth in regards to a discovery inside Cecil's personal archives. Joseph had come across a tiny white book with very thin paper. The book was in Russian and turned out to be a translation of Cecil's 'History of the Jews.' Researching where the book came from, Joseph found that a Russian émigré to Jerusalem had given it to Cecil's wife, thanking her for all of the knowledge he had gained reading it and rereading it. The small volume filled with the history of the Jewish people changed his life; he later moved to Israel and eventually became a lecturer at the Haifa Technion. No one knows who printed the small pocket-sized volumes which covered Jewish history from ancient times to 1967. It is known that many were produced, and a report out of Russia once told how Police went house to house to confiscate them. Cecil would have been proud to know his work became a spring board back to Judaism for countless persons living under the tyranny of Russia.

He never lived to see his final and most significant project, the development of massive 'Encyclopedia Judaica' which he was the editor of. The first volume went to print the day after he passed away. At age 71 on June 21, 1970, Cecil died leaving a legacy of over 700 published papers, articles and books. He had been living in Jerusalem and was buried in the Sanhedria cemetery. Today Cecil Roth's books are readily available in almost every library in the world, where they continue to educate and inspire a new generation.

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