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Salo Baron, Dead at 94, Acclaimed As Era’s Greatest Jewish Historian

November 27, 1989
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Funeral services will be held here Monday for Professor Salo Wittmayer Baron, the author of a multi-volume history of the Jews, who was acclaimed by many as the greatest Jewish historian of the century.

Baron, who taught at Columbia University from 1930 until his retirement in 1963, died Saturday of congestive heart failure. He was 94.

In April 1961, Baron testified at the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem about anti-Semitism and how the Nazis decimated European Jewry.

He cited as an example the city of his birth, Tarnow, now in Poland, where 20,000 Jews lived before World War II. At the end of the war, no more than 20 survived. Baron lost his mother and a sister in the Holocaust.

Baron was known throughout the academic world for his scholarship and erudition. He spoke 20 languages and could lecture in five.

His monumental work, “A Social and Religious History of the Jews” began as a lecture series and grew initially into a broad survey of Jewish history, three volumes of which were published in 1937.

Eventually, 18 volumes were published. He was working on a 19th at his death.

Baron was born in 1895, in Tarnow, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His family, wealthy, educated and of a prestigious rabbinic line, was part of the Galician Jewish aristocracy.

Baron was a precocious child, learning chess at the age of 3 and writing poetry in Hebrew at 12. As a young man, he pursued rabbinic studies and was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in Vienna in 1920.

He also earned three doctorates from the University of Vienna: in philosophy, political science and law.


After teaching at the Jewish Teachers College in Vienna, he was invited to New York by Rabbi Stephen Wise in 1926 to teach at the Jewish Institute of Religion. He began to teach at Columbia in 1930.

In the 1920s, Baron had been invited to Breslau to take over the position of Professor Heinrich Graetz, who had already written a history of the Jews. He refused. Even then, he would not go to Germany.

Graetz highlighted the suffering of the Jewish people and their contributions to scholarship. Baron combined social and religious history.

“He was the most outstanding historian of our generation,” Leon Feldman, professor of Hebraic studies at Rutgers University, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

“Baron combined a vast knowledge and perspective of Jewish and general history, indicating that Jews reacted and responded to their environment, and never lived in a vacuum,” said Feldman, who edited two “jubilee volumes” of Baron’s articles.

Baron was a founder of several institutions of Jewish interest, including the American Academy for Jewish Research, which he served as president until a few years ago.

With philosopher Morris Raphael Cohen, he founded in 1934 the Conference on Jewish Social Studies, which from 1939 published the Journal of Jewish Social Studies. Baron remained conference president and journal editor until his death.

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