Even when reading is impossible, the presence of books acquired produces such an ecstasy that the buying of more books than one can read is nothing less than the soul reaching towards infinity…. We cherish books even if unread, their mere presence exudes comfort, their ready access, reassurance.1
These sketches from the history of the Medical School in Belgrade are dedicated to Lela Mevorah, the former head of the Central Medical Library at the Medical School of Belgrade.
This article provides a brief study of a Jewish woman living in Serbia who was a professional librarian, exceptional teacher, outstanding person, and patriot. Lela Mevorah’s life story contributes not only to the history of the Medical School in Belgrade, but also to a better understanding of the historical [End Page 199] circumstances that drove both her dedication to medical knowledge and possibly the sorrow behind her smile (Fig. 1 following p. 205).
While reviewing her life story, based mainly on my personal interview with Mrs. Luci Petrović in Belgrade about 20 to 25 years ago, it impressed me that most Jews living in Serbia considered themselves Serbs of a different faith rather than a different nationality. This type of self-identification is a reflection of the fact that the Jews of Serbia were integrated into the Serbian community and were loyal citizens of the young state. In fact, the concept of Jews as a separate nationality did not exist in the Balkans prior to World War I.2 Lela Mevorah’s brother, Moše Mevorah, echoes this perception in his unpublished and handwritten autobiography. He states that Jews in Serbia enjoyed equal civil rights along with the rest of the population. He goes on to say that the Jews were sincerely committed to the defense of their motherland and were aware of carrying out their societal duties.3
The Foundation for Lela Mevorah’s Pursuit of Knowledge
In order to obtain a complete picture of Lela Mevorah, one must understand her background. She was born on 17 January 1898 in Belgrade, the youngest of four children of Avram and Esther (née Koen) Mevorah. Her brothers were Samuel, born in 1892; Solomon, born in 1895; and Moše, born in 1890. Avram Mevorah was a trade representative for different foreign firms. He worked in his father’s office, the Royal Currency Exchange of Moše Mevorah, which was appointed by the king. (See Figs. 2 and 3 for photographs of Belgrade during this period.)
Prior to her marriage, Esther Mevorah was a trailblazer. Following her father’s untimely death, she took over his wholesale store. Together with her sister Rachel, she successfully ran the store, which was nicknamed “Kod Devojčica,” an endearing term meaning “At the Girls’.”
Despite her business success, she stepped away from the store following her marriage. Esther Mevorah was known as the most selfless and most dedicated mother, whose ultimate mission in life was her home, or ognjište, and her family.
The Mevorah family cultivated a love for books and respect for knowledge that is preserved in the memories of Lela’s niece, Radmila [End Page 200] Petrović. Ms. Petrović described the atmosphere in the Mevorahs’ home as one where books were “everywhere.” She stated that “the only place the books were not found was the kitchen and in the bathroom.”4
World War I
At the onset of World War I, Lela was 16 years old. Even at that young age, she volunteered to serve as a nurse. Her brothers served alongside their fellow Serbs in the Serbian army. Her brother Solomon, a First Sergeant-Student, was captured in Austria. Her brother Samuel was interned in Hungary. Her brother Moše served as a Cavalry Officer in the Balkan Wars in Timok’s Cavalry Division, Second Order.5 At the end of WWI, he was promoted to Captain, Second Class and awarded numerous medals.6
Due to the circumstances of the war, Lela spent WWI in Nice, France, along with her parents. While there...