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...

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