For medieval Christians, Jerusalem was the omphalos of the world--the navel. It was there that this world was connected to the world to come. Dante parodied this spiritualized geography in his Divine Comedy, where the descent into and beyond the bottomless pit of Inferno inverted into the mountain of purgatory whence the ascent to paradise could begin. On the Bebelplatz in Berlin, between the opera house and the old university, the Nazis celebrated their ascendency by burning the books of Jews and other degenerates in 1933. Visitors since 1995 can peer through a small glass porthole into a room carved into this ground by the Israeli artist Micha Ullman. It is a square white room filled floor to ceiling with shelves. But the shelves are empty. The books are gone, buried in the air.

If one were able to descend into that room, and if that room were as bottomless as the agonies for which it stands, and if our universe were shaped like Dante’s, we would re-emerge from the Bebelplatz monument into another white square room--even bigger--also lined floor to ceiling with shelves. Only this time, in a reversal as breathtaking as it is improbable, the shelves would be filled with books. Tall and short, thick and thin, with pretty bindings and quotidian ones, a few open to spectacular illustrations, most open to ordinary pages of print. This way out of a bookless dystopia, this emergence from the collapse of civilization into a sanctuary of civilization, was available to the roughly 10,000 people who in recent weeks packed the tenth-floor galleries at Sotheby’s in New York to view the 13,000 books of the Valmadonna Trust collection. They were vouchsafed a vision as hallucinatory as any in Borges.

This astounding collection was begun at the turn of the century, but for the past seven decades it has been in the hands and in the London home of the Antwerp-born Jack Lunzer, a dealer in industrial diamonds by day and a lover of Hebrew books by night. During these decades it has grown from a small collection focused on 16th-century Italian Hebrew imprints--in some sense a golden age of Hebrew printing--to one that has taken the entirety of the Jewish historical experience as its purview, “books that are not only rare but truly significant for illustrating and understanding the Jewish diaspora.”

That unforgettable first gallery, designed by Ralph Appelbaum Associates, and labeled the “Library” in Sotheby’s simple informational handout--the only alternatives to simple would have been either purple or poetry--represents the Jewish world as if in evocation of those famous medieval T and O maps which had Jerusalem at the center but which divided up into Europe, Asia, and Africa. One corner of the huge room had walls of books printed in Venice, and another in the various Italian centers and micro-centers (such as Sabbionetta), one shelf to a city. A third corner contained books from Asia, and Easts both Near and Far. The final corner represented Europe: Amsterdam on one whole wall and the rest of Europe on the other.

Additional rooms held specactular volumes; a huge number of incunables, or books from the earliest decades of printing, as well as important and obscure books, open in cases for examination. A small room off to the side, like the Uffizi’s Tribuna, and just as crowded with wide-eyed enthusiasts, contained rare volumes--in shockingly pristine condition--of the first complete printed Talmud, produced in Venice in 1523, whose other copies were mostly destroyed by order of the Counter-Reformation Popes in the 16th century. And then there were the broadsheets, posters, and flyers--the ephemera of daily life, whether wedding riddles, calendar pages, or poetry in honor of bar mitzvah boys. (One Hebrew poem was in Petrarchan sonnet form--could there be a better example of the Italian-Jewish keenness to assimilate?)

It is tempting to be seduced by the geography. It does seem like this is the Jewish world, gathered up and stacked on shelves. The People of the Book, yes? But this is an illusion. For at a certain point, between the oldest object in the collection, and the most recent, a fourth continent was discovered: America. (Discovered in 1492, America might count as an incunable.) The Valmadonna Trust contains a copy of the Genoese polyglot Psalter of 1516, with the earliest known printed biography of Christopher Columbus. But it is striking that there are no Hebrew books printed in the New World in this great collection. Lunzer has explained that the collection is a personal one, whose contours follow his own interests. There is nothing to argue with here. And yet the geographical judgment does leave us with something to ponder: The United States is home to the most prosperous, successful, and powerful Jewish diaspora community ever, but how should we judge its Jewish literary output? Does its exclusion from this almost-encyclopedic collection tell us about more than one man’s vision? And what will it mean to posterity?

Still, the physical extension of the collection is staggering, and it in no way blunts the emotional charge of individual artifacts. The terse but informative labels at Sotheby’s often made economical reference to their context, but the magic of the books’ existence alone speaks volumes. In any case, on any shelf, however casually chosen, there is a book that could stop you in your tracks. The Hebrew-Marathi facing page guide to ritual slaughterers, published in Karachi, in 1908, evokes a whole human community. There is a magnificent volume of Maimonides’ commentary on the Mishna, published in Naples in 1492 and opened--randomly?--to a page of the tractace Eruvin full of drawings of public and private spaces, each carefully demarcated. We, today, know that all these fine distinctions were about to be thrown over, that Jewish space would cease to exist in its entirety, and a generation of Jewish readers set adrift and unmoored. In Spanish Naples the expulsions would soon begin and this flourishing center of Hebrew publishing would disappear forever. Jews in Constantinople, Jews in Cochin, Jews in Shanghai, Jews in Alexandria, Jews in Aden, Jews in. … So many Jews, so many stories, so many places.

Once upon a time. In this way the Valmadonna collection is also a monument: It is a time capsule of a world that no longer exists. And so the throngs of visitors pressing up against the cases, taking photos with their cell phones to send to friends elsewhere, treating books as others treat Old Master paintings or rock stars, had also to feel a sense of loss. Most of these Jewish communities are gone, victims of expulsion or of the ingathering of exiles. There are books printed in 16th- and 17th-century Jerusalem and Safed, but as the period collected ends around 1920, there are no books printed in the State of Israel. In this way, too, there is an eerie distancing in the Valmadonna world map. Many of those pressed up against the glass, calling their friends over to look, to read, to discuss, possess their own copies of the Pentateuch, or the Talmud, or Nahmanides’s commentary. For them, these books live still. And yet the very cartographic orientation works towards estrangement. This was the Jewish world. It no longer is the Jewish world. The people are now gone, and only the books remain.

And there is still another sense, proved at Sotheby’s recently, in which the people are gone. The visitors who snaked along the ropes set up in the auction house’s lobby and out the door and up the street were quite obviously Jews. Some wore the anachronistic dress of early modern Polish nobility, others the modern yeshiva fashions of Washington Heights and Brooklyn. But almost none of them, at least when I was visiting, had uncovered heads. What does this mean? In 1990, a scholar of modern American Jewry wrote a book about orthodox Jews entitled New York’s Jewish Jews. Well, if books are the heritage of the Jews, then don’t they belong to non-religious Jews as well? (I leave aside the bigger and even more important questions of why a show of this magnitude would attract only Jews, or what it would mean if the majority of the visitors were not Jews.)

Where were the non-religious Jews who are mesmerized by the traditional Jewish bookshelf? Is the demography of the audience for a high-end show of Hebrew books, like that of rallies in support of the State of Israel, revealing an ever greater split between identifying with things Jewish and identifying as Jewish? If it is true--and, I agree, this is a big "if," which of course requires million-dollar studies by foundations and sociologists before it can be discussed with all due seriousness--then we may be witnessing the deterioration of the idea that one can be “culturally Jewish.” For if the Valmadonna Library documents anything, it is the culture of Jews, the Jewish culture of Jews, over the last five hundred years.

The Valmadonna sale may mark an end of the road in still other ways. Sotheby’s hypes it as the “finest private library of Hebrew books and manuscripts in the world.” Hopefully, these books will stay together at an institution that can care for them and provide scholars with access to this treasure trove. Even better would be a building that could display this collection as magnificently as it was shown at Sotheby’s. But will there ever be anything else like this? Could there be? What would a similar vision look like in the year 2500/6260? The imagination collapses under the weight of this question. There are too many variables, too many dangers, too many accidents between us, now, and them, then.

And yet this sense of impossible distance may in turn help to sharpen our own sense of the epoch displayed on those shelves and in those cases on York Avenue. For they represent the modern era of Jewish history, and it is over. Those who stood slack-jawed, staring up at those walls of books, were staring an epoch in the face. From that height, for ten days at a high-end Manhattan address, five centuries of Jews were looking down upon the visiting men, women, and children. Their challenge is almost audible: How will the future that you make find meaning in the past that we made?

Peter N. Miller is a professor at the Bard Graduate Center in New York, and the editor of Momigliano and Antiquarianism: Foundations of the Modern Cultural Sciences (Toronto University Press).

By Peter N. Miller