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'Gvilim Nisrafim v'Otiot Porhot (Burning Scrolls and Flying Letters)'

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Gvilim Nisrafim v'Otiot Porhot (Burning Scrolls and Flying Letters)


Dov Schidorsky


June 2008


The English title of this book, published only in Hebrew, is 'Burning Scrolls and Flying Letters: A History of Book Collections and Libraries in Mandatory Palestine and of Book Salvaging Efforts in Europe after the Holocaust'.  It was published by Magnes University Press (Hebrew), 551 pages, NIS 115, SKU: 45-381002, ISBN: 978-965-493-335-3.

The publisher's biography of Dr Schidorsky and its description of the book is reproduced below.  The book was reviewed by Gish Amit in Haaretz newspaper on 12 October 2008.  The review is also reproduced below: 

Dr. Dov Schidorsky, born in Germany, holds a B.A. degree in political science and education from the Hebrew University, a M.Sc. in library science from Simmons College, Boston and a Ph.D. in librarianship from the University of California, Berkely. From 1969 to 1993 he has been active in research and teaching at the School of Library, Archive and Information Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. During the years 1978-1989 he served as Director of the School.

His earlier professional experience included the following institutions: In the 1950s, the Israel Defense Forces Archive and the Israel State Archives. In the years 1953-1977 - Founding Librarian Tel Aviv University Library; 1956-1957 Visiting Librarian - Yale University Library, New Haven. In the years 1963-1971 he served as Consultant to the Library of Congress Procurement Mission in Israel. He was twice Research Fellow at the School of Library and Information Studies, University College London in 1988 and in 1990.

He held scholarships of the U.S. State Department(1956-7), the British Council(1964,1969.1971),the German D.A.D.(1979,1981,1984) and the Ebert Stiftung (1989).With the aid of those he has been able to research archives and libraries and also become thoroughly acquainted with library systems in those countries.

His main research is focused on libraries and book collections as cultural and social agents in the last two centuries in Palestine and Israel. He has published three books and numerous papers in the professional literature. Here are a few of the topics: The libraries of Jews, Moslems and Christians in Ottoman Palestine; the founding and development of a Jewish national library in Jerusalem against the backdrop of the emerging Zionist movement; nationalism and the idea of a Jewish national library; the origins of workers` libraries in Palestine and their role in the inculcation of the Yishuv with the ideology of the labor movement; the contribution of the Tel Aviv municipal libraries to the institutionalization of a cultural center in the city.

In the last decade his research focused on the fate of the Jewish book and the destruction of European Jewish culture during the Holocaust; the looting plunder, confiscation and destruction of Jewish private and public book collections and libraries in the Third Reich. Last but not least the large scale salvaging activities of the remnants after the Holocaust by the Hebrew University and the Jewish National and University Library have been researched. Juridical, moral and political issues of restitution policies were researched and discussed. The contribution of the emissaries in the salvaging of lost libraries and books in Europe, such as Gershom Scholem, Hugo Bergmann, Shlomo Shunami and Zeev Sheck have been discussed and their documents have been published. As a result of their efforts close to a million books have been salvaged and have been transferred to the Jewish National and University Library.

Publisher's description of the book:
The Jewish National and University Library came into being in the years of the British mandate. Its mission was to collect preserve and centralize the spiritual treasures of the Jewish people. Eventually, it would contribute to the fulfilment of the Zionist objective of nation building.

The Tel Aviv municipality brought the literary remains of national poets and writers like Bialik and Ahad Ha-Am into its library system. Their collections were developed into public municipal libraries.

The Histadrut established a central library and supplied the settlement movement with library services. In that way it contributed to the realization of political, social and ideological aspirations of establishing a socialist society.

Simultaneously, with these efforts to collect centralize and preserve the Jewish spiritual heritage in Palestine, the evil Nazi regime became active in destroying Jewish culture by book burning, cleansing German libraries of Jewish books and scattering Jewish libraries and collections in ghettos and concentration camps. Nevertheless and paradoxically, the Nazis have secured and preserved some of the more valuable Jewish library collections for future research in order to be able, post factum to legitimize the destruction of the Jewish people and its spiritual heritage.

The two sections of the book document and describe conflicting processes: building and destruction, collecting and dispersion, securing and destroying, plunder and restitution of private and public Jewish book collections and libraries.

In the first part, "Libraries and book collections during the British mandate in Palestine" the creation and shaping of a national library and public libraries are described. In the second part "Burning scrolls and flying letters" the negative processes of confiscation and plundering of Jewish libraries throughout Europe are delineated. The salvaging activities of libraries and books by Hebrew University emissaries after the Holocaust and the transfer of the remnants to Jerusalem are discussed.

In the last section of the book, the reader may find some historical documents that lend support to the two sections of the book and have never been published so far.

Haaretz review:

"Between May 10 and June 21, 1933, books were burned at 30 universities throughout Germany. Even though burning books became a symbol of Nazi barbarism and of future atrocities - in the spirit of Heinrich Heine's chilling prophecy, "Where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn human beings" - millions of other books were collected and preserved by various bureaucratic units throughout Germany. These Nazi subdivisions actually fought for control of the Jewish collections and the right to establish anti-Jewish museums and libraries. The Final Solution to the Jewish Problem entailed not only the physical annihilation of the Jews, but also the confiscation, protection and securing of their intellectual treasures. Thanks to this "strange lunacy" of the Nazis, as Hannah Arendt called it in her book on the trial of Adolph Eichmann, many cultural treasures of European Jewry were saved from destruction.

In the second part of his book, a study of the development of libraries in Israel under the British Mandate, taking in the looting of Jewish libraries in Europe under the Third Reich, Dov Schidorsky relates the fascinating fate of the collections of Jewish books under Nazi rule and their redistribution after the war. In the winter of 1945-46, millions of books that had been saved were transferred to collection points in Germany. Robert Walsh, a journalist sent to Germany by Haaretz, wrote in 1946 that the book warehouse in Offenbach, near Frankfurt, had become the largest Judaica library in the world.

"Eighty hard-working German clerks, who speak English for the benefit of their supervisors, are occupied in arranging the books on huge shelves," wrote Walsh, who estimated it would take many years for these experts to sort all the material. This Jewish property was the subject of debates and disputes that lasted years and presented the institutions of the victorious countries with serious problems whose solutions involved legal, political, economic and administrative challenges.

Stealing for America
This is an exciting and complex story, interlaced with parallels and disputes, political and ideological polemic. Its heroes are Jewish organizations from around the world, both Zionist and anti-Zionist, institutions and individuals.

In 1947, an organization was founded in New York for the rehabilitation of Jewish culture, and was entrusted with the collection and redistribution of the books. The heads of that organization, Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, which included Jewish historian Salo W. Baron and Arendt, debated at length the issue of the distribution of the property; they had to decide between the contradictory claims, during a time of political chaos and bitter disagreements.

In Europe, the remnants of the Jewish communities demanded the return of the books that had been saved, but scholarly non-Jewish Germans were not pleased about giving up valuable Jewish manuscripts. Meanwhile in Jerusalem, a committee for saving the treasures of the Diaspora was set up by the Hebrew University in early 1946. It demanded the transfer of the cultural assets to the National and University Library in Jerusalem.

"A major principle in inheritance law throughout the enlightened world," stated the committee, "is that the bequeathers" desire be preserved as much as possible, and this would certainly be the fulfillment of the wishes of the bequeathers, the owners of this cultural property, who fell victim to the persecution of their people, that the Jewish cultural treasures be confiscated from their tormentors-murderers and returned to their persecuted nation as an inheritance and perpetual memorial."

In April 1946, Gershom Scholem was dispatched to Europe by the Hebrew University, in order to oversee the shipment of the books to Israel.

"We were late by two or three months," wrote Scholem in a letter from Prague to Hebrew University administrator Werner David Senator, "and people here are upset about it. They claim that during that time we could have taken away many things, but that in the meantime a few Jewish and non-Jewish parties came and stole as much as possible for America."

Scholem also complained about the Joint Distribution Committee's attitude toward the issue of the books. "I have a feeling," wrote Scholem, "that the Joint, for propaganda reasons, prefers that the books reach America."

To a great extent, the question of the distribution of the intellectual assets that survived the Holocaust was affected by the different ways in which the Jews perceived the destruction of European Jewry and the establishment of the State of Israel, as well as the connection between those two events against the background of the question of the ownership of Jewish culture.

Schidorsky - the founding librarian of the Tel Aviv University Library, and a scholar of libraries as a cultural agent in Palestine from the end of the Ottoman period until statehood - provides a wonderful description of events during that period. Based on material found in dozens of archives in Israel and abroad, he clearly and precisely portrays the convoluted unfolding of events, which as far as I know, have not previously been properly researched and documented. Still, he writes from a purely Zionist perspective, whereby Israel is the only natural place for the books. Thus the book takes on a teleological quality: Polemic and struggles become footnotes in the tale of grace and rescue that leads from the ruins of Europe to Israel; arguments and confrontations are presented as obstacles to a magnificent effort, and acts of deceit become anecdotes and no more.

The title of the climactic chapter, "The Parchments Come Home," is a clear illustration of this. Thus, for example, Schidorsky describes how Scholem collaborated in the theft of books from the Offenbach warehouse and in their transfer to Jerusalem, in contravention of the terms of license granted to him by the Americans. Schidorsky notes that this episode had "unpleasant diplomatic repercussions."

Behind his forgiving tone, and without exaggerating the importance of the incident, lies a simple claim: Even though it is not nice to steal, those books actually belonged to us, to the State of Israel, and therefore not only was there no other option, but the whole matter was justified, and in the end remained in the realm of aesthetics. The problem, if there was one, was not what we did, but rather how it looked.

The first part of the book describes the development of the National and University Library and other public libraries during the British Mandate period. How are the two parts of the book connected? Mainly in the opposing roles being played out: While we were building here, they were demolishing there; while we were nurturing and protecting, they were pillaging and destroying.

"While everything was being done to gather, concentrate and preserve the Jewish heritage in Israel," states the introduction, "the evil Nazi regime in Germany was doing everything to destroy Jewish culture and obliterate its memory by burning and eradicating Jewish intellectual treasures."

That equation, however, is not precise. From its very establishment, in 1925, the Hebrew University was also a political tool in the hands of the Zionist movement. The national library not only collected Jewish culture, but also actively participated, albeit in a complicated and ambivalent manner, in marking the borders of this culture. It is impossible, for example, to understand the "Treasures of the Diaspora" effort (as the mission to bring the volumes here was called) in isolation from the changes at the university in the late 1940s - the accelerated departure from the model of a diverse university, belonging to the entire Jewish people, and the recruitment of the institution to David Ben-Gurion's state ideal. What was the intended role of the Treasures of the Diaspora in the context of the national structure and the struggle over the image of the young state? After all, libraries are spaces in which the human spirit dwells alongside its destruction, and the preservation is nothing but the other side of the dynamic struggles over heritage, culture and history.

In May 1949, at the end of a visit to the German city of Mayence, Shlomo Shunami, an emissary of the Hebrew University, wrote to Gershom Scholem that the director of the local museum claimed the community there wanted to keep the manuscripts for itself.

"This could further complicate matters," wrote Shunami. "What do you think of this chutzpah? These total boors, who are semi-goyim [non-Jews] have no shame about sticking their noses into this Hebrew matter. Soon I will visit them concerning their library and they will hear it from me."

That letter, which does not appear in the book, is essential; contrary to Shunami's worldview, the fact that a large share of the books were transferred to Jerusalem is not necessarily surprising or unjustified, but is certainly not to be taken for granted."

Gish Amit is writing his doctorate on the National and University Library at the Department of Hebrew Literature at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.


The story of the preservation by the Nazis of Jewish book collections and their redistribution after the war by Jewish and American organisations.
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