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Today I may bring you a somewhat obscure story, but, surely, it is only the greater for that. The plaque pictured here honors Sofya Onikienko (1898-1993) for her “heroic rescue of books of the Voronezh State University library during the years of the Great Patriotic War.” Imagine that, kids! Books used to be something one rescued. You not only didn’t toss them out or delete them from the memory of your tablet, you actually made the effort to save them. And wait until you hear about the lengths to which Sofya Onikienko went to save books during World War II.
I don’t quite know why the city chose the year of 2010 to hang out this plaque honoring the diligent librarian. In the somewhat scant and repetitive information on the web I find nothing connecting 2010 to Onikienko’s deed. But who cares? That’s a formality. The fact remains that this plaque, looking a bit too much like a gravestone, but offering a lovely photo of the subject, and offering clear information, was unveiled on the wall of korpus No. 3 of the University, located at 24 Revolution Prospect on May 7, 2010. To help those out looking for it, it is about 15 steps away from the large monument recently erected in honor of hometown hero Andrei Platonov. (See my post on that elsewhere on this blog.)
Onikienko was born in Moscow where she graduated from the gymnasium in 1915. She finished the Higher Women’s Courses, soon to be renamed the 2nd Moscow State University, in the history and philology department in 1919. She concurrently completed a year-long course in library science. In 1934 she was sent to Voronezh to take over the university library and organize a fast-growing, though still chaotic, collection of books on all topics. By the time the war began, she had put together an impressive collection. This following quote comes from the Voronezh Kommuna blog:
“In the Fall of 1942 the head of the main ‘Ukraine’ workers group, Sturmbannführer Georg Anton reported to Berlin that, in Voronezh, ‘book collections well worthy of attention had been discovered and were rescued by the Wehrmacht and sent to Kursk.’ The fascists deported approximately 700,000 books on various topics from the libraries of Voronezh State University, the Agrarian Institute and the public library. Selections of the most valuable books were made in Kursk.”
The Voronezh University website picks up the story, which takes place in the spring of 1942:
“The head librarian of that time, Sofya Panfilovna Onikienko, wrote: ‘All the history books, particularly on ancient Rus, were sent to Kiev. Part of the Russian and foreign literature collection ended up in Kharkov, while books bearing the stamps of Voronezh State University and the former Yuryev University, were shipped to Derpt. A large number of books were transported to Berlin.‘”
However, as we have noted, the Nazis sent the largest number of books to the city of Kursk. Again, the Voronezh University website picks up the narrative:
“It turns out that the Third Reich had a special Ministry of Eastern Lands whose job it was to plunder occupied territories. Having seized the right bank of our city, the Hitlerites quickly realized that the Voronezh library was priceless. Library specialists were sent by the Special Command, which was involved in shipping out cultural treasures from the occupied lands.”
Then, as if in a detective movie, a Russian soldier from Voronezh University, passing through Kursk with his division, happened to see a book with a Voronezh stamp on it. He sent word back home and the search was on.
As soon as the Soviet army liberated Kursk from the Germans in mid-July 1943, Onikienko began her mission of bringing back her library. She traveled to Kursk, with battles still raging all around, and she even tried to begin shipping books back. That proved impossible, however, for shipping libraries and fighting national wars don’t quite mix. Onikienko and her helper Pavla Khakhalaeva had been able to box many of the books up and stash them in an abandoned building, but when the battles heated up again, they had to flee the city on foot. When the front moved further West in 1944, Onikienko returned to Kursk, and, indeed, began repatriating her library. She got federal permission to fill as many as four box cars with books in order to ship them back to Voronezh. But first she had to get the books to the train station. As Onikienko later recalled herself, she was helped in this task by Soviet soldiers recuperating in a nearby eye hospital:
“Deputy Chief [Mikhail] Matveev of the Evacuation Hospital offered enormous, invaluable assistance. Moved by my tearful pleas, he put at my disposal 100 soldiers from the eye department and four trucks. But the university could not send me an order for gasoline. So I again appealed to Matveev and he gave me the gasoline. We immediately evacuated four train car loads.”
That was hardly the end of the story, however. Onikienko continued searching for, and returning books that had been sent to various cities. Most of the books transported to Kharkov were returned. Most of the books sent to Tartu, Estonia, were not. One of the nicer twists of the story took place in August 1945, shortly after the war ended. British troops entering an Austrian monastery found 82 boxes containing 6,954 valuable books that the Germans had planned to send to a university that was to be established for the Nazi elite following the war.
The author of the article published in the Kommuna blog added this interesting personal recollection to his account:
“I well remember,” Stal Penkin wrote, “that after the war, in 1950, we would receive albums and magazines in the reading room that bore the stamps of the thieves – an eagle and swastika. We students did not know that these were books that had been saved by Onikienko.”
Sofya Onikienko was head librarian of Voronezh State University from 1934 to 1958. I had never heard of her before walking up to the wall of the building pictured here and reading the words of the plaque honoring her. She now is one of my heroes.