You can't just throw history away

In an exclusive extract from his new book, Aaron Lansky describes his race to rescue more than a million Yiddish manuscripts from destruction - and save a vanishing civilisation
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I'd been working twelve hours a day, six days a week for many months when I decided to take a rare Sunday off to accompany my friend Andrea Kurtzman to her cousin's wedding in Nyack, New York. The meal was over and I, woozy from champagne, had just retreated to my hotel room for a much needed nap when I noticed the message light flashing on my phone.

"Hmmmph?" I muttered into the receiver.

"Hello, Mr Lansky?" said the operator. "I have a message for you from a Mrs Langert in the Bronx. She says it's urgent. She says, 'They're tearing apart the library.' She wants you to call her right away. She says she's sitting by the phone. She says she won't move until she hears from you. Do you want me to give you the number?"

Andrea and I rented a large Ryder truck. At 7:30 the next morning, a hot, humid, summer day, we all rendezvoused on the sidewalk in front of the Coops library, where Mrs Langert and several neighbors were waiting for us. In one of the library's dusty windows, facing the street, a big printed sign read Office for Rent.

Not surprisingly, Mrs Langert took charge, leading us around the side of the building to the library entrance. A faded, hand-lettered Yiddish sign locked in a glass case announced "Aktivitetn fun klub (Activities of the (Yiddish) Club)", followed by a long list of weekly events, including "Tuesday, 3pm: Leyenkrayz (Reading Circle)", "Wednesday, 2pm: Discussion Group", and "Thursday, 7:30pm: Film", and at the bottom of the sign, in Yiddish and English: "Library Open Every Day, 8am-5pm". It was clear that it had been a long time since the Yiddish Club had last met, and longer still since the library had kept anything resembling regular hours. As we pushed open the door we saw the short flight of stairs leading down into the library, cluttered with debris: a snow shovel, a shattered light fixture, children's toys, and a broken mirror. But that was nothing compared to what awaited us in the library itself. A large, L-shape room, it once held reading tables and chairs surrounded by floor-to-ceiling wooden bookcases; now everything lay in ruins. In the center of the room almost ten thousand volumes were buried beneath the rubble of smashed shelves and huge chunks of plaster and laths pulled from the ceiling and walls. We had to keep a sharp lookout to avoid stepping on rusty nails.

Apparently the wrecking crew hadn't yet finished, because at the far end of the library, in the short leg of the L, several thousand additional volumes were still on the walls. We recognized many of the titles: multiple copies of the collected works of Peretz, Sholem Aleichem, Sholem Asch, and Avrom Reisen; ten copies of Abraham Cahan's two volume History of the United States (in Yiddish, of course); immigrant novels by Chaver Paver; Mark Schweid's Treyst mayn folk (Take Comfort, My People), a biography of Peretz; and Yiddish translations of Zola and Balzac. There was also an unlikely mix of books in Russian, German, and English: Co-op, by Upton Sinclair; Das Kapital, by Marx; The Correspondence of Carlyle and Emerson; a paperback edition of Peyton Place; and right next to it The Six-Year Plan for the Reconstruction of Warsaw. On the floor were remnants of 50 years of cultural activity: a dented coffee urn, three big aluminum tea kettles, a broken podium, a coat rack with four wire hangers, a box full of brand new, unsold copies of Yiddish humor books by Sam Liptzin, carts of food, a ripped movie screen, a jimmied strong box (apparently used for ticket sales); framed pictures of Peretz, Sholem Aleichem, Sholem Asch, Moyshe Olgin (the founding editor of the Freiheit), and Abraham Lincoln; a faded reproduction of Picasso's Guernica; and strewn everywhere, playing pieces from chess, checkers, backgammon, and Chinese checkers.

We were still reconnoitering when the landlord appeared, demanding to know who we were and what we were up to. I explained that we were from a nonprofit organization and that we had come to retrieve Yiddish books that were the rightful property of Mrs Langert and other members of the cooperative. The landlord was Jewish. He was also prost un farbisn, coarse and snappish, and he made it clear that he had no sympathy for a Yiddish library, let alone a left-wing Yiddish library that occupied good space and paid no rent. "Anyway, you're too late," he said. "I've got trucks coming in less than an hour to haul all this junk away. This isn't a pinko co-op any more, this is private property and I'm the owner. As far I'm concerned you and your hippie friends are trespassing and I want you out of here now!"

Thank God for Sidney Berg. A landlord himself, he stepped forward, introduced himself, and offered a deal: If the man let us have the books, we in turn would give him a receipt that he could use to claim a whopping write-off on his taxes. "All right," the landlord agreed, "I'll give you till four this afternoon. Whatever you can carry out of here between now and then is yours. Whatever's left goes to the dump."

We sprang into action - but our progress was painfully slow. It took forever to remove the wood and plaster under which the books were buried. The landlord had just had the whole space fumigated, and as the temperature climbed into the nineties we had to tie bandanas around our faces to keep from gagging on the acrid stench. By noontime we had removed fewer than a thousand books, and it was clear that with just the five of us shlepping, we didn't have a prayer of finishing by four.

That's when we realized that a bunch of neighborhood kids had gathered to watch us. When we removed our gloves and masks and stepped outside for a quick lunch in the shade of the truck, an eleven-year-old Puerto Rican boy named Victor came over and asked what we were doing. We explained that the apartment complex had once been a cooperative and that we were saving Jewish books from its former library. Although Victor had come directly from San Juan to the Coops less than two years before, his English was excellent and he responded to this news with greater interest than I would have expected. "Imagine," he said, "a whole library right here where we live!" When I told him that we were racing to meet a four-o'clock deadline, he looked genuinely surprised. "Do you guys need help here or something?" he asked.

Did we need help! In a flash Victor was off. Ten minutes later he returned with a dozen more black and Puerto Rican kids his age, whom he proceeded to organize into a brigade snaking from the library to the truck. I think every kid in the neighborhood ended up shlepping books that day - with the exception of Victor himself, who in light of his linguistic and managerial talents appointed himself foreman and stood at the top of the stairs supervising everyone else. Sidney went off twice to buy cold Coca-Cola to fuel the troops; other than that, they worked without stopping. By the time four o'clock rolled around, the job was done. Almost fourteen thousand books lay safely stacked in the back of the truck. For Victor, new to the neighborhood, it was a personal triumph: He had proved himself a leader. For Mrs Langert it was also a triumph, although of a somewhat more political nature: Despite her sadness at the loss of the library, she was proud to have played such a crucial role in its rescue. Even more, she was proud of the way the library had been saved - all those local boys, black and Puerto Rican, passing Jewish books from hand to hand was, in her eyes, a shining example of working-class solidarity prevailing over racial and ethnic divides. In its final hour, its library in ruins and its books about to be driven off to points unknown, the Coops' progressive vision had been realized at last.

'Outwitting History', by Aaron Lansky, published by Souvenir Press, £20. 'Outwitting History' is available from the Independent Book Store at the special price of £18 (including P&P). To order, please call 08700 798897.

Twenty-five years on, his cultural mission continues

In 1979, Aaron Lansky, a 23-year-old student with a straggly beard, left his postgraduate course to round up the world's Yiddish books. Leading scholars advised him that there were only 70,000 books written in Yiddish, the vernacular of Jewish societies in Central and Eastern Europe, still left.

With no funding, Lansky hitchhiked between towns, holding public meetings and collecting books as he went. Twenty-five years later, he has accumulated 1.5 million texts. What he has achieved has been described as the greatest cultural rescue effort in Jewish history.

Lansky, now 49, was born in Massachusetts, USA, to Jewish parents. His grandparents on both sides were European Jews who had emigrated to the United States in the early 20th century. "My grandparents and, to a lesser extent, my parents spoke Yiddish," says Lansky, "but when I was growing up, I knew very little about the language. Certainly, no one tried to teach it to me."

Yiddish, the language of a civilisation, was all but destroyed by the Nazi Holocaust and was slipping out of use. Jews who had fled Central and Eastern Europe during the 20th century recognised that speaking Yiddish would be a barrier to their children's integration in their new home countries. And so, as Lansky's grandparents' generation died, so did the use of Yiddish and the interest in Yiddish literature.

By the time Lansky went to McGill University in Montreal, Canada, to study Yiddish literature in the mid-Seventies, many of the books he wanted to read were out of print. "Much as I loved academic research, studying the minutiae of literary questions seemed beside the point when the literature itself was in physical danger," says Lansky. So he put down his pen and began a race against time to save the world's Yiddish books. There was no time to be lost because as the older generation died their collections of Yiddish texts were being thrown out by families who could not read them.

He started small with a visit to his local rabbi. "I was sitting in his office and I happened to notice a basket on the floor filled with old Yiddish books. I asked about them and he said, 'Those are the books that we are going to bury,'" says Lansky. Burying books is a Jewish tradition. Without a homeland, the Jewish diaspora considered their books a "portable homeland" - the repository of identity for a landless people. When a religious text was no longer useable, it would receive a funeral ceremony on a par with that given to a deceased man or woman.

Unwilling to dump unwanted Yiddish texts, Lansky discovered that his local community had been burying secular books alongside religious ones for many years. He told the rabbi to send the books to his parents' house in future for safekeeping. When, a few months later, his parents called to say they were concerned that the second storey of their house would collapse under the weight of these unwanted books, Lansky realised that the scholars' estimate of 70,000 Yiddish books in existence was probably conservative.

Twenty-five years later, he still hasn't returned to his course in Yiddish literature. And his collection of Yiddish texts has continued to grow past the 1.5 million mark, and teams of volunteers, left, and 24 paid workers assist him in collections. He has hauled books out of dumps, saved collections as they were about to be pulped and spent a lot of time sitting at kitchen tables around the world persuading ageing European Jews that they could trust him with their libraries.

He has repaid their trust by setting up the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, which is now visited by 10,000 people annually. The collection is currently being digitised so that all the books can be reprinted on demand. Unsatisfied, Lansky's latest project is to translate many of the texts into English. "It's going to take years," he says, "but it'll be worth it."

Clare Rudebeck