An erudite exploration of the systematic plundering of libraries and book collections by Nazi invaders.
Looting books by mainly Jewish owners, collections, and libraries was an effective way of stealing Jewish memory and history, as this thorough work of research by Swedish journalist and editor Rydell attests. From early bonfires of objectionable publications (by Thomas Mann and Stefan Zweig, among others) in Berlin in May 1933, staged by enthusiastic German student federations, to the desecration of synagogues and sacred texts on Kristallnacht to the methodical plundering of libraries in occupied areas during the war, Rydell ably delineates the spiraling destruction, city by city: Berlin, Munich, Amsterdam, Paris, Rome, Thessaloniki, Vilnius, Prague, etc. The Nazis believed libraries needed to be “cleaned up” and “un-German” literature destroyed—i.e., “degenerate,” “Communist,” Free Mason, and “Jewish” works. As the author emphasizes, however, the Nazis were not anti-intellectual; on the contrary, they were building a whole new “intellectual being, who did not base himself on values such as liberalism and humanism, but rather on his nation and race.” The most valuable books (e.g., antique and medieval works) were claimed by chief Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg’s plundering organization, ERR, which grew into a frightening international organization focused on confiscating “thoughts, memories, and ideas” and enlisted intellectuals and academics as librarian foot soldiers. Rydell considers the millions of volumes confiscated, such as the priceless Yiddish library in Vilnius, essentially the repository for Ashkenazi history and culture. In the “model” concentration camp Theresienstadt, Hebrew scholars were saved from immediate murder by being forced to catalog the thousands of confiscated books in what was called the Talmud Command. Rydell visited many of the rehabilitated libraries (which are still sorting the stolen books), and he traces some of the volumes that have since been returned, such as a cherished book belonging to Berliner Richard Kobrak, deported with his wife to the gas chambers in Auschwitz in 1944.
An engrossing, haunting journey for bibliophiles and World War II historians.