History burns in Germany

Fire destroyed part of 16th-century library's collection.

In a roped-off area down a green slope from what remains of the Duchess Anna Amalia Library, the employees of the 16th-century cultural treasure gather as if at a wake.

"It's really like we've lost a relative," says Helga Brundig, who has worked here for more than 20 years.

In five weeks, the entire collection of 1 million rare books and manuscripts from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries was to be moved to a new building so that the library could carry out a long-needed renovation. In one night, the plans, quite literally, turned to ash.

"The library lost 10 percent of its collection," says Hellmut Seemann, director of Weimar Classics Foundation, which oversees the building. "It is a massive gash in a collection from the classical period that is completely irreplaceable."

In a city that inspired writers like Goethe and Nietsche and composers like Bach and Liszt, the Duchess Anna Amalia Library is considered the crown jewel, the city's heart and soul. Scholars come from all over the world to Weimar to study the great works here. But the public is welcomed as well, giving residents a familiarity with the storied structure that is uncommon in Europe's cultural monuments.

Police investigators suspect that faulty wiring in the 473-year-old Renaissance building was the cause of a fire that consumed the two upper floors last Thursday evening. A large part of the roof is gone, and the two-story Rococo Hall, the Library's centerpiece, appears completely gutted.

Tuesday officials continued to tally the material devastation, two days after the final embers burned out. So far 25,000 works, including a collection of 16th- century musical scores belonging to Duchess Anna Amalia, the library's 18th-century patron, have been completely lost. Of the 50,000 books volunteers rescued as the roof burned, 15,000 are considered heavily damaged and have been spirited away to the Book Restoration Center in Leipzig. State culture officials estimate that recovery costs for each book will be $600 to $1200. Among the rescued pieces is the the library's 600-piece Bible collection, including Martin Luther's 1534 translation of the Old and New Testaments.

The toll also includes 33 oil paintings including the elaborate ceiling mural by Johann Heinrich Meyer in the Rococo Hall. The hall itself, where poets and philosophers like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller worked and studied, will stand again, but renovation work will take more than a year and cost much more than the $10 million officials had budgeted. The Federal Government has so far promised 4 million euros ($4.8 million) in emergency funds.

"It's like a massive mosaic," says Mr. Seemann, the blackened shell of the building's roof behind him. "You can still see it, but there are important pieces missing." Seemann was enjoying a quiet evening with friends last Thursday when his cellphone rang shortly after the 8:30 p.m. fire alarm. Moments later he and dozens of others were sloshing through sooty water, forming a human chain to rescue the library's treasures even as the flaming roof threatened to cave in.

"That people would come and help, I expected that," says Seemann. "What I didn't expect was the mass of people that we had to hold back who wanted to rush in and carry out books."

Each day since the fire, hundreds of people have paused at the police barriers to survey the damage. "It's just tragic, absolutely tragic," says resident Werner Klemm, speaking barely above a whisper. "This [loss] affects all of Europe."

The foundation has fielded scores of calls and offers of help from scholars in France and the US, where a group is planning to found an American Friends of the Duchess Anna Amalia Library to gather donations. The first of what is expected to be a string of benefit concerts brought in 3,500 euros, and an account has been set up for public donations. Half of the 4 million euros promised by the government has already been transferred, though library officials say much more is needed.

"Many can understand that this is a catastrophe," says Roland Baerwinkel, a library employee. "This place means something to people."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to History burns in Germany
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today