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Activity Report of the Commission for the Recovery of the Bibliographic Heritage of the Jewish Community in Rome, looted in 1943

Activity Report of the Commission for the Recovery of the Bibliographic Heritage of the Jewish Community in Rome, looted in 1943

At the Italian Presidency of the Council of Ministers, following the indications in the final report from the ‘Anselmi Commission’, a new Commission was set up in 2002 with the aim of tracing the Jewish Community’s library in Rome, looted by the Nazis in 1943 and never recovered. The research concerns at the present time also part of the Italian Rabbinical College’s library, looted as well and only partially recovered.[1]

The Community’s library is made up of the works collected even before the sixteenth century and until the nineteenth century in the five synagogues and the thirty confraternities located in the ghetto. It included manuscripts, incunabula, soncinati, as well as works of the sixteenth century printed by Bomberg, Bragadin and Giustiniani. It also included works printed at the beginning of the sixteenth century in Constantinople and others of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries coming from Venice and Livorno. Only a small part of the material was fortuitously saved from the looting since it was kept in another place.

Isaia Sonne, an expert who examined that library in the thirties, claimed that it contained approximately one fourth of the Soncinos’ production (the Soncinos were Jewish printers who worked in Italy and then moved to Salonica and Constantinople during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries).

It is estimated that the library consisted of around seven thousand volumes. A catalogue, even if partial because it contained roughly a hundred titles among the most relevant books for rarity and value, was drawn up by Isaia Sonne in 1934.

The material preserved in the library is undoubtedly very important from a cultural point of view, as shown in the decree of appointment of the Commission, in which it is stated that the library has a great cultural interest for Italy. According to the expert Fabian Herskovits, who visited the library in 1939, there were mainly books unobtainable elsewhere because there was only one copy of them existent. Another expert, Mr. Attilio Milano, wrote a letter to the then President of the Community stating that: "Definitely, no other Italian Jewish library had so many priceless books and very few outside Italy exceeded it".

An employee of the Jewish Community described the first stages of the looting that she witnessed (before October 16th 1943, the date of the deportation of the Jews of Rome). Later she wrote also a report, now preserved by the Jewish Community. This description was mentioned in a well-known book by Giacomo Debenedetti, “October 16th, 1943”.

It is known that on September 30th and October 1st 1943 two men in uniform appeared, one of them introducing himself as a teacher of Hebrew at a Berlin Institute. They inspected the Jewish Community’s library as well as the one of the Italian Rabbinical College, located on another floor of the same building.

A second visit and inspection of the two libraries followed, resulting in their declaring the seizure of the material. A transport company was ordered by telephone to withdraw and load the collections on railway wagons. On October 14th 1943 the whole Community’s library and part of that of the Italian Rabbinical College were taken away. The remaining part of this second library was taken on December 22nd and 23rd. A letter, wrote to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and to the Ministry of National Education on October 11th 1943 to inform them about the looting, which was damaging the country, had no result. Only a part of the Rabbinical College’s library, containing about twenty incunabula, was found (not including the incunabula) and returned in 1947.

The Community’s library and the lost part of the Rabbinical College’s library seem to have literally disappeared. The only available information are the signs of the German railway wagons used for their transportation as well as the declaration of the Italian company which carried out the loading onto the wagons. According to the company, the transportation was directly managed by the military administration of the occupier.

In this regard, a document found by the Commission at the Bundesarchiv in Berlin deserves special attention. It is a report addressed to the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosemberg – Sonderkommando Italien and sent to Berlin on January 21st 1944. In the document, which reports certain activities carried out by the ERR in Italy, we can also read: “Monthly report December 1943 - thanks to a special operation in Rome, what remained of the library of the Synagogue has been loaded onto a wagon and sent to the Institute for the Research into the Jewish question in Frankfurt am Main.” They are obviously referring to the last shipment of the books of the Synagogue of Rome, which occurred on December 23rd 1943 and we can reasonably conclude, as several experts did before, that the ERR has been responsible for the looting.

As far as the route of the railway wagons is concerned, research was carried out at the Italian Railway Company Archive, but with no result since there was no trace of the material. Nor was it possible to find information about the route of the wagons in Switzerland.

In carrying out its activities, the Commission considered some hypotheses, making inquiries in archives and libraries located in different parts of the world: in Italy, in Germany, in the United States, in Israel, in Poland, in Ukraine and elsewhere. Some experts dealing with facts related to the Nazis' occupation in Europe and some officials from Institutions interested in this research, have also been interviewed.

The most reliable hypothesis, based on the information gathered by the Commission during its research activities, is that the material, kept by the Nazis in the territory later occupied by the Red Army, was moved to the Soviet Union as “spoils of war” and that now it could be somewhere in the Russian Federation.

Against this backdrop, last May an agreement was signed with the “Rudomino” All-Russia State Library for Foreign Literature to carry out research, funded by Unicredit Private Banking, in the archives and libraries of the Russian Federation, in collaboration with the Commission.


[1] The Commission for the Recovery of the Bibliographic Heritage of the Jewish Community in Rome, looted  in 1943, is composed as follows: Mr. Dario Tedeschi (President), Ms. Anna Nardini (Presidency of the Council of Ministers), Ms. Bruna Colarossi (Presidency of the Council of Ministers), Mr. Pignatti (Ministry of Foreign Affairs), Ms. Rosa Vinciguerra ( Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Activities), Ms. Marcella Conti (Ministry of Justice), Mr. Michele Sarfatti (Director of the Center of Contemporary Jewish Documentation), Prof. Mario Toscano (University ‘La Sapienza’ in Rome), Ms. Filomena del Regno (University ‘La Sapienza’ in Rome), Prof. Lutz Klinkhammer (German Historical Institute in Rome), Mr. Sandro di Castro (Union of the Italian Jewish Communities).


Commission for the Recovery of the Bibliographic Heritage of the Jewish Community in Rome, looted in 1943, correspondence with the Central Registry, 10 July 2007