Children’s book to depict Jewish Theological Seminary’s library during 1966 fire

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JTA — Just before locking down in early 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, children’s book author Caroline Kusin Pritchard was waiting to pick up her two toddlers from preschool at Congregation Beth Am in Palo Alto, California, when she saw a thin volume poking out of a shelf in the synagogue library.

The 56-page book, called “Fire! The Library Is Burning,” by Rabbi Barry Cytron, detailed a historical event she had never heard of before: the 1966 library fire at the Jewish Theological Seminary, in the Manhattan neighborhood of Morningside Heights.

The fire was a devastating event for the seminary, the flagship institution of Conservative Judaism. It destroyed some 70,000 books and 40 Torah scrolls in the library’s collection, some of which had been saved from Poland. No people were hurt and few rare books were burned, but because of the way the library was constructed, in a windowless tower, the only way to put it out was to dump water from above, resulting in sweeping damage even to volumes that escaped the flames.

What grabbed Kusin Pritchard’s attention was not the fire itself, but the way New Yorkers who lived and worked near the school responded to it — volunteering to evacuate books from the library and protect them from lasting damage.

That response is the focus of her upcoming children’s book, “The Keeper of Stories,” announced this week and due out in the fall of 2024. The episode, Kusin Pritchard said, feels all the more meaningful at a time when activists and local governments across the country are banning books — including some about the Holocaust — and restricting them from school library shelves.

“I just never thought a story about saving books would feel radical in 2023,” she said. “People are proactively going out of their way to strip books from public libraries and school shelves.”

The message of “The Keeper of Stories,” Kusin Pritchard added, is that “it didn’t matter to people what necessarily was in the books. They just knew there was inherent value and the story is being told and to save and protect books more generally, like these sacred gatekeepers of our humanity.”

The Jewish Theological Seminary of America building in Morningside Heights, New York, June 11, 2021. (CC BY 2.0/ JTS)

The book is on the road to publication at a time of significant change for the JTS library, a large and storied institution with 400,000 volumes that include a notable collection of rare Jewish books. The library downsized its space after a 2015 real estate deal, and more recently has drawn scrutiny for auctioning off some of its rare books. The longtime lead librarian who led the efforts to recover from the fire, Menahem Schmelzer, died last year.

Schmelzer, a Holocaust survivor born in Hungary who served as JTS’s head librarian from 1964 to 1987, spoke to Kusin Pritchard about his recollection of the fire, which happened to occur on his birthday.

“He was able to share just gorgeous, textured memories about what the experience was like for him,” she recalled.

“There’s a refrain throughout about ‘the keeper of stories,’” Kusin Pritchard added, referring to the book’s title. “This idea of, ‘who are the keepers of stories?’ Is it the building involved? Is it the pages of the book?”

Kusin Pritchard is the author of other children’s books with Jewish themes. “Gitty and Kvetch,” released in 2021, features a character who is always complaining and “Where is Poppy?” (out next year) is about a girl’s first Passover after her grandfather’s death. The new book, meant for readers in elementary school, will be illustrated by Selina Alko, who is Jewish and has previously illustrated books about interfaith holiday celebrations and the effort to save Czech children from the Nazis.

“The Keeper of Stories” depicts the steps that JTS’s neighbors took to save the books that did not burn. They formed an impromptu chain to pass books out of the library, pack them in boxes and, in turn, clear the boxes out to make more space for additional evacuated books. Volunteers also mobilized to place paper towels between each page of books soaked by the firehoses that were in danger of growing mold.

“These volunteers came from across the city and dried these books with paper towels and you can still see the places where they taped them and glued them back together on some of these actual books, on the pages.” Kusin Pritchard said. “Their stories still kind of exist in person.”

Initially, Kusin Pritchard wrote the draft from the perspective of the person who came up with the idea of using paper towels to preserve the books — an effort that caused a run on paper towels in that area. But she soon realized that the story was about more than one individual’s efforts to save the contents of a library, so none of the characters is named.

“This wasn’t about this one person,” Kusin Pritchard said. “It was about how everyone came together. Preschoolers, students down the street, the pastors, the company that heard about this and sent paper towels, or General Foods, which had these freeze dryers and they sent their food scientists to try and freeze dry the books. It was a collective.”

Kusin Pritchard said she usually writes lighter fare, but as the parent of three young children — 6, 4, and 2 years old — she said she is not worried about frightening readers.

“Kids can take on and handle a lot more than we give them credit for,” she said.

She also hopes to show her young readers that they can play a role in safeguarding books, too.

“In a world where book banning seems more and more normalized,” she said, “a story about saving books feels really resonant.”

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