By 1984, Professor Schmelzer was able to say, “We’re pretty much where we were if not better.”
In his time as chief librarian, Professor Schmelzer, who spoke four languages fluently, taught seminary students, first as an assistant professor of medieval Hebrew literature and Jewish bibliography and then, after 1980, as a full professor. His particular expertise was in the liturgical Hebrew poetry known as piyyutim; when he received his doctorate at the seminary, his dissertation was about the work of an 11th-century Spanish rabbi famous for such poems.
Menahem Hayyim Schmelzer was born on April 18, 1934, in Kecel, a peasant village in southern Hungary. His home had no electricity or indoor plumbing. His father, Ferenc, sold wine made of local grapes, and his mother, Margit (Gottesman) Schmelzer, was a homemaker. Kecel had no yeshiva, so Menahem gained an elementary knowledge of Hebrew and Jewish law and ritual at a cheder, a Jewish primary school.
When Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, Hungary, a German ally, sent men like his father to army work camps. By 1944, mass deportations of Jews had begun, and 10-year-old Menahem, his mother and his younger brother, Otto, were put on a crowded train headed for Auschwitz. At some point in the journey the train halted, and the last few cars, including those carrying Menahem and his family, were unhitched. The three wound up in the Strasshof labor camp near Vienna.
He later found out that his family was saved because of a deal the Nazi official Adolf Eichmann had made — to trade 21,000 Jews for five million Swiss francs to buy munitions and trucks to help stave off Germany’s defeat.