By Michael Sontheimer
Hundreds of thousands of book stolen by the Nazis are still in German libraries. A few librarians are acting like detectives, searching for the books and hoping to return them to the former owners or their families. However, many libraries have shown little interest in the troubling legacy tucked away on their shelves.
Book, books, nothing but books. Detlef Bockenkamm is walking along a long shelf in the storage room at Berlin’s Central and Regional Library. Suddenly he stops and says: “This is where we have the Accession J collection.” The letter J refers to Jews.
The curator has collected more than 1,000 books here, enough to stretch almost 40 meters (130 feet) if they were lined up next to each other. Bockenkamm and a colleague combed through old documents, checked files and studied records documenting the receipt of books. They eventually discovered that these volumes were stored at the City Pawn Office in Berlin in the spring of 1943.
The records indicate that the city library purchased “more than 40,000 volumes from the private libraries of evacuated Jews” through this office. And, this being Germany, the librarians maintained meticulous record books to keep track of their purchases — even though parts of the German capital were already in ruins. As always, preserving order was paramount. The librarians signed each volume and gave it an accession number, beginning with the letter J.
Bockenkamm even found children’s books marked with the letter J. One was titled “For Our Youth: A Book of Entertainment for Israelite Boys and Girls.” The book contained the handwritten dedication: “For my dear Wolfgang Lachmann, in friendship, Chanuka 5698, December 1937.” Bockenkamm has been unable to find out what happened to the boy.
But he did manage to trace the former owner of a book titled “The Rose of Sharon — Stories and Poems for Older Jewish Youth.” A rabbi gave the book, bound in green linen, to a young girl from Berlin, in recognition of her “diligence and good conduct” in religious school. The girl’s name was Adele Hoffnung, and she was deported to Minsk on Nov. 14, 1941. Adele did not survive the Holocaust.
For Bockenkamm, the bureaucratic, administratively correct implementation of the great Nazi book theft was “disgustingly sleazy.” But he also derives satisfaction from the fact that he is now able to prepare an exhibition on the Nazi looted books for the Berlin Central and Regional Library.
Every larger German library still has hundreds of these books in its inventory, books snatched up by the men of the SS and SA, as well as ordinary soldiers, both in Germany and in other European countries occupied by the German armed forces, the Wehrmacht, during World War II. No one knows how many stolen books are still on the shelves in German libraries today, although experts, like historian Görz Aly, estimate that there are at least one million.
These silent witnesses of Nazi crimes are not as spectacular as the stolen paintings that have become the subject of bitter restitution battles waged in full view of the public. The books, after all, are not Picassos worth millions in the art market.
Nevertheless, Germany’s Federal Commissioner for Culture Bernd Neumann believes that museum employees and librarians have an obligation “to devote particular attention to the search for those cultural goods that were stolen or extorted from the victims of Nazi barbarism.” Neumann points out that, more than just “material value,” what is at issue here is “the invaluable emotional importance that these objects have when it comes to remembering the fates of individuals and families.”
For decades, libraries asked no questions about the origins of the books that were added to their inventories during the Nazi era. Many librarians approached the issue “sluggishly and reluctantly,” says Salomon Korn, the vice president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. To this day, many libraries have not systematically searched for stolen books in their inventories.
‘A Fundamental Task for Libraries’
The Lower Saxony State and University Library, in the city of Göttingen, is proud of its state-of-the-art robotic scanner. It is a pioneer nationwide when it comes to digitization. But despite its seeming progressiveness, the library seems to have less of an interest in the past.
It was an intern who at the end of last year first peered into the dusty accession books from the World War II years. What Arno Barnert found were deliveries from the Wehrmacht’s “loot warehouses” in Göttingen. He found accessions from the Polish cities of Krakow and Poznan, the Polish consulate in Leipzig and a high school in the Dutch town of Enschede. Books once owned by the Viennese Goethe expert Friedrich Fischl, who was deported in 1941 and murdered in the ghetto of Lodz, Poland, were recorded as a “purchase.”
Barnert notified the library management. A few days later, the intern received a visit from the library director, who advised the young man not to make the Nazi loot the subject of his thesis. Barnert was told that if he did decide to do so, he would not be making any friends and would not exactly be improving his prospects of getting a job. He might even be seen as a whistleblower, the director said.
But Barnert continued his search. “Documenting the paths and histories of books that were acquired in the Nazi period is a fundamental task for libraries, a question of ethics,” he says. In February, Barnert began collaborating with Frank Möbus, a Göttingen specialist in German studies who was in the process of preparing an exhibit about book burning.
Möbus found documents in the city archives proving that in March 1933, members of the SA, together with police officers, confiscated 890 books from a communist bookseller in Göttingen. Some of the books went to the National Library in Berlin and some to the University Library in Göttingen.
Möbus notified the administration of the University of Göttingen, which decided to conduct a search for Nazi loot in the library as part of a research project. Ironically, intern Barnert was forced to listen to his supervisor loudly accuse him of having ignored the proper channels.
The proper channels have always been dear to German bureaucrats, and they were observed by German librarians, who documented the stolen books even amidst the chaos of World War II. The records show, for instance, that the Prussian State Library passed on stolen books to 31 university libraries.
The book thieves’ initial goal was to develop and expand libraries and, as the war raged on, to replace inventories that had been destroyed.
A number of organizations took part in the hunt for books. They included the intelligence service of the SS, the Gestapo and the staff of Alfred Rosenberg, the “Führer’s Commissioner for the Supervision of the Entire Intellectual and Ideological Training and Education of the Nazi Party.”
Jews were not the only ones to fall victim to the Nazi book thieves. Berlin curator Bockenkamm found three books stamped “Karl Marx House, Trier.” A call to the western German city of Trier revealed that the books had been sent to Berlin for an exhibition in the early 1930s and were never returned.
Libraries Avoid Association with Nazi Looting
Employees at the Duchess Anna Amalia Library in the eastern city of Weimar identified 440 books that were once in workers’ libraries founded by Social Democrats and labor unions. There were about 2,500 of these libraries, with more than one million books altogether. Most of them went missing and were probably destroyed.
The book thieves were able to expand their range of operations considerably after the war began. German occupiers in Eastern Europe raided 375 archives, 957 libraries, 402 museums and 531 research and educational institutions. They were also active in France, as the odyssey of sheet music once owned by the pianist Arthur Rubinstein shows. The history of the copies and prints of these works of various composers, some with personal dedications, mirrors the catastrophes of the 20th century.
Rubinstein, who was born in the Polish city of Lodz and immigrated to Paris, fled to the United States in the fall of 1939. When the Wehrmacht occupied the French capital in June 1940, members of the “Reich Director Rosenberg Task Force” confiscated his sheet music and had it sent to the German Reich’s intelligence headquarters in Berlin.
In 1945, members of the Red Army confiscated the music and took it to the Soviet Union. When the music was sent to East Germany in the 1950s as part of a program to return German cultural assets, it ended up in the music department of the National Library in East Berlin, where no one recognized its value and it eventually gathered dust. It was only in 2003, 21 years after Rubinstein’s death, that librarians conducting research in Moscow’s Glinka Museum discovered who the former owner of the music was. Two-and-a-half years ago, representatives of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation handed over the music to Rubinstein’s children in New York.
Such finds and returns are the exception. Indeed, most stolen books are still undiscovered. Because libraries are constantly passing on duplicate copies to other libraries and exchanging books, the books stolen by the Nazis are now spread throughout Germany. “This explains why even the new technical colleges in eastern Germany may have such books,” says Annette Gerlach of the Central and State Library in Berlin.
In 1991, Klaus von Münchhausen, a political scientist in the city state of Bremen, was one of the first to suggest searching for stolen books. He criticized the city’s state library for having many books on its shelves that had once been stolen from Jews. The Bremen Senate hired a retired senior official from the state Education Ministry to conduct the search, and she found 1,555 books recorded in the accession book for 1942. Some entries included the notation “Gift from the Nazi Party,” while others were marked “J.A.” — Jew Auction. Most of the books had been confiscated from Jewish emigrants who were boarding ships to go abroad. It was possible to identify the former owners of about 300 of the books.
In early December 1998, a representative of the German government, together with representatives of 43 other nations, signed a document outlining 11 basic principles. The signatories to the “Washington Conference,” vowed to search for works of art “that were seized by the Nazis and never returned,” as well as the heirs of such stolen goods.
But little has happened in libraries since then. When stolen goods experts at the Lower Saxony State Library in Hannover sent a questionnaire to roughly 600 libraries via the German Library Association, only about 10 percent replied.
To date, only 14 libraries have officially registered their stolen goods. Even large university libraries, such as those in Frankfurt, Kassel and Heidelberg, have not yet begun to systematically search for stolen goods in their inventories.
In most cases, the institutions blame a lack sufficient funding and personnel to conduct the costly and time-consuming searches. Accession books must be examined, and then all books taken in after 1933 must be searched for information identifying libraries, names, ownership stamps and other clues.
In large libraries, the number of “suspicious books” ranges into the hundreds of thousands. Even the Berlin State Library, Germany’s biggest library, took its time before beginning a serious search effort three years ago. “They had to be dragged to the search,” says Werner Schroeder, an expert on Nazi loot in the northwestern city of Oldenburg. “They apparently wanted to avoid being associated with the Nazi foray throughout all of Europe.”
‘Sitting in the Stacks Like Corpses in the Cellar’
Only seven years after the signing of the Washington Conference, a student discovered, while conducting research for his master’s thesis, that the Berlin State Library owns more than 10,000 stolen books as well as another 9,000 volumes that were more than likely confiscated by the Nazis. There are probably even more, because the current library succeeded the Prussian State Library, which played a central role in the Nazis’ book confiscation program. All books that were seized anywhere in the country had to be offered to the library first. The “Reich Exchange Office,” which worked closely with the library, also became a transfer station for stolen books during the war.
Because of bombing raids on Berlin, the accession department at the national library was evacuated to Hirschberg — now the Polish city of Jelenia Góra — in the foothills of the Giant Mountains in the spring of 1944. Many of the intake documents are still in Jelenia Góra today, where a historian has been reviewing them since the end of last year.
“We spent too much time complaining about our own losses and looking to Russia,” Annette Gerlach of the Central and State Library in Berlin says, not without self-criticism. But, she adds, it is now time for her and her colleagues to finally do their homework.
“These books are sitting in the stacks like corpses in a cellar,” says Salomon Korn of the Central Council of Jews. Of course, he adds, more has to be done, especially in a matter that involves clearing up the “Nazi’s confiscation crimes.”
The University of Marburg Library is the only large German library that has now carefully examined almost all of its books from the period in question. As a result, the library has been able to return many books to the heirs of their former owners.
In many cases, heirs can no longer be found. Then the books remain in the libraries, and their histories are documented in the card catalogue. And then there are cases like that of Isac Seligmann. A user at the Berlin State Library found a volume of an encyclopedia titled “Religion in History and the Present Day,” which had a bookplate indicating that it had belonged to the Jewish theologian. Library staff managed to find his widow in Israel.
“I appreciate your offer to return this book to me,” Marion Seligmann wrote from Jerusalem, “but I have no use for it now.”
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan