Louis Loewe


A Portrait by Jessie Kurrein, Teplitz-Schönau



The fact that a person has perfect command of 39 languages, spoken as well as written, is enough to arouse interest in those around him and those that follow him. Such a man was Dr. Louis Loewe. One of his contemporary biographers stated quite rightly: "There can be no doubt, that since the great Mezzofanti's passing away, no linguist has come as close as the one, who this biography is about.

One may safely term him a giant of the field linguistics, a Briareus Footnote of languages." To justify this laudable stand, it may be of use to know a little more of Loewe's background and deeds, without losing sight of the greatness of his character. Loewe climbed the social ladder from a modest beginning without any material means or protection, until he reached the highest societal circles. He was honoured and respected at all times, which leaves one not only impressed by the qualities of his exceptional intellect, but also bewildered at his ability to impress even the highest personalities and to cultivate them as friends. Louis Loewe (Elieser halevi) was born on 24th June 1809 (10. Tammus 5569) in Sülz, Bohemia, son to the great Talmud scholar Rabbi Mordechai halevi (Marcus Jacob Loewe). The father brought up his boy so that he might fear God and educated him from the earliest age. At the age of six, he knew nearly the entire Bible off by heart. The father realised that his son had the gift of an exceptional memory and, after his arrival in Rosenberg, where he had taken on a position of Rabbi, started teaching him the Talmud, too. At the time the Bohemian Jews' cultivation of language in general and the German language in particular was so neglected, that it was regarded a sin to speak German correctly. Elieser did not care for these attitudes and instead learned German and French and called upon Christian teachers to teach him history, geography and natural history. He had not reached the age of 13 when he lost his father. An uncle, Salomon Sohn, who was Rabbi in Sülz, took him in and sent him to Lissa to the famous Talmud-school of the celebrated scholar Rabbi Hirsch Fraustadt. Here he had the opportunity to familiarise himself with the teachings of the Talmud, of which he made ample use. But this did not still his thirst for knowledge. Assiduously he taught himself Latin, Greek, mathematics, geometry and history – all subjects belonging to a grammar school curriculum. His great industriousness was met by his sharp intellect and excellent memory. He learned all that the school in Lissa had to offer in a period of two years and then set his sights on Nikolsburg, Moravia. The first grade Talmud scholar and duly famous Rabbi Mordechaie Benet (Benedikt) taught there. Soon Loewe enjoyed his teacher's favour and was allowed to listen to early morning discourses by his son, R. Mordechais Naftali Benet. In the evenings he would learn the early and later “Possek” of theological law in the house of Rabbi Moses Löb Sülz, who was a member of the rabbinical assembly of Nikolsburg. Once he had completed his daily learning quota, he would read cabbalistic literature to Rabbi Sülz, whose eyesight had become very weak. Thus he acquired a foundation in that subject, too. But in Nikolsburg, too, he contacted Christian scholars to help him to further his knowledge of European languages.

From Nikolsburg, Loewe went to Pressburg to attend the Talmud college of Rabbi Moses Gofer, the most eminent scholar of his time, who authorised him to become a Rabbi. Loewe used the time to perfect his knowledge of French, Spanish and Italian, while at the same time acquiring most other European languages and developing a liking for oriental tongues. For one part his language skills paid for his upkeep, for the other, it enabled him to come to into contact with eminent personalities.

Count Apponyi Footnote allowed Loewe the use of his library, which turned out to be decisive, as there he found books on both Jewish language and teachings. After three years in Pressburg he had become a Rabbi, increased his knowledge of the Talmud, rabbinical law, the bible, philosophy and other subjects and went to university first in Vienna, then in Berlin, where he attended lectures by Schleiermacher, Steffens, Klander and Hengstenberg. On his way to Berlin he visited his hometown of Rosenberg, where his sermon about psalm 111 was received with great applause.

It did not take him long to attain his doctorate in Berlin; his subjects were philosophy and linguistics. His friends urged him to strive for a position of Rabbi of a large parish. Loewe, however, was fascinated by linguistics and went to Hamburg. The Russian minister, Baron Heinrich von Struwe, recommended him to Dr. von Spreewitz, who was a renowned numismatist and the proud owner of a sizable collection of old and ancient coins. He was looking for a suitable person to order and catalogue his collection, since the old catalogues had been lost. As remuneration they agreed, that Loewe could keep all duplicate coins. Through his work Loewe not only acquired a well founded knowledge of numismatics, but laid the basis of a collection of his own with Dshoodsheed Footnote , Bulgarian, Abbassidian Footnote and Fatimidissian Footnote coins. He was to expand this both in size and value through acquisitions during his many travels to the Orient. His knowledge of semitic languages and hieroglyphs as well as his liking for exploring ancient writings led him to London to examine the collections of scripts, coin collections and acheological museums.

He arrived in 1835 with a letter of introduction addressed to John George Children Footnote , secretary of the Royal Society, in his pocket. One year later (on 21st February 1836), the Kassel Footnote parish offered him the post of Rabbi. He did not accept the position, however, as he did not want to leave England, a country in which all citizens enjoyed equal rights. One month later he was introduced to the Duke of Sussex (Queen Victoria’s uncle), who took such a liking to Loewe, that he bestowed him with the court title of “Oriental Linguist” and remained a loyal friend and benefactor for the rest of his life. When the Herzog died, Loewe received as a memento two wonderful Meissen lamps and his freemason’s grandmaster medal in a silver case. The committee of the Spanish-Portuguese community asked Loewe to hold the funeral sermon for this great man, which also appeared in print. The Duke of Sussex would always gather men of science around him following the evening meal. Loewe, too, was invited on a regular basis and got to know leading figures of the time: Graf von Münster, Lord Holland Footnote , Sir Alexander Johnston Footnote , Sir Gore Duselen and Professor H. H. Milton, all of whom showed great interest in his work. A renowned author, Emma Roberts Footnote , introduced him to the Countess of Blessington, who dedicated a whole page of her memoirs to their meeting Footnote . It was through her that Loewe got to know the explorer and numismatist Dr. R. R. Madden Footnote , who in turn introduced him to Sir Gardiner Willkinson Footnote . The latter enabled him to gain access to all private libraries, museums and numismatic collections in the whole of London. A few months later, a letter by his benefactor, the Duke of Sussex, introduced him to the University of Cambridge, where he met Rev. E. Peacock, the committee of Trinity College, Rev. E. A. Browne, later Bishop of Winchester and the Regis Professor for Hebrew, Rev. Dr. Samuel Lee; all of whom were to help him with his research. Oxford academics also welcomed him heartily, enabling him to continue his studies there, too. By coincidence his name was also registered at Exeter College, Oxford. Today his grandson, Herbert Loewe, is lecturer at the said college in the same subject. Thanks to a letter of introduction by the learned physician Dr. Hodgkin, the Philological Society of London also accepted Louis Loewe as member. His admittance was a result of a number of circumstances: The scholar Dr. Bialoblozki had announced a lecture, from which he was forced to withdraw in the last instance. Dr. Loewe was requested to give the talk instead. In fluent English he detailed and explained the beginnings and origins of the Egyptian language. His lecture was very well received. He published an academic paper on the subject in 1837.

In the same year (1837) Louis Loewe went to Paris as part of his studies. There he got into contact with French scholars. He spent many months in the company of Dr. John Borthwick-Gilchrist Footnote , an authority on everything Hindu, Garcin de Tassy Footnote , Sylvestre de Sacy Footnote , Quatremère Footnote , Reinaud Footnote , Letronne Footnote , Joubert, Julien de Paris, General Pepe Footnote and Admiral Sir Sidney Smith Footnote , the hero of Akko Footnote . These gentlemen helped along his acceptance by the “Societé Asiatique”, of which he subsequently became an honorary member. Once back in London, The Duke of Sussex, Prince Münster, the Duke of Northumberland Footnote and Admiral Sir Sidney Smith urged him to travel to Egypt in order to visit and explore the local monuments and temples, royal palaces and tombs and to study their inscriptions and ancient scripts. From 1837 to 1839 he visited Egypt, Nubia, Ethiopia, Syria, the Palestine, Turkey, Asia Minor and Greece. He departed from London on 23rd July 1837. He journeyed to Malta via Paris and Marseilles, where he deciphered the well-known candelabra inscription and at the same time demonstrated that the scholars of the Belianti library had interpreted 13 characters erroneously. In Alexandria, the German ambassador Roquette introduced him to the viceroy of Egypt, Mohammed Ali Pascha, who asked Loewe for the translation of a set of hieroglyphs. After he had completed the task to the satisfaction of the viceroy, he received from Ali Pascha a firman, Footnote decreeing that he was to be supported in his efforts wherever he went. In Cairo, he met with Fürst Pückler-Muskau, who was on his way back from Abyssinia.

This famous writer, author of “Letters of a Deceased” Footnote , told in detail of the translation of a set of hieroglyphs on a small Isis bronze, on which both Loewe and another explorer worked. Champollion, an old authority on hieroglyphs, agreed with Loewe on the correct interpretation in “The Return” Footnote (B. Footnote Aegypten, p. 220, by A. Dunker, Berlin 1846). On his journey through Upper-Egypt he stopped over in Jidda, where he encountered Sheikh Mahomed Ajad Estantavy, who later became Professor of oriental languages in Petersburg, with whom he read great works of Arabic literature and became lifelong friends. During the see voyage to Nubia he followed with interest the language of the Nubian passengers and later published an Arab-Persian dictionary of the Nubian language. He stayed in Derr, the capital of Nubia, translated the first book of Samuel into Nubian as well as a Greek letter, which the Patriarch of Constantinople had sent on The Duke of Sussex’s request; in this way he had, through hard work both day and night, explored vocabulary and origins of the Nubian language in a matter of only six weeks. On his way through the Ethiopian desert he translated old temple and hieroglyph inscriptions on columns, which he encountered from Wadi Halfa along the Nile all the way to Derr. In order to investigate the Coptic language, he contacted monasteries and learned the tongue from a Coptic priest, who was recommended to him by the Patriarch of the Coptic church. From Egypt Loewe went on to the Palestine, constantly collecting ancient oriental documents. In Djouni, at the very top of the Lebanon near Sidon, Footnote he was Lady Esther Stanhope’s guest for a few days. Dr. Millingen Footnote later put the meeting of these two exceptionally interesting characters to paper in his work “The Life of Lady Hester Stanhope” Footnote Footnote in detail. On his way to Saffed he had a bad experience. The Druze were revolting against their king at the time and pillaged the whole area up to Saffed and surroundings. He encountered them in En Zetun (near Safet), had all his clothes and belongings taken and was left to fend for himself, beaten and wounded. An Arab, Mustapha Mahmed, took pity on Loewe and handed him a thick blanket to cover the naked body and a spear to defend himself with. Thus the bloody Loewe wandered nearly naked, hungry and thirsty into Safet. He would celebrate this day, on which he escaped death by a hair’s breadth, together with his family for years to come. On Purim his children would play “Bedouins” in memory of what had happened. His journey continued via Damascus, Sichem, Footnote Jerusalem, Hebron, Alexandria, Smyrna and back to Constantinople. In Damascus he acquired a great number of valuable coins and studied scripts on the religious customs of the Druze. He stayed in Constantinople for three months to study the Turkish language. He also studied, as one of the first, the Circassian language and published not only a grammar, but also an English-Circassic dictionary – the first academic publications about the language. In addition he translated the hieroglyphs on the obelisk of Atmedan for Sultan Mahmud, which he had the Prussian envoy Graf Königsmark hand to the King. He also found Karaitic scripts, which he studied. He made notes of the religious origins of this sect, which he was to make public back home. He returned to London via Athens and Rome. He visited the Vatican library and got acquainted with Cardinal Mezzosanti, Angelo Mai and Lambruschini. Loewe held a sermon in the synagogue, which was attended by Moses Montefiore and his wife Judith, who happened to be in Rome at the time. It did not take long before a friendship was formed and Montefiore asked Loewe to accompany him on his travels. He duly accepted and became the Montefiores’ companion from 1840 onwards. Back in London he reported to the Duke of Sussex, was received honourably and appointed custodian of Semitic scripts. Every Wednesday Loewe had to inform the Duke about the Orient’s philosophy, customs and languages. Shortly after, he became a member of the “Society of Explorers of the Orient of Great Britain and Ireland”. Through his involvement with Montefiore, his hitherto successful academic endeavours took a turn. In order to fully understand the impact of his decision to accompany Montefiore, personal memories of the author, who is Loewe’s eldest daughter, should be stated. My father owned a big collection of letters of all the important personalities he had come into contact with and exchanged ideas on academic as well as personal issues. In his later years he would look through it from time to time and read out selected passages from those letters. On one such occasion I asked him, what had made him turn down an academic career of such promise and instead join Montefiore. He looked at me sternly, but full of enthusiasm and said: “The chance to utilise all my capabilities and strength for the Holy Land and our poor brothers was so enticing that I could not refuse. Alone I could not do much, but Montefiore’s money and enthusiasm and my work allowed hope for the great cause.”

The year 1840 has gone down in history because of the tragic blood libel case Footnote of Damascus. This incident was important enough for Montefiore to do everything in his power, that he might save the honour of the Jews and the people themselves. Together with Loewe he went to Damascus to uncover the truth. Because of his knowledge of the language and great oratory skills, Loewe was the constant centre of attention. The result of the investigations was a favourable one and the imprisoned and tortured Jews, against whom the most disgraceful accusations were levied, were set free. If I may, I would like to bring forward proof that it was not only Loewe’s excellent command of the language, but that it was solely his doing – and this goes against the statements of today’s historians – that the lie of Damascus was uncovered. It is clearly stated in both Montefiore’s as well as Loewe’s diaries, that it was due to the latter’s keen eye and energetic protest – and not Gremieur’s or Munks’ – that the damning word “Aloof” (free pardon) in the Turkish firman (see footnote 8), which brought about the remission of the falsely accused Jews, was spotted and replaced by the words “Itlak ve Tervîhh” – “an honourable acquittal”.

The return journey led them to Constantinople, where the Sultan received Montefiore, together with Loewe. The Sultan immediately remembered Loewe – and Sultan Mahmud’s report of his interpretation of the obelisk inscription – and awarded him with an honourable decoration. As is commonly known, the meeting ended with the Sultan decreeing a firman (see footnote 8), stating that all Jews were to receive equal rights in the Turkish state – something, which may correctly be termed the “magna carta libertatum” for the Turkish Jewry. Loewe held sermons in various Constantinople parishes as well as in other Turkish cities in the language used by local Jews: Spanish, Italian, Hebrew and German. Not only the content of the sermons, but also the quality of the speaker’s oratory was the cause for just admiration. Manzari Shark, the main Jewish paper in Smyrna, reported on 9th November 1840: “The scholarly speaker demonstrated his command of four languages without the hint of the slightest difficulty by fluently producing sentence after sentence, thought after thought.” The reporter added: “More frequent talks of such quality in this country, where education and wisdom have been repressed for decades, would be of immeasurable importance.” On their way home Montefiore and Loewe visited Cardinal Rivarolo in Rome to convince him of the removal of the inscription on Father Thomas’ Footnote Footnote grave, whose text was inciting hatred against Jews. Footnote Using the opportunity, Loewe discovered important scholarly documents, for example a beautiful poem by Samuel ha-Nagid Footnote and one by Ibn Esra and translated very old scripts into a variety of languages. They stopped in Paris, too, in order to win over King Louis Philipe for the cause of the Jewry and Loewe translated the Sultan’s firman (see footnote 8) for him. Back in London Montefiore and Loewe were to receive the greatest reward for their toil and labour. The Board of Deputies (Representatives of all Jews in England and her colonies) held a meeting in March 1841, which agreed on a note of thanks addressed to Loewe which read as follows: “With the highest degree of satisfaction by its chairman, Sir Moses Montefiore, the committee has taken note of the great help and support awarded by Dr. Loewe to Sir Moses Montefiore on his mission in Damascus. The committee would like to express its deepest thanks and respect.” Along with the address Loewe received two big silver candelabras, the address itself engraved on their base. Montefiore introduced Loewe to Queen Victoria, who appeared very pleased about the positive outcome for the Jews and reiterated those sentiments to Loewe. The scholar Meïr Joseph celebrated Montefiore and Loewe in a Hebrew poem, which reads:

Moses staved off his people’s disgrace, hail him!

He fought a war for God and you were his comrade;

He achieved great things and you helped him,

So your name is: Damesel Elieser! Footnote

As was always the case, Montefiore pointed to Loewe’s deeds. On every occasion, be it in the presence of high society, at public meetings or receptions, where Montefiore received lavish praise, he would decline, point to Loewe and say: “It is not me, but my friend, Dr. Loewe, who you should thank; it was he who encouraged me all the way and it is because of him that I have had my successes.” In 1841 Loewe asked the Duke of Sussex for some time-off, so that he could return home. There he married the daughter of the respectable merchant Salman Siberstein in Breslau, Emma Silberstein, with whom he led a fulfilled and happy marriage which was blessed with 10 children. Footnote From now on he put himself completely at Montefiore’s disposal. In 1846 Montefiore travelled to Russia to intervene on behalf of the badly suppressed brothers-in-faith. He assured himself of his friend Loewe’s support. Following an audience with Tsar Nicholas, they journeyed the land and Loewe used the opportunity to influence Russian Jews by giving uncountable talks and sermons. His sermon in Vilna, in the great synagogue in front of thousands, became so famous, that the name Elieser halevi enjoyed lasting popularity in Russia. Loewe was at Montefiore’s side on no less than 13 expeditions, which he undertook on behalf of Jewry in the Holy Land, Rumania, Russia and Rome. In 1866 Montefiore founded the Rabbi College “Ohel Mosche we Jehudith” in Ramsgate. Loewe once again was instrumental in the success of the project. He then became the director of the institute and had to move from Brighton to Broadstairs, a small village in the vicinity. In the great auditorium of the college in Ramsgate, which is filled with over 100 excerpts praising Montefiore’s achievements, Montefiore installed a life-sized picture of Loewe. By cataloguing Montefiore’s book collection, which was very valuable bibliographically, Loewe’s input into forming the institute’s library was significant. The friendship between the two men was never sullied. Up to his last breath, Montefiore kept Loewe in loving memory, held him in utmost respect and had unfailing confidence in him. In his testament Montefiore pronounced Loewe, along with Joseph Sebag, Lord Rothschild and his nephew, the Queen’s Count Arthur Cohen, the executor of his last will. On his deathbed, Montefiore did not allow Loewe to leave him. When Montefiore was finally laid to rest, Loewe had to carry the bier as the first right hand man. Montefiore knew that no other than his longstanding fidus Achates would, on the grounds of his experiences, be equal to the task of recounting truthfully the story of the incidents of the Israelites during such an important century for the Jewry. Because of this, he requested in his testament, that Loewe publish his diaries. He intended to spend the eve of his eventful life doing just that. “The Diaries of Sir Moses and Lady Montefiore” are thus a truthful account of Montefiore’s ipissima verba and constitute a Jewish history of the 19th century. The sources of the publication are comprised of no less than five diaries of Lady Montefiore, 85 diaries of Sir Moses – from 1814-1883 – and all appropriate original documents of Loewe’s. Following Montefiore’s death, Loewe moved to London. After Montefiore’s diaries were put to print, he wanted to apply himself fully to the publication of his own manuscripts. Amongst those are his complete Derashots, held in English, from his college days in Ramsgate, whose purpose it was to demonstrate to the attending Russian Rabbis how one could deliver the ancient Talmud disputations, including Pilpul and Charifut, in classical English.

Loewe passed away on 24th November 1889 (Roseh chodesh Kishewe 5650), a man whose intellectual gifts and whose character afforded him great academic success and a high position in society. He chose a path where he could be of the greatest service to his brothers-in-faith and the Jewry as a whole. He and his family were highly religious Jews, whose strength in belief was no less than that of a pious man and whose noble character and dignity were no less that that of any nobleman. Salomon’s words (22,29) are true of Loewe: “If you see a man, practised in his art – he may stand in front of kings...”