In the nightmare world of the Warsaw Ghetto there was a half-starved orphan so in love with literature that when the German occupiers banned the act of reading, she became a courier in a clandestine network calling itself a walking library. Risking her life, Renata would deliver books to readers. Sometimes she would receive a tip in the form of a piece of bread, but her payment was access to the books. Literature became her weapon against despair. Eerily, hiding in the ghetto, Renata read Franz Werfel’s Forty Days of Musa Dagh, his account of the Armenian genocide. Crouched in a corner of the room she shared with a myriad of relatives, Renata began to read Emile Zola’s Nana—a story about a French prostitute, who is the ruin of every man who pursues her. Her older brother pulled the novel out of her hands. “You’re too young to read that. You can read it when you’re eighteen.” Matter-of-factly the hollow-eyed youngster replied, “I won’t live to be eighteen.”
Surprising herself, the Jewish girl with the name meaning ‘reborn,” survived. In time she married, and then became a mother. Mine. When I was a little girl, my mother encouraged and guided my reading, gladly feeding my appetite for books. All my English teachers envisaged my becoming a writer—indeed; there was one who insisted on it. It was with great solemnity that, one frosty afternoon after school, my mother presented me with Anne of Green Gables. “When I was your age, I read this book in translation. This book introduced me to Canada. When I was your age my vision of Canada was of a faraway, peaceful land filled with snow. I could never have dreamed that one day my very own daughter would be Canadian-born and I would be giving her this book in the original English version.” The entire Anne series had been on my mother’s walking library list. Anne of Green Gables was her gift to both of us.
My brother’s eldest daughter surmounted a learning disability, and became a passionate reader. She would prop up her novels at the lunch table, read by flashlight in bed, hide with her books in corners of a large family home, and evade visitors in order to escape into the pages of her latest literary voyage.
The evening after my mother turned eighty, we attended my (now) eighteen-year-old niece’s high school commencement. Sitting in a gymnasium, witnessing the celebration of carefree teenagers in the serene land of Anne-with-an-E, tears streamed down the cheeks of my niece’s “Nana.”
Familiar with the interior of my mother’s apartment, the concierge of the building in which she lives has dubbed her “The Lady Who Loves Books.” The cancer my mother lives with has slowed her down, so she doesn’t get to the libraries as often as she would like. My mother holds a membership card in not one, but two libraries. At the beginning of winter I registered her in a program run by the library in her neighborhood. A team of volunteers deliver material to the members who are shut in. My mother cheerfully peruses the catalogues and contentedly creates lists of the books she wants to read, which are filled by couriers who brave the ice and the snow to bring them to her.
Yet ‘The Lady Who Loves Books’ refuses to read to the end of Emile Zola’s Nana. She’s afraid that if she does, her life will come to an end too.