If you wander the stately stacks of a European library, you may very well encounter books that were looted by the Nazis in World War II.
During the 1930s and 40s, Alfred Rosenberg, the leader of the Nazi’s Office of Foreign Policy led the eponymous Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg task force in pillaging over 6,000 archives and libraries across war-rattled Europe. Now, The New York Times reports, the group’s meticulous record keeping is helping to reunite these stolen books with their owners and their heirs, a task that has been sidelined for decades in favor of valuable works of art.
Mirroring similar efforts by art institutions, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, the World Jewish Restitution Organization and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum have cataloged an online list of titles based on Rosenberg’s accounts. These organizations rely heavily on the groundbreaking work of Patricia Kennedy Grimsted of the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard who began her hunt for stolen books with Rosenberg’s documents in 1990.
Grimsted has since become one of the leading researchers on the subject, writing the book “Reconstructing the Record of Nazi Cultural Plunder: A Guide to the Dispersed Archives of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) and the Postwar Retrieval of ERR Loot,” a seminal text and an inventory that lists the locations of volumes confiscated from “enemies” of the Nazi state. These enemies included Jews, Catholics, Communists, freemasons, Slavs, Socialists and vocal critics of the Third Reich.
But Grimsted and Jewish organizations are no longer alone in their project. Germany and Austria have returned around 30,000 books to 600 owners in the last 10 years using the internet, new archival information like Grimsted’s and a crew of tireless librarians who make restitution their mission. In 2012, Berlin’s Central and Regional Library launched a database of stolen books after examining a sample set of 100,000 books, 29,000 of which were found to be stolen or bear a mark that indicated a previous owner.
That seems like a lot, but the immensity of the restitution needed is borne out in the full figure: Looted books are estimated to account for one third of the 3.5 million volumes in the Central Library.
“Most major German libraries have books stolen by the Nazis,” Sebastian Finsterwalder, a provenance researcher at the library, told The Times’ Milton Esterow.
Many of the books of Judaica landed in Germany where they were intended to become a part of Frankfurt’s Institute for Study of the Jewish Question, formed in 1941.
“They hoped to utilize the books after the war was won to study their enemies and their culture so as to protect future Nazis from the Jews who were their enemies,” Grimsted told The Times.
Provenance researchers in Germany are making strides in the face of this daunting task — the Center Library has returned 900 books to 20 countries, about 6% of Germany’s full 15,000 returned by German libraries since 2005. Identifying them is sometimes easy.
“Thousands of books were marked by the Nazis with the letter J, an abbreviation for Judenbücher — Jewish books,” Finsterwalder told The Times. “These were erased after the war and replaced with the letter G, as in Geschenk — gifts.”
Other times the task can be hard going. While Central Library has its own database, many smaller libraries don’t and lack the resources needed to pursue the necessary research into their catalog. They have some help from the German Lost Art’s Foundation, which since 2008 has allocated $5.6 million to libraries for provenance research. The Foundation also uses its own database to post pictures and descriptions when owners can’t be found. This only goes so far, though, and researchers from nine German cities find themselves organizing to compare findings twice annually. Researchers told The Times they’ve found their work complicated by the Gestapo’s tendency to spread stolen volumes out across different libraries.
Jewish organizations are also doing their part in training researchers with the Claims Conference and World Jewish Restitution Organization providing support for 180 provenance researchers in Lithuania, Greece, Italy, Germany and Croatia. For that last country’s stolen volumes, The National Library of Israel has provided support a catalog that it helped translate to Hebrew, Ladino, Yiddish and other languages.
Austria matches Germany’s efforts — 15 libraries have returned 15,000 books since 2009, despite the troublesome task of determining the origins of books whose nameplates and other telltale markers were effaced or torn out.
As recorded in Austrian historian Evelyn Adunka’s article “The Nazi Looting of Books in Austria and Their Partial Restitution” Austria’s history of restitution begins soon after the end of the war with the intervention of several Jewish actors. After 1945, the Austrians sorted through hundreds of thousands of stolen books. When the man in charge of the sorting, the former librarian of the University of Vienna Alois Jesinger, didn’t want to take responsibility for the books’ return, the Jewish-German historian E.G. Lowenthal, working with the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, visited Austria and wrote reports on the collection. Within the country, Abraham Singer the librarian of the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde (IKG), a major Austrian Jewish library, followed suit while Shlomo Shunami, the head of Ozrot ha Golah (Treasures of the Diaspora) department of the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem began collecting and receiving confiscated books from Singer’s library as well as from individuals. In the end, Shunami estimated transferring 400,00 volumes (70,000 of which were from Austria and 200,000 of which were from Germany) to the Jewish State, if not their original owners.
The legendary “Monuments Men” from America, better remembered for their preservation of art, rescued nearly three million books – a fact the oft-forgotten [George Clooney film neglects. The Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives department reviewed a massive cache in a warehouse in Offenbach, near Frankfurt, looking for clues in the form of library stamps and book plates. It was the largest book restitution endeavor on record and together the group, led by the archivist Colonel Seymour Jacob Pomrenze (born “Sholom”) transported the stolen archives of the Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut to be transported to the organization’s new home in Manhattan. The organization retains the texts today under its new name, the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.
Many of the Nazi-looted books are now in Russia, where the government is not keen on surrendering them, using their own losses at the hands of the Nazis as justification for holding on to the books.
“They stole millions of books looted by the Nazis that are now in libraries from Moscow to Vladivostok,” Grimsted told The Times. “Many are now in Minsk — but the Russians refuse to do anything. In Belarus, they talk about possible book exchanges with Germany but nothing is happening.”
For all the difficulties in finding the work and its owners and heirs, the job comes with its own rewards.
“Reaching out to the heirs is always a sensitive issue,” Maria Kesting, a provenance researcher at the Hamburg State and University Library told The Times. ”For the heirs, it very often is painful to be confronted with their family history, a history of persecution and death and loss. For us as provenance researchers, restitutions are always very special and moving moments.”
One such moment came last year when the University of Potsdam library returned a 16th-century book of biblical analysis to a Holocaust survivor. The Times reports that survivor, Berl Schor flew from Israel to Germany with his son, David, to retrieve the book, which belonged to his father, who died in a concentration camp in 1943. David Schor found the book listed online.
“It was quite an emotional experience for my father and myself,” he told The Times.