Berlin’s state library handed back 13 books stolen by the Nazis to the Jewish community Wednesday as the German government pledged to redouble its efforts to return plundered cultural treasures.
The emotional ceremony came about thanks to a new drive to research the provenance of state holdings with the aim of restitution, German Culture Minister Bernd Neumann said.
“The 13 books being returned today preserve the memory of the Berlin Jewish community which was decimated and its members murdered or driven out,” Neumann said. “That is why such projects are so important now and in the future.”
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The books returned at the event, held in the Centrum Judaicum cultural centre at Berlin’s New Synagogue, included 19th and 20th century novels, history books, poetry collections, travel guides and bound newspaper volumes.
The yellowed pages bore fading stamps such as “Jewish Reading Room and Library Berlin” or “Jewish Community-Boys School Berlin”.
Many of the stamps had been simply covered over for more than six decades with the label of a German state institution.
Although their monetary value is negligible, the returned books symbolise a commitment to systematically account for the countless cultural objects stolen by the Nazis, said the head of the Berlin Jewish community, Lala Suesskind.
“This handover reminds us all that even after all these years, injustice has no statute of limitations,” she said.
The library said the origin of about 200,000 of its volumes needed to be researched.
About 25,000 books have been investigated in the last 10 years and 5,100 of them categorised as likely stolen under the Nazis, who systematically looted Jewish homes, businesses, synagogues, schools and community centres.
Those books that were not torched or lost often found their way to German libraries.
More than 100 books have now been returned to their rightful owners but the library estimates it will take another 10 years to complete the detective work.
Annette Gerlach, who is spearheading the recovery efforts at the state library, described the case of Holocaust survivor Walter Lachman, who now lives in California and was handed back a schoolbook given to him at Hanukkah in 1937 just three years ago.
After the book was recovered, a German magazine featured it prominently in an article about restitution efforts. A rabbi read the story and asked whether the book could be Lachmann’s.
His daughter came to Berlin to reclaim the volume, her father’s only surviving memento from his German childhood, and Lachmann hopes to travel to the German capital himself later this year, Gerlach told AFP.
The culture ministry and the cultural foundation of the 16 German states contribute 1.2 million euros ($1.7 million) per year to provenance research.
Neumann said great progress had been made in the last three years, with 100 art historians in Germany now working full time on the issue, but called on the regional states to step up the investigation of their own holdings.
“Too little time, effort and funds were committed to provenance research in the past for items stolen under the Nazis,” he said. “That had to change.”
Berlin’s Free University said Wednesday it would begin the world’s first degree programme dedicated to researching the provenance of art works and cultural objects.
At a conference in Washington in 1998, 44 countries pledged to report cultural holdings stolen by the Nazis and not returned and identify their rightful owners. Germany made the same commitment the next year.
via Berlin library returns books stolen by Nazis.