Retracing the Nazi Book Theft German Libraries Hold Thousands of Looted Volumes

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Part 2: Libraries Avoid Association with Nazi Looting


Employees at the Duchess Anna Amalia Library in the eastern city of Weimar identified 440 books that were once in workers' libraries founded by Social Democrats and labor unions. There were about 2,500 of these libraries, with more than one million books altogether. Most of them went missing and were probably destroyed.

The book thieves were able to expand their range of operations considerably after the war began. German occupiers in Eastern Europe raided 375 archives, 957 libraries, 402 museums and 531 research and educational institutions. They were also active in France, as the odyssey of sheet music once owned by the pianist Arthur Rubinstein shows. The history of the copies and prints of these works of various composers, some with personal dedications, mirrors the catastrophes of the 20th century.

Rubinstein, who was born in the Polish city of Lodz and immigrated to Paris, fled to the United States in the fall of 1939. When the Wehrmacht occupied the French capital in June 1940, members of the "Reich Director Rosenberg Task Force" confiscated his sheet music and had it sent to the German Reich's intelligence headquarters in Berlin.

In 1945, members of the Red Army confiscated the music and took it to the Soviet Union. When the music was sent to East Germany in the 1950s as part of a program to return German cultural assets, it ended up in the music department of the National Library in East Berlin, where no one recognized its value and it eventually gathered dust. It was only in 2003, 21 years after Rubinstein's death, that librarians conducting research in Moscow's Glinka Museum discovered who the former owner of the music was. Two-and-a-half years ago, representatives of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation handed over the music to Rubinstein's children in New York.

Such finds and returns are the exception. Indeed, most stolen books are still undiscovered. Because libraries are constantly passing on duplicate copies to other libraries and exchanging books, the books stolen by the Nazis are now spread throughout Germany. "This explains why even the new technical colleges in eastern Germany may have such books," says Annette Gerlach of the Central and State Library in Berlin.

In 1991, Klaus von Münchhausen, a political scientist in the city state of Bremen, was one of the first to suggest searching for stolen books. He criticized the city's state library for having many books on its shelves that had once been stolen from Jews. The Bremen Senate hired a retired senior official from the state Education Ministry to conduct the search, and she found 1,555 books recorded in the accession book for 1942. Some entries included the notation "Gift from the Nazi Party," while others were marked "J.A." -- Jew Auction. Most of the books had been confiscated from Jewish emigrants who were boarding ships to go abroad. It was possible to identify the former owners of about 300 of the books.

In early December 1998, a representative of the German government, together with representatives of 43 other nations, signed a document outlining 11 basic principles. The signatories to the "Washington Conference," vowed to search for works of art "that were seized by the Nazis and never returned," as well as the heirs of such stolen goods.

But little has happened in libraries since then. When stolen goods experts at the Lower Saxony State Library in Hannover sent a questionnaire to roughly 600 libraries via the German Library Association, only about 10 percent replied.

To date, only 14 libraries have officially registered their stolen goods. Even large university libraries, such as those in Frankfurt, Kassel and Heidelberg, have not yet begun to systematically search for stolen goods in their inventories.

In most cases, the institutions blame a lack sufficient funding and personnel to conduct the costly and time-consuming searches. Accession books must be examined, and then all books taken in after 1933 must be searched for information identifying libraries, names, ownership stamps and other clues.

In large libraries, the number of "suspicious books" ranges into the hundreds of thousands. Even the Berlin State Library, Germany's biggest library, took its time before beginning a serious search effort three years ago. "They had to be dragged to the search," says Werner Schroeder, an expert on Nazi loot in the northwestern city of Oldenburg. "They apparently wanted to avoid being associated with the Nazi foray throughout all of Europe."

'Sitting in the Stacks Like Corpses in the Cellar'

Only seven years after the signing of the Washington Conference, a student discovered, while conducting research for his master's thesis, that the Berlin State Library owns more than 10,000 stolen books as well as another 9,000 volumes that were more than likely confiscated by the Nazis. There are probably even more, because the current library succeeded the Prussian State Library, which played a central role in the Nazis' book confiscation program. All books that were seized anywhere in the country had to be offered to the library first. The "Reich Exchange Office," which worked closely with the library, also became a transfer station for stolen books during the war.

Because of bombing raids on Berlin, the accession department at the national library was evacuated to Hirschberg -- now the Polish city of Jelenia Góra -- in the foothills of the Giant Mountains in the spring of 1944. Many of the intake documents are still in Jelenia Góra today, where a historian has been reviewing them since the end of last year.

"We spent too much time complaining about our own losses and looking to Russia," Annette Gerlach of the Central and State Library in Berlin says, not without self-criticism. But, she adds, it is now time for her and her colleagues to finally do their homework.

"These books are sitting in the stacks like corpses in a cellar," says Salomon Korn of the Central Council of Jews. Of course, he adds, more has to be done, especially in a matter that involves clearing up the "Nazi's confiscation crimes."

The University of Marburg Library is the only large German library that has now carefully examined almost all of its books from the period in question. As a result, the library has been able to return many books to the heirs of their former owners.

In many cases, heirs can no longer be found. Then the books remain in the libraries, and their histories are documented in the card catalogue. And then there are cases like that of Isac Seligmann. A user at the Berlin State Library found a volume of an encyclopedia titled "Religion in History and the Present Day," which had a bookplate indicating that it had belonged to the Jewish theologian. Library staff managed to find his widow in Israel.

"I appreciate your offer to return this book to me," Marion Seligmann wrote from Jerusalem, "but I have no use for it now."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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