Librarian as Witness - Four
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.
In the third entry of this "series," I cited a story about Ze'ev Jabotinsky and Arthur Koestler told to me by Jacob Dienstag, librarian emeritus of the Mendel Gottesman Library at Yeshiva University.
Mr. Dienstag passed away this past weekend. They said he was 95, but I suspect he was older, as if that makes any difference!
There are several stories about Mr. Dienstag, some that he told me, that I would like to share, to praise him and make him better known.
First of all, the reader should know that Mr. Dienstag was an uncompromising Orthodox Jew, but he also had a broadness of heart and soul that are the sign of an "erlikher Yid."
During World War II he did his basic training at a base near Columbus, Ohio. Knowing that Abraham Joshua Heschel was "nearby" in Cincinnati (only some 90 miles or so), Mr. Dienstag went AWOL one Friday morning, hitched a ride to Cincinnati, planning to spend Shabbat there. He located Dr. Heschel, who not only invited him to spend Shabbat at his home, but even arranged for a ride for Mr. Dienstag back to his base. Mr. Dienstag said that the memory of their conversations lightened his heart when he thought back on them later, in the field, in Europe.
He was sent to Europe, where he volunteered to be a chaplain's assistant. In his case, the chaplain he was assigned to was Rabbi Max David Eichhorn (1906-1986), a Reform rabbi. Mr. Dienstag told me that at first he was not especially happy to be attached to a Reform rabbi, but it took only a short time for the two to become fast friends. Indeed, I remember one time when Rabbi Eichhorn visited the Library during the 1970s (when we were still on West 68th Street), and I mentioned to him that Mr. Dienstag was a frequent visitor to the Library. As Rabbi Eichhorn was going to be in New York a short time, it would not be possible for them to meet in person. So he telephoned Mr. Dienstag from my office, and from the joy in Rabbi Eichhorn's voice, I could tell what a wonderful reunion they were having.
Finally, a story from the field. One Friday night in France, in the summer of 1944, an older GI came to services and told Rabbi Eichhorn that it his father's first Jahrzeit. Of course eager to know the soldiers he was serving, Rabbi Eichhorn asked the man his name. He replied Albo. Mr. Dienstag asked if he were somehow related to the Spanish Jewish philosopher, Joseph Albo (1380-1444), author of Sefer Ha-Ikkarim. He man laughed and said he was the son of Ismar Elbogen (1874-1943) [noted Jewish historian], that he was an interpreter for the U.S. Army and that he had "modified" his German name, lest he be captured by the Germans and they find out who he was.
Simcha Kluger told me just today that when the administration of Yeshiva University closed the buildings in the evening and refused to keep them open so that Rabbi Soloveitchik could add lectures, Mr. Dienstag kept the library open and provided the venue.
Finally, Jacob Dienstag was not meshugga' le-davar ehad, but rather le-shney devarim: Jabotinsky, his mentor, and Maimonides. He was always researching Maimonides and compiling bibliographies. If one searches Jacob Dienstag in the Libraries' on-line catalog one will find thirteen entries, eleven of which are related to Maimonidean scholarship.
He was such a colorful and lively individual, and with his passing we lose yet another important link to our past. I consider myself most fortunate to have known him.
Yehi zikhro barukh.