Whispers from Libraries

From a Nazi-looted book to an "intimate" club: What we can learn from stamps and catalog cards

Countless books donated to the Yiddish Book Center have passed through libraries and related organizations. While many of the libraries that once held Yiddish books no longer exist or they no longer maintain collections of Yiddish books, these places where the Center’s books once lived are documented in the books themselves. Below are various ways to explore these libraries, starting with book covers. Nearly any given shelf at the Center contains a variety of library spine labels, other library spine markings, and/or easily identifiable retro library covers.

Library stamps from all over the world grace the pages of the Center’s books, with many books displaying stamps from multiple libraries. This is a reminder that numerous books at the Center had long journeys well before they arrived in Amherst, Massachusetts. The books here tend to be well traveled, like the people who wrote, published, manufactured, and read them.

In addition to interesting locales, the Center’s books have passed through the libraries and book repositories of some rather unusual organizations, including a depot for books looted by the Nazis, a vegetarian restaurant, a hospital for consumptives, a Californian Yiddish community for chicken farmers, a Lithuanian branch of the Maccabi sports club, and a mysterious “intimate club.”

Catalog cards reveal which books were taken out where and when, signifying the localized popularity of a particular work, as well as general Yiddish readership in that community. For instance, catalog cards show that Yiddish books from the Free Public Library of New Haven were often borrowed frequently in the 1930s–1950s. Sometimes catalog cards can even identify the individuals who borrowed books in a certain place and time. Catalog cards from the Library of the J.C.R.S. [Jewish Consumptive Relief Society] Sanatorium in Colorado usually have names written under the stamped dates that they were taken out. Tracing these names in the J.C.R.S. database provides background for who these readers were: their year and place of birth, entry to the United States, occupation, immediate family, and the dates they were at the J.C.R.S. Sanatorium. 

In addition to these little pieces of evidence left behind in specific volumes, the Center has a few library handbooks that shed light on the inner workings of these libraries, such as Hantbukh far biblyotekn (Handbook for Libraries), Bibliotek arbet (Library Work), and Yohrbukh far yudishe biblyoteken af 1914 yohr (Yearbook for Jewish Libraries in the Year 1914). There even existed a series on library knowledge with titles including Funandershteln bikher in bibliotekn (Arranging Books in Libraries), available through Harvard. Other books here contain labels or leaflets with their library’s borrowing policies, as well as other information about the libraries where these books were once housed.

Library statistics from the aforementioned library handbooks and others help paint a picture of Jewish libraries and libraries with Jewish books in the Russian Empire, Soviet Union, Canada, and the United States. They document not only the existence of various Jewish libraries, but specifics about their collections and communities. Included are circulation statistics and even a list of confiscated books from the Russian Empire. 

It is possible to learn about such libraries, not only through the content of the library handbooks described above, but also through the content of many Yiddish novels, Yiddish memoirs, yizkor books, and other books in the Center’s collection. Some of the passages relating to libraries have been translated and are available on the Center’s website. For example, Seymour Levitan translated Rachel Auerbach’s The Librarians, about the librarians of the Warsaw Ghetto.

The Center’s Wexler Oral History Project also has some wonderful interviews and clips about libraries. Eva Raby, former director of the Jewish Public Library (JPL) in Montreal (Quebec), discusses the origins of the JPL, and Sylvia Lustgarten and Annette Zakuta, daughters of Yiddish writer Y. Y. Segal, talk about their memories of the JPL and the librarian, Rokhl Korn. Liba Augenfeld, a Vilna native and former Jewish partisan, speaks of the children’s library in Vilnius (Lithuania), and, below, Jack Lewin remembers his hometown of Łódź (Poland) and the library he would frequent there: