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

Hundreds of thousands of book stolen by the Nazis are still in German libraries. A few librarians are acting like detectives, searching for the books and hoping to return them to the former owners or their families. However, many libraries have shown little interest in the troubling legacy tucked away on their shelves.


Book, books, nothing but books. Detlef Bockenkamm is walking along a long shelf in the storage room at Berlin's Central and Regional Library. Suddenly he stops and says: "This is where we have the Accession J collection." The letter J refers to Jews.

The curator has collected more than 1,000 books here, enough to stretch almost 40 meters (130 feet) if they were lined up next to each other. Bockenkamm and a colleague combed through old documents, checked files and studied records documenting the receipt of books. They eventually discovered that these volumes were stored at the City Pawn Office in Berlin in the spring of 1943.

The records indicate that the city library purchased "more than 40,000 volumes from the private libraries of evacuated Jews" through this office. And, this being Germany, the librarians maintained meticulous record books to keep track of their purchases -- even though parts of the German capital were already in ruins. As always, preserving order was paramount. The librarians signed each volume and gave it an accession number, beginning with the letter J.

Bockenkamm even found children's books marked with the letter J. One was titled "For Our Youth: A Book of Entertainment for Israelite Boys and Girls." The book contained the handwritten dedication: "For my dear Wolfgang Lachmann, in friendship, Chanuka 5698, December 1937." Bockenkamm has been unable to find out what happened to the boy.

But he did manage to trace the former owner of a book titled "The Rose of Sharon -- Stories and Poems for Older Jewish Youth." A rabbi gave the book, bound in green linen, to a young girl from Berlin, in recognition of her "diligence and good conduct" in religious school. The girl's name was Adele Hoffnung, and she was deported to Minsk on Nov. 14, 1941. Adele did not survive the Holocaust.

For Bockenkamm, the bureaucratic, administratively correct implementation of the great Nazi book theft was "disgustingly sleazy." But he also derives satisfaction from the fact that he is now able to prepare an exhibition on the Nazi looted books for the Berlin Central and Regional Library.

Every larger German library still has hundreds of these books in its inventory, books snatched up by the men of the SS and SA, as well as ordinary soldiers, both in Germany and in other European countries occupied by the German armed forces, the Wehrmacht, during World War II. No one knows how many stolen books are still on the shelves in German libraries today, although experts, like historian Görz Aly, estimate that there are at least one million.

These silent witnesses of Nazi crimes are not as spectacular as the stolen paintings that have become the subject of bitter restitution battles waged in full view of the public. The books, after all, are not Picassos worth millions in the art market.

Nevertheless, Germany's Federal Commissioner for Culture Bernd Neumann believes that museum employees and librarians have an obligation "to devote particular attention to the search for those cultural goods that were stolen or extorted from the victims of Nazi barbarism." Neumann points out that, more than just "material value," what is at issue here is "the invaluable emotional importance that these objects have when it comes to remembering the fates of individuals and families."

For decades, libraries asked no questions about the origins of the books that were added to their inventories during the Nazi era. Many librarians approached the issue "sluggishly and reluctantly," says Salomon Korn, the vice president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. To this day, many libraries have not systematically searched for stolen books in their inventories.

'A Fundamental Task for Libraries'

The Lower Saxony State and University Library, in the city of Göttingen, is proud of its state-of-the-art robotic scanner. It is a pioneer nationwide when it comes to digitization. But despite its seeming progressiveness, the library seems to have less of an interest in the past.

It was an intern who at the end of last year first peered into the dusty accession books from the World War II years. What Arno Barnert found were deliveries from the Wehrmacht's "loot warehouses" in Göttingen. He found accessions from the Polish cities of Krakow and Poznan, the Polish consulate in Leipzig and a high school in the Dutch town of Enschede. Books once owned by the Viennese Goethe expert Friedrich Fischl, who was deported in 1941 and murdered in the ghetto of Lodz, Poland, were recorded as a "purchase."

Barnert notified the library management. A few days later, the intern received a visit from the library director, who advised the young man not to make the Nazi loot the subject of his thesis. Barnert was told that if he did decide to do so, he would not be making any friends and would not exactly be improving his prospects of getting a job. He might even be seen as a whistleblower, the director said.

But Barnert continued his search. "Documenting the paths and histories of books that were acquired in the Nazi period is a fundamental task for libraries, a question of ethics," he says. In February, Barnert began collaborating with Frank Möbus, a Göttingen specialist in German studies who was in the process of preparing an exhibit about book burning.

Möbus found documents in the city archives proving that in March 1933, members of the SA, together with police officers, confiscated 890 books from a communist bookseller in Göttingen. Some of the books went to the National Library in Berlin and some to the University Library in Göttingen.

Möbus notified the administration of the University of Göttingen, which decided to conduct a search for Nazi loot in the library as part of a research project. Ironically, intern Barnert was forced to listen to his supervisor loudly accuse him of having ignored the proper channels.

The proper channels have always been dear to German bureaucrats, and they were observed by German librarians, who documented the stolen books even amidst the chaos of World War II. The records show, for instance, that the Prussian State Library passed on stolen books to 31 university libraries.

The book thieves' initial goal was to develop and expand libraries and, as the war raged on, to replace inventories that had been destroyed.

A number of organizations took part in the hunt for books. They included the intelligence service of the SS, the Gestapo and the staff of Alfred Rosenberg, the "Führer's Commissioner for the Supervision of the Entire Intellectual and Ideological Training and Education of the Nazi Party."

Jews were not the only ones to fall victim to the Nazi book thieves. Berlin curator Bockenkamm found three books stamped "Karl Marx House, Trier." A call to the western German city of Trier revealed that the books had been sent to Berlin for an exhibition in the early 1930s and were never returned.


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