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Looters of learning
A Swedish author documents the Nazis quest to destroy the
literary legacy of Jews and other undesirables across Europe
By Tibor Krausz
MOST NAZIS werent unduly bookish. tics, diplomacy and ersatz spirituality; and as 80% of private collections, had been lost
Many of their leading lights were at best popular penny dreadful novels by his fa- by the wars end. Most of them had likely
semi-literate cranks who, if they read any- vorite German author Karl May, who wrote been seized or destroyed by the occupiers,
thing at all, perused risible tomes about American westerns for adolescents. while the rest perished in fires and bomb-
occultism and pseudo-scientific theories on In short, we might assume that the Na- ing raids. The number of books thus lost in
racial purity. zis generally didnt care much for books Poland amounted to a staggering 15 million
No sooner had the Nazis seized power unlike valuable works of art, which they volumes.
than they began erecting large bonfires out plundered rapaciously throughout occupied Not only Jews but also ethnic Poles,
of blacklisted works during their ceremoni- Europe. whom the Germans deemed similarly sub-
al book burnings, the idea for which they Not so. human, were subject to the wholesale theft
borrowed from Catholic inquisitors. Their As the Swedish writer Anders Rydell of their artworks and books in an effort to
goal was to cleanse themselves ritually of makes clear in The Book Thieves, the Na- reduce them to a collective state of cultur-
the pernicious influence of verboten ideas zis, led by Rosenberg and SS chief Heinrich al barbarism. Even schoolbooks and chil-
contained within these books pages. They Himmler, meticulously stripped many of drens books were systematically destroyed.
would keep up the abhorrent practice for Europes finest and oldest libraries of their The stock of over 350 libraries was sent to
years. contents during the war. They ransacked the paper mills for conversion into paper pulp,
Nor was the movements foundation- Sephardi libraries of Amsterdam, raided the Rydell explains.
al text a literary marvel. Adolf Hitlers Yiddish libraries of Vilnius and pillaged the
Mein Kampf amounts to an intermina- Jewish libraries of Rome. THE GERMANS also set fire to several his-
ble stream-of-consciousness diatribe with They did so with a calculated aim: to hol- toric libraries, including Polands National
turgid prose, the puerile outpourings of an low out the cultural heritage of the people Library in Warsaw and the library of the
obsessive monomaniac with bipolar dis- they set out to destroy by robbing them not Jewish Theological Seminary in Lublin. By
order and messianic delusions. Another only of their lives but also of their collec- doing so, they obliterated tens of thousands
Nazi bestseller, chief party ideologue Al- tive memory and wisdom enshrined in ink of invaluable and irreplaceable incunabula,
fred Rosenbergs The Myth of the Twen- on paper. Eradicating Jewish culture and lit- religious texts, Torah scrolls, manuscripts,
tieth Century, was worse still: a ponder- erary influence, the Polish historian Marek engravings and sheets of music. Seeing
ous screed of quasi-mystical gibberish and Sroka posits, became almost as important the contents of their Talmudic Academys
historical revisionism that cast Jews as the to the Germans as the physical extermina- library reduced to ash, the Jews of Lub-
congenital enemies of the pure-blooded tion of the Jewish people. lin cried bitterly, one Nazi eyewitness
Nordic master race. Even Hitler found it The libraries of communists, freemasons recalled. Their cries almost silenced us.
unreadable. and other perceived enemies of the regime Then we summoned the military band and
True, Hitler himself was fairly well read werent spared, either. Nor were numerous the joyful shouts of the soldiers silenced the
and, as an avid bibliophile, possessed an libraries in occupied nations. In all, during sound of the Jewish cries.
impressive private library with several the war, the Nazis contributed, in one way Meanwhile, in Amsterdam, Paris, Rome
thousand books. Yet, the Fhrer mostly lim- or another, to the destruction of millions of and elsewhere, the invading Germans sim-
ited himself to fare that suited his purposes books, most of them in Eastern Europe. In ilarly plundered and pillaged, ransacking
as wannabe master of the world: histories of German-occupied Poland alone, 90% of private Jewish homes for their valuables,
famous military campaigns; books on poli- school and library book collections, as well including books down to the tiniest book-


cases and scattered volumes on bedside ta- they burn books, they will in the end burn Anders Rydell, author of The Book
bles, Rydell notes. They did so even in the people. He meant the Spanish Inquisition, Thieves
homes of the poorest Jews. but his words eerily foreshadowed the Na-
Barbaric, yes. Yet, in a consistently edi- zis destruction of European Jewry.
fying work of investigative journalism and Even as the extermination of European for posterity, from alleged ritual murders
popular history, originally published in Jewry proceeded apace, several educated to endless global conspiracies. It was an
Swedish in 2015, the author, who oversees Nazis were tasked with stockpiling Jewish academic quest for perpetual scapegoating.
the coverage of culture at a major Swedish books of diverse nature and provenance to The Nazis strove to exterminate the Jew-
media group, dispenses with the notion that study their contents. In order to understand ish people, but not their memory, Rydell
the Nazis were no more than rampaging the spiritual weapons of our ideological writes. The Jew would be preserved as a
philistines or, as he puts it, unhinged de- enemies, it is necessary to go deeply into historical and symbolic enemy.
stroyers of knowledge. The Nazis certain- [their] writings, explained the SS major To that end, the Nazis purloined any Jew-
ly were that. But they also understood full general who headed an ideological re- ish books they could lay their hands on.
well that knowledge was power. They knew search library set up for that purpose. Soon after war broke out in September 1939
better than to do away with their nations following the German invasion of Poland,
rich traditions of literature and culture un- BY STUDYING Jewish texts, Himmler and six railroad cars arrived in Germany load-
like Mao Zedong and Pol Pot, who would his exegetes hoped to gain mastery over ed with books seized from the Great Syna-
both try to refashion their societies from Jewish ideas and beliefs, the better to purge gogue of Warsaw. Hundreds of other Jewish
the ground up by eradicating whatever had any Jewish influence from German society libraries in Poland, both private and public,
come before. once and for all. It was, in a way, an attempt would soon face a similar fate. The SS also
Rather, National Socialist ideologues at purgative mind control for the masses. kidnapped Jewish scholars, academics and
sought to hijack some of Germanys rich The Nazi ideologues also wanted to find intellectuals to help translate texts in Hebrew
literary traditions for their own ends while evidence of the global Jewish conspiracy and Yiddish before they were murdered.
sidelining or outlawing what they decried as detailed in the crude tzarist forgery The In the Theresienstadt concentration camp,
un-German and degenerate streams of Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the urtext some 40 other Jewish scholars were pressed
it. In this war [for intellectual dominance], of modern antisemitism with its implausi- into the Talmudkommando (Talmud Unit)
books would not be so much a casualty as bly lurid self-incriminating admissions by to sort through collections of pilfered Jew-
a weapon, writes Rydell, whose previous the putative Jewish masters of the world. ish books. The units experts managed to
book, The Looters, dealt with the Nazis At the Institut zur Erforschung der Ju- catalogue a mere fraction of books at their
obsessive plundering of antiquities and art- denfrage, a research institution set up by disposal, so vast was the hoard amassed by
works across Europe. The Nazis wanted to the Nazis in Frankfurt to study the Jew- the Nazis. At Frankfurts Jewish Question
defeat their enemies not only on the battle- ish Question, a team of Aryan scholars institute, another half million stolen tomes
field but also in thought. sought to conduct, as they put it, Jewish awaited sorting, but most remained in crates
Thus, the Sturm und Drang poet Fried- studies without Jews. The professed aim unpacked.
rich Schiller was in; the pacifist Erich Maria of the institute, housed in the confiscated In Vilnius, a historic hub of Jewish learn-
Remarque was out. Especially loathed was palatial residence of the Rothschild bank- ing in Lithuania, the SS similarly press-
the Jewish-born 19th-century poet Heinrich ing dynasty, was to uncover and document ganged several Jewish scholars into the
Heine, who famously observed that where the nefarious activities of world Jewry so-called Paper Brigade to sift through loot



from the citys Jewish libraries and separate ish boy in Berlin by his mother for his bar Yet, even a single book returned can
valuable volumes from less valuable ones. mitzva in 1930. The boy would grow into brighten someones day someone like an
The former were taken by the SS for keeps; a young man who was deported to Riga in elderly Jewish man who survived the Ber-
the latter were pulped. 1942 and murdered there his dreams of gen-Belsen concentration camp as a child
Ironically, even as Nazi ideologues set traveling to Africa, if he still harbored those, and now lives in California. His daughter
about destroying or confiscating certain dying with him. Another old book, a dog- travelled all the way from the United States
books en masse, they kept pumping out oth- eared biography of Baruch Spinoza, be- to Berlin to retrieve her fathers old book of
ers. Joseph Goebbels, an erstwhile journal- longed to a prominent German Jewish jour- Jewish fairytales for him. He had nothing
ist, was a wannabe novelist with a doctorate nalist, Ernst Feder. A collection of valuable left of his childhood apart from a couple of
in philology and his Propaganda Ministry antique almanacs, now kept in the Duchess photographs and the hat he wore in the con-
relentlessly promoted approved literary Anne Amalia Library in Weimar, was owned centration camp, Finsterwalder explains.
works. Throughout the 1930s, some 20,000 by a well-off local Jewish businessman and Thanks to the rediscovery of his beloved
new titles were published annually, many in lifelong bibliophile who was forced to sell old book, the elderly man has finally opened
fancy, state-sponsored editions, as part of them for a song before he was allowed to up about his wartime experiences and be-
the regimes ruthless Kulturkampf. flee to Bolivia, where he died in penury. gun telling children in schools about them.
As we know from history, such selective Every book carries a story of theft, These books are keepers of memories, the
approval of literary merit was bound to blackmail, and a tragic fate, Rydell ob- librarian tells Rydell. They are not worth
end in failure over the long term. Yet, the serves. At best, it may be a story of flight, much in a financial sense, but they can be
Soviets had been enforcing equally repres- of bailing out on a life but at worst a story priceless to the people and families who
sive cultural controls, albeit along different of people who have left no trace behind ex- once owned them and then lost them.
ideological lines, so Hitler and his National cept for these books. The Book Thieves is a trenchant and, in
Socialist ideologues certainly had an ex- parts, elegiac work. It, too, can now serve as
ample upon which to draw. The Germans IN ONE large public library in Berlin alone, a keeper of memory about what once there
were a highly literate people who rightfully well over 250,000 books have turned out on was and what was then lost in European
prided themselves on their nations rich cul- closer inspection to have come from librar- Jewrys greatest tragedy.
tural traditions, which the Nazis were now ies and homes looted by the Nazis during
actively seeking to subvert for their virulent the war. Many books were marked J for
form of extreme nationalism. Judenbcher Jewish-owned books. A few
But what of the stolen books themselves? dedicated librarians at Berlins Zentral- und
Unlike works of art, most books, being Landesbibliothek (Central and Regional
mass-produced artifacts, are rarely unique. Library) are now trying to trace as many
Theyre valuable only for their owners through books as they can back to their original
emotional connections. Yet, those connections and likely long-dead owners. No easy task,
can be very strong. Rydell is a thoughtful man that. A single book of unknown provenance
who discerns the countless personal tragedies in plundered collections can take weeks of
of loss behind the Nazis wholesale plunder of painstaking sleuthing to trace to someones
private book collections and libraries. bookshelf in wartime Berlin, Paris, Vienna,
To the careless observer, old books with Budapest or Prague. The resources dedicat-
tattered spines and yellowing pages, now ed to this project are meager and the librar-
languishing largely uncatalogued and ne- ies engaged in it are driven by a humanitari-
glected in the depositories of libraries where an impulse, not a legal obligation.
pilfered collections had been stored since Most books can never be traced as previ-
the war, may seem mere curiosities for- ous generations of librarians either carelessly
gotten relics from a bygone age of war and or willfully disposed of dedications, stamps,
mass murder. To him, however, they are, bookplates and any identifying markings on
singly and collectively, poignant mementos flyleaves, spines and labels. Between 2009
of lives and memories lost. Someone once and 2014, a mere 500 books, in the librarys The Book Thieves:
owned and probably cherished many of collection of a quarter million plundered The Nazi Looting of Europes Libraries
these books. Often, they werent mere pos- volumes, were returned to the descendants and the Race to Return
sessions but signposts in their owners emo- of their original owners. These books are a Literary Inheritance
tional lives and intellectual development. like ghosts in the library, one librarian, Se- Anders Rydell
One old book about Africa was given, as bastian Finsterwalder, tells the author. We Viking
the penned dedication makes clear, to a Jew- know they are stolen, but from whom? 368 pages; $20.44