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Books: Abandoned or preserved

Bill Benson

October 29, 2020

Forty years ago, in 1980, Aaron Lansky was a 23-year old student, of Jewish heritage, living in Massachusetts, when he stumbled upon his life’s work and ambition, rescue all the books he could find, printed years before in Europe, but written in an almost forgotten language, Yiddish.

At that time, experts believed that only 70,000 Yiddish volumes remained in the world. “Precious volumes that had survived Hitler and Stalin were being passed down from older generations of Jewish immigrants to their non-Yiddish-speaking children—only to be thrown away or destroyed.”

Jewish people who had lived for centuries along the Rhine River had spoken a jargon called Yiddish that combined Hebrew and Aramaic of the Old Testament with High German.

Lansky went to work, gathering a box or two of Yiddish books at a time. “He issued a worldwide appeal for unwanted Yiddish books, and the response overwhelmed him.” He would receive each book, catalog it, place it on a shelf, and then when requested, ship it to a college, library, or private collector.

In 2004, Lansky published his book, “Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books.” He stated he had salvaged 1.5 million books, an incredible feat.

We turn now to another effort to salvage and preserve abandoned books.

In May of 1948, Israel declared itself a new country. Out of the despair of the Holocaust, the Jewish Zionists were determined to establish their presence upon their ancient land of millennium before.

War broke out that year. Fourteen months later, in July of 1949, the Israeli’s and the Arab countries signed an armistice that gave Israel all of the land promised to them in the British mandate, plus half of the land that the Mandate had allocated to the Palestinians.

In 1948, the year that Palestinians have since called Nakba, meaning “catastrophe,” between 670,000 and 760,000 Palestinians were either expelled, or fled their homes during the chaos of war. With them, they carried their keys, hoping to return someday soon, and open the door to their home.

For most families that day never came. Israeli forces either refused to grant them permission to return, or if a fortunate few did return, they found their home and village bulldozed into rubble.

To this day a key and a keyhole symbolize a Palestinian Arab families’ loss.

One thing that most families had to leave behind was their collection of books.

The Israeli government, plus the staff of the Jewish National and University Library at Hebrew University, plus Israeli army soldiers together laid their hands on some “30,000 books, manuscripts, and newspapers that the Palestinian residents of western Jerusalem left behind.”

“They also gathered another 40,000 to 50,000 books from the cities of Jaffa, Haifa, Tiberias, Nazareth, and other places.”

From the perspective of the Israelis, these dutiful clerks were fulfilling a good deed, preserving the Palestinians Arabs’ abandoned property, safekeeping the books from looters and thieves, with the intention of giving them back to the rightful Arab owners when identified, a complicated task.

The Palestinian Arabs see it different; the Israeli authorities confiscated their books, stole their culture’s base, and pushed aside their right to own and retain their property, their books.

In 2010, Gish Amit, an Israeli scholar, published a well-researched article in the “Jerusalem Quarterly,” Ownerless Objects? The Story of the Books the Palestinians left behind in 1948.

Amit writes, “as the project was underway, I imagine the first seeds of hesitation, pangs of conscience and misgivings began to sprout: are the books ours? What should we do with them?

“Are we looting the books or only keeping them safe? If we return the books to their rightful owners, how much should we charge for our efforts?”

Unbiased observers believe that if not for the Israeli’s efforts, the books would have perished.

Most of the books reside still in an Israeli library, awaiting a fair and equitable solution.

Gish writes, “Israel’s collection of Palestinians’ books marks the transformation of a lively and dynamic Palestinian culture into museum artifacts. The Palestinians’ books were placed within the shrine of Israeli libraries, fossilized on the shelves – accessible and at the same time lifeless.”

Aaron Lansky saved 1.5 million Yiddish books, but he passed them on to whoever requested them. The Israeli’s saved tens of thousands of the Palestinians’ books, but they remain in an Israeli library, standing on a bookshelf.