Earlier this week, Stolen Words author Rabbi Mark Glickman wrote about the Jewish community’s midcentury dispute over restituted libraries. He is guest blogging all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.
Try this. Take some ink, and apply it to paper. A vertical line here; a horizontal line there; some slants, curves, loops, and dots — all very small. Be meticulous. If you do it right, your ink will become letters, your letters will become words, your words sentences, and your sentences pages. Stack up some of those pages, bind them together on one side, and you’ll have a book — a portable compilation of ink and paper for you to read whenever you’d like.
But books, as we readers and writers know, are much more than ink and paper. Books convey meaning, and their meanings can transform the world, or at least take us away from the here and now and bring us to times and places vastly different than our own. Moreover, books as physical objects often take on stories of their own, and thus create new types of connections, as well. That’s why so many of us hold onto our books. That’s why so many of us treasure them. That’s why so many of us collect them with a love and passion that we rarely bestow on other physical objects.
I just wrote a book of my own — a book about books. Lots of books. The books I wrote about were the tens-of-millions of Jewish books looted by the Nazis during their twelve-year reign in Europe, and if this collection could rightly be called a library, these books composed the largest Jewish library in the history of the Jewish people.
Just as my book was about to be released, my wife and I sold our house, and, for a time, I had to put my own library into storage.
It was sad. My library had been a magnificent little room, featuring floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, a comfortable reading chair, and a globe because I’m snooty. It was a rabbi-cave par-excellence, and I loved it. But over the course of two days, shelf-by-shelf, I emptied the library, until all that was left were empty shelves and a thin veneer of dust — the faint remnant of the literary treasures it once contained.
For Jews, books are treasures. Researching the story of the looted books of the Holocaust, I was repeatedly moved by the ways in which Jews cherish their books — the thrill that an old man experienced upon receiving a small children’s activity book he had to leave behind when he left his home in Germany as a child; the tears shed by German Jews as they watched their books go up in flames during the brief spate of book burnings in May, 1933; the courageous determination that a group of scholars and authors in the Vilna Ghetto showed as they tried to save looted Jewish books from the grubbing hands of their Nazi overlords.
The story of my library wasn’t tragic like those of World War II era Europe, but the booklessness I felt when it was empty gave me a tiny hint of what the Jews back then must have felt when they looked at the empty shelves in their own homes and community libraries.
Booklessness. For those of us who love the printed word, it is in some ways the spiritual equivalent of homelessness. It leaves us without roots, without anywhere to turn for comfort, without the shelter and strength that books and sometimes books alone can provide.
Unlike most Jews of Europe, I’ll survive this time of booklessness. I’ll also get my books back someday, and I live in a time when I can easily get my hands on pretty much whatever book I need.
Still, the sense of booklessness reminds me of how truly sacred — how truly precious — those piles of inked pages can actually be.
Rabbi Mark Glickman has served at congregations in Ohio, Washington State, and Colorado. He is the author of Stolen Treasure: The Nazi Plunder of Jewish Books and Sacred Treasure — The Cairo Genizah: The Amazing Discoveries of Forgotten Jewish History in an Egyptian Synagogue Attic.
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