From a Letter to a Friend: Kurt Fischer Story

Bob Corbett
1997 or 98

Kurt Fischer was part of the German community in Haiti because of the Haitian scam after World War II. At that time Haitians could enter the U.S. without a visa. Thus Haiti sold visas to Europeans, especially Germans, after the war for $200 apiece. Many, many were sold and there was an influx of Germans who didn't intend to stay long. But the whole scheme was a scam. The visa trick didn't work since the freedom to enter the U.S. applied only to natural born Haitians. Most of the Germans moved on to South America.

One who did not was Kurt Fischer, a young and very rich German. He settled in Haiti and died there some 30+ years later. Fischer was rich and an inveterate collector. He collected coins, stamps, Arawak Indian artifacts and books that I know of. I've never heard that he collected paintings. That strikes me as wildly strange, but on the other hand, living there and having all that money - had he surely collected painting there would have been one awesome collection and it would have turned up in the literature somewhere. I think he did not collect art.

But books were his specialty, along with the other three I mentioned. Not only did he collect them, but he had most of them rebound in sort of a speckled hardboard with leather findings, and the name of the book and author on it. Very very beautiful books.

Like me, who, while I have a nice and unusual collection, have nothing that even approaches Fischer, he wanted to see his collection remain intact, but didn't want to part with the books in his lifetime. Vague discussions had taken place, vague promises made (that would not hold up in court), that he wanted his collection to go to the U. of Florida Caribbean Studies Center, or whatever they call it.

He died around 1980 and his wife sold the collection at auction. Actually a huge portion of it stayed intact. The first refusal rights were purchased by the City Library of New York, and second refusal rights, plus first refusal rights from anything discarded from the New York Public Library, were purchased by the person who told me this story.

So, NYPL purchased much of the collection and it is there today. In so doing they upgraded a good deal and got rid of what they upgraded, and the man who told me about this and lives (lived?) on Long Island got what NYPL didn't want and what they discarded from their own collection.

A word about my source: He was born in the U.S. but raised in Haiti by Americans who farmed the north. He is about 35 years my senior and wealthy. He is most likely dead now, and my last 3 letters, over the past 5 years have not been answered. He began to collect books on Haiti as a young man in the 1930s and had quite an impressive collection of works in English. I used to just envy some of his books, but now I think I have everything which he had in his library. I do have a print out of his holdings, and by that time (1990) he was no longer adding to his library except an occasional trade with me.

His tale echoes the Fischer tale in regard to U. of Florida. This fellow subscribed to my magazine, wrote some fascinating pieces about his experiences in Haiti and sent them to me - I can't recall if they were for publication or not, but are in my files. The Fischer story is one. The story of the discovery of the anchor of the Santa Maria is another. His family was involved. At any rate, he indicated that he would want me to have his library when he died, but couldn't not be surrounded by his books while he lived. After our correspondence ended I kept trying to make contact. I did have several letters from a woman, who was probably his daughter but may have been his wife. She did arrange one trade of about a dozen newer books on Haiti for 3 older, but not rare books. Then, as I say, my letters ceased to be answered, though never returned as undeliverable. I suspect he died and I was not formally mentioned by him as a source for his books.

Back to Fischer: When the collection was purchased by NYPL, 5 English language volumes, among his rarest, disappeared before NYPL could take possession of them (or buy them). They just disappeared. One was the volume you asked about, the Rainsford volume. The Bryant Edwards history of Haiti is another. I can't recall the other three.

End of Fischer story. But, in about 1992 I had a telephone call from a rare book dealer in NY who had two volumes to offer me: the Rainsford volume and the Edwards volumes. One from 1803, the other from 1799. In describing them he said, one unusual thing is that both books have been rebound in a lovely speckled hard board with leather bindings. Well, I about jumped off the phone all the way to NY! A bit of looking around and they were two of the five lost Fischer books.

I had to have them, but they were $1000 each. I didn't have that sort of money. I asked for a few days to think about it. Now enters a woman I've never met. Her name is not noticeably Haitian and she lives in NY. She had been a generous donor to the development and charitable work People to People was doing in Haiti and a subscriber to the magazine, STRETCH. She had contacted me about a year earlier and said while she would continue her very generous donating to those works, she wanted also to donate money to help with education work, such as funding STRETCH, buying books for my library and so on. And she did and had. She'd never asked any questions except: give me the dealer's phone number (this is before e-mail), and the book would arrive a month later. As I say, I never met her and only talked with her on the phone twice, she preferred to communicate by mail. I called her that time, falling all over myself with both nervousness and embarrassment at what I was telling her. She only asked one question: what is the dealer's phone number. I now have those two volumes in my collection.

That's the tale of Kurt Fischer and surrounding items!

Best, Bob


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