Starting with the infamous book burnings of May, 1933, in Berlin and university towns across Germany, books were one of the Nazis’ explicit targets. Confiscated books were considered to be as necessary to the war effort as seized munitions or fuel. “Books are essential for political and social life, the fundaments or pillars of culture,” explained Falk Wiesemann, a retired professor of German and Jewish history at the Heinrich Heine University, in Dusseldorf. “If you destroy books, you are destroying a whole culture.”
All across Europe, entire libraries of books by, about, or belonging to Jews and others of “un-German spirit,” including Freemasons, Jesuits, and Communists, were looted. Books that were valuable in some way were saved. Second and third copies of books and prayer books were pulped. What wasn’t destroyed (or stolen and reshelved in public libraries) was sent to Germany, for eventual use in a huge library planned for after the war. Meant for Nazi officers, this library would, among other things, serve to document European Jewish life before its extermination. “They wanted to prove, in their ideology, that they were right,” said F. T. Hoogewoud, a former librarian at the Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana, in Amsterdam, when I spoke to him by phone. The library’s collection was carted off towards the end of the war. Some books, Hoogewoud added, survived as part of a “passive resistance, hidden away by non-Jewish neighbors and friends.” (In the case of the Rosenthaliana, when the Nazis came to carry away the books the librarian offered to “help,” bringing out the books so that the Germans wouldn’t access the stacks).
At the war’s end, officers for the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program (the “Monuments Men”) realized that, in addition to artworks, they had millions of books in their possession. In 1945, the Americans established a central collection point in Offenbach, outside Frankfurt. The largest book restitution operation in library history, the “Offenbach Archival Depot” was housed in the former headquarters of I.G. Farben, the company that had knowingly produced one of the key chemical components for the gas chambers.
. . . .
The majority of books were returned to their rightful owners. The workers at Offenbach identified them using library stamps, bookplates, and signatures they found in the books. They could also usually identify which country a library belonged to by its language. Still, many of the estimated two point five million books that passed through Offenbach could not be returned, either because the owners were dead, the libraries no longer existed, or the books’ provenance could not be identified. (Books were also not sent back to places located in the USSR.) Homeless collections were generally sent to Jewish institutions in the U.S. or Israel.
. . . .
One of the Offenbach books ended up at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York. Printed in St. Petersburg in 1887, it is a cultural, social, and political history of the Jewish people in Russia. When Melanie Meyer, a special collections librarian at the Center for Jewish History in New York, saw the book, it became one of her favorites. It had not one but four different stamps showing ownership. “I’d never seen that before,” she said. These stamps told the story of how the book had travelled across Europe to the United States: from St. Petersburg, it was probably donated to the original YIVO in Vilna; the Nazis, who levelled the library there, seized the book, which made its way to Offenbach after the war, before coming to the U.S.
. . . .
Using a scrapbook with photos of some three thousand stamps indicating the ownership of books that passed through Offenbach, Meyers and her co-curator, David Rosenberg, matched the stamps with the libraries they came from. On a map of Europe posted on the exhibit’s website, you can click on, say, Perm, and a stamp pops up, along with information about the Perm Branch of the Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia.
The exhibit—which shows the sheer geographical scope of Nazi looting—is a kind of virtual recreation of libraries that once existed. “When you look at the stamps, you can tell something about the library,” said Rosenberg. “I love how some stamps are very businesslike, while others are very beautiful, with different motifs. It says something about the owners, what was important to them.” “We found book stamps from places you wouldn’t have thought people were reading,” Rosenberg added.