Of Broom Cupboards & Books
Updated: Jan 28
First published 11 April, 2007
I wandered into a dark broom-cupboard of a second-hand bookshop in Ubud, Bali a while ago. As I crossed its musty threshold I was transported back to my backpacking days in India when arrival in a town that had such a shop brought forth feelings of great excitement and anticipation: the chance to swap a twice- maybe thrice- read book for another, possibly two.
These bookshops in India gifted me with the most wonderful literary opportunities. Unlike walking into a large modern multi-faceted bookstore where you have so much choice and yet usually head for the authors you know or the genres you traditionally read, a second-hand book shop almost forces you to read things that would never normally cross your consciousness to pick up and browse through, lest alone buy. Many times in the past I have chosen a book because its spine was strong and looked like it might stand being thrust in and out of my rucksack. Other times I would choose one because its cover was a pretty colour or because it was the only English one or because the author had an interesting name. Or whatever parameter for choice I set myself on the day before entering the shop. And as a result I have read and continue to read some fascinating books.
The tiny, dusty and seemingly gloomy bookshop I discovered in Ubud was no different. Books in many languages, most of them old, many of them German. A mangy cat sleeping on a pile of tattered paperbacks in the corner and a young woman fast asleep on the floor, leaving very little space for me to walk without treading on her out-flung limbs.
I decided that my choosing criteria of the day would be the English book with the least worn, most up-to-date look about it. I would not read the back cover, instead I would buy it just on that basis. Simple and easy.
In two ‘eye sweeps’ of a single shelf there it was, right in front of my eyes. Upon reflection, a book that has turned out to be a rare gem.
I began reading it over a very late lunch found it quite ‘un-put-downable.’ ‘King Matt The First’ it is called. A children’s book. Written in 1923 but recently republished and dressed in a modern cover. The author was a Polish doctor who ran 2 orphanages. In 1948 he walked into the gas chambers in Treblinka with the children in his care rather than let them die alone. They were Jewish, he was not.
The book is about a child’s ultimate world - a world of joy and hope. One filled with love and happiness not pain, despair and loneliness. He would read it aloud to his wards in the hope that they would see that there was possibility in their lives despite the abject horror that was unfolding around them. Little did he know when he put his words on paper how all of theirs would end.
Eighty years on and his message is still valid. There is always light and there is always hope as long as we all believe there is.
It shows us the power of non-conditional love and that saviours come in many guises; in this case as a doctor whose thoughts, deeds and words ensured that several dozen children learnt how to smile and laugh before their short lives, and his, were untimely and unjustly ended.