The Doctor Who Traded Healthcare for Books

As Israel's National Library prepares to celebrate its 120th anniversary, the spotlight is on Dr. Yosef Hazanovitch, who devoted his life to its creation and died penniless.

When Dr.Yosef Hazanovitch was summoned to treat penniless patients, he would always take a look at their bookshelves. His eyes would scan the shelves for Hebrew books he could take in lieu of payment. The books he collected from his patients were not for his own use; he sent them from his home in Bialystok (now in Poland) directly to Jerusalem for the project that he had established and which would eventually be known as the National Library of Israel.

Hazanovitch (1844-1919) was born in Grodno in the Russian empire (now Belarus). After attending a yeshiva, he studied medicine; however, ultimately, he devoted his life to one single purpose: the establishment of a national Jewish library in Palestine.

This year, the National Library of Israel will be celebrating the 120th anniversary of its founding. Many people participated in the development of this great intellectual enterprise, but none as much as Hazanovitch who, despite his great contribution, is not known to the general public. “Hazanovitch is the one who conceived this idea and the practical framework for its realization,” says Dr. Hezi Amiur, curator of the National Library’s Israel Collection.

Hazanovitch believed that the “ingathering of the Jewish people in its historic homeland must also be accompanied by the ingathering of the Jewish people’s books and their placement in an intellectual center in Jerusalem,” explains Dr. Dov Sidorsky, a lecturer in library science and archival management, in his article (in Hebrew), “A National Library for the People of the Book,” which appeared in the September issue of the Hebrew-language journal, “Etmol.”

In 1890, Hazanovitch came to Palestine as part of a delegation of members of the pre-Zionist Hovevei Zion (“Lovers of Zion”) movement. He immediately took on the project of creating a national Jewish library in the Jewish homeland. In addition to publishing articles in the Jewish press, he collected bibliographical material, purchased books and raised funds for the project. In 1895, Hazanovitch’s first shipment of books arrived in Jerusalem: 34 crates containing 9,800 books. Four years later, he published his vision in the Hebrew-language newspaper, “Hatzfira”: “A huge, majestic structure will be built in Jerusalem and it will house the fruits of the Jewish spirit since the creation of the Jewish people – all of the books that have ever been written in Hebrew and all of the books in other languages about the Jews and their Torah.”

He regarded the project as a rescue mission. In 1913, speaking about the future of Jewish books, he prophesied the history of European Jewry: “Today we are already witnessing the continual destruction of distinguished Jewish communities ... It may well be that, only a few centuries from now, all of the great centers of Jewish culture will experience a similar fate … and then, in any case, the libraries founded in those communities will be destroyed.” These words appear in his essay “A Message to the Jewish People,” which was published in Warsaw.

In the winter of 1919, Hazanovitch died of exposure and starvation in Ekaterinoslav, the Ukraine, where he was forced to move because of the World War I. He was buried quickly by a small group of local Jews – without benefit of a minyan (the minimum number of Jews required to hold prayer services) or the recital of the mourner’s prayer, the kaddish. Twenty years before he died, he wrote, with reference to his national library project “I doubt I will have the privilege of seeing with my own eyes the building to which I have dedicated my whole life, but it will suffice for me to know that after my death it will be ready. There the spirit of Israel during its bitter diaspora will be embodied, and every Hebrew person who wishes to know what the spirit of Israel in all its purity has done during 2,000 years will find what he seeks.”

“There not even a tombstone at his gravesite; his tombstone, his monument, can be seen in the National Library of Israel,” notes Dr. Amiur.

The National Library underwent many transformations before finally reaching in 1960 its current location and structure – on the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Givat Ram campus, located not far from Israel’s house of parliament, the Knesset. It operated from a number of sites in Jerusalem: Mount Scopus, the neighborhoods of Rehavia and Talbiyeh and other locations in Israel’s capital, following the War of Independence. Next year, the cornerstone will be laid for its new, permanent structure in the government complex near the Knesset. The library’s new home will be officially opened in the summer of 2016. This coming Tuesday, at 7:00 P.M., a special event will be held in honor of the 120th anniversary of the library’s founding and the public will have the opportunity some of the treasures of the National Library’s archives.

After the library was transferred to public management, under the auspices of the Zionist Organization, Professor Schmuel Hugo Bergmann (1883-1975) was appointed the library’s first director. Bergmann had been a librarian at the Charles University in Prague and was a friend of Franz Kafka. “What have I given to Palestine and what has Palestine given to me? I have poured all my energies into the organization of the library and I have the feeling that my energetic efforts on behalf of our homeland have not been in vain,” he writes in his diary.

When Bergmann became director, the library had 30,000 books. In 1935, when he stepped down from his post, it had 300,000. Prof. Gershom Scholem, a scholar of Jewish mysticism, who directed the library’s Judaica department, wrote about Bergmann in his book, “From Berlin to Jerusalem: Memories of My Youth” and recalled an incident in the library, when one of the workers refused to open crates of books, arguing that he had not been hired to do such tasks. Bergmann replied that he himself was hired to undertake such jobs and proceeded to remove books from the crate. He continued to do so until the people standing by became so embarrassed that they also took a part in emptying the crates.

Bergmann arranged for Scholem to receive an immigration certificate to Palestine from the British Mandatory authorities. In the application, he wrote that Scholem was a leading scholar and that the assistance of such a unique person was needed for the organization of the library.

Although Scholem’s small apartment in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood was filled with books, he made a point of leaving one bookshelf empty. Dr. Zvi Leshem, director of the National Library’s Gershom Scholem Library, relates: “When his wife Fania would complain that there was no room in their home for even one more book, he would remind her that this was not true: There was always one empty bookshelf.” After Scholem died, his library of 25,000 books was transferred to a special reading room in the National Library where the arrangement of the books was similar to what had existed in his home library.

The archives of the National Library preserve the manuscripts of their founders. One of the items in the archives is the library’s visitors’ book where one can find the signature of the founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl, in the course of his visit to Jerusalem in 1898.

In 1913, Hazanovitch wrote: “Today we are already witnessing the continual destruction of distinguished Jewish communities ... It may well be that, only a few centuries from now, all of the great centers of Jewish culture will experience a similar fate … and then, in any case, the libraries founded in those communities will be destroyed.”

The National Library in the 1950s. Photography by David Harris/Archives of the National Library of Jerusalem

David Haris / The NAtional Library Archive