On the morn­ing of Feb­ru­ary 27, 1946, the six­ty-ninth day of the pro­ceed­ings, Yid­dish-speak­ing poet and par­ti­san Abra­ham Sutzkev­er was called to the wit­ness stand at the Inter­na­tion­al Mil­i­tary Tri­bunal in Nurem­berg. Lev Smirnov, deputy pros­e­cu­tor for the Sovi­et Union, asked Sutzkev­er, one of only three Jew­ish wit­ness­es to tes­ti­fy at the tri­bunal, to give an account of Jew­ish life in Vil­na (Vil­nius) under Ger­man occu­pa­tion, the atro­cious liv­ing con­di­tions in the ghet­to, and the Ger­mans’ per­se­cu­tion and mur­der of Vil­na Jew­ry. Sutzkev­er had endured the occu­pa­tion from the first to near­ly the last day,” hav­ing been interned in the ghet­to there for more than two years. While stand­ing in court — Sutzkev­er refused to sit, feel­ing that he was say­ing kad­dish for the dead” — he fre­quent­ly inter­spersed his tes­ti­mo­ny with per­son­al rem­i­nis­cences. Barred from using his native Yid­dish, he recalled a first inci­dent, which occurred in the sum­mer of 1941, in short Russ­ian sen­tences: Ger­man sol­diers had com­pelled him, a rab­bi, and a boy from his neigh­bor­hood to dance naked around a bon­fire in front of the Old Syn­a­gogue while throw­ing its Torah scrolls into the flames. Forced to sing Russ­ian songs at gun­point as the sacred scrolls went up in smoke, the three came close to pass­ing out. The fact that Sutzkev­er chose to men­tion this bru­tal and trau­mat­ic act in the cir­cus,” as the Ger­mans had called it, in the short amount of time avail­able for his tes­ti­mo­ny indi­cates the exis­ten­tial sig­nif­i­cance he attrib­uted to it. He con­sid­ered the Nazis’ delib­er­ate destruc­tion of reli­gious and cul­tur­al trea­sures a key ele­ment in their pol­i­cy of anni­hi­la­tion, one that must be acknowl­edged dur­ing the court pro­ceed­ings. The Jews of Vil­na — one of the most promi­nent cen­ters of Jew­ish cul­tur­al activ­i­ty in East­ern Europe, home to pre­cious col­lec­tions and famous cul­tur­al and edu­ca­tion­al insti­tu­tions — were exposed in the most dras­tic way to the cul­tur­al geno­cide that accom­pa­nied the Nazis’ sys­tem­at­ic acts of mass mur­der. The sit­u­a­tion there rep­re­sent­ed in nuce what Pol­ish-born Jew­ish jurist Raphael Lemkin — ini­tia­tor of the UN Geno­cide Con­ven­tion of 1948 — had in mind when he empha­sized that the sys­tem­at­ic and orga­nized destruc­tion of the art and cul­tur­al her­itage in which the unique genius and achieve­ment of a col­lec­tiv­i­ty are revealed in fields of sci­ence, arts and lit­er­a­ture” must be under­stood and legal­ly addressed as an attack tar­get­ing” this collectivity.

He con­sid­ered the Nazis’ delib­er­ate destruc­tion of reli­gious and cul­tur­al trea­sures a key ele­ment in their pol­i­cy of anni­hi­la­tion, one that must be acknowl­edged dur­ing the court proceedings.

Sutzkever’s diary from the time of occu­pa­tion metic­u­lous­ly doc­u­ments both sides of the Nazis’ destruc­tive fren­zy: The Ger­mans were to wipe from the face of the earth five cen­turies of Jew­ish cul­ture in Vil­na.” Dur­ing his intern­ment, he had to watch, dai­ly, as Ger­man spe­cial forces hunt­ed down the print­ed Jew­ish word with the same zeal and relent­less­ness that the Gestapo exhib­it­ed when track­ing down every last hid­den Jew.” From Jan­u­ary 1942 on, the Reich­sleit­er Rosen­berg Task­force (Ein­satzstab Reich­sleit­er Rosen­berg; ERR) ram­paged through Vil­na, its staff con­fis­cat­ing every arti­fact and book of Jew­ish prove­nance they could lay their hands on. Much of this mate­r­i­al was sold to paper mills and leather fac­to­ries, incin­er­at­ed, or used as heat­ing fuel; select­ed parts were con­fis­cat­ed and trans­ferred to Ger­many. Sutzkev­er was among the forty Jew­ish forced labor­ers work­ing in the occu­pied premis­es of the renowned Yid­dish Sci­en­tif­ic Insti­tute (Yidish­er Visnshaftlekher Insti­tut; YIVO), which served as the task force’s depot. They were oblig­ed to sort and pre­pare for trans­port the valu­able items cho­sen for fur­ther use in Ger­man research insti­tutes. Faced with the threat of total cul­tur­al destruc­tion, they decid­ed to form a clan­des­tine group and smug­gled doc­u­ments, books, and works of art into the ghet­to, where they were hid­den away. It is thanks to the ded­i­ca­tion of this group, known as the Paper Brigade,” that some of the most pre­cious lit­er­ary, artis­tic, and sci­en­tif­ic mate­ri­als from Jew­ish East­ern Europe, includ­ing man­u­scripts by Sholem Ale­ichem and draw­ings by Marc Cha­gall, have sur­vived to this day. Sutzkev­er was one of the few mem­bers of the brigade to sur­vive. After flee­ing to join the par­ti­sans in the forests sur­round­ing Vil­na in Sep­tem­ber 1943, he escaped to Moscow with the help of the Jew­ish Anti-Fas­cist Com­mit­tee, […]. Imme­di­ate­ly after the lib­er­a­tion of Vil­na by the Sovi­et Army in July 1944, Sutzkev­er returned there, devot­ing him­self to cached cul­tur­al prop­er­ty — the only glimpse of hope still ema­nat­ing from this city of death, as he not­ed at the time: If not for the hid­den cul­tur­al trea­sures, I don’t know if I would have had enough strength to return to my home city. [ … ] I knew that every­one has been exe­cut­ed by the mur­der­ers. I knew that my eyes would be blind­ed with pain as soon as I saw the Wil­ia Riv­er. But the Hebrew let­ters that I had plant­ed in Vilna’s soil sparkled at me.” Yet his hopes soon fad­ed again. Togeth­er with the few oth­er sur­vivors he encoun­tered there, Sutzkev­er aimed to estab­lish a muse­um of Jew­ish art and cul­ture with the remain­ing mate­r­i­al. This plan fal­tered due to Sovi­et resis­tance, and once again they had to pre­vent mate­r­i­al from being dis­persed and con­fis­cat­ed. They decid­ed to send it west. Sutzkev­er and his com­rade Shmerke Kacz­er­gin­s­ki sin­gle-hand­ed­ly trans­port­ed par­tial col­lec­tions in suit­cas­es via Poland to Paris, where they were sent on to the YIVO in New York, their home ever since.

Faced with the threat of total cul­tur­al destruc­tion, they decid­ed to form a clan­des­tine group and smug­gled doc­u­ments, books, and works of art into the ghet­to, where they were hid­den away.

By oth­er routes, the por­tion of the Vil­na hold­ings stolen by Rosenberg’s task force made it to the Unit­ed States as well. After their incor­po­ra­tion into the Nazi Insti­tute for Research on the Jew­ish Ques­tion (Insti­tut zur Erforschung der Juden­frage) in Frank­furt am Main, the pre­cious col­lec­tions had been evac­u­at­ed to the Hesse town of Hun­gen in 1944 due to increas­ing­ly severe bomb­ing raids. Amer­i­can sol­diers of the Mon­u­ments, Fine Arts, and Archives Unit (MFA&A), tasked with pro­tect­ing the Euro­pean cul­tur­al her­itage, dis­cov­ered these books and oth­er objects while advanc­ing into Ger­man ter­ri­to­ry. All of them were placed under the stew­ard­ship of the Amer­i­can mil­i­tary gov­ern­ment, which ini­ti­at­ed a large-scale cul­tur­al resti­tu­tion cam­paign to return mil­lions of books, archival doc­u­ments, art­works, and rit­u­al objects to their for­mer own­ers, states of ori­gin, or offi­cial trustee orga­ni­za­tions rep­re­sent­ing the Nazis’ vic­tims. Among the restored col­lec­tions were more than four hun­dred box­es of books and oth­er objects from Vil­na; […] these were hand­ed over to the YIVO in New York, the offi­cial suc­ces­sor to the destroyed insti­tute in the Lithuan­ian cap­i­tal. YIVO soon devel­oped into the most impor­tant com­mem­o­ra­tive and research cen­ter for East­ern Euro­pean Yid­dish cul­ture world­wide, the mate­r­i­al frag­ments saved from Vil­na play­ing an impor­tant part in its attempts to cre­ate a sense of con­ti­nu­ity between past and present.

The mirac­u­lous sto­ry of Sutzkever’s acts of cul­tur­al res­cue and the sal­vage of YIVO prop­er­ty through the her­culean Amer­i­can resti­tu­tion pro­gram attests to both the tremen­dous atten­tion Jews paid to the theft of cul­tur­al prop­er­ty and the impor­tance they attached to its preser­va­tion and restora­tion. In the imme­di­ate post­war peri­od, the his­tor­i­cal­ly unprece­dent­ed Ger­man con­fis­ca­tion, spo­li­a­tion, and dis­pos­ses­sion of books, doc­u­ments, and art­works were fol­lowed by an equal­ly unprece­dent­ed his­to­ry of resti­tu­tion, one often endowed with a tremen­dous sym­bol­ic charge by the indi­vid­u­als and orga­ni­za­tions involved. The present book aims to tell this sto­ry. It took place between 1944 and 1952 in Europe, the Unit­ed States, and Israel, but its true cen­ter was the Offen­bach Archival Depot. From this essen­tial­ly Amer­i­can insti­tu­tion on Ger­man soil — estab­lished dur­ing the win­ter of 1945 by the Amer­i­can mil­i­tary gov­ern­ment to house and even­tu­al­ly restore the books, archival mate­ri­als, and rit­u­al objects of main­ly Jew­ish prove­nance found by the MFA&A — more than four mil­lion items were either returned to their for­mer own­ers or dis­trib­uted to the new sites of Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty life. Objects and doc­u­ments from every cor­ner of Europe were to be found in Offen­bach. They ren­dered vis­i­ble the wide geo­graph­i­cal scope of the Ger­man war of exter­mi­na­tion while also lay­ing bare the mag­ni­tude, diver­si­ty, mul­ti­lin­gual­ism, and cen­turies-old tra­di­tions of Euro­pean-Jew­ish cul­ture now reduced to mate­r­i­al fragments.

Every sin­gle vol­ume stored there seemed to her a tes­ta­ment of a mur­dered civ­i­liza­tion,” which it was absolute­ly imper­a­tive to save.

One of the four main pro­tag­o­nists dis­cussed in this book, lat­er his­to­ri­an of the Holo­caust Lucy S. Daw­id­ow­icz (1915 – 1990), who came to work at the Offen­bach Archival Depot in 1947 as an employ­ee of the Amer­i­can Jew­ish Joint Dis­tri­b­u­tion Com­mit­tee (also known as the Joint), left one of the most impres­sive accounts of the place. Her rec­ol­lec­tions give us a sense of the feel­ings that over­whelmed con­tem­po­raries at the sight of the depot, which she called a mor­tu­ary of books.” Every sin­gle vol­ume stored there seemed to her a tes­ta­ment of a mur­dered civ­i­liza­tion,” which it was absolute­ly imper­a­tive to save. Daw­id­ow­icz devot­ed sev­er­al months to find­ing, iden­ti­fy­ing, claim­ing, and sort­ing vol­umes orig­i­nat­ing in Vil­na. […] She was even­tu­al­ly to play the key role in orga­niz­ing the trans­fer of the Vil­na col­lec­tions from Ger­many to the Unit­ed States.

But far from all the books stored in Offen­bach could be iden­ti­fied in the same way as these col­lec­tions, let alone be restored to their own­ers. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of doc­u­ments and vol­umes were heir­less and uniden­ti­fi­able. In accor­dance with the pre­vail­ing laws on resti­tu­tion after armed con­flict — agreed upon by the Allies at the Paris Con­fer­ence on Repa­ra­tions in Novem­ber and Decem­ber 1945 and at sub­se­quent meet­ings of the Allied Con­trol Coun­cil — they were most like­ly to be returned to their coun­tries of ori­gin. Most Jew­ish actors strong­ly opposed this. After the mur­der of two-thirds of Europe’s Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion and the destruc­tion of their insti­tu­tions, few Jews would ben­e­fit from such returned objects. To the con­trary, they most­ly risked dis­ap­pear­ing into state col­lec­tions. The idea that even more of the Jews’ cul­tur­al her­itage might be lost to them or resti­tut­ed to states with­out sig­nif­i­cant Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties — per­haps even to the Ger­man state — was unbear­able to Jew­ish cam­paign­ers. […] Restor­ing cul­tur­al objects to their pre­vi­ous state of own­er­ship had become impos­si­ble, so a new approach was imper­a­tive. Jew­ish orga­ni­za­tions in the Unit­ed States and Great Britain made impas­sioned pleas […] for reg­u­la­tions that would allow stolen prop­er­ty to be returned to Jew­ish own­er­ship, even if this gen­er­al­ly required its trans­fer to new places. They pro­posed the trans­for­ma­tion of heir­less goods into the col­lec­tive prop­er­ty of the Jew­ish peo­ple, which could be claimed by an agency entrust­ed with rep­re­sent­ing that people.

Even­tu­al­ly, JCR took charge of more than half a mil­lion books and sev­er­al thou­sand rit­u­al objects, dis­trib­ut­ing them to hun­dreds of Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties and insti­tu­tions around the world.

These impuls­es prompt­ed the for­ma­tion of a New York – based orga­ni­za­tion that was to be the lead­ing pro­tag­o­nist of cul­tur­al resti­tu­tion in the ear­ly post­war peri­od: the Jew­ish Cul­tur­al Recon­struc­tion, Inc. (JCR). Estab­lished in 1947, the Amer­i­can admin­is­tra­tion rec­og­nized this cor­po­ra­tion — made up of lead­ing inter­na­tion­al Jew­ish orga­ni­za­tions in the Unit­ed States, Palestine/​Israel, and Europe — as the Jew­ish trustee for heir­less cul­tur­al prop­er­ty in 1949. Its offi­cial recog­ni­tion as a non­state body that could act in the name of all Jews was a nov­el­ty in the his­to­ry of Jew­ish pol­i­tics. For the first time, Jews could rep­re­sent their inter­ests as equal part­ners in an inter­na­tion­al agree­ment. Also nov­el was the poten­tial to treat heir­less prop­er­ty like indi­vid­ual prop­er­ty in pri­vate law; depart­ing from the routes pre­vi­ous­ly envis­aged, this prop­er­ty instead fol­lowed the paths tak­en by the Jew­ish peo­ple, dis­trib­uted to places where this col­lec­tive claimant was now locat­ed. This extra­or­di­nary deci­sion gave the Jew­ish col­lec­tiv­i­ty a voice and a mean­ing­ful sta­tus in the realm of tran­si­tion­al jus­tice — in con­trast to Nurem­berg, where Jew­ish rep­re­sen­ta­tives had fought in vain to gain offi­cial sta­tus as plain­tiffs or ami­cus curi­ae. Through the agree­ment reached at the mil­i­tary government’s Ger­man head­quar­ters in Feb­ru­ary 1949, the Amer­i­can admin­is­tra­tion acknowl­edged that in the wake of the Holo­caust, the treat­ment of Jew­ish cul­tur­al prop­er­ty, espe­cial­ly books and rit­u­al objects, was a sen­si­tive issue, one that had to be resolved in full accor­dance with Jew­ish con­cerns. The over­rid­ing neces­si­ty of find­ing a just approach to the mass­es of objects in Amer­i­can hands must sure­ly have played into this deci­sion: those involved were over­whelmed by the sheer quan­ti­ty of mate­r­i­al. Even­tu­al­ly, JCR took charge of more than half a mil­lion books and sev­er­al thou­sand rit­u­al objects, dis­trib­ut­ing them to hun­dreds of Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties and insti­tu­tions around the world.

Elis­a­beth Gal­las is chief research asso­ciate at the Leib­niz Insti­tute for Jew­ish His­to­ry and Cul­ture — Simon Dub­now in Leipzig, Germany.

Alex Skin­ner holds a first-class MA in Scan­di­na­vian Stud­ies and Ger­man from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Edin­burgh and an MSc in social anthro­pol­o­gy from the Lon­don School of Eco­nom­ics. He has trans­lat­ed more than twen­ty books from Ger­man to Eng­lish in the human­i­ties and social sciences.