Name: Bernard Amtmann
Convocation date: May 24, 1974
Discipline / contribution: arts and culture ; business - antiquarian book trade; military service
Citation / biographical information:
Eminent Chancellor, on behalf of the Council and Senate, I present to you, Mr. Bernard Amtmann.Degree received: Doctor of Laws
Bernard Amtmann was born in Vienna, Austria on July 11, 1907 in a working class district on what he might term the socialist side of the railway tracks. His family were not wealthy, and when 14 years of age, Bernard left school and became a messenger boy at the local bank. He progressed through various clerical jobs, working by day and spending his leisure time in self-education. The thirties were lean years and as the spikes and nettles of nationalism hardened in Europe, it became apparent that war and conquest were real possibilities. Bernard Amtmann tried his hand at various business ventures. One such venture offered interesting possibilities. It had to do with military inventions — and Bernard was actually on a train en route to Switzerland, France, and Britain to see various officials in each country, when German armies were ordered by Hitler to occupy Austria. Fate plays many tricks - the day after Bernard Amtmann left Austria for Switzerland, the Gestapo paid an official visit to his lodgings.
The occupation of Austria caused a crisis in the capitals of France and Britain. Bernard Amtmann was delayed in Paris as his appointments were postponed. The British Government adopted strict controls at all ports as a great influx of refugees and frightened nationals sought to flee Europe before the storm. As a result, Amtmann was still in France when war broke out. He volunteered for service in the French Army and joined his regiment at Auxerre in the north of France. In the spring of 1940, France was overrun and Amtmann, the survivors of his regiment, and scattered remnants of the French Army were swept south with a great exodus of civilians fleeing the Germans. Amtmann was literally washed up at the foot of the Pyrenees. He worked in vineyards and gardens; he washed dishes; he was a laundryman; he served as hotel waiter until France capitulated. Now he was sought both by the French police and by the German Gestapo. Shrewdly he found a measure of safety by moving to the centre of danger to Montauban, the headquarters of the French and German forces in southwestern France. He became a waiter in the Hotel du Midi, the headquarters of the German army and Gestapo, and he found himself the interpreter between French and Germans.
It was with something akin to relief that Bernard allied himself openly with the maquis of the French Resistance and he soon became Chief of a Commando group committed to an organized campaign of sabotage of German operated installations. With the landing of the Allied troops in France in 1944, Amtmann’s Commando group became part of the regular French forces and Amtmann was confirmed as sergeant under a nom de guerre — Amoroux. He took part in many combat actions during the winter of 1944-45.
With the cessation of hostilities, Amtmann returned to Montauban but shortly thereafter emigrated to Canada. After years of tension and strain, he was in a country where as Rudyard Kipling said in Ottawa – “A man may set down and be free from the sins of his ancestors.”
Bernard Amtmann started a small antiquarian bookselling business in Ottawa on a capital of $40.00. It was a bare living. In 1950 he moved to Montreal and began to specialize in Canadiana. The quality of his catalogues and the scholarly research that went into his publications earned him the respect and support of librarians, collectors, and scholars in Canada and abroad. His name and his firm, Bernard Amtmann, Incorporated, became household words. He expanded his field of interests to rare books and modern first editions, founding the firm of Laurie-Hill Limited. He entered the book auction business and is the sole owner and proprietor of Montreal Book Auctions.
Bernard Amtmann is the greatest authority on Canadiana that our country affords. But his interests are not confined to the business of buying and selling. His avowed purpose is to stimulate Canadians to preserve their cultural heritage and to appreciate their history. More than any other bookman, he appreciates that pamphlets, flyers, broadsides, reports , ephemera, are part of that history and heritage. He founded the Canadian Antiquarian Booksellers Association in 1966 — and it held its fifth annual book fair in Toronto a few days ago.
He attempted to organize a world-wide international society of book lovers; he attempted to found an Erasmus Circle for friends of the book; he worked to better the liaison between book dealers and librarians. These were not all successes - but, undaunted, he has now turned to the grand design of a National Bibliography of Canada. He brings to this challenge some substantial credentials for he was the compiler and publisher of Montreal Book Auction Records, 1972; Contributions to a Short Title Catalogue of Canadiana, 1971—1973 and Contributions to a Dictionary of Canadian Pseudonyms, 1973. He has made a notable success of building collections at McGill, Queen’s, and at this institution — to speak of three libraries with which I am familiar. He is much sought after for appraisals of rare books or Canadiana.
Mr. Chancellor, Bernard Amtmann is a Canadian, fluent in German, French, and English. He has a brother, a musician, in Ottawa. His sister runs his office in Montreal. He is married and his charming wife, Airdrie, who is with us today, has made her own contribution to the Canadian cultural field. He paid a visit to his native city a few years back but one cannot retrace all one’s steps, shuck off all one’s experience, and find again a childhood or youthful memory. Vienna had changed, also.
Bernard Amtmann is and has been, something of a champion of lonely, if not lost, causes. He numbers librarians and archivists among his chiefest friends and yet he berates these for smugness, tunnel vision, and timidity. He scolds his fellow Canadians for lack of concern for their written heritage. He is impatient to get on with his latest and greatest work and he cannot do it alone. You, sir, will appreciate the metal of this man. You will appreciate him as a citizen soldier who dared to live for an ideal. You will share his passion for the written evidences of our Canadian identity. You may laud him as he scolds Ottawa for paying so little heed to the Canadian heritage.
I honour him as a comrade in arms for I remember the days I spent with the 5th Spahis of the French Foreign Legion at Monte Lucio in Italy. I first met him twenty-two years ago at a library convention. His birth date is my birth date, though he has somewhat out-distanced me in the race of life. I recognize him as a scholar and a great Canadian.
Eminent Chancellor, I present to you Bernard Amtmann and ask that you will confer on him the Degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.
Degree presented at: University of Saskatchewan Regina Campus
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