A man in California holds a book in his hand. It contains a personal dedication from his former school teacher. The elderly man was the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust. Beyond a family photo and one item of clothing, the book is the only thing that he has from his former home country. He has tears in his eyes.
The book was recently returned to him, its rightful owner. “Such moments are truly filled with happiness, because we see that all of our work is really worth it,” says Uwe Hartmann, head of provenance research at the German Lost Art Foundation in Magdeburg.
The Lost Art Foundation has organized a program called “Initial Check” in order to enable the search for stolen books in smaller German libraries: The program has tasked three experienced provenance researchers to scour libraries in Saxony-Anhalt, and look for suspicious items. Their aim is to find out whether such inventory items are in fact looted goods.
Early inventory lists help
Elena Kiesel is conducting research related to the Magdeburg City Library. The historian knows exactly which Jewish families or political parties in the region were dispossessed. “She has the lists compiled during earlier studies,” says librarian Cornelia Poenicke, referring to inventories put together after German reunification. In the early 1990s, researchers were looking at a completely different chapter in Germany’s history of confiscations – namely those of estate owners in the early stages of East Germany’s nascent communist era.
“In the end, she will go through the library’s shelves and look through the books, at least part of them,” adds Poenicke. “She won’t make it through all 80,000 volumes but she will make random samples.”
Needle in a haystack?
Finding looted books in small and medium-sized libraries is a bit like finding a needle in a haystack. In Magdeburg, researchers are not even certain that there are any needles to be found.