Books from Gustav Gabriel Cohn’s library restituted

Hamburg State and University Library 31 January 2018

On January 22nd, the Hamburg State and University Library was able to send 10 books on their way to Israel. All of these Hebraic volumes originally came from the library of Gustav Gabriel Cohn, a Hamburg based broker-dealer who had compiled a large private collection of Jewish religious literature in the course of his life.

The only surviving image of Gustav Cohen (1863-1942)


Presumably as part of the confiscated property after his deportation, Cohn’s books came to the holdings of the Stabi, where they were discovered as part of the hitherto uncatalogued so-called „historical stock“ only much later.

Gustav Gabriel Cohn was born in Rawitsch in what was then Posen, the son of the Jewish religion teacher Markus Cohn and his wife Pauline née Brie. As a young man he went to Berlin, where he spent about ten years and completed his education at the Rabbinical Seminary. Still in Berlin, he then decided for a secular career as a banker and financial broker.

Stamps from Gustav Cohn's time in Berlin can be found in many of the books

He stayed in Hamburg since about 1887, where he lived with his growing family since about 1900 in a spacious apartment in Grindelallee 166 , in which he expanded his library for almost four decades. His six sons were born between 1893 and 1910.

Since 1933, the Cohn family had been torn apart by the progressive persecution. Gustav Gabriel Cohn’s wife Ella died young in 1917. In 1935 the sons Adolph (Netherlands) and Leon (Palestine) went into exile. Marcus followed Adolph to the Netherlands in 1937, later went via London to Argentina. Son Simon fled to France in 1939. Only Nathan Walter stayed in Hamburg. Gustav Gabriel Cohn himself had to change houses several times. He first moved to a smaller apartment in the Klosterallee. In 1942 he was forced to live in Dillstrasse 15, one of the so-called „Judenhäuser“ in which Jews were quartered in very cramped conditions.

Gustav Cohn's signature can be found in most of the 70 books of his in the library

He probably took at least part of his library there. Jakob Katzenstein, a friend of Cohn, described Cohn’s relationship with his books after the war: „At the time of Mr. Cohn’s deportation, I was still in Hamburg and saw Mr. Cohn one day before the deportation. […] The thought that Mr. Cohn voluntarily gave away his library or parts of it is simply absurd. […] Even serious economic hardship could not have caused Mr. Cohn to give up his books. I’m even convinced that Mr. Cohn would have preferred to go hungry rather than part with his books.“

The persecution took on life-threatening traits for Gustav Gabriel Cohn and his sons in the summer of 1942. On July 11th 1942, Nathan Walter Cohn was deported from Hamburg to Auschwitz at the age of 47. Gustav Gabriel Cohn himself was deported four days later to Theresienstadt. Adolph Cohn, who now had a wife and two children in Amsterdam, went into hiding. In August, Simon Cohn was arrested in France and deported via Drancy to Auschwitz.

Gustav Gabriel Cohn and his sons Nathan Walter and Simon did not survive the Holocaust. Adolph Cohn and his family had to change their hiding place until the end of the war. His sons Michal and Uriel, at the age of two and five, were hidden on farms, often separated from their parents. They were extremely lucky to have survived. Adolph’s son Uriel Cohn now lives near Jerusalem and will take the books of his grandfather back into the family’s possession.

The spine of one of the books embossed with 'M. Cohn', indicating that Markus Cohn was the owner of this book before his son Gustav Gabriel Cohn.

The provenance research turned out to be complicated, as more and more ownership notes were identified as to leading back to the library of Gustav Gabriel Cohn.

The shipping to Israel also proved difficult, but could be realized in the end with the help of the Foreign Office. For logistical reasons, only ten books were restituted as a start. Three volumes date from the 16th century and were thus among the very early printed books:

Yitsḥaḳ Natan ben Ḳalonimus: Meʾir nativ : ha-niḳra ḳonḳordanśiyaś … / [she-ḥiber ha-filosof ha-elohi he-ḥakham R. Mordekhai, Ṿenetsiʾah : Bomberg, [5]284 [1523]

Yaʿaḳov ben Asher: Oraḥ Ḥajim, Venedig : DiGara, 1589

Eliyahu Baḥur (auch Eliya Levita genannt): Sefer ha-ṭaʿamim|| ve-sefer masoret ha-masoret:|| = Accen||tvvm Hebraicorvm Li-||ber unus, ab Elia Iudæo æditus,|| & iam diu desideratus.|| Item liber Traditionum ab eodem conscriptus,|| cui uberrima accessit præfatio, quæ totam hebrai-||cæ linguæ explicat ratione[m], traditq[ue] ea quæ Gram-||maticæ hactenus deesse uidebantur.|| Ex his multa in fauorem studiosorum la-||tinè sunt reddita per Sebast. Munsterum, præ||sertim ea quæ inexercitatum [!] lectorem iuua-||re poterunt…, Basileae : Petrus, 1539.

All other restituted volumes can still be found in the catalog to understand their looted property history. For the remaining books in the Stabi from the collection of Gustav Gabriel Cohn, a suitable solution will also be found as soon as possible in agreement with the heirs. At the end of February, a “Stolperstein” for Gustav Gabriel Cohn will be placed at his last address Dillstraße 15.
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