Librarian as cultural hero: Outwitting History by Aaron Lansky of the National Yiddish Book Center [Review]

Outwitting history: How a young man rescued a million book and saved a vanishing civilisation by Aaron Lansky. Algonquin, 2004. Souvenir Press, 2006 ISBN 0285637525

This is an excellent introduction to Yiddish culture, and recommended if you always (or ever) wonder ‘What does it mean to be a Jew?’ It’s also an entertaining anecdotal account of a life with Yiddish books. Its’ chief interest for anarchists and radical librarian is food for thought on the need and means for preserving books and transmitting culture.


Yiddish evolved as the secular, everyday language of Eastern European Jews. In the last half of the nineteenth century, it saw an explosion of politics (including a significant Yiddish anarchist movement) and literature (Mendele, Sholem Aleichem, I. L. Peretz). The same period saw Yiddish go global, as emigrants took it to Britain, America, Argentina. In the twentieth century the Yiddish language survived both the Nazi Holocaust and Stalinist terror (Stalin was having Yiddish writers murdered in 1952!) After this, it was weakened by assimilation: Jewish religion was acceptable while Yiddish-speaking culture was not, and children of immigrants became Americanised (or Anglicised etc.) The ‘Yiddish revival’ from the 1970s on saw new generations exploring Yiddish language and culture.

This is where Lansky came in. He’s not really (or simply) a librarian. As founder of the National Yiddish Book Center he aimed not togather a single copy of every Yiddish book published, but to rescue every single Yiddish book which was headed for - or had already gone in - the dumpster (skip). These were then passed on to insitutions and new readers. Their huge digitisation project now means you can even choose acid-free print-on-demand copies too.


There are plenty of anecdotes for anyone convinced of the importance of the printed word (something the anarchist movement has historically held dear). There’s a nice joke at the start when Lansky and his fellow Yiddish students could not lay hands on enough books: they weren’t ‘people of the book’ anymore but ‘people of the Xerox’. Books hold ideas and even whole lives. The human element is central here, not simply a question of language or literature but of an inheritance being handed from one generation to another. ‘The great Newark book heist’ has to be the best chapter title, but my favourite story is the Leksikon fun politishe un fremdverter (Dictionary of political and foreign terminology in Yiddish) by Dor-Ber Slutski (Kiev, 1929). Sixty-odd years after Stalin’s NKVD pulped the whole print run, a single copy (the only one in the world?) comes out of hiding…


So, what lessons are there for anarchists and radical librarians? Some things are familiar: the task of gathering and redistributing books is similar, also the need to pass knowledge on. Although the anarchist movement probably has more historical continuity, it’s much harder to fundraise for and more used to shoestring operations. But that aside, the main lesson is not to wait around for somebody else to do the work. We can’t wait around for the government to decide we’re worthy of study. If we don’t look after our own history, who will? The Kate Sharpley Library needs donations of books, pamphlets, money. But we also want activists’ memoirs and book reviews (ask if you haven’t seen our ‘how to’ sheets). Lets make history.

The National Yiddish Book Center is online at