With the release of Stolen Words: The Nazi Plun­der of Jew­ish Books, author Rab­bi Mark Glick­man is guest blog­ging all week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series here on The ProsenPeo­ple.

The bat­tle had been rum­bling for years, but on Decem­ber 1, 1946, at New York’s Wal­dorf Asto­ria hotel, a Jew­ish his­to­ri­an met with an Amer­i­can mil­i­tary leader and the fight­ing final­ly came to a close. 

This wasn’t a bloody bat­tle between armies; it was a con­flict between Jews. And here, the bat­tle wasn’t over land or nation­al bound­aries. Here the bat­tle was for books. 

The Nazis had loot­ed lots of Jew­ish books dur­ing their twelve-year reign — mil­lions of them. Ear­ly on, they burnt some of those vol­umes in spec­tac­u­lar bon­fires, but the bon­fires didn’t last very long. After they fiz­zled, var­i­ous Nazi agen­cies sim­ply held onto the books instead, stor­ing them in cas­tles, monas­ter­ies, and ware­hous­es until they could be processed after the war. 

The Allied Forces that dis­cov­ered these loot­ed libraries sent much of the mate­r­i­al to an archival depot in Offen­bach, Ger­many run by the Amer­i­can army. When­ev­er pos­si­ble, the army returned the mate­r­i­al to its orig­i­nal own­ers. But many of those own­ers had per­ished dur­ing the war — and many of the books’ own­ers couldn’t even be iden­ti­fied to begin with: often, entire com­mu­ni­ties had fled for their lives, leav­ing their rich col­lec­tions of books behind. In the chaos of post­war Europe, where were all of the remain­ing books sup­posed to go?

Of course, dif­fer­ent groups of Jews dis­agreed with one anoth­er on this ques­tion. Jews in the soon-to-be State of Israel argued that Israel was to be the inter­na­tion­al cap­i­tal of the Jew­ish peo­ple, so the books should go there. Amer­i­can Jews coun­tered that the Unit­ed States now had the largest Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in the world, so the books should come here. Sur­vivors groups in Europe argued that the books should stay at home, and var­i­ous oth­er coun­tries each weighed in with argu­ments as to why they should get the books instead.

At the cen­ter of the bat­tle were three men — intel­lec­tu­al pow­er­hous­es who became gen­er­als in the bat­tle for the books even before the war drew to a close.

One was an Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty his­to­ri­an named Cecil Roth (1899 – 1970).Roth, who was head of the Jew­ish His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety of Eng­land, and, lat­er, the edi­tor of the first edi­tion of Ency­clo­pe­dia Judaica, spoke about the loot­ed books as ear­ly as 1943. There was cer­tain­ly going to be a lot of unclaimed lit­er­a­ture after the war, he pre­dict­ed, and that uniden­ti­fied mate­r­i­al should be sent to the Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty in Jerusalem. He set up a com­mit­tee to begin inven­to­ry­ing the books and prepar­ing them for ship­ment to Pales­tine. The com­mit­tee soon dis­solved, but Roth prid­ed him­self that his group was the first to deal with the issue, and he lat­er argued that his group should there­fore be in charge of deter­min­ing what to do with the heir­less volumes.

Anoth­er lead com­bat­ant was Rab­bi Judah Leon Magnes (1877 – 1948),the Amer­i­can-born found­ing pres­i­dent of Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty. When Magnes heard ear­ly pro­pos­als that the books should go to Amer­i­ca or stay in Europe, he was beside him­self. Just as Israel was tak­ing in the lion’s share of the human sur­vivors of the war, he argued, so too should it receive Europe’s sur­viv­ing Jew­ish cul­tur­al trea­sures. How could any­one think otherwise?

Final­ly, there was Salo Baron (1895 – 1989).Galician-born and Vien­na-edu­cat­ed, Baron had been on the fac­ul­ty of Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty since 1929, and had played a key role in bring­ing Jew­ish stud­ies to the sec­u­lar Amer­i­can acad­e­my. Baron was also a ris­ing leader in the Con­fer­ence of Jew­ish Rela­tions, an Amer­i­can group of schol­ars look­ing into anti-Semi­tism in Europe, the Unit­ed States, and else­where. He sent a team to Europe to cat­a­logue the continent’s pre-war Jew­ish trea­sures, and tried to chart a course to deal with the cul­tur­al dev­as­ta­tion that would remain at war’s end.

In time, Cecil Roth stepped into the back­ground, leav­ing Baron and Magnes to duke it out between them­selves. Magnes fought like a bull­dog to get the books into his university’s library, but as he did, Baron built a world­wide team of Jew­ish his­to­ri­ans, librar­i­ans and oth­er schol­ars, and found­ed Jew­ish Cul­tur­al Recon­struc­tion” (JCR) — an inter­na­tion­al com­mis­sion whose main pur­pose was to fig­ure out what to do with the heir­less Jew­ish books and cul­tur­al trea­sures after the war.

In the end, Baron’s coop­er­a­tive approach won the day, and on Decem­ber 1, 1946, he and a group of his lieu­tenants met at the Wal­dorf Asto­ria Hotel with Gen­er­al Lucius Clay, head of the Unit­ed States Army’s occu­pa­tion­al forces in Ger­many, to final­ize the arrange­ments. As Amer­i­ca pre­pared to end its occu­pa­tion of Ger­many, the army would turn the heir­less trea­sures over to JCR. JCR, in turn, would put the trea­sures into trustee­ship and deter­mine what their ulti­mate fate should be. 

In the years that fol­lowed, JCR dis­trib­uted mil­lions of books and oth­er loot­ed cul­tur­al items to Jew­ish libraries and orga­ni­za­tions around the world. About forty per­cent went to the Unit­ed States, forty per­cent went to Israel, and the remain­ing twen­ty per­cent went out in small­er batch­es to oth­er countries.

Salo Baron pre­vailed in his strug­gle for lead­er­ship of post­war book resti­tu­tion efforts, but let’s not call him the vic­tor. In the post-Holo­caust Jew­ish world, loose ends could be tied up, but the pos­si­bil­i­ty of vic­to­ry had long since dis­ap­peared as smoke through the chim­neys of Nazi destruction.

Rab­bi Mark Glick­man has served at con­gre­ga­tions in Ohio, Wash­ing­ton State, and Col­orado. He is the author of Stolen Trea­sure: The Nazi Plun­der of Jew­ish Books and Sacred Trea­sure — The Cairo Genizah: The Amaz­ing Dis­cov­er­ies of For­got­ten Jew­ish His­to­ry in an Egypt­ian Syn­a­gogue Attic.

Relat­ed Content:

Rab­bi Mark Glick­man has served at con­gre­ga­tions in Ohio, Wash­ing­ton State, and Col­orado. He is the author of Sacred Trea­sure — The Cairo Genizah: The Amaz­ing Dis­cov­er­ies of For­got­ten Jew­ish His­to­ry in an Egypt­ian Syn­a­gogue Attic.

The Bat­tle for the Books