A Mor­tu­ary of Books: The Res­cue of Jew­ish Cul­ture after the Holocaust

January 1, 2013

The aston­ish­ing sto­ry of the efforts of schol­ars and activists to res­cue Jew­ish cul­tur­al trea­sures after the Holocaust.

In March 1946 the Amer­i­can Mil­i­tary Gov­ern­ment for Ger­many estab­lished the Offen­bach Archival Depot near Frank­furt to store, iden­ti­fy, and restore the huge quan­ti­ties of Nazi-loot­ed books, archival mate­r­i­al, and rit­u­al objects that Army mem­bers had found hid­den in Ger­man caches. These items bore tes­ti­mo­ny to the cul­tur­al geno­cide that accom­pa­nied the Nazis’ sys­tem­at­ic acts of mass mur­der. The depot built a short-lived lieu de memoire―a mor­tu­ary of books,” as the lat­er renowned his­to­ri­an Lucy Daw­id­ow­icz called it―with over three mil­lion books of Jew­ish ori­gin com­ing from nine­teen dif­fer­ent Euro­pean coun­tries await­ing restitution.

A Mor­tu­ary of Books tells the mirac­u­lous sto­ry of the many Jew­ish orga­ni­za­tions and indi­vid­u­als who, after the war, sought to recov­er this loot­ed cul­tur­al prop­er­ty and return the mil­lions of trea­sured objects to their right­ful own­ers. Some of the most out­stand­ing Jew­ish intel­lec­tu­als of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, includ­ing Daw­id­ow­icz, Han­nah Arendt, Salo W. Baron, and Ger­shom Scholem, were involved in this her­culean effort. This led to the cre­ation of Jew­ish Cul­tur­al Recon­struc­tion Inc., an inter­na­tion­al body that act­ed as the Jew­ish trustee for heir­less prop­er­ty in the Amer­i­can Zone and trans­ferred hun­dreds of thou­sands of objects from the Depot to the new cen­ters of Jew­ish life after the Holocaust.

The com­mit­ment of these indi­vid­u­als to the resti­tu­tion of cul­tur­al prop­er­ty revealed the impor­tance of cul­tur­al objects as sym­bols of the endur­ing lega­cy of those who could not be saved. It also fos­tered Jew­ish cul­ture and schol­ar­ly life in the post­war world.

Discussion Questions

In A Mor­tu­ary of Books, Elis­a­beth Gal­las has craft­ed a metic­u­lous­ly researched, well-writ­ten, and vital his­to­ry of the recov­ery of lost Jew­ish prop­er­ty after the war. More than just a his­to­ry of resti­tu­tion, A Mor­tu­ary of Books demon­strates that the work of Jew­ish Cul­tur­al Recon­struc­tion, Inc., and in par­tic­u­lar the efforts of four of the most promi­nent Jew­ish his­to­ri­ans of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, Han­nah Arendt, Salo Baron, Lucy Daw­id­ow­icz, and Ger­shom Sholem, con­sti­tut­ed a crit­i­cal Jew­ish response to cat­a­stro­phe in the after­math of the Holo­caust. The return of Jew­ish prop­er­ty and the allo­ca­tion of the traces of Euro­pean Jew­ish prop­er­ty to such insti­tu­tions as Yad Vashem, the Israel Muse­um, and the Nation­al Library in Jerusalem; the Leo Baeck Insti­tute in Jerusalem, Lon­don, and New York; YIVO, Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty, and JTS in New York; the Wiener Library in Lon­don; and the Cen­tre de Doc­u­men­ta­tion Juive Con­tem­po­raine in Paris, built a transna­tion­al space of mem­o­ry, while devel­op­ing new net­works for research and com­mem­o­ra­tion after the war. More than plun­dered Jew­ish prop­er­ty, Gal­las reveals how the recov­ered objects became the last traces of Jew­ish lives lost and their res­cue after the war fused his­to­ry and mem­o­ry, shap­ing gen­er­a­tions of future research while pre­vent­ing the com­plete era­sure of pre­war Jew­ish life.