“The very existence of libraries affords the best evidence that we may yet have hope for the future of man.” – T.S. Eliot
Public libraries today not only provide free access to books, they also usually supply free Wi-Fi, computers, meeting centers and a host of other services. We are fortunate to have two fabulous public libraries in Glynn County (in Brunswick and on St. Simons) and April 4-10, when National Library Week is celebrated, is an excellent time to review one of my favorite books about the institution…
“The Paris Library” by Janet Skeslien Charles (Atria Books) is a novel based on the courageous real-life international team of librarians who defied the Nazis in order to hand-deliver books to banned Jewish readers during World War II. When the Nazis occupied Paris, Jewish people were stripped of their rights. They could no longer work in many professions and they did not have the right to enter parks or libraries. One fourth of France’s Jewish population was killed and yet librarians at the time reached out to Jewish readers to ensure they remained part of the community.
The American Library in Paris, which is still open today, was founded in 1920 as a home for the approximately 1.5 million books sent to soldiers in the First World War by the American War Service. Its motto reflects those origins: Atrum post bellum, ex libris lux (After the darkness, the light of books). Gertrude Stein, Edith Wharton, and Ernest Hemingway were among its first trustees. The American-born Clara Eleanor Longworth de Chambrun (married to a French count, she was better known as the Contessa de Chambrun), a well-connected patron of the arts and Shakespearean scholar in Paris, was a founding member. She often slept at the library to protect it. Reflecting later in her memoir on why she did this, she had two reasons: “A sense of justice, and a sense of humor capable of carrying me over very rough ground.” But it wasn’t only her. With the fall of Paris and the terrible years that followed, the library’s small yet valiant staff – a half-dozen, mostly female bookworms – fought continually to challenge the restrictions under which the Gestapo forced them to perform. Between them, they sent thousands of novels to Allied soldiers and prisoners of war; operated an underground book-lending service for Jewish readers and, at a time when Paris was rife with panic and despair, gave anyone who walked through the library’s doors a semblance of normality. A French diplomat later said the laibrary had been to Occupied Paris “an open window on the free world.”
The cost of the librarians’ actions was steep. One staff member was shot by the Gestapo; another was sent to the internment camp at Vittel in eastern France; still another was condemned to death on a charge of treason, though Contessa Clara succeeded in having the sentence reduced to imprisonment. “It was not easy,” library director Dorothy Reeder admitted, in a secret report filed to her American superiors when they ordered her back to the U.S. She added defiantly, “there was never a thought that we should close.”
Reeder began her career at the Library of Congress and came to Paris alone in 1929. She started in the periodicals section and worked her way up to director, overseeing the library’s move in 1936 to Rue de Téhéran, near Parc Monceau. In the summer of 1939, when the U.S. Embassy strongly advised Americans to leave Paris, she remained at her job. Three days after war was declared, she began the “Soldiers’ Service” in order to deliver books to French and English soldiers.
The author drew on her own experience working for the American Library. Montana-born, she volunteered there after she moved to Paris in 1999, though it wasn’t until a decade later that she stumbled upon the story, when, as a full-time employee, two of her French colleagues were asked to create a cabinet display about the library’s role during the war. “Even they knew little about it,” said Charles. “I thought it a great pity that the story was not better known.”
The novel mixes historical and imagined characters, but mostly follows the fictional Odile Souchet, both in wartime Paris and 1980s Montana. When we first meet her she is off for a job interview with Reeder, her head full of Dostoevsky and the wonders of the Dewey Decimal System. (They bond over a mutual love of Raskolnikov.)
When war was declared in September 1939, Reeder’s first act was to ask her staff to paste brown paper on the library’s windows, in case of bombing. Her second was to start the “Soldiers’ Service.” She wanted the men to know they had friends at the library. “No other thing possesses that mystical faculty to make people see with other people’s eyes,” she explained. “The library is a bridge of books between cultures.”
Requests for books came in from all over France, as far away as Syria, and even the British in London, until they organized a similar service of their own. Packages of books were sent twice monthly. “We had to turn each upside down to shake it,” Reeder said, “to be sure no piece of propaganda had been placed between the pages.” Everything sent was a gift, with no expectation of return (the library itself was funded by subscriptions). By the time of her forced departure in 1941, Reeder’s Service had distributed about 100,000 books.
The library also had become a lot more than a collection of books, or a reading place. It was, Reeder recalled, “a rendezvous for all doing charitable work, for friends to meet and discuss the prevailing situation, and for others to tell you of their loved ones far from home. It was in fact, a meeting place of goodwill, good humor and understanding.”
Reeder and the Countess Clara are not the only historical characters to appear in the novel. There is also General Fuchs, a German, without whom it is obvious that the American Library would not have survived, though most of the credit should go to the Countess, Reeder and their colleagues. Fuchs was actually a librarian himself, director of the Berlin Library, in fact, where, pre-war, he and Reeder had met at a conference. His regard for her was largely what gave the institution protection.
Paris often gets trapped in the past and the ageless and unchanging architecture makes it feel like a museum. This is probably a big part of its allure. Now, as Parisians and the rest of the world face numerous on and off again lockdowns, it’s important to realize that librarians today are doing all they can to make books accessible. The American Library in Paris celebrated its Centenary in 2020, during COVID’s confinements. Patrons had access to books, thanks to “click-and-collect,” and readings by writers on Zoom. Then and now, let’s be inspired by librarians’ courage and their dedication to readers.