The Importance of Books



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One Page at a Time

By Keith Bloomfield

They would be landing in Berlin in a few hours. Most of the passengers were asleep, twisting and turning in their seats in the dimly lit main cabin of the chartered plane. Even Ben's wife dozed; her head nestled between his head and his shoulder. Ben could not sleep. He did not even try. This trip was decades in the making. With an ample itinerary of sights to see and things to do, there was only one entry that piqued at his memory and stirred his imagination.

Settling in during the final hours of the flight, he replayed that handful of freeze-frames from a larger opus that had flashed on the back of his eyelids since childhood. The images were always the same. First, a parade of yellow school buses speeding bumper-to-bumper, through the Bronx, past the Babe's house. Then, a twenty-something young man in a university sweatshirt, his sleeves pushed up beyond his elbows. A crocheted kippah, with the look of tie-dye, perched on a mop of curly hair and secured with a strategically placed Bobbie pin. The student struggled under the weight of a book-filled cardboard box. Tears streamed from his eyes. Ben knew that his distress was not due to the heaviness of his load, but something about the load itself. Lastly, the image that had always perplexed Ben more than the other two; was of a large room peppered with long wooden tables in neat rows. At each table sat men, women, and youngsters. In front of each one, lay a book, books of all different sizes and colors. Though Ben knew he was somewhere in that cavernous space, going through a volume one page at a time, he had all but forgotten what he was doing and why.

Now it was time to bring the curtain down on an event that had colored so much of his life. As the flight crew padded back and forth through the cabin, fetching drinks and picking up fallen blankets and pillows, his mind raced in reverse to remember how it had all started.

A typo can be more telling than an intended search string. While Ben was "Googling" the name of a friend he had long since lost contact with, up popped an abstract about a disastrous New York City fire. Its loss was not measured in lives, but in books, manuscripts, and precious, irreplaceable documents. As Ben read on, he began to remember a time in the spring of 1966 when his thoughts were focused on the aftermath of that inferno.

It was April 18th and his entire family watched the evening news report about a fire in a library. The Jewish Theological Seminary, on New York's upper Westside, was known worldwide for its collection of rare books and manuscripts chronicling all facets of the Jewish experience. The library tower occupied ten floors in a building constructed in the 1920's. The news reports were sketchy about the cause of the fire, but the devastation they watched on the screen of their old Dumont brought tears to the eyes of Ben's parents. The news footage showed rescue workers darting in and out of the rubble, their arms filled with charred and waterlogged volumes. The immensity of the loss did not fully register with Ben until Hebrew School that Wednesday afternoon.

"How many of you heard about the fire at the Seminary?" asked Mr. Goldman, his teacher. Ben's was the first and only hand that was raised. Ben remembered how disappointed the teacher was. "What did you hear Ben?"

"I watched the report on TV last night. It looked really bad Mr. Goldman. Why would anybody want to set fire to a library? What did a book ever do to anybody?" His teacher worked to suppress a chuckle. "Isn't that where you go to Rabbi School, Mr. Goldman?"

"That's Rabbinical School Ben. I'm in my third year at the Seminary. We've been asking ourselves the same question. Now I'm not saying that the fire was started on purpose. Of course, it could have been an accident, but no one seems to know right now. Why is this fire so important to us as Jews, Ben?"

"Because many of the really old books burned and you can't get copies."

"And what does that mean?"

Ben thought for a moment. "I guess that means that whatever they said is gone."

Mr. Goldman knelt down next to Ben's desk. "Yes Ben, in many cases the wisdom contained in so very many volumes is lost forever." There were tears in Mr. Goldman's eyes just as there had been in his parents' eyes as they watched the news report. "And protecting the books that survived the fire so that generations can learn from them is our responsibility. Now let's start today's lesson."

After school, Ben told his parents about what his teacher had said. "He's absolutely right," said his mom. "The remaining books are our responsibility. We have to protect them for the future, but from what I read, some of them were so badly damaged by the water they used to put out the fire that it's going to take a miracle to save them."

In the baritone voice that Ben's father used frequently and without provocation for poetry and quoting Shakespeare, he intoned the opening lines of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, in the original Middle English.

"Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote

And bathed every veyne in swich licour,

Of which vertu engendred is the flour . . ."

Ben listened carefully to each foreign sounding word. "It's a dead language," asserted his dad. "No one speaks like that anymore. People once thought that Hebrew was dead. They were wrong. If we don't protect and cherish it, Yiddish will be next. Books, like the ones that were damaged, are essential to their survival. They're essential to our survival as well."

Ben continued to think about what Mr. Goldman and his parents had said all through the week and into the weekend. Mr. Goldman was not at Hebrew School on Sunday and Ben did not think too much about it, but he was back in school the following Monday and Wednesday.

"I've been thinking about what you had said about saving the books being our responsibility," Ben said to Mr. Goldman at the end of class. "Mr. Goldman, I wish I could help, but I don't know what to do."

"Ben, I'm glad you feel that way and in a few days I think your wish might come true."

When Ben came home from school on Thursday, his mother was waiting for him with a letter from Hebrew School. "A member of the Synagogue wanted to help at the Seminary," said his mom. "He's paying for the rental of buses to the Seminary and anyone who wants to help is invited. I've already checked with your father and we're all going. Your teacher, Mr. Goldman, made the arrangements."

Ben wrapped his arms around her neck. "Thank you mom. How did you know I wanted to do something?"

"Actually, Ben, Mr. Goldman called and asked if you could go. I told him that there was no way to stop you!"

Ben counted the minutes until Sunday arrived. He was out of bed and dressed before anyone in his family. He made himself breakfast and waited until his parents and even his little sister were ready. They drove to the synagogue and when they entered the parking lot at the rear of the building, Ben saw a sight that made his eyes and mouth open wide. A long line of yellow school buses was quickly filling with people. He saw his friends from Hebrew School and their parents and people that he only saw during the High Holidays all standing in line for a seat on one of the waiting buses.

"We better step in line so we get a seat," said Ben.

"We'll all get seats," said his mom, "but you're not traveling with us."

"What do you mean?"

"I thought you would like to travel with me in bus number one," said a voice from behind him. It was Mr. Goldman. Ben turned around to face his teacher. "Your parents said it was OK. What do you think Ben? We'll be traveling with some special people that wanted to meet you."

Ben looked back at his parents. "We'll see you when we get to the Seminary," said his dad. "Have a good trip," he said as he followed Ben's mom up the stairs, with Ben's little sister in tow.

"Come on Ben," said Mr. Goldman. "We're up front in the first bus. I even saved a seat for you."

"But how did you know that I. . .?"

"I listened to the way you spoke about the books. I knew that you sincerely wanted to help. Now follow me." Ben followed his teacher up the stairs and his Synagogue's rabbi, Rabbi Lewis, greeted him.

"Boker tov, Ben, we're so glad that you agreed to keep us company this morning.

"It's nice to see you," said Mr. Miller, the President of the Temple, extending his hand for Ben to shake.

"It's so good of you to join us," said Rabbi Kaufman, the School Principal, winking at Ben as he took a seat next to Mr. Goldman.

Ben knew their names. He had seen them in the hall or on the bimah during services and special events or he knew them from their pictures in the Temple Bulletin, but he did not know that they knew him, let alone his name. Seated behind Mr. Goldman, was a couple Ben did not recognize.

"Ben, I want you to meet Mr. and Mrs. Weiss."

Ben turned and was greeted by an older man with the biggest, brightest smile he had ever seen. Ben was certain that he was even older than his grandpa, but he had more hair on the top of his head. Seated next to him was another old person. She tried to smile too. Ben watched her hold onto to Mr. Weiss's arm while her hands shook for no obvious reason that he could see.

"Mr. Goldman told us all about you, Ben," said Mr. Weiss. "It was your desire to do something for the books that convinced me to charter all of these buses."

Ben could hardly believe what he heard. Mr. Weiss had obviously spent a lot of money to charter the buses and he had done it because of what he had said to Mr. Goldman that day in class.

"It was such a wonderful idea," said his wife in a tiny voice that Ben could barely hear. "Harry was disappointed that he didn't think of it himself."

Suddenly all of the grownups started to laugh and Ben thought that the grownup thing to do was to laugh along with them, though he wasn't exactly sure why.

For the rest of the trip, Ben settled into a window seat in the row behind the grownups. He listened to their conversations about Israel and synagogue politics with one ear, while the sounds of the road – the roar of the bus's diesel engine, the horns of other vehicles on the parkway, and the thumps and rattles that were always a part of highway driving filled the other ear.

Back on the airplane, Ben locked in on the image of Yankee Stadium. It was a part of his mental slideshow. Once, his dad had taken him to see the Yankees play, but it was such a disappointment. Everything looked so small from their seats high above the field. Sitting at home, watching a game, even on the small screen of the old Dumont, was an immeasurably better experience. At home, he could see the faces of the players. He watched their expressions when they hit the ball, and broad smiles spread across their faces or when they swung and missed, and frustration creased their foreheads. He could follow where a ball was hit, even to the most far-reaching rows of the stadium's upper-levels. The commentators educated him on the finer points of the sport, unlike being at a game and listening to the men in the row behind him disparage the last batter or criticize a pitcher's last throw.

The convoy of yellow school buses left the highway and meandered through the Sunday morning traffic of upper Manhattan. Moving south and east the procession undulated like a yellow and black striped serpent until it reached its destination.

The smell of the place assaulted their nostrils even before they could see the destruction. Ben remembered the smell. It had insinuated itself into his flesh. Staring through the bus window, he saw the twisted wreckage of the ten-story tall library tower at the juncture of two of the seminary wings. Wooden barricades controlled access to the building, but an endless stream of people entered and exited from the structure.

Mr. Goldman led each busload of volunteers to a clear area a distance from the burned out tower. As Ben stood there quietly, a twenty-something young man in a university sweatshirt, his sleeves pushed up beyond his elbows brushed past him. A crocheted kippah with the look of tie-dye perched on a mop of curly hair and held in place by a strategically placed Bobbie pin. The adult Ben immediately recognized the image. It had lurked behind his eyelids for decades and it had taken years for him to understand its importance. The student struggled under the weight of a book-filled cardboard box. Tears streamed from his eyes. His distress was not the product of the heaviness of his load; it was the immensity of the loss.

"Can I have your attention?" Mr. Goldman asked of the crowd that had assembled around him. "We estimate that almost every volume in the library's collection of over 200,000 books and manuscripts was either destroyed or in some way damaged." Hushed rumblings rose from the group. "Those documents that contain the name of God are shammot and should be taken to a genizah and buried with the kavod, the respect to which they are entitled. Nevertheless, many of them can be saved and that is why you are here this morning. For the next few hours, each of you is a part of our rescue mission. Whatever you can do is most appreciated. Please remember your bus number and return so we can leave by 3:00."

A group of students and faculty converged on the group and led them away. "Stay close to me Ben," said Mr. Goldman. "I have a very important job for you." Ben took a deep breath and watched everyone disappear into the building. His parents and sister glanced back at him as the doors closed behind them. Mr. Goldman walked toward a different door, and Ben ran to keep up with him. "Everyone who has volunteered is doing something important to help save the books. Not everyone will have a chance to do what I have in mind for you. Stay close to me Ben and don't wander off."

Ben followed his teacher through a maze of corridors. They went up one flight of stairs and then down another. Mr. Goldman spoke to him over his shoulder as Ben rushed to keep up with him. "Because of my studies, I've spent a lot time with many of the books in our library. Some of them survived the fire and many of them did not. After a while, it's easy to start thinking of them as people. Friends who make you feel a certain way when you are together with them. They have a personality and a physical presence. They have covers, spines, and pages. Some even have pictures to look at."

"I know what you mean Mr. Goldman. I have lots of friends and each one of them makes me feel a different way. I have friends who can cheer me up when I'm sad; make me laugh; or make me feel strong when I don't think I can do something that I've never done before."

"You've got it Ben. That's exactly what I mean. I don't know what caused the fire. I don't know if we ever will. If it was set intentionally, well, then someone is responsible for killing some of my best friends." Mr. Goldman stopped abruptly and Ben crashed into him. The teacher knelt down so that he was eye-to-eye with his student. "Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen," said Mr. Goldman, careful to pronounce each word. Ben stared at his teacher and shrugged his shoulders. Goldman laughed. "It's German Ben; my family lived in Germany before the Second World War. They were sent to concentration camps and only my Grandmother survived. She taught me that sentence. It was written by the German playwright, Heinrich Heine. He wasn't writing about books in a library Ben, but he might as well have been. The sentence translates as: 'Where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn human beings.'" Mr. Goldman rushed off while Ben stood silently, reflecting on what his teacher had said.

Book burnings do not mark the highest achievements of our species. We have resorted to their use throughout history as a means of wielding control and containing beliefs contrary to our own. Book burnings have been noted as early as the third century BCE in China and across nearly every continent. Even the works of Heine were set a blaze in a massive Nazi staged spectacle in Berlin's Bebelplatz (previously called the Opernplatz) in May 1933. Too often, the burnings were large communal events with the pagan trappings of the types of mob behaviors their sponsors were attempting to suppress. Their focus was on the material that fueled the fires and the people who created that fuel. In Germany, after the burning of books, came the extermination and the burning of the six million.

The light coming through the windows in the long hallway cast strange patterns on the walls. As Ben listened, he could only hear the sounds of their shoes on the floor tiles. They hurried down one last stairway and finally, they had arrived. Two large swinging doors lay in front of them. "Go ahead Ben," said his teacher. "Now, I'll follow you!"

Ben pushed the heavy wooden doors open with both hands and behind the doors he found a large room peppered with long wooden tables in neat rows. At each table sat men and women, youngsters and adults. In front of each one, lay a book, books of all different sizes and colors. They were doing something to the books, but the boy could not tell what it was from a distance. Ben entered the cavernous space and Mr. Goldman showed him to an empty seat.

"In this room Ben, we are trying to save books so that they will be enjoyed for future generations. I know it sounds funny, but these books are wet from the water that was used to put out the fire. If a book is left wet, the water weakens the binding and it falls apart. More importantly, the wet paper is a breeding ground for mold. When mold attacks the paper, the pages are destroyed. The volunteers in this room are 'interleafing' sheets of paper toweling between each page. The paper towels will soak up the water and another set of volunteers will remove the wet paper towels and if necessary, replace them. We hope that this will blot up the water and save the book. Are you ready to help?"

It sounded a little silly to Ben, but as he looked at the faces of the other volunteers in the room, it quickly became obvious to him that they were engaged in what they thought was very serious business. "I'm ready Mr. Goldman. What do I do?"

"To protect the books from further damage, we want you to wear these gloves." Mr. Goldman handed him a pair of gloves made from a soft white cloth. The gloves were a little too big for Ben and he found himself waging a battle to keep them from slipping off his fingers.

"Now what do I do?"

Mr. Goldman reached to the center of the table and picked up a book with a stained green cloth binding. "Why not start with this one?" Water dribbled from the book and fell onto the table. Mr. Goldman grabbed several sheets of already torn paper toweling from the stack on the table and blotted up the little puddle. "Here's your first patient, Ben," he said to the youngster putting the book on the table in front of him. "All you need to do is go through the book, one page at a time and put a piece of paper toweling in between each page. Got it!" said Mr. Goldman, ending his explanation with the "OK" sign.

"What should I do when I finish with this book?"

"Put it to one side and take another. I'll be back for you later." Mr. Goldman vanished into the room.

Ben was alone at the table with people much, much older than he. The man with the wire rimmed glasses who sat across from him barely looked up at him and hummed to himself as he worked. The woman who sat next to him seemed to be weeping as she absentmindedly turned the pages. At the far end of the table sat a woman, who was probably his mother's age. She was nearly hidden behind a wall of books. Some interleafed and others waiting for her attention. Through a gap in the stack, she and Ben had made eye contact.

"Did you just arrive?" she asked.

Ben smiled at her. "Yes, just a few minutes ago. How long have you been here?"

The woman stopped interleafing and swabbed her forehead with a sheet of paper toweling. "It feels as though it's been years. My great-great-grandfather was a rabbi. Some people would have called him a scholar. I'm told that some of his books were in the library. Of course, I would like to save the volumes that he wrote, but this is our legacy. Throughout the ages, we've been called the 'people of the book.' People have died because of these books and we owe something to the books, to their authors, and to the people who fought for them. Then she went back to interleafing the thick volume that sat in front of her.

Ben searched the cover of the book for its title, but it was in a language that he did not understand. As he began to interleaf the pages of the book with paper towels, he sensed that the book was very old and that it had gone through even greater trials than the library fire. Even through the gloves, he felt the dampness of the pages. They were tinged brown with age and as he reached the thick back cover, he saw a long scribbled note written in smudged blue ink. Beneath the words, which he could not read either, was someone's bold flowing signature. "Maybe this book was a gift to somebody," thought Ben. "They are both probably long gone, but at least I could help save the book.

As he placed it out of his way, he exchanged glances with the woman at the end of the table. She smiled at him almost imperceptibly. He never thought that he would have a stack of interleafed books as tall as the one in front of her.

Ben continued to interleaf. The books came in all different colors, thicknesses, and sizes. One thin book was larger than all the others he had worked on. He recognized it as a volume of Mishnah. Mr. Goldman had brought several volumes to class and he showed them how a tractate on some point of Jewish law occupied the center of the page, while various commentaries surrounded it. The pages were so large that they took several sheets of toweling to cover them. Since it was written in Hebrew and read from right to left, he used it as an opportunity to hold the towels in place with each preceding page.

As the stack of interleafed books grew and grew in front of him, Ben began to see that each book was different from the others. Not only were they different because of what was printed on their pages, but also their personalities came through in how they looked, felt, and despite the pungent aroma of the fire, how they smelled. They were individuals and it was easy to see how Mr. Goldman thought of them as friends. It was also easy to see how if their contents were feared; their message contrary to what someone else thought it should be; they could just as easily become a victim in lieu of their authors. That's what Mr. Goldman was trying to say. That's what Mr. Heine had said a century ago. Books are defenseless. People can fight back. You can destroy the book, but not the ideas and information they represent. The ideas live on in the minds of their readers and authors. Once you begin destroying books, human beings cannot be far behind.

Ben heard a voice behind him. It was Mr. Goldman, "Ben, in your own way, you've made an important contribution to the future. Now, it's time to go."

"Thud." The clunk of the landing gear brought Ben back to the present. The plane was nearly ready to land. It was morning when they arrived in Berlin with the entire day ahead of them. They would eat breakfast, settle in at their hotel, and tour the city. It was just after dusk when they reached the Bebelplatz. Stretching out before the group were the imposing silhouettes of the Berlin State Opera House, St. Hedwig's Cathedral and Humboldt University. As impressive as their buildings were to visitors, Ben was there to see a sight that could only be viewed by looking down.

As dusk became evening, an eerie glow amongst the stones that made up the plaza delineated the object of their search. Slowly, Ben and his colleagues edged toward the glow. Ben took a small flashlight out of his pocket and illuminated the brass plaque on the ground near the luminous square. Even in German, he recognized the text: "Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Mensche." "Where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn human beings." When they looked down through the glow, Ben and his colleagues were staring into a stark white room lined entirely with bookshelves – empty bookshelves. This was The Empty Library, an installation by Israeli sculptor Micha Ullman, on the site of the infamous Nazi book burning of 1933; the event that Mr. Goldman had alluded to when Ben was a child.

Ben looked around the dimly lit Bebelplatz and tried to imagine what it must have been like on that evening in May. As the flames rose into the sky and the paper and cardboard crackled in the blaze, Reich Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels urged his audience to end the era of "exaggerated Jewish intellectualism." He promised them that "the future German man will not just be a man of books." Ben knew that Heine's prophecy came true and that while they started with the burning of books, the incineration of men, women, and children in eastern European death camps was not far behind. He had seen film of the event, but it was like watching a ballgame on his family's old Dumont TV. Now the magnitude of the event began to sink in.

A sudden breeze swept across the Bebelplatz bringing a chill up the back of Ben's neck. An unforgettable smell assaulted his nose and sinuses.  He had read that odors could rekindle memories, but did it work in reverse as well?  Had the acrid smell in his nostrils wafted along with the breeze from some distant trash fire?  "Do you smell something," he asked his wife."

"Not a thing," she whispered, in reverence for the location where so many volumes had met their end.

He scanned the plaza for any signs of flame or a column of smoke.  Nothing.  It was in his mind.  Could it be a throwback to that day in 1966?  The fact that had he committed those scents to memory and could drag them up from somewhere deep within, over forty-years later, made the two disparate events resonate that much more.

He thought about the youngsters who had fed the flames with books most of them had never opened. They were caught in the moment; without an inkling of how their participation would be a prelude to genocide. He thought about his day at the Seminary; not truly understanding at the time, that his participation was a prologue to salvation.

As the stars over Berlin became visible, Ben stood silently in the plaza. He knew that history tends to repeat itself and our species is prone to repeating its errors. While he would never learn who started the blaze at the Seminary, he vowed that to the extent that he could, he would work to ensure that neither books nor people were put to the torch again, even if it could only be achieved one page at a time.

(Author's note – The Nazis were scrupulous about documenting significant events for posterity. Film footage of the May 10, 1933 book burning in Berlin is available at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website. The address is:


from the April 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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