Safeguarding Hebrew's Hidden Treasures

The devoted employees of the Gnazim Institute went 18 months without pay, just to preserve Brenner's letters to his son

"We have a rule here," say Devorah Stavi and Hila Tzur, two devoted employees of the Gnazim Institute, which works to preserve the legacy of Hebrew literature, "out of every 20 letters, you're allowed to read only one, otherwise we won't get any work done."

There is a reason why the word "devoted" is used to describe these two women, and it certainly has nothing to do with exaggeration or pomposity. It is clearly impossible for one to work at Gnazim if you are not devoted and do not possess an understanding of the importance of this literary treasure. The employees of the Gnazim Institute have worked under impossible conditions, endured humiliating and scornful treatment for years, and did not even receive their salaries for 18 months. And still they stayed there, the guardians of our texts. Even after all they've endured, they still show me with unconcealed excitement a postcard that Yosef Haim Brenner wrote to Devorah Baron.

After a struggle that spanned many years, the Gnazim Institute recently relocated to its new premises in Beit Ariella in Tel Aviv, and all those who fought on its behalf are now seated around a table in the archives as if they were battle-worn veterans, as if they were victorious and still cannot believe it is so.

The members of the Gnazim Institute at the table - headed by Prof. Zohar Shavit, the Tel Aviv mayor's cultural affairs adviser and Moshe Mossek, a former State Archivist and a leading expert on Israel - look around with satisfaction. They understand why it's important to preserve the letters of Avraham Shlonsky and Asher Barash, Brenner's letters to his son, and the manuscripts of Lea Goldberg, Rachel the poetess, and Shaul Tchernichovsky. They understand how great a treasure they have preserved - but it turns out that this is not a sure thing, certainly not in the eyes of the State of Israel and its officials.

"This is the Fort Knox of Hebrew literature," says Moshe Mittelman, the executive director of the Hebrew Writers Association who has also been among those fighting on behalf of the archive. "What's important is what you don't see. There was a huge investment made here in terms of security and safety. There are optimal climatic conditions here - 18 degrees Celsius and 50 percent humidity. There is a gas-based fire extinguishing system that uses the latest technology. There are climate-control systems in place here, which entailed an investment of over NIS 2 million."

All of these measures were put in place to protect the hidden treasure - which for some reason few realize must be protected.

'They shut the faucet'

In 2003 it was decided that the Gnazim Institute, which had been part of the Hebrew Writers Association, would be transformed into an independent organization, but according to Mittelman that organization fell apart because it was not funded. "They shut the faucet on them," he says. This was also the period when institute workers did not receive salaries, but nevertheless continued going to work.

In 2007, Gnazim rejoined the ranks of the Hebrew Writers Association. "Out of a sense of responsibility to the material and to the workers, we took possession of the institute," says Mittelman. "And since then the employees have been receiving their salaries."

However, even the funding from the writers association dried up at a certain point. "In November 2009, I declared a state of occupational emergency and cut back on everyone's hours, including mine," he adds. "The emergency status finally ended this month and people went back to their full-time positions. But for the whole year they received a reduced salary with their consent."

Apart from the salary concerns, there was also the issue of the archive itself, which had been housed in untenable situations in Beit Hasofer (the Writer's House ) in Tel Aviv.

Shavit relates how she had to resort to making threats in order to make clear the gravity of the situation. "When Moshe Mossek was the state archivist, I threatened that the state archivist has the right to confiscate materials. I told them that in the end this will happen, and that if we don't find an appropriate place the state will eventually seize everything," she says. "From the start, Mossek oversaw the entire process of transferring the archive and insisted that it be done properly from an archival perspective."

Mossek says the state has the authority to confiscate an archive if the material is not kept under appropriate conditions.

"There was neglect, dirt and dust," he recalls. "An archive must be air-conditioned, dry, clean and equipped with fire-extinguishing systems. Based on various parameters of this kind, I ruled out the buildings that had been suggested six or seven years ago to house the archive."

After the site at Beit Ariella was found, and all of the material was already packed and prepared for the move, the institute endured another delay when it turned out there was no one to pay for the cost to move the material. At around NIS 40,000, this was a rather insubstantial sum compared to the huge budgets of government ministries, but still no one agreed to pay the cost.

Huldai to the rescue

In the end, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai got fed up with the situation and transferred the necessary funds to cover the moving costs.

"Without the mayor and Dafna Lev, we wouldn't be sitting here today," says Shavit, as Mittelman relates how Lev, the head of the Tel Aviv municipality's education administration, became disgusted with the conduct of the Ministry of Culture and Sports.

"She accepted my invitation once to attend a Knesset hearing in order to see firsthand how the Culture and Sports Ministry and the Finance Ministry behave," Mittelman explains. "She really did a lot, right from the get-go. The charmed document announcing the move to Beit Ariella came from her and it really serves as a fundamental document."

Of the fact that it was actually Huldai who in the end provided the money that enabled the move, he says that without the mayor it would not have been possible to relocate the archive.

"For a year I was telling the head of the culture administration to give us the money - NIS 40,000. In the end, Huldai gave us that sum - and he doesn't even owe it to us because we are not a municipal institution," Mittelman says, adding that he wants to hold an event to mark the opening of the new Gnazim Institute. He plans to invite the entire literary milieu, because he knows they are afraid of what went on inside Gnazim up until now.

"I want them to come and see how things are being preserved now, in order to eliminate the fear they've had for all these years that things were going to ruin at Gnazim," he says. Though they've been working at the archive for many years, it seems Devorah Stavi and Hila Tzur can understand my enthusiasm as I read aloud a letter Brenner wrote to his wife, Chaya Broide, which he signed, "From me, the spoiled and pampered one."

"It's exciting," says Stavi. "When I came to the archive for the first time, I literally cried from the emotional overload."

Prof. Zohar Shavit, who as a culture researcher spent many dusty hours in the old Gnazim Institute, describes the place as a hidden treasure for literature researchers from Israel and abroad who can now make use of the archive that is the pride of its keepers.

As we pass by the files, I spot one labeled "unknown author." The workers tell me that the file contains texts whose author has yet to be identified. They are waiting for a literary researcher to come along and rescue them from their anonymity.