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Thousands of priceless volumes were damaged or ruined in the conflagration. Courtesy jts

In April 1966, the Jewish soul of New York – and the entire world – was severely wounded when a devastating fire tore through the stacks of the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS).

“For a century and more, [the library had] one of richest collections of books relating to Jewish subjects, and especially Hebrew manuscripts,” remembers Dr. Menahem Schmelzer, emeritus librarian for JTS, and coordinator of the book and manuscript rescue effort after the fire.

Thousands of books were damaged – or ruined – in the blaze. Of those, some 10 percent “were extremely difficult to replace.”

Schmelzer, who served as librarian from 1961 until 1987, and who teaches medieval Hebrew at JTS, said it was a huge task to salvage whatever was possible.

“The fire was first-page news in the [New York] Times and the Post,” said Schmelzer. “The whole city knew about it.”

And, he said, people cared.

After the fire was extinguished and it was possible to enter the stacks – which contained a quarter of a million volumes – hundreds of volunteers set out to evacuate the books. While some were damaged beyond repair, others, while soaking wet, could still be dried out and salvaged.

Said Schmelzer, “We were able to mobilize a large number of volunteers from the neighborhood and from local elementary schools, and day schools allowed their students to come help with the drying out.”

It was a huge undertaking, he said, with people of all ages and from every Jewish stream evacuating the towers, drying out all the books they could, removing those totally burned, and setting aside those in relatively good condition.

“We needed people to move the books, but we also needed those who could distinguish what could be set aside,” he said. “We took huge tables and spread out the books. Each wet book had paper towels placed between the pages.”

In the end, thousands of books were dried out and transported to warehouses to await further processing.

“It took an extremely long time,” said Schmelzer. “The most important thing was to put the working part of the library – the reference books, the reading room – back into working order so students could use it as soon as school resumed. We concentrated on making a minimal collection available.”

The emeritus librarian said that during the summer, a pre-fab structure was erected in the JTS quad, and many of the rescued books were brought back there and placed on shelves. Thus began “the slow, careful process of trying to restore the library, put the books back into the proper order, and make sure they could be used again.”

In 1983, a new library building was added to JTS, the pre-fab structure was removed, and the books were moved to their new home.

Recalling the fire and its aftermath, Schmelzer said he was “not surprised by the outpouring of support. Everyone understood the importance of the collection, where our tradition and cultural heritage were preserved in the form of old books.” Their loss, he said, would be “irreplaceable.”

“Even children understood when they saw the extent of the damage,” he said, adding that even today he meets people who tell him that in 1966 they were among the kids who helped in the rescue effort.

“It left a big impression,” he said, noting that volunteers came not only from all Jewish streams, but from other religious groups as well.

Schmelzer said the ongoing publication of new books on Jewish subjects “is very important for the education and culture of the Jewish community. It’s terribly important in terms of educating the new generation and for the enlightenment of the community.”

Still, he said, it is vital that we preserve our ancient texts, as well.

“The Jewish community is famous for being a studying, learning, and reading community,” he said. “Jewish books have been produced and written for more than 1,000 years.”

Especially given the turbulent history of our people, “Whatever remains of those old books are treasures that have to be preserved. They’re a monument to our past. It’s extremely important that libraries that concentrate on preserving these treasures continue to do their jobs.”