There may be eight million stories in the naked city; there are at least that many in the antiquarian business, especially if your business involves buying up collections from private estate sales. Through the transactions, through remarks, through the books themselves we get to know their former owners, the books telling us their life stories in an almost intimate way. We try to be respectful. Sometimes I refer to these people as our “angels”, in the way an American orchestra’s concert program refers to the highest donors as angels — they are giving us something of themselves and it demands respect.
A recent purchase belonged to a couple of scientists. Their upstairs neighbors were managing the sale of everything in the apartment, including a few thousand books. The high-end dealers had already been through, the auction house rep and the local science institute as well, and there were still a few thousand books in the apartment, much to the neighbor’s dismay.
We looked them over and decided that, except for a few hundred unsellable copies, we would take them. We don’t have a truck, so the transport involved a few trips with the car over the course of perhaps 3 weeks.
Through these trips we got to know the upstairs neighbor and he shared some information about the deceased owners. The man (we’ll call him H.) was born into a German Jewish family in the 1920s. During the early Hitler years the family resettles in Prague, and some time later our man H., then just out of high school, leaves his family behind and flees for Palestine. Reaching the coast of Haifa, he is put on a docked French warship. That ship is bombed, he survives, but is then for some reason classified along with the other survivors as a “foreign enemy”, and put briefly in the Atlit detainee camp in Israel.
After the war, H. studies and worked as a biologist. He meets a woman (A.), another brilliant scientist, a bit younger and (this is where it gets a little murky) by the early 1970s she’s left her husband and son to come with H. to, of all places, Germany, where they both begin work at a very prestigious research institute. H.’s family has all perished in the Holocaust. But A. learns German (we found the language course on records), and they settle into a middle-class life in a Bavarian village, happily studying their insects and reading books and occasionally winning prizes in scientific research for the next 40 years.
As the neighbor remarked, it seems that all they ever needed was each other. They were all they had, having left everyone else behind.
It is hard for me to imagine what life would be like for a couple of Jewish intellectuals in the Bavarian countryside. To be fair, there are plenty of scientists, artists, and other high-minded folks in their particular geographical area, it wasn’t exactly the hinterlands. I think they lived for their work.
They converted late in life and were baptized into the Catholic church. Why? Their many books tell no stories here. Sure, there was a bible or two, tomes about the Holy Land, ancient religions, and even a small crucifix (a gift, maybe). But not a single book about Jesus or Christian salvation.
My personal theory is that they did it so they could stay together, their urns resting side by side in the village churchyard.