A fire that ripped through one of Germany’s most precious historical libraries destroyed or damaged tens of thousands of irreplaceable books, although some 6,000 works, including a 1543 Martin Luther Bible, were spirited to safety by a chain of people, officials said Friday.
Some 25,000 books were destroyed and 40,000 more damaged by water and smoke from the fire Thursday night in Weimar’s Duchess Anna Amalia Library, housed in a 16th-centry rococo-style palace, said Ulrike Bestgen, an expert with the Weimar Classics Foundation.
German Culture Minister Christina Weiss pledged up to $4.9 million in immediate aid to help repair the building and restore damaged books, calling the fire a “national culture catastrophe and a great loss for world heritage.”
Investigators were trying to determine the cause of the fire, which broke out in a top floor after the library closed and raged for some two hours before 330 firefighters brought it under control.
Among the volumes destroyed were a collection of 18th-century musical works donated by Duchess Anna Amalia and the renowned book collection of the first librarian, Daniel Schurzfleisch, who brought them to the library on 35 horse-drawn carts in 1722, library director Michael Knoche said.
“This is a painful blow,” Weimar Mayor Volkhard Germer said.
During the fire, workers managed to pass 6,000 books, including the Martin Luther Bible and travel papers by naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, hand-to-hand to safety before abandoning their rescue attempts when the ceiling threatened to cave in, said Hellmut Seeman, president of the Weimar Classics Foundation.
Some restoration possible
Bestgen said it should be possible to restore water-damaged volumes.
The library holds about 1 million volumes at several places in Weimar, though the palace is the main location.
Its collection centers on German literature from between 1750 and 1850. During that time, Germany’s most revered writer, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, lived in Weimar, where his house remains a major tourist attraction. Friedrich Schiller, best known for his German classical dramas, spent the last years of his life in Weimar and died there in 1805.
Weimar, 150 miles southwest of Berlin, was put on Europe’s cultural map by Anna Amalia and her son, Duke Carl August, starting in the mid-18th century. It was Anna Amalia who converted the palace into a library and made it open to the public.