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The Uncivil Servant: Ten Million Books

Mitchell Abidor
June 8, 2017

by Mitchell Abidor

Discussed in this essay: The Book Thieves by Anders Rydell. Viking, 2017, 352 pages.

THE NAZI WAR on knowledge and ideas is well-known and documented, and its image has been eternally fixed: the burning of books on May 10, 1933, a scene that opens Anders Rydell’s informative and well-written The Book Thieves. Less known is the complement to book burning: their confiscation, a policy that began almost simultaneously with the burnings. The sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld and his Institute of Sexual Studies were particular bêtes noires of the Nazis, but the books from Hirschfeld’s institute were not sent into the pyre, rather were carted away days before the first major book burnings (see photo at top).

The Nazi seizing of art has also been thoroughly documented, most notably in Lynn Nicholas’ 1995 The Rape of Europa, and the cases revolving around this have made headlines, most famously that of the stolen Klimt paintings owned by Holocaust survivor Maria Altmann. Their identification, provenance and valuation are far easier to determine than those of books, which made the eventual return of artworks, once the legal cases were decided, both easier and of more consequence. Books, however, are a different matter. Rare is the book that is worth more later in its life than at publication, and Rydell’s tale is a sad one of the steps in the historical chain of book theft: how they were taken, where they were taken from, who they were distributed to, who recovered them at war’s end, and how (and if) the books were returned to their original owners.

The Nazis were promiscuous when it came to stealing books, and the numbers Rydell reports are mind-boggling. From France, ideological chief Alfred Rosenberg’s raiders stole more than 1.7 million books; from Holland, between 700,000-800,000 books; from Poland, between two to three million, and on and on. It’s been estimated that the Nazis were responsible for the destruction of ten million books.

Part of the thefts, but only part of them, were a result of the general plundering of Jewish homes, organizations and businesses, carried out by special furniture commandos. The rest of it was aimed not only at Jews, but was a conscious drive to expropriate the libraries and collections of enemies of the Reich, be they Jewish, socialist, communist, or Freemason.

RYDELL’S ORGANIZING principle is a trip around Europe to the sites of these thefts: to Paris, where the archives of the Alliance Israelite Universelle were taken away, as well as to the Polish Librairie Polonaise and the Russian Librairie Tourgenieff. Amsterdam also lost Jewish libraries and its fabulous International Institute for Social History (IISH); Rome -- the libraries of its rabbinic college and the Jewish community of the capital; Vilnius had YIVO’s library stolen; Salonika lost not only its Jews and its books, but the Jewish cemetery was destroyed and the smashed tombstones reused for years after the war for construction purposes.

In almost all of these places, the custodians of the books did what they could to protect and hide their treasures, but what their national armies could not succeed in doing, i.e., defeating the Germans, for the most part, neither could they.

The Germans had a definite plan for the bulk of the books, assigning them to various cities and libraries in Germany based on their subject matter and the Nazi organization that had confiscated them. As Rydell writes, “The enormous scale and intensity of the Nazi plundering operation has to be understood from this perspective -- the force of it was fed by the ferocious inner life of the Third Reich. But in order for this competition not to swerve into pure anarchy, it also had to be reined in by rules and regulations . . . Himmler would get the libraries and archives that were useful for ‘intelligence purposes’ . . . Rosenberg would get the libraries and archives that had a value in ideological research.” Specific depots in different cities dealt with specific topics, Munich housing an Institute of Indo-European History, Frankfurt -- the Institute for Research on the Jewish Question, Kiel -- an Institute of Germanic Research; ten such groups in all.

As Rydell so aptly puts it, the Nazi war was “not solely a war of extermination, it was a battle for memory and history . . . The plundering of libraries and archives went to the very core of this battle for the control of memory.” The Nazis, he continues, “strove to exterminate the Jewish people, but not their memory. ‘The Jew’ would be preserved as a historical and symbolic entity.” The same can be said of the Nazis’ war on Polish culture, Russian culture, Masonic life, and the working-class movement. All would be reduced to museum pieces, to subjects of study. It would be, as they said, “Jewish studies with Jews.”

So seriously did the Germans take this enterprise that work in Rosenberg’s department on cataloging confiscated books continued until February 1945, when the Red Army reached the town in which the work was going on.

THE WAR OVER, the millions of books were then first shipped around the victorious nations, the Soviets obtaining documents relating to working-class history, which went into a secret storage place, while other books were simply piled in heaps and forgotten about for years.

Because the books had been divided up, the job was a tedious one of finding and returning them to their original libraries, and if the IISH did very well in this regard, since many of the books had not been removed from their original crates, other libraries and institutes had almost none of their property restored.

As a result, state libraries in Germany today still have in their holdings thousands of stolen books. The heroes of The Book Thieves are the librarians working at trying to separate out and return books to the families of their original owners. If a book contains an ex libris, it is slightly possible to track down the family -- or, when the book is entered in the special database that’s been established, for families to contact the libraries. Between 2009-2014, nine hundred such books were returned to their owners or heirs from the Berliner Stadtbibliothek.

But the great bulk of the books have no identifying mark, beyond the occasional sticker from the Nazi library that temporarily housed it. Of the orphaned volumes still sitting in German libraries, Rydell mournfully says, “Every book carries a story of theft, blackmail, and a tragic fate . . . The books are fragments of a library, of a world that once existed.” Some books were distributed to Jewish organizations around the world. The situation was perhaps most pithily summed up by the sticker placed in the 2,031 recovered books that were sent to Canadian Jewish congregations after the war: “This book was once owned by a Jew, a victim of the great massacre in Europe.”

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a translator and writer living in Brooklyn. He has published many books of translations from the French, his articles have been translated into German and French, and his Voices of the Paris Commune has just appeared in a Turkish edition, put out by Kafka Kitap of Istanbul.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.