March 4, 2014

Mapping the stolen books of WWII


Not all confiscated books met this fate

Not all confiscated books met this fate

While George Clooney’s recent film The Monuments Men hasn’t received the greatest reviews, it has brought attention to the work that the officers for the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program did to recover works of art stolen by the Nazis. What the film doesn’t cover, as the New Yorker noted on Saturday, are the millions of books that they had also recovered by the end of the war.

Today, the widespread book-burnings that took place in Nazi Germany are common knowledge. As it is explained on United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website:

“In a symbolic act of ominous significance, on May 10, 1933, university students burned upwards of 25,000 volumes of “un-German” books, presaging an era of state censorship and control of culture. On the evening of May 10, in most university towns, right-wing students marched in torchlight parades “against the un-German spirit.” The scripted rituals called for high Nazi officials, professors, university rectors, and university student leaders to address the participants and spectators. At the meeting places, students threw the pillaged and “unwanted” books onto bonfires with great ceremony, band-playing, and so-called “fire oaths.” In Berlin, some 40,000 persons gathered in the Opernplatz to hear Joseph Goebbels deliver a fiery address: “No to decadence and moral corruption!” Goebbels enjoined the crowd. “Yes to decency and morality in family and state! I consign to the flames the writings of Heinrich Mann, Ernst Gläser, Erich Kästner.”

But not all of the books were burned. According to the New Yorker, Nazis planned to build a library for their officers after the war to “document European Jewish life before its extermination.” After Germany surrendered, The Americans established the central collection point in Offenbach, and the operation was headed by Colonel Seymour Jacob Pomrenze. Using library plates, signatures, and the language in which the book was written, many of the books were returned to their original owners; all told, the Allies recovered an estimated 2.5 million confiscated books. Some couldn’t be returned, however: libraries were demolished and people had died. These books were sent to Jewish institutions in the United States and Israel.

Melanie Meyer found one of these books at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, and recently started an online exhibit to highlight this leg of the Monuments Men’s work. Meyer uses a scrapbook of photos of library stamps that went through Offenbach, and currently scans in ten a day. She and her co-curator then match the stamps to their libraries, and a map on the site shows the locations of the libraries. But Meyer and her collaborators aren’t stopping there. Next, they’ll upload family stamps from the collection and collaborate with followers online to determine their place of origin, creating a detailed map of how far the Nazi purges reached.