The Nazi Plunder of Jewish Books

Stolen Words: The Nazi Plunder of Jewish Books
by Mark Glickman
Jewish Publication Society / Nebraska University Press 312pp £23.50

The fate of Jewish books is a common theme in accounts of European antisemitism. Beginning in the second century bc, assaults on Jews have gone hand in hand with assaults on their literature, usually in the form of censorship or book-burning. It is widely assumed that the Third Reich simply continued an established antisemitic tradition, but Mark Glickman takes a different approach in this movingly written study.

By the end of the 1930s, Nazi think tanks had initiated a campaign to save rather than destroy Jewish books. The objective was perverse: to create an awe-inspiring library that would reveal the ways and mores of a soon-to-be-destroyed civilisation. The drive to preserve Jewish literature was as efficient as the one that sought to exterminate its owners. By 1945, Glickman estimates, the Nazis had amassed over 35 million books from Europe’s Jews. 

Of the three Nazis in charge of this huge looting operation, one was even fluent in Hebrew and familiar with classical Jewish texts. Working under the auspices of Nazi agencies, the ERR (Reichsleiter Rosenberg Task Force) and the RSHA (Reich Security Main Office), they pillaged private homes, libraries, schools and synagogues and stored their plunder in secret locations around Europe. In one case-study, Glickman describes the fate of Strashun Library in Vilna (now the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius), where Jewish workers had to select those books worth saving and those that could be pulped, as ‘an eerie literary counterpart’ to the Holocaust. 

The second half of the book looks at the campaign to return plundered books to their original owners, which proved to be extremely complicated. The Jewish landscape had been radically altered; communities in Europe were all but wiped out while new ones were forming in Palestine, the US, Australia, South Africa and Canada; Eastern European Jews who had survived were now under Soviet rule. 

The task of distributing millions of stolen Jewish books in a post-Holocaust world was eventually allocated to the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Inc (JCR), an organisation led by a group of Jewish scholars, including Salo Baron and Hannah Arendt. While many books were reunited with their rightful owners, the majority remained unclaimed. Who should get them? The JCR’s solutions were political and strategic, supporting the new Jewish communities in Palestine and elsewhere by offering them the lion’s share, while acknowledging the demise of others with a token amount. Their reasoning is one of the most fascinating aspects of Glickman’s excellent study.

Stolen Words concludes on a sober note: millions of Jews were murdered during the Second World War but many of their books survived. As memory of the Holocaust fades, reading these texts allows us to honour the dead and, if but for a moment, connect with a world now gone forever.

Giulia Miller is the author of Reconfiguring Surrealism in Modern Hebrew Literature (Vallentine Mitchell, 2013)

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