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Putting History Back Together by Sifting Through Fire’s Ashes

Times Staff Writer

When fire drove historian Abraham Nasatir from his Normal Heights home last year, he left behind rare book collections packed on bookshelves and 500,000 historical documents and manuscripts stacked in closets, piled on the carpeting and scattered on the kitchen table.

“It was a life’s work . . . ,” Nasatir lamented last July. “I was hoping to finish off volumes while I was alive.”

Since then, however, the 81-year-old Nasatir has discovered new hope. He witnessed strangers--including an archeologist and a taxidermist--dedicate hours of work to salvage his documents. He saw money and other documents pour in from colleagues and former students.

“I never knew I had so many friends,” Nasatir says now.

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For the last year, the professor emeritus of history at San Diego State University said he has been “working twice as hard as before the fire.”

The worst fire in San Diego’s history raced through Nasatir’s house of 33 years, consuming his nearly finished manuscript, “British in California: Calendar of Material Relating to California in the British Archives,” and the unpublished third volume of a trilogy about the Anglo-Spanish frontier on the upper Mississippi River.

But with the help of colleagues and former students, he has retrieved computer printouts of older manuscript versions and has located earlier carbon-copied drafts. He has also been rewriting and editing.

“It has kept me busy day in and day out,” he said. “That’s what has really kept me alive.

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“I lost 5 1/2 years of editorial work on the one book,” Nasatir said about the volume on the “British in California.” “I am fortunate to be able to scrape up enough time to almost equal what was lost. It is almost ready for final publication.”

SDSU history department chairman Dennis Berge, who has known Nasatir for 40 years, says Nasatir has emerged “indestructible” from the effects of the fire.

“Life looked pretty bleak for him after the fire,” said Berge. “For the first few times he came around after the fire, he seemed almost like a beaten person. But it didn’t last long. He is like a perpetual motion machine. He doesn’t stop.”

Nasatir wasn’t struggling alone to recoup the loss. The SDSU history department established a Nasatir Relief Fund, which accumulated about $4,000. Most of the contributions, said Berge, came from former Nasatir students and colleagues who had worked with him during the last 50 years.

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“It was a dramatic response for a fund-raising effort,” said Berge. “We didn’t advertise much,” said Berge.

Nasatir’s tragedy also stirred the immediate interest of archeologist Ron May, who directed the excavation of old Fort Guijarros on Point Loma.

Just seven days after the blaze, he rounded up a team of student volunteers from Mesa College and began sifting through the ashes of the Nasatir home on North Mountain View Drive with screens, shovels and hand trowels.

“I knew from archeology that a lot of things survive and people don’t know it,” May said. “I thought if we dug properly, we would find what paper material survived.”

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Where Nasatir’s study once stood, May said his team found “charred paper about five- to six-feet deep. It was very soggy and wet. We were able to pull back the badly charred ashes and paper. We were shocked to see how much paper had survived.”

In all, May and the students pulled out of the ashes about 25,000 pages of paper during their one-day “dig.” The material was later carted to a rented meat locker in Lemon Grove for freezing; May enrolled in a college course on archives and records management to learn what to do next.

The next step was freeze drying--an immensely expensive task that was necessary to extract all of the water out of the papers.

Leucadia taxidermist Joyce Anderson, who read about the salvage effort in a newspaper, came to the rescue. She donated the use of her freeze dryer, which looks like a large iron lung. The process began in February and is just now finishing, said May.

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Dry documents are now piled in boxes in the corner of Berge’s spacious office on campus.

“There is a lot of material about Chilean nationals in California in the mid-19th Century--a lot of which came from police archives in Paris (France),” said May. “There are hand-copied letters to the viceroy of Mexico from the governor of Louisiana in the late 18th Century. His collection was started in 1923. Many of the letters were copied by trained scribes. A great deal of the material is unique.”

May said that about 100 books were saved because they were so tightly packed in the bookshelves.

“The fire was not able to burn through them before the floor collapsed and they fell into the water” that had settled underneath the house during firefighting efforts, said May. “I think we saved a great many religious texts. He collected old Hebraic texts dated back to the 17th Century.”

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Most of the documents can be photocopied, May said, but many will require some hand copying. He added that more expensive processes--such as infrared photography--could be used if Nasatir decides the documents must be saved at all costs.

Nasatir has yet to go through the documents to decide which ones could be discarded because there are copies elsewhere. He plans to begin in a few weeks with the help of a graduate student.

“Without the benefit of his knowledge, its just loose and disorganized material,” May said about the documents. “We need his mind to rearrange this stuff. It would take many years for other scholars to put into shape what he can do instantaneously. We need him to tell them how they key into other things.

“Hopefully he will recreate the original order, and it will help the understanding of certain periods of history. We are lucky he survived the fire,” said May.

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Despite the valiant salvage attempt, Nasatir said he still remains doubtful that May’s work will do much to bring back his home library.

“We are not in a position to judge the final results, but the hope is not too great,” Nasatir said. “I hope that we can find out the provenance of some of the documents, save archival copies, and find out where someone can find an original.”

Nasatir said he hopes to move back to the canyon rim by August. While his new house is being built, he and his wife, Ida, are living in an apartment.

The study in the new house will be slightly smaller than the one that burned, and the house will not be crammed with books this time around, the professor said.

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“I will not fill the closet shelves, only the walls,” said Nasatir. “I had books everywhere, there was no space to breath.”

He has changed his book collecting habits since the fire.

“I used to raid bookstores,” said Nasatir. “I am not quite that open or easy now. When I run across something I think I ought to have, I hesitate. I think I can pass up a book now that I couldn’t before.”

And Nasatir said he won’t work at home as much.

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“I won’t take too much out of the office at one time. I will never have as much at home as I do at school.”


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