Note: the following is a guest post by our colleague Kate Stewart, former AFC archivist and former Folklife Today blogger. If you have a memory of Peter to share, please do so in the comments on the blog post at this link.
In the spring of 2011, I had just begun learning the ropes of working at the reference desk in the AFC when Peter Bartis stopped by and invited me to an estate sale on Capitol Hill. He knew that I lived in the neighborhood and would be likely to come. A friend of his named Ruth Rappaport had died six months before, and she had chosen him to be the executor of her estate. She had been a long-time employee of the Library of Congress and retired in 1993. Her row house, just a block behind the Supreme Court, was filled with an enormous amount of papers, books, and objects she had acquired from living in five different countries over her 87 years. Peter had spent nearly all of his free time over the past six months painstakingly clearing out Ruth’s house, which despite her prowess as a library cataloger, remained a disorganized mess (many of us can identify). He told me a few basic facts about Ruth’s life: she had escaped from Nazi Germany as a teenager, lived in Israel during the 1948 war, and had worked as a librarian for the U.S. military in Japan and Vietnam during the 1960s. I wasn’t very interested in acquiring any more clutter for my own home, but I was certainly curious about this woman and her long, eventful life.
On a beautiful April day when cherry blossom petals littered the sidewalks of Capitol Hill, my boyfriend Greg and I stopped by the estate sale. I was surprised to see it packed with throngs of bargain hunters searching for hidden treasures. We bought several of Ruth’s belongings at the estate sale, including a fondue pot, a wooden sugar bowl, an old knitting machine, two obscenely large brass candlesticks, some silk scarves, two Asian prints, and a Jewish cookbook. At work over the next year, Peter continued to tell me more stories about Ruth’s life, and I couldn’t stop thinking about her. I stumbled across Ruth’s oral history online at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website while searching for her name late at night. Back at work, I made a beeline for Peter to ask him more about the interview and the link in the catalog to her collection of papers that he had donated there. I was kicking myself for not asking him earlier. Of course he had found an old metal suitcase deep in Ruth’s basement full of old letters, diaries, and documents from the first half of her life.
With Peter’s encouragement, I thought I might write an article about Ruth Rappaport. Months later, I realized I had more than enough material for a book. After each research trip– to Zurich, Leipzig, Seattle, San Francisco, Pennsylvania, Minneapolis, and New York– Peter and I discussed what I had found at length at the reference desk. He gave me names of people to contact all over the world, including many colleagues at the Library of Congress who remembered Ruth as a cantankerous colleague and supervisor. As I plodded along, taking years to pull together all of the research, I triumphantly presented Peter with each draft chapter I finished. He was the first person I wanted to read my work, and I valued his opinion above all others.
Peter loved to tell the story of how he first met Ruth. In the 1980s, he worked as a super in exchange for reduced rent in a small apartment building across the street from Ruth’s house, just a few blocks from the library. One day while Peter was working on the yard, Ruth asked him to come help her work on her house. Even though he was annoyed, he helped her anyway. For years Ruth drove him crazy with her demands, but during one particularly bad snowstorm, Peter checked on her and was entertained for hours by her stories over coffee and cigarettes. He and his partner Ben patiently helped Ruth with household chores, errands, and yard work as she aged and refused to move out of her home. When Ruth was diagnosed with lung cancer, she knew that Peter was the only one she trusted with her estate and her belongings. “She knew I would go through everything,” he told me many times.
Peter’s own diagnosis with lung cancer last spring was like deja vu all over again. I had just finished the first draft of the entire book, and I printed and bound it for him. Over coffee at his house, we went through his last boxes of Ruth’s belongings, marveling at her remaining photos, jewelry, and cryptic scraps of paper. This fall I was thrilled to tell Peter that finally, I had a publisher. He told me how proud he was and then launched into his ideas for the movie version. I told him I was going to Israel for one last research trip in January with Maya Lerman (another AFC archivist) and I couldn’t wait to tell him all about it when I got back.
I had always imagined celebrating with Peter when the book came out, and it is difficult to accept that he won’t be here. I will forever be grateful to him for “introducing” me to Ruth, and to opening a door for me into a whole other world. He was unfailingly kind, helpful, and generous, and will be greatly missed by me and so many others.