Many people in the Washington D.C. area still recall the late librarian Ruth Rappaport, but for those who weren’t privileged to meet the raconteur and opinionated bibliophile, first-time author Kate Stewart has facilitated as close an introduction as possible.
With heavy reliance on colleague and family recollections, Rappaport’s writings and her oral history at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Stewart crafts a narrative true to its alliterative title. “A Well-Read Woman: The Life, Loves and Legacy of Ruth Rappaport,” out next month from publisher Little A, is an enjoyable and sobering insight into the challenging and productive life of a 20th-century librarian.
Born May 27, 1923, in Leipzig, Germany, Rappaport was 10 when the Nazi Party came to power. As a child, she witnessed many events that would foreshadow the horrors to come. She saw Hitler pass in an open-air vehicle, observed a book burning in Leipzig and later walked through the streets unnoticed during Kristallnacht. The latter was particularly haunting: Rappaport saw a group of elderly Jewish men ordered by Nazis to line up and face a wall. Then the Nazis shot a volley of bullets into the air.
“It didn’t kill them. They just pretended to kill them all. And in some ways that was worse, because you heard the shots, opened your eyes and they were still standing,” said Rappaport in her USHMM oral history.
The anecdotes and quotes Stewart has chosen for the book reveal a classic tale with modern overtones. Throughout her diary, Rappaport recorded dalliances with paramours — sometimes married men — and the struggle to be empowered and live a life free of degradation and sexual harassment. Stewart deftly shifts between Rappaport’s career choices and the double standard she faced as a correspondent for The Jewish Transcript and later as a librarian who, after tenures in Okinawa and Saigon, worked at the Library of Congress for 22 years.
“She was so driven, so detail oriented, so outspoken and so judgmental of others she thought of as lazy or indifferent that she exasperated many people around her. However, if Ruth had been a man, she likely would have been admired for her strong leadership,” writes Stewart.
The value of “A Well-Read Woman” is not merely its author’s attempts to highlight sexist practices, draw MeToo parallels or recount a survivor’s testimony, though Stewart does all that. Rather, the book provides a window into a librarian’s life through the prism of a fellow professional, as Stewart is a third-generation librarian herself. Stewart pays homage to their shared profession by interspersing reflections on filing practices, her own work at the Library of Congress and the “rambling phone conversations” she and her mother shared on the subject of library budgets, all of which offers additional perspective.
While the book isn’t quite as gripping as a spy novel, Stewart does do a fair bit of sleuthing, trying to “verify the stories” Rapport recorded. She travels across the world to visit archives and review foreign manuscripts to shed light on a subject who, though born in Germany, educated in the United States and a resident of Israel during its independence, remained an outsider in each place.
The journey of both subject and author is captivating, but never as enticing as the words of Rappaport herself. Stewart seems to recognize this and astutely allows Rappaport’s own language to shine, including things in the book like Rappaport’s autobiographical essay for admission to the University of California at Berkeley’s library school and her 2010 comments about the potential for another Holocaust: “Anti-Semitism is not dead. Sorry about that, but anyone who thinks it can’t happen here, I have news for you. It can happen anywhere, anytime. But I would not bet there would not be another.”
These are evocative opportunities to better understand a compelling and complicated individual, and overall, “A Well-Read Woman” is an instructive read, illustrating the mesmerizing life of a truly unique individual. JN