Comfortable Words

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When I was working at the Wiener Library (the research institute for the study of Nazism and the persecution of the Jews) in the 1980s, after the original collection had been transferred to Tel Aviv, we began to solicit bequests and donations of books from people who might have titles of relevance to us. For the first time in living memory there were empty shelves waiting to be filled. So the chief librarian and I began our tour of north-west London, of Highgate and Hampstead, Hendon and St John’s Wood (‘Hephzibah . . . only wished she could find a reference in the Bible to God’s covenant with English Jews, promising them St John’s Wood High Street,’ wrote Howard Jacobson in The Finkler Question) – visiting the flats and houses of the lucky few, the exiles and refugees and survivors, to scour their libraries.

These ranged from the scholarly and exhaustive, where tomes in German, French, Italian, Hebrew, Russian and English lined the studies and sitting-rooms, to simple glass-fronted bookcases containing little more than the works of Goethe and Schiller. What a comment it was on the ignorance and malignity of the Nazis that they should have harried, abused and driven out a people who so prized the great figures of German culture.

We had no place for Goethe and Schiller but we took their selected and collected works, their biographies and correspondences and anthologies, as the price to be paid for the rare finds we were after – a collection of Friends of Europe pamphlets from the 1930s, perhaps, or a run of Leopold Schwarzschild’s Neue Tagebuch (published in exile from Paris) – in the way someone who only likes strawberry creams has to buy the whole tin of Quality Street. I took advantage of the ballast that came in to boost my own modest book collection, offering a few pence for items outside the library’s remit and of no resale value to it: Heine’s The Romantic School, maybe, or Victor Mollo’s The Complete Bridge Player.

Just once or twice we came upon a treasure trove, in German-Jewish terms the equivalent of the Amber Room; and it was from one of those that Kurt Hahn’s copy of the <

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About the contributor

Anthony Wells worked for many years as librarian and translator at the Institute of Contemporary History and Wiener Library in London, and before that for the BBC Monitoring Service covering first East Germany, then southeastern Europe. He now divides his time between writing and running a small business.

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