A Librarian's Moment
There are many and different aspects to librarianship that give pleasure to the individual librarian. (I can imagine there are some out there who wonder how anyone can find pleasure in being a librarian, just as, I suppose, a vegetarian might not understand the pleasures of foie gras to a gourmand.)
One of those has to be being present at a "eureka" moment, when either the librarian or the patron makes a discovery that seemingly shakes the earth beneath their feet.
Not long ago one happened to me. One morning I was processing a Holocaust-related book. It was about a town whose Jews were annihilated during the Holocaust, published in 2004, with English and Polish texts on facing pages, .
The book also had photos, some from before the War, some from after the War, with those from after including relatively recent photos of young persons in Israeli military dress, obviously the descendants of people who had come originally fromthe town.
I confess, I like looking at photos, especially old photos, just as I enjoy (yes, enjoy) reading Jahrzeit plaques in a synagogues I visit for the first time. (One can never tell what name will jump out or resonate. I could give examples, but I digress...) On two pages were photographs from before the War of people named Kapitulnik.
Well, I thought, we have a third year rabbinical student here named Yaron Kapitulnik. I wonder if he might be related to these folks. I headed into my office to send Yaron an e-mail, inviting him to come to my office and view these photographs.
That very moment Yaron walked in - with a question about a journal, something totally unrelated to the message I was about to send him.
I put the book in his hands, and he looked at the photographs. He collapsed in a chair, his eyes rimming red, and said that he recognized the names of his great-grandparents, whose faces he had never seen before, and he identified one photograph as his grandfather as a child he had never seen. Other photos, of his grandfather with siblings he had never known about, stunned him.
"I must call my father in Jerusalem! But how can I tell him? It might give him a heart attack..."
Yaron checked the book out and understandably went up to his classmates to share this discovery.
The next day I waited for Yaron to come to my office to tell me the upshot, and when he did not, I went into the Reading Room to seek him out.
I saw him at a reading desk, bent over his books. "Nu, nu?" I said.
He looked at me, slightly embarrased and slightly crestfallen. Yes, he called his father, but no, there was no surprise. It seemed his father owned these photographs and had lent them to the man who published this memorial book. He had never thought to share the family's history with the next generation.
In talking about this with other librarians I learned that this attitude is not unusual, in either Israel or the United States. Somehow our elders think no one could be interested in the past.
The bottom line for Yaron was that he and his father had a serious talk about the family and they next year plan to visit the ancestral town in Poland where Yaron's grandfather was born.
I admit, I was a bit let down by this anti-climax, but then I realized how much in my own family's history I shall never know because either I showed no interest when I was younger and my parents and grandparents thought equally that no one could be interested in the past.
And now it is too late...