Saving cultural property was central to postwar Jewish identity and recognition.
Throughout World War II, Jewish leaders around the world became horrified that Nazi looting of books, manuscripts, Torah scrolls, ritual objects, and documents would annihilate Jewish culture in Germany and Eastern Europe. In meticulous detail, drawing on archival sources, memoirs, correspondence, and histories, Gallas, chief research associate at the Leibniz Institute for Jewish History and Culture, makes an impressive book debut with a comprehensive history of efforts to recover, identify, and restore artifacts of Jewish culture and scholarship. The process was complex and sometimes contentious, generating debates about how to define the “Jewish collectivity”—as constituted through “the collective experience of persecution,” religious affiliation, or by territorial boundaries; how to give legal recognition to that collectivity; where European Jewries and their sociocultural worlds could be revived; and where—and under whose auspices—recovered property should be housed. Gallas focuses on four individuals who took prominent roles in the efforts: political theorist Hannah Arendt; rabbi and scholar Salo W. Baron, who held the first professorship of Jewish studies at Columbia and came to believe that Jewish communities could never be re-established in Europe; archivist and historian Lucy S. Dawidowicz, the daughter of Polish immigrants; and philosopher Gershom Scholem, who championed an Israeli state as the only home for Jewish culture. Offering capsule biographies of these key figures and extended examination of their efforts, Gallas notes that they “differed fundamentally in terms of their generation, background, self-image, and political vision” but “regarded their shared rescue mission as an existential duty.” All contributed actively to Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Inc., the most significant of many such organizations devoted to compiling detailed data about the recovered material. The result, writes the author, “was tantamount to the creation of an archive of documentation and remembrance.” Their work was imbued with emotion: “The smell of death,” Dawidowicz said, emanated from hundreds of thousands of books and objects, “orphaned and homeless mute survivors of their murdered owners.”
A fresh, significant contribution to Jewish history.