Librarian as Witness - Five
What a ponderous title, "The Librarian as Witness"! Whatever does that mean?In my nearly four decades as a librarian in one capacity or another I have come into contact with many remarkable individuals, some of whom have shared remarkable stories from their lives.
A book that appeared on January 1 of this year is a novel entitled People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks. It is based on an actual manuscript, the Sarajevo Haggadah, that dates from fifteenth century Spain. In 1991 it's value was estimated to be $700,000,000 [Yes, seven hundred million dollars]! During the Serb-Bosnian War on the mid-1990s, this unique manuscript was nearly lost when the Serbs torched the Bosnian National Library, but a valiant Muslim employe of the Library, knowing of its worth, risked his life to smuggle it to safety.
Fritz Bamberger (1902-1984) was a major presence at the College-Institute during the administrations of Nelson Glueck and Alfred Gottschalk. Officially his title was Professor of Intellectual History, but he was an individual of a thousand facets. One of his great interests was books - their history, production, etc., anything related to books, and by extension, manuscripts. And his personal library, especially of Spinoziana, was world famous.
He told me about his personal "encounter" with the Sarajevo Haggadah. One summer, in the mid-1920s, he was vacationing in the Yugoslavia and decided to visit Sarajevo to view the famous Haggadah. After leaving his suitcase at the hotel, he went to the library and asked to see this famous manuscript.
He was directed to an office where a "Turk" (i.e., a Yugoslavian identified as Muslim because he was wore a fez) sat at a desk reading a newspaper, the ashtray on his desk overflowing with cigarette butts. Dr. Bamberger made his request, and the "Turk" (Dr. Bamberger's word) sighed, slowly put down his newspaper, and wearily rising to his feet, went to a safe in the corner of the room.
He removed the manuscript and gave it to Dr. Bamberger. Dr. Bamberger wanted to spend time examining it and so looked around the room for a table where to sit down. But there was only one table, the same one with the filthy ashtray where the "Turk" was sitting.
Dr. Bamberger asked where he might sit to examine the manuscript, and the "Turk" replied that he could take the manuscript back to his hotel room and return it when he was finished with it! And this is exactly what he did. Moreover, the "Turk" asked for no information as to his name or at which hotel he was staying.
With a far-away look in his eyes and a smile on his lips, he told me how seriously tempted he was to bury the manuscript in his suitcase and hop the next rain out of town!
But he ultimately did the right thing. He returned to his room and spent the evening minutely examining the Haggadah. And the next day he duly returned it to the "Turk," who wearily arose from his table, still with its dirty ashtray and newspaper, and returned the manuscript to the safe.