Guerrilla preservation

Occasionally I’ve toyed with the idea of a writing project about “guerrilla archiving” or “guerrilla preservation.” In an earlier post, I wrote about the rescue of valuable documents in Timbuktu, with a mention of the Warsaw Ghetto Archive. Stories of people without special expertise or resources rescuing pieces of history are inspiring to me. Sometimes they do it well, sometimes ineptly, but if they keep some treasure from being lost, they deserve credit.

Lately I’ve come across some more stories of the same kind. The story of Anne Frank’s diary is well known, but not all the details are. When the Nazis discovered and arrested the Frank family, SD officer Karl Silberbauer grabbed a briefcase to stuff valuables into. He emptied its existing contents onto the floor; these included some of Anne’s writings. Miep Gies, one of the employees at Opetka where they had been hiding, took the papers and locked them in her desk. Later she instructed the senior warehouseman to get her any other papers from the hiding place before the Nazis cleared it out. Anne’s father Otto was the only family member to survive the war; Gies gave him the papers when he returned from Auschwitz, making their publication possible.

Much of Franz Schubert’s unpublished music went into the hands of the brothers Anselm and Josef Hüttenbrenner after his death. They didn’t always take the best care of it. His incidental music for Claudina von Villa Bella was partially lost in 1848 when Josef’s servants used Acts 2 and 3 to kindle fires. In 1823 Schubert sent Anselm the score for two movements of a symphony, which just sat in his collection for years. In 1865, when Anselm was 70 years old, the conductor Johann Herbeck visited him and looked at them; later that year, he gave their premiere in Vienna. The existence of a sketched score for the third movement shows that Schubert intended to finish it as a full four-movement symphony, but for some reason he never did. As it stands it’s still one of his greatest compositions, and without Anselm Hüttenbrenner and Herbeck we might never have known of the “Unfinished Symphony.”

Franz Kafka also died leaving a lot of unpublished material, but he gave his friend Max Brod strict instructions to burn it all. Brod instead published the three novels, The Trial, The Castle, and Der Verschollene (aka Amerika). In 1939, just before the Germans closed the Czech border, he left Prague with a suitcase full of papers and took them to Palestine. These were the subject of a long legal battle between Brod’s heirs and the National Library of Israel, which reached a decision only two years ago and, as far as I can tell, is still under appeal. As in Kafka’s fiction, the legal process never ends.

Other papers of his ended up with Dora Diamant, his girlfriend during the last year of his life. She told Brod that she had burned them, but she secretly kept them. The Gestapo seized them in 1933 while looking for Communist material. The search has continued for years. According to the Kafka Project at San Diego State University, “if Kafka’s lost writings still exist, they are safely buried among top-secret documents in closed archives in Poland.” (I’m really not very impressed with Kafka’s work, but it’s undeniable that he’s had a significant influence on our culture.)

In all three cases, if people hadn’t done what they did, parts of our cultural canon would be missing now. There must have been other works, some matching them in value, that we’ve never heard of because there was no one to save them from oblivion.

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