A Well-Armed Bibliophile: The Story of Vid Ambrožič

Today’s post is technically a book review, but I’ll be honest and admit right away that I did not read the entire volume in question. The title of the book is A Gendarme among Flowers and Books (Žandar med cvetjem in knjigami), and it’s a loosely organised memoir of Vid Ambrožič, a little-known figure who is usually remembered today as a poet and a “village chronicler.” Well, he also deserves to be remembered as a pretty impressive book collector. I don’t think there has ever been a Slovenian who would remain principally remembered as a book collector, and so it was also with Ambožič. For him, books were never more than a hobby, but it was a hobby that he took seriously and acquired an enviable collection under very difficult circumstances.

His memoirs are written in a light, chatty tone without any pretensions to serious literature, and the book’s cover art leaves much to be desired. However, the stories he has to tell are unexpectedly entertaining. He casts light not only on book collecting in the interwar era, but also on the general fate of books in Slovenia during the first half of the 20th century. Slovenian-speaking booklovers are highly advised to give Ambrožič’s memoir a try; for everyone else, at least there is this blog post.

To the extent that the book has a central theme, it’s Ambrožič’s recollections of serving as a gendarme in interwar Yugoslavia. While he keeps returning to this theme, he never stays put for more than a few pages, and keeps wandering off again to discuss local history, interesting villagers, his amorous adventures, and his interests as a collector. Obviously this last bit was most interesting to me, so I ended up skimming through some of the other passages. Then again, for the standards of book collectors, our protagonist had a fairly interesting life.

He served in the Austro-Hungarian army during WWI, and was present at the famous Judenburg uprising in 1918, which he somehow managed to survive. After the war, he became a gendarme in the area east and north of Ljubljana, and the pages are filled with stories of rapists, murderers, and shootouts between criminals and the police. Ambrožič narrates the hunts for his “birds” with remarkable coolness, making it sound almost as if it were a game. During WWII, the Germans fortunately retired him, but he stayed around for a while in order to be able to mediate between the occupiers, locals, and the resistance, and occasionally try to save people listed for execution. He was under suspicion as a potential communist before the war; after the war, he would get in trouble for his opposition to communism. It was a difficult life, but his various collecting hobbies would help keep him afloat.

Ambrožič as a handsome army officer in 1918.

Nowadays, when most people attend university, it’s hard to understand how someone could be as talented as Ambrožič and yet never advance beyond primary education. He learned to read early, and would beg around for money to buy books before he even entered school. Once he was there, he started his own handwritten newspaper (with two subscribers), wrote down poems on the barn walls, and took out books in German with him when he went to graze cows. He became the informal parish librarian, and when the priest was transferred to another parish, he left Ambrožič in charge. The library would later disappear during WWII, along with many others, while Ambrožič’s literary work was soon thrown into the cesspit by his adoptive father. In return, the son would pinch coins from the father’s purse, and when enough money was gathered, he bought a new book of Fran Levstik’s poems which was being advertised in the newspapers. Thus collectors are made.

When time came to send the prodigy off to high school, nobody made any moves, so he stayed behind. Instead, he was sent off to WWI, earned a medal for bravery, and started a career in the police upon his return. Soon after the war, his collecting career also began in earnest. A national exhibition was held in Ljubljana, with a cultural section that included a first edition of the national poet Prešeren’s poems (held today by the Slavic Library in Ljubljana). The edition had been inscribed by Prešeren to his boss’s daughter, and from later times, it bore the ownership markings of the poet Anton Aškerc. Ambrožič, by then already employed as a gendarme, felt the very unseemly urge to grab the book and run. He conquered the urge with the help of a muscular guard, but at that moment he decided to assemble a collection of signed editions and manuscripts himself.

The book that turns honest men into thieves: a first edition of Poezije by France Prešeren.

Most book collectors don’t wear a police uniform when they go around collecting signatures. Ambrožič must have scared quite a few famous writers when he appeared at their doors, but at least they didn’t dare ignore him. When he explained what he came for, they were usually relieved and he quickly got his books inscribed. The poet Oton Župančič used to occasion to tease his son: “if you don’t behave, the gendarme will come back and take you with him!” Ambrožič corresponded with several other more distantly located writers, and duly included their letters into his collection. When the writers in question were already dead, it was more difficult; in some cases he coaxed their manuscript from a surviving relative or friend, in some cases he traded with fellow collectors (for example, for stamps, his other collecting passion). Over time, his manuscript collection grew to include almost every major Slovenian writer of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Ambrožič was lucky to have another avenue for book acquisitions. One of his two police stations was in Vevče, and the other was near Količevo, which Slovenians may recognize as the locations of two of the country’s paper mills. The gendarme spent his lunch breaks at the mills, sifting through piles of waste paper for interesting stamps, old documents, but mostly for books and manuscripts. He mentions how he came across the library of Krumperk castle, an imposing Renaissance building northeast of Ljubljana. One day, a row of carts arrived at Količevo mill, carrying books from the castle. The last member of the resident noble family had died, after which the estate liquidators sold the library for scrap. Ambrožič managed to save some especially valuable books, though many were already damaged, having been loaded and unloaded with pitchforks… He laments that since the books are in German, which nobody reads anymore, they won’t outlive him for long. I wonder whether he was proven wrong, and where the books are now.

The paper mill at Vevče in 1933. It is not known whether any of the human figures in the picture represents Ambrožič.

Another way to merge work and leisure was to snoop around for books during patrols. Whoever has read William Blades’ The Enemies of Books can draw a number of parallels between Blades’ experiences in England and those of Ambrožič in Slovenia, many of which fall into the category “ignorant owners.” Fortunately, the patrolman frequently visited people in their homes and thus got a chance to save mistreated old volumes for a tiny price. One time, he saw a group of kids playing around with an old book, which turned out to be a first edition of Bishop Slomšek’s 1842 classic Blaže and Nežica at Sunday School, a highly desired collectors’ item. They let him have the book, since it wasn’t in “our letters” (it was printed in the archaic bohoričica script). Another prized Slomšek first edition, Christian Virginity, was found in the attic of a farmer who didn’t seem to be very interested in virginity.

Bishop Anton Martin Slomšek’s Blaže and Nežica: a rare and coveted book both in Ambrožič’s time and today.

In general, villagers of the patrolman’s native Lower Carniola (Dolenjska) are particularly singled out for their lack of respect for books and education. While many were subscribers of the phenomenally successful Hermagoras Society publishing house, the books themselves were treated badly. When Ambrožič searched for old volumes that his collection was missing, he found plenty of copies, but very few in anything resembling good condition. Writing 90 years later, I can only agree. At its heyday, something like 10% (!) of Slovenians were Hermagoras Society subscribers, but you’d never guess that when searching around for these books.

Not all ways to acquire books are desired by the collectors. When Yugoslavia was occupied in 1941 and divided between Italy, Hungary, and Germany, the largest sustained assault on Slovenian culture in history took place in the German-occupied zone. Hundreds of libraries were purged of Slovenian books, especially in Styria and Carinthia, where the Nazis did not recognize Slovenians as legitimate inhabitants. At first, these books were piled into bonfires, but soon afterwards economic considerations made the Nazis prefer recycling. One day, the paper mill in Količevo received a large shipment of bales of waste paper. One of them broke open during unloading and it turned out that under the genuine trash lay books from Styrian libraries. This time, the paper mill workers showed themselves as friends of the book. Risking arrest, they opened up all the bales, and together with Ambrožič, they saved what they could, including a number of rare volumes.

Ambrožič as a nerdy policeman in 1935.

Of course, Količevo itself also lay in the German-occupied zone. Later in 1941, Ambrožič sensed that things were becoming hot, both for himself and his books. At the time you could still travel to the nearby Italian zone, where the attitude towards Slovenian language was much milder. Ambrožič made a number of trips to Ljubljana, each time carrying a few of his most prized possessions in his pockets, and then deposited these books with different friends, to maximize the odds that at least some of the books would survive. Sometime later, the retired gendarme received permission to move to his native Lower Carniola, which was under Italian occupation. On his way, he stopped in Ljubljana, made a round trip to visit all his friends, and assembled the books that he had deposited. Thus he filled a large suitcase, took the train to Lower Carniola, got off at the local station and walked for another hour and a half to his village, with the huge suitcase in hand. Back pain is an affliction known to many bibliophiles.

For the rest of the occupation, Ambrožič would get to observe the horrors of war as a civilian. As mentioned above, Slovenian castles were already under assault before the war, due to the ignorance and neglect of their owners. In 1941, this simmer turned into a firestorm. Castles were, by definition, fortified buildings positioned in strategic locations in the countryside; hence, Germans, Italians and local Quislings began evicting the owners and repurposing the castles into military outposts. Not wanting to idly stand by, the resistance began a campaign of burning down castles and mansions. Sometimes the buildings in question had already been seized by the occupiers, sometimes they were burned down purely as a preventive measure, in case the Nazis might get ideas.

This time, even Ambrožič couldn’t save anything. He mentions Mirna castle near his village, which was burned down in late 1942. Hearing the news, Ambrožič and his adopted son rushed to what remained of the castle, but there was nothing left to save, and all the books and documents held inside the castle were gone. He mentions that some furniture from the castle could later be seen inside nearby peasant huts. The villages were themselves burned down by the Nazis in an offensive in 1943, so even these remnants probably didn’t survive.

The ruins of Mirna castle in 1947.

Ambrožič wrote down his recollections in the 1960s, when he was an old man and close to death. As it happens, both he and his books managed to survive the war, unlike many other books and people whose stories he narrates. His notes were published posthumously in 1998 by his adopted son Gordan. Incidentally, the latter’s biggest claim to fame is that in 1943, he discovered the body of Lojze Grozde, a young man who was killed by the resistance as a suspected Quisling spy, and who later became the first modern-day Slovenian to be beatified. Grozde was given away when several books published by Catholic Action, a far-right Catholic organization, were found on his body by his interrogators. It wasn’t just people who destroyed books during the war, it could also be the other way around.

Nazi book burnings, the fate of nobles’ libraries during WWII, and the “casual” destruction of books in paper mills during peacetime are all topics I plan to return to in separate blog posts. Ambrožič is a valuable source for all of these since he is never too concerned about what might be relevant to history, but simply writes down memories as they come down to him. A useful lesson from his writings is that acquiring a good collection doesn’t require a lot of money, or indeed hardly any money. On the other hand, it is paramount to be at the right place at the right time. Nowadays, collectors don’t need to hide their books from the Nazis anymore, but treasures can be found at the paper mill just as often as during Ambrožič’s time. You don’t even need to show up in uniform.

Sources:

1 thought on “A Well-Armed Bibliophile: The Story of Vid Ambrožič

  1. A sad story, by and large, but this is a great and inspiring anecdote:

    One day, the paper mill in Količevo received a large shipment of bales of waste paper. One of them broke open during unloading and it turned out that under the genuine trash lay books from Styrian libraries. This time, the paper mill workers showed themselves as friends of the book. Risking arrest, they opened up all the bales, and together with Ambrožič, they saved what they could, including a number of rare volumes.

    I’m glad you did your bit to rescue this poor guy from oblivion!

    Like

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