‘Lost world, lost lives, and the displacement of a culture’

Hundreds of books looted by the Nazis during World War II sit on the shelves of the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, a window into a different time in history and individuals we may have otherwise never known.

nazi looted book detail
Stamps like this one signified that a book had been stolen by the Nazis, part of a campaign during World War II led by Hitler advisor Alfred Rosenberg, who had wanted to preserve them for a future institute that studied “the Jewish Question.” Penn holds between 1,000 and 5,000 of these once-looted volumes.

Hidden in the stacks of the library at Penn’s Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies sit hundreds of books once looted by the Nazis, then sent to the United States after World War II. Though it’s unclear exactly how many the University has—accounts range from 1,000 to more than 5,000, with the possibility of many more having been lost, stolen, or removed from Penn’s holdings—what’s pointedly clear is how much we can learn from these tattered and beautiful tomes. And not just about the volumes themselves, but about their former owners, where those people lived, what they experienced during the war and the Holocaust.

The books have traveled thousands of miles to end up in Philadelphia, perhaps the only physical remains of a town or a family. “They are these material remnants of a robust and meaningful life that was destroyed,” says historian Kathy Peiss. “They are very sad objects in that way. It’s wonderful that they were preserved, but what they represent is this lost world, lost lives, and the displacement of a culture.”

kathy peiss portrait
For a dozen years, historian Kathy Peiss has studied how artifacts taken by the Nazis were collected and returned to their owners and countries.

Such artifacts have been part of Peiss’ world for a dozen years. More recently, archivist Bruce Nielsen has been trying to locate as many of the books as possible within the Penn collection, and in the process, he’s attempting to honor the book owners themselves—individuals who may otherwise have been lost to history.

“It’s common or easy to talk about Holocaust victims who have no names. We don’t have a story about them; they’re just this number,” says Nielsen, the Judaic public services librarian and archivist at the Katz Center library. “But here we actually have real names. We have stamps. And for many of them, we also have stories from people who survived.”

A long journey to Penn

During the Second World War, the Nazis stole millions of books at the behest of Hitler advisor Alfred Rosenberg, who had wanted to preserve them for a future institute that studied “the Jewish Question.” “You can immediately see the strangeness and irony of having a program of exterminating the Jews as a people but still collecting and preserving an aspect of their culture,” Peiss says.

When Allied Forces arrived in Germany in 1945 and the war ended, American soldiers discovered some 2.5 million volumes scattered around a small town called Hungen. During the next few months, the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives unit of the army—popularly called the Monuments Men—unearthed large collections in Frankfurt and other places across Germany, eventually bringing them all to a large warehouse called the Offenbach Archival Depot. Those that could be returned went back to their countries of origin and, when possible, to their original owners.

But that still left half a million orphaned books.

“The question of what would happen to the books became a big political controversy,” Peiss explains. “Not all were Judaica or owned by Jews, but the vast majority were. A number of Jewish organizations in the United States, Great Britain, and what was Palestine at the time, were trying to get the U.S. government to release these books to a Jewish organization. Eventually they were given to a group called the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction (JCR).”

historical photo of nazi looted books in church
In April of 1945, after the war ended, American troops discovered scores of books and other objects hidden across Germany, like the loot in this church in Ellingen, just south of Nuremberg. 

By now it was 1949. After sorting and storage at Offenbach, about 40 percent—approximately 160,000 books—came to the United States, 40 percent went to the newly established state of Israel, and aside from a small number that remained in Germany, the rest ended up in African and Latin American countries. The books housed today at the Katz Center library originally went to an institute in Philadelphia called the Dropsie College of Hebrew and Cognate Learning, which merged with Penn in 1993 and today is the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies.

“The books came to Dropsie around 1951, 1952,” Nielsen says. “When they actually arrived and what was done when they immediately arrived, I have no record. The only records that we have are the work that I’ve done collecting titles and call numbers.”

Needles in a haystack

Nielsen keeps his list of titles and call numbers in a spreadsheet he physically carries through the shelves. He’s one of just four people who cares for the Katz Center collection, so the fact that there aren’t solid records for the looted materials severely impedes much forward progress. Despite that, Nielsen’s located nearly 900 books.

bruce nielsen reading a nazi looted book
Nielsen takes great pains to learn about the books' former owners. Few records exist detailing exactly how many and which books came to Penn in the early 1950s, so Nielsen goes up and down the stacks looking for that metaphorical needle in a haystack.

“I go looking up and down the stacks,” he says. “If we see certain stamps or bookplates, we know it’s a book that had been looted.”

One key imprint signifies that an item traveled through Offenbach, a circular stamp with the words “Offenbach Archival Depot” forming a circle. Other marks are more chilling, like an eagle gripping a swastika or notations of Nazi factions charged with stealing the books in the first place. Nielsen also looks for a JCR bookplate, a blue Star of David encircled by the Hebrew words for the organization’s name, “Tekuma le-tarbot Yisrael” and a larger Star of David signified by six triangular points.

“If you look in our electronic catalogue, there are only about 150 entries for JCR books,” Peiss says. “Bruce has found many, many more. They weren’t catalogued well, and in some cases, they didn’t have the bookplates they were supposed to have.” Beyond that, an arson fire at Dropsie in November 1981 may have destroyed parts of the collection, and it’s likely that duplicates initially got thrown away, something Peiss and Nielsen have anecdotally heard happened.

Though seeking out these books for Nielsen has been a quest akin to finding that metaphorical needle in a haystack, each has the potential to unearth a treasure trove of knowledge about the people who studied from and owned these texts.

Mordehai ben Rabbi Josef Kerimer

That’s the part that moves Nielsen the most, and it’s easy to see why. JCR handled tens of thousands of books after World War II, and in doing so created a list of individual names and the number of books processed for each person. From the beginning, Nielsen had used this as his guide, seeking out those titles that also displayed the Offenbach stamp. It was a logical first step—until he realized that almost every book he’d encountered was in German. The few he’d found in Hebrew had stamps from individual rabbis, but nothing signifying they’d been through the depot.

“I kept thinking, where did all the Hebrew books go?” he explains. “I thought maybe the people at Offenbach couldn’t read Hebrew and so they gave the books to the rabbis. Boy was I wrong.”

nazi looted books and torahs
An American army chaplain examines a pile of Torah scrolls, which along with the books, the Nazi stole from every country they occupied. 

By looking for more than the Offenbach imprint, Nielsen started to locate hundreds of additional books, nearly all in Hebrew and Yiddish and many from a single town in Lithuania called Kowno. “I kept coming up with the same rabbi’s name,” he says. “I went to the Offenbach lists and there he was. This guy was a big shot in Lithuania, and the list said they’d processed 162 books. I can identify 108 of them. It’s unbelievable that we could’ve ended up with almost 70 percent of one person’s library, but we did. I get emotional about it, and Kathy does, too.”

The man’s name was Mordehai ben Rabbi Josef Kerimer, and Kowno, Lithuania, still exists today, though its population comprises different groups of people. Thanks to survivor accounts from the town, Nielsen was able to find out exactly what happened to the rabbi.

Early on in the war, the Nazis took over Kowno and forced the Jews of the newly-formed ghetto to dig a long trench in front of a building called the Ninth Fort. For weeks, they dug this trench until, in one of the so-called “Great Actions” by the Nazis, nearly 10,000 of those Jews—including thousands of children—were marched to the fort and killed, having dug the hole into which their bodies fell.

“He was among them. We know exactly when he died,” Nielsen says. “The Nazis did it in front of this building simply so that the dead bodies would fall into the trench. They just bulldozed over the dirt. A lot of the names I have were among the ones killed that night.”

The future of the books

Up to this point, the books have been mostly an academic pursuit for Nielsen and Peiss. They don’t have plans to reunite them into some sort of exhibit, nor are there the resources—or the appetite, frankly—to seek out every one that arrived at the University this way; the Katz Center houses 250,000 books, so that would be a monumental undertaking.

One possibility is a virtual catalogue, like one created by the Library of Congress to identify books received from JCR. “When these books came to the United States and went to different institutions, for the most part, they were folded into the general collections,” Peiss says. “At a minimum, having a way to identify them as a collection of looted books that has historical meaning would be an important step for Penn to take.”

I want to find a way of honoring their memories. I just feel like when I have a name or names, I want to do what I can to lift those names up. archivist Bruce Nielsen, Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies

She also mentions there’s currently a worldwide movement to restitute books, particularly those from eastern Europe, which were handled with less care than those from western Europe. When JCR first began, the organization aimed to reconstruct what Peiss calls “the larger communal culture of a devastated community,” and in some cases, that superseded returning books to individuals. Couple that with Cold War politics and it’s likely that some items deserve a second look.

“It’s really important to try to do right by the people whose lives were uprooted and whose collections were taken in this way,” Peiss says.

Without question, Nielsen feels the same. He gets visibly upset talking about the books and though he doesn’t say so, it’s clear there’s a sense of uncertainty, even helplessness, in trying to figure how best to memorialize these individuals. “I want to find a way of honoring their memories,” he says. “I just feel like when I have a name or names, I want to do what I can to lift those names up.”

By their virtue, books are meant to tell stories. But insight from these items that have traveled great distances and survived turmoil goes beyond the words on their pages. They offer a glimpse into a different time in history and into the lives of people who suffered the unthinkable and who we may have otherwise never known.

Historic photos courtesy of The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

Bruce Nielsen is the Judaic public services librarian and archivist at the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

Kathy Peiss is the Roy F. and Jeannette P. Nichols Professor of American History in the Department of History in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.

Homepage photo: Archivist Bruce Nielsen among the stacks at the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies.