At 1:40 p.m. on May 7, 1915, fourteen miles off the coast of southern Ireland, the German submarine U-20 fired a torpedo packed with three hundred pounds of high explosives into the right side of the RMS Lusitania, a 785-foot passenger liner en route from New York to Liverpool, England, with nearly two thousand people aboard. Within eighteen minutes it sank, taking 1198 people with it, including 128 Americans. The roar as it plunged into the depths reminded one survivor of the sound of a great burning building collapsing under its own weight.
But in the pall of a historic humanitarian disaster lay the pinpricks of hope. George Kessler, a wealthy New York wine merchant, was lucky enough to escape in one of the Lusitania’s collapsible lifeboats before the ship sank. But surviving the attack turned out to be only the beginning of the horrors. Fishermen in the nearby village of Queenstown had witnessed the disaster and mounted a rescue operation, but due to the distance involved, help was a long time in coming. Rough seas swamped Kessler’s lifeboat, washing passenger after passenger away. By the time he was rescued, only Kessler and two others still clung to the collapsible boat.
During his ordeal, Kessler made himself a promise: If he lived, he would devote his life to helping victims of the Great War then ravaging Europe. He kept his promise and in a few months established the Permanent Blind Relief War Fund for allied soldiers and sailors. Ten years later, with the war over, the organization became the American Braille Press, which, in turn, became the American Foundation for Overseas Blind, and finally, in 1975, Helen Keller International.
By it’s eighty-fifth anniversary in 2000, HKI had a lot to be proud of: complete control of childhood blindness in Indonesia, more than 400,000 blindness-preventing vitamin A-rich gardens in Bangladesh, major strides in combating river blindness and trachoma in Africa, and thousands of cataract operations performed in countries around the globe.
Helen Keller was a kind of patron saint to the organization. George Kessler approached her for her help with his foundation to support those blinded by war. She naturally agreed and joined the board of directors, throwing her weight behind the organization as a cheerleader, an ambassador, and an inspiration. She continued in that capacity until her death in 1968. Seven years later the organization renamed itself in her honor.
Keller’s importance to HKI was reflected in the archives. Over the years, HKI collected autographed first editions of Helen Keller’s many books, as well as correspondence, photographs, and other memorabilia. Her work for the organization was documented along with her activities as a member of the board of directors. Just how impressive the archive was is unclear because the only copies of the catalog, as well as the archive itself, was destroyed in the terrorist attacks on New York’s World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Once again an unforeseeable human disaster and HKI had crossed paths.
Then-president of HKI, John Palmer, recounted his impressions after coming out of the subway that morning. “I’ll never forget the paper in the air,” he said. “It was a blizzard. This is the first image that will stay with me I looked up and saw the World Trade Center tower was on fire. I concluded that we really had a major problem.”
When the towers collapsed, the explosion gutted HKI’s headquarters and the rest of the historic building at 90 West Street, leaving behind a shredded hulk. One of the few items HKI employees salvaged from the archive was a singed terracotta bust of Helen Keller that had been presented to her on a visit to Japan in 1937. It now sits over the reception desk in their new headquarters in Midtown Manhattan.
Alec Rowe, who joined HKI after the attacks, explained the difference between the archives of then and now as we sat in their new offices, a bright, airy hand-me-down from a failed dot-com. On the wall was a black and white photograph of the wreckage of the twin towers as seen through a demolished window from the 90 West Street offices. “There used to be much, much more,” Rowe said. “I just did an inventory, which took me maybe a week.” A summer intern compiled the previous catalog. “That’s all there was for the whole summer: going in, looking at titles, chronicling what we had…Eighty-five years of documents, annual reports, correspondence, minutes, speeches, and other irreplaceable historical materials were lost. It was the entire institutional memory of the organization through it’s many incarnations, and bearing witness to its many accomplishments.”
The cream of the collections was a selection of photographs, books, and letters that had belonged to the organization’s namesake. There was a signed first edition of Helen Keller’s Journal, 1936–1937, a signed first edition of her first book, The Story of My Life, and many pamphlets. There were original photographs of Helen Keller with Kessler, as well as images from her many travels to Japan, Greece, Italy, France, England, South Africa, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Israel, now lost forever.
After overcoming the almost inconceivable hardship of being both blind and deaf, Keller devoted her life to humanitarian causes. She traveled widely and met with world leaders and every president from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon Johnson, advocating on behalf of organizations helping the blind. “She was such an important part of our development and our launch,” Rowe said. “She would mention us when she met with foreign leaders, with our leaders.”
Her books, letters, photographs, and more ephemeral items are relatively common on the market, as are signed letters and first editions. However, according to autograph dealer James Lowe, her secretaries and assistants frequently signed her name, blindness making even this simple task rather difficult. The volume of secretarial signatures has helped depress prices of authentic autographed items like those in the HKI archives.
But the collection had more than monetary value for HKI. “They constituted a priceless collection containing Helen’s observations and perspectives during the rise of fascism in Europe and throughout the years of World War II,” Palmer wrote in a letter three weeks after the attacks.
On September 16, 2001, the HKI had set up three temporary offices in New York and New Jersey. Along with all of their office equipment, records, and the archive, HKI had lost $1.4 million in donated surgical supplies and eyeglasses. Even though no lives had been lost the entire foundation of the organization had been shaken. “We were very lucky that everyone escaped,” Rowe said. “Unharmed is a loaded word because I would say that we have recovered financially from that day, but at the same time a lot of our staff still have not recovered emotionally. And it’s hard for them to speak about it.”
Palmer elaborated. “Emotionally it was really difficult,” he said. “We study immense evil at a distance, and empathize with the suffering of others at a distance. Even in terms of international development as professionals we journey to other countries, and we work, and we share in the suffering and we try to alleviate it. But there is a distance because in a sense we’ll always be guests. When those towers were struck, and I was standing under the towers, there was no distance. I was there.” Through its network of donors and granting agencies, HKI raised millions of dollars very quickly. It is a point of pride that not a single HKI program was disrupted because of the attacks.
But not all the donations were monetary. Sometimes other things can be just as important. Three weeks after the attacks the company received a package from Bangladesh with this letter:
I suspect that the archives and the library we lost when our headquarters was destroyed contained many irreplaceable items, some probably connected with Helen Keller herself. As a small start to building a new library, please accept this book as a personal contribution to that process.
A signed first edition of Keller’s memoir, Midstream, The Story of My Later Life, was enclosed.
Other donations started coming. The American Foundation for the Blind, the keeper of Helen Keller’s papers, gave a portfolio of photographs. Private donors sent more of Keller’s books and several letters. Today this library fills a small glass bookshelf outside the main conference room in their new office. It may be just a token, but it’s a start: a new beginning. But the loss of the original archive, which was referenced often in reports and donor relations, is still a tender wound, a constant reminder of how the attacks can still be felt today.
“Even today I’ll be looking for something, and I’ll say, that’s just not here,” Rowe said. “It’s lost. We lost that on September 11. It’s very frustrating because you don’t want to keep saying, ‘That was lost on September 11,’ because you want to think you can bounce back and have all those records. But sometimes you’ve done all you can do and you’re just not going to get them.”
Contact Helen Keller International at 352 Park Avenue South, 12th Floor, New York, NY 10010 or at www.hki.org.