Bailiffs no better than theives: Sixty years after seizure of emigrant belongings, search for Jewish book owners continues

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 22 November 2002
Eberhard Rathgeb

Books can still be found in German libraries that should have been returned to their owners a long time ago since they were taken by the National Socialists during their cultural raids. These are books stemming from the private libraries of Jews, who either were forced to emigrate or deported, but also books from collections that were seized by the National Socialists in occupied regions.

A German library received a consignment of books in 1940 that had been sent to a private individual. Decades later, research brought to light that this generous gift actually consisted of books from a plundered library of a wealthy Polish estate. Another consignment of books from this estate is also said to have been shipped to Halle.

Books from similar origins can still be found on library shelves throughout Germany as most German households never searched for these books. In some cases, the owners were not aware of these books, in others they did not want to know. German libraries have now undertaken a search to unearth the history of their inventories. Methods have been developed to find the books and the results can already be seen.

Librarians talked about their results at an event organized by Lower Saxony's parliament and the Hannover state library focusing on how Jewish assets were taken as a booty. An exhibition in the state parliament buildings documents one of the most usual ways that the belongings of Hannover Jews were removed.

Forced to emigrate, Jewish residents packed their suitcases and brought them to Bremen's harbor, where they placed their belongings in storage under the assumption that these boxes would be shipped with them to the United States. When the war broke out in 1939, the belongings of the Jewish emigrants remained on the docks.

Finally, after the United States entered the war against Germany, the chief regional financial officer decreed that the stored goods were to be seized. He ordered a bailiff to auction off furniture, household goods and books. The Bremen state library acquired hundreds of books in this manner. Fifty years later, the library decided to search for the owners of these books. It was the first German library to do so and the research has led to six Jewish families.

Returning books to their Jewish owners should not be the only motive for researching the history of libraries' books, as the president of the Prussian Cultural Foundation in Berlin, Klaus-Dieter Lehmann stressed. The librarians also have moral responsibility for the victims of National Socialism and also for their history. In Wolfenbüttel a symposium was held in 1988 about the role of libraries during National Socialism. The first analysis of the acquisition of books by libraries in Freiburg, Tübingen, Heidelberg, Karlsruhe, Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Marburg, Hamburg and Bremen during this period has already been completed.

Immediately after the war, a U.S.-Jewish organization headed by Hannah Arendt collected information about some 800 libraries, archives and museums. Thanks to this effort, more than two-and-a-half million books were returned to their origins.

The search for books that remained in Germany has hardly been perceived by the public. It was overshadowed by the search for art works that originally belonged to Jewish families - and it is also more complicated. In most cases, it is not individual books that are hunted down. One needs methods with special criteria when searching down book collections. References to deliveries, publishing houses, price differences and whether books were donated as gifts are all helpful clues in tracking down these books.

The librarians in Hannover agreed, however, that the search must be intensified. According to Lehmann, would-be librarians need to be trained in this area while they are at university. The results of such studies also need to be made accessible to the public. The initiative to undertake this research needs to come from libraries themselves.

Only when they concern themselves about the papers in their storage can they really consider themselves to be objective repositories of knowledge.
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