German project returns to Jews books stolen by Nazis

Deutsche-Presse Agentur 16 October 2011
By Brian Rupp 

Leipzig, Germany - A team in the German city of Leipzig has scoured the local university library, going through endless obscure records to return books stolen by the Nazis to their rightful heirs.

Germany's 1933-45 Nazi regime not only plundered art and other valuables from Jews, but also books.

Searching for books seized by the Gestapo (Nazi secret police) proved hard work, explains librarian Cordula Reuss, who heads the project in Leipzig.

For more than two years, the librarian deciphered faded handwritten lists, went through boxes of indexes and examined thousands of books dating back to the pre-1945 period.

Reuss knows her way around the winding corridors of the Biblioteca Albertina, as Leipzig University library is called.

She stops at one of the many archives, yanks the handle of the sliding shelves, and takes out a book.

The first page bears a stamp reading 'Institutum Judaicum Leipzig.' This volume was confiscated by the Gestapo during Adolf Hitler's rule and ended up here shortly after World War II.

'We found in our archives a total of 3,409 books that had been seized illegally from institutions or private libraries run by Jews or resistance fighters during the Nazi era,' Reuss says.

The Nazi-Looted Assets Project aims to return the largest possible number of the works to heirs or their legal successors.

Reuss and her team of two had to do true detective work at first, as the Gestapo book records were often obscure.

'Frequently, the title of the book had not been entered, but they had written things like, 'A bundle of 172 Marxist brochures',' Reuss explains.

The researchers were luckier with books classified as 'banned and damaging literature,' which had been documented more thoroughly on extra lists by police.

A total of 81 different institutions or persons have now been identified as the legal owners of some of the books in the library.

Research into the origins of property stolen from Jews has been carried out more intensively since the 1998 Washington Declaration. In that document, Germany and 43 other nations agreed to identify in their collections art works and other assets confiscated by the Nazis and to restitute them to their rightful owners.

The former West Germany 'felt that individual restitutions and compensations had been sorted out in the post-war era,' says Uwe Hartmann, head of the Bureau for Provenance Investigation, which was established in Berlin three years ago.

'But lots of looted items have still been found in the archives of some institutions,' he adds. As the former East Germany had blocked all demands by war victims for restitution, that part of the reunited Germany - where Leipzig is located - is now proving a treasure trove for property stolen by the Nazis.

The Berlin bureau helped to fund the two-year project in Leipzig, the results of which will be presented in an exhibition in November.

The owners of the stolen books included Victor Armhaus, a Jewish interpreter from Leipzig who died in the Theresienstadt (Terezin) concentration camp in 1942. Two nieces of his in Israel have made contact.

'It is very moving when there is an heir who remembers a person,' Reuss says. Some of the 59 volumes in Armhaus' private collection will now be sent to his nieces.
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