09 February 2011

Before Books Become Kindling

Before books become kindling, I want to share a couple of good stories with you.

Yesterday while meeting with a wedding couple, I learned that the bride-to-be was the granddaughter of  Czech Holocaust survivors.  Her grandmother was in the Theresienstadt concentration camp while her grandfather survived camps in Poland; and they eventually reunited after the war, made it to America, and started a family here.  In the course of the conversation I asked her if she had ever heard of Rabbi Leo Baeck, the esteemed Berlin rabbi and theologian who was in Theresienstadt and then led a triumphant teaching career following the war as well.  She hadn't.  Offered passage from Berlin to Cincinnati for a teaching position in 1941, Baeck chose to remain with his German community and accept deportation to the camp:  "As long as one Jew remains in Germany, my place is with him," is what he said.  I went to my bookshelf and took down Albert Friedlander's Teacher of Theresienstadt, his biography of Rabbi Baeck, and asked her to take it to Florida (where she and her fiance were headed to visit the grandmother) and find out if her grandmother had ever had an encounter with Rabbi Baeck.

My teacher from rabbinical school, Rabbi A. Stanley Dreyfus, of blessed memory, was the grandson-in-law of Rabbi Baeck.  His widow Marianne Dreyfus is a Brooklyn resident, dear friend, and herself was in the Kindertransport (moving children from Germany to England) and is her grandfather's honorable keeper of the flame.

The other book I took from the shelf was Baeck's The Pharisees and Other Essays, published by Schocken (in English) in 1947, a copy of which I found at the Strand Bookstore in the mid-1990s.  I'm forever combing those shelves in search of gems on my visits to Union Square and the day I found this book there was one particularly memorable highlight--and I'm not talking about its discounted price.  On the inside cover was Rabbi Baeck's name, written in his own hand, confirmed by Stanley and Marianne when I showed it them with the immortal words, "Yes--that's Grandpa's signature!"

I immediately offered my find to Marianne for her collection but as you can imagine, she has a few copies.  So it has remained with me all theses years and I often have an occasion to tell the story, pass the book around, and let people hold it, a sacred expression of inspiration from an inkwell to a page over more than half a century.

Yesterday, showing it to a granddaughter of Czech survivors who had never heard of Leo Baeck until then was particularly gratifying and I'm eager to hear what comes of the visit to Florida.


Books, whether they themselves are from the flames of destruction or whether they are a protection against our own propensity for a descent into despair, are redemptive.  Lately, to lift my mood after too much worry and angst, I re-opened a paperback collection of Dorothy Parker's poetry, finding her macabre rhyming schemes to be just the tonic I needed to push me into February.

I hadn't realized until recently that in fact during the Second World War, United States servicemen received a copy of the Viking Portable Library's Dorothy Parker (with an introduction by W. Somerset Maugham)--a remarkable statement in its own right.  I have a small section on my bookshelf at home dedicated to the Jewish books issued to servicemen during the Second World War, including my dad's prayerbook and Bible that were sent to him courtesy of the Jewish Welfare Board, one of the last entities of true pluralistic cooperation among American rabbis until our current era.  Dorothy Rothschild (Parker's actual name) deserved, I figured, a place alongside these other small volumes.

I found it online and have been carrying it around for the last week or so.  Judy, a student in one of my Torah study classes and a trained librarian, held it in her hands Tuesday night and commented upon the fine quality of paper that was used in the 1940s.  Its acid levels were just right to ensure longevity, she declared.  It's a real jewel.

Parker dedicated the book to her then husband "Lieutenant Alan Campbell," (another half-Jew and screenwriter) a few years before their divorce (among the many reasons, his infidelities during the war.)  Speaking of which:
War Song

Soldier in a curious land
All across a swaying sea,
Take her smile and lift her hand--
Have no guilt of me.

Soldier, when were soldiers true?
If she's kind and sweet and gay,
Use the wish I send to you--
Lie not lone til day!

Only, for the nights that were,
Soldier, and the dawns that came,
When in sleep you turn to her
Call her by my name.

 I don't have a Kindle and don't plan on getting one, mostly because there's just too much to lose.


Old First said...

I loved this.

Richard said...

The loss of a pious man is a loss to his whole generation, but the gain of a Kindle for a Hanukkah present does not destroy a single book in existence.