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Contexts of Nazi looting

From the perspective of provenance research, it becomes clear how dynamic the circulation of books can be. Particularly in the case of looted property, it is much more difficult to trace the changes of position and ownership of objects, as in times of persecution and destruction, people often act arbitrarily and documents are also lost or deliberately destroyed. If we compare the books that we have identified at the HfJS as Nazi-looted property with the sparse surviving sources, we can trace the movements described here. The majority of the books in question come from the estate of Rabbi Emil Davidovič and are connected to the "Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia". We can expect to find many other withdrawal contexts that are currently beyond our grasp, including the distribution of books to other academic and non-academic institutions in the "Protectorate" that was brought into line. The transition shown in this chart from the blue to the red fields illustrates the changing ownership and powers of disposal from legal ownership to loss through theft.

Selected contexts of looting in the "Protectorate"

After the establishment of the "Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia", the National Socialists continued their politically legitimized plundering and persecution of alleged enemies of the state. The deportation of the Jewish population and those people who were considered Jewish according to Nazi ideology meant that all of their assets ended up in the hands of the occupying forces. The properties that were freed up as a result were initially sealed and later cleared out, cleaned and refurnished. The so-called Treuhandstelle (trustee offfice) in Prague was set up specifically for this purpose, where several hundred Jews had to carry out these and other tasks. Depots were set up in several halls and houses across the city, where the looted household goods were sorted and stored - from vacuum cleaners to preserving jars. Among other things, these household goods were used to furnish empty apartments of various quality levels to make them available to Nazi functionaries, for example. By the end of 1943, more than 1.3 million books had also ended up in the Treuhandstelle, which were reappropriated by other agencies and individuals. Among the beneficiaries were not only Nazi functionaries and antiquarian booksellers, who were able to help themselves cheaply, but possibly also public institutions. The Jewish Museum in Prague, which continued to operate under duress, also specifically requested books. Thanks to the numbers noted in some books and the inventory lists still preserved in Prague, we can also clearly identify books in the library of the HfJS that were transferred from the Treuhandstelle to the Jewish Museum in Prague. 

One of the reasons that prompted the initiators of the Prague Museum in 1906 to establish a collection of Hebraica and Judaica from Bohemia and Moravia was the rural exodus of the Jewish population in the preceding decades. As a result, a number of rural synagogues were abandoned and their inventory was to be saved in order to preserve the objects and their traditional history. However, several synagogues and prayer rooms in Prague itself also fell victim to urban redevelopment and their inventory was also to be preserved in a central place of remembrance. After the German occupation of the Sudeten territories and the internationally tolerated "destruction of the rest of the Czech Republic" ("Zerschlagung der Rest-Tschechei"), the still young democracy came under German control in 1939. Events that had not yet been fully clarified led the National Socialists to support the continued operation of the institution, which was now renamed the "Jewish Central Museum". It is possible that this decision did not originate in Berlin, but was made by local functionaries. It is likely that some people who had previously been associated with the museum played a significant role in this. Especially with the onset of deportations from the Protectorate, it was obvious that countless cultural assets from private households or Jewish communities would be lost if they were not taken care of. As a result, the forced laborers in the museum incorporated thousands and thousands of objects, especially books, prints, paintings and files, into the museum's collection. This constellation, unique in the Nazi era, led to the hardly expected result that the majority of this collection is still preserved today. Some of the museum's employees also left their libraries to the museum when the threat of deportation seemed unavoidable. These included Dr. Tobias Jakobovits and Dr. Moses Woskin-Nahartabi, who played a key role in the organization of the "Central Museum". Like almost all of the museum's employees, they were murdered in Auschwitz.

We know of these "consignors" of the books by name from the surviving entry lists of the "Central Museum". However, these could also be synagogue congregations or the Treuhandstelle. If we find the latter as proof of origin in the books, it is impossible to assign them to the original owners according to current knowledge. In such cases, it is only plausible that the books came from a household in the "Protectorate" that was declared Jewish. It is uncertain whether the museum employees had any information about the actual owners. They only received Judaica and Hebraica from the Treuhandstelle, which means that they must have been selected by specialist staff. It was also possible to assign the books to their owners on the basis of the ownership notes, provided they had not all been erased at the Treuhandstelle, which was also done there. 

One matter that has not yet been fully clarified concerns books from the rabbinical seminary in Budapest, some of which also ended up in the Heidelberg library and have since been restituted. According to several testimonies, Adolf Eichmann had around 3,000 volumes confiscated from the seminary after the German invasion of Hungary in 1944 and possibly taken to the "Protectorate". In the 1970s, volumes from Budapest were identified for the first time in the looted collections of the Prague Jewish Museum and later returned. Whether the books were taken directly to the museum in 1944 or were initially stored elsewhere remains to be seen. As the books contain no traces of processing from this period, they appear to have only been stored for the time being until, after the end of the war, they became part of the unmanageable mass of books for which the Jewish Museum served as a depository and for many of which it still serves today.

With the establishment of the Prague State Police Headquarters in 1939, Nazi terror became institutionalized for the city and the surrounding area and was felt in all areas of life. It was certainly often involved in the theft of books, but there are mainly indirect references to this.

A "Central Office for Jewish Emigration" ("Zentralstelle für Jüdische Auswanderung") was set up as an SS office specifically for the confiscation and administration of assets and properties belonging to Jews. Its employees also acted in the interests of "enemy research" and were instructed to confiscate books and files that appeared worthy of collection for this discipline.

The Gestapo made at least one direct reference to confiscated material from Jewish property, namely from the Prague lodges of the "International Order of B'nai B'rith". Since the order from Berlin was not only to confiscate "Jewish libraries", but also from the broadly defined area of Freemasonry, the confiscation by the Prague Gestapo seemed to be aimed at this area. We only learn of this through the surviving files of the Munich NSDAP main archives ("NSDAP Haupt-Archiv"). Two of its employees were sent to Prague in the fall of 1939 to search the lodge's holdings for useful material and they made lists of it. Very few books identified to date (in the HfJS and in the Berlin State Library) bear witness to this change of ownership: they show the stamp of Prague lodges and also the stamp imprint "NSDAP-Hauptarchiv", which was later immortalized in them.

For thousands of people, Theresienstadt was a stop on the way to the death camps. Nevertheless, the sealed-off city was to be given the appearance of a functioning community, both internally and externally, which was under the so-called "Jewish self-administration". In fact, an extensive organizational structure was created under the supervision of the "Council of Elders of the Jews" to ensure that the inmates were provided for as far as the resources were available. Above all, shortages were managed. The death rate was extremely high due to forced labor, malnutrition and the catastrophic hygienic conditions. The main task of the Council of Elders was to react: to the daily instructions from the site commandant's office, to the unpredictable arrival of further transports and the resulting impossibility of accommodating everyone, and to the equally unpredictable announcements to select prisoners for the transports "to the East" in the shortest possible time.

The demand for literature was high and reading was a way to alleviate existential fears for a moment. But educational material was also needed for the forbidden and therefore secretly conducted schooling of the children. The libraries were mainly stocked with books that the deportees had in their luggage and which were taken from them at the entry checkpoint. There are also indications that "Jewish books" were to be sent to the camp from the Prague Trusteeship Office. However, it is not clear whether the library itself or the independent book processing group (Bucherfassungsgruppe) was to receive the books. A third source was deliveries (approx. 40,000 volumes) from Berlin in February 1943, which consisted of holdings from liquidated Jewish institutions in the German Reich, such as the Jewish Community in Berlin, the Berlin Hochschule/Lehranstalt für die Wissenschaft des Judentums or the Breslau Rabbinical Seminary.

We can find books from all of these pre-provenances on the shelves of the HfJS. As in civilian life, there were a number of different libraries in Theresienstadt: medical, technical, youth libraries, a Hebraica collection, a traveling library and finally the large ghetto library with the so-called People's Reading Hall, some of whose stamps can be found in our books. The ghetto library was managed by Dr. Emil Utitz and the specialist staff included Hugo Friedmann, Käthe Starke-Goldschmidt, Mela Riesenfeld, Else Menken and Juliane Mansbacher. The director of the Volkslesehalle was probably Dr. Malvine Friedmann from Vienna. Some evidence suggests that a library catalog was being worked on, but there are hardly any tangible references to a classification system in the books themselves.

In the surviving documents, we find this organizational unit of the camp referred to as the book processing group ("Bucherfassungsgruppe") or "Group M". The term Talmudkommando/Talmudhundertschaft was probably of an unofficial nature. This unit does not appear in the organizational charts of the Theresienstadt "self-administration". It is unlikely that the number of staff in the book collection group is reflected in the libraries, but a special status is more probable: after the Grumach group in the Berlin RSHA was dissolved, its activities were continued in Theresienstadt with different personnel. It was therefore not assigned to the unit “Freizeitgestaltung” ("recreational activities"). The premises were located outside the fortress complex (Südstraße 5). A similar status as a unit which received its specifications from Berlin we can attribute to the “Sippenforschung” in Theresienstadt managed by Dr. Jabob Jacobson, the former head of the “Gesamtarchiv der deutschen Juden”.

Strictly speaking, it was not a library. Rather, it was a place that was supplied with books, which were processed there. Jewish specialists unpacked the books, cataloged them and apparently packed them up again. We have not yet been able to find any contemporary document that indicates either that these were deliveries from Berlin or whether and where books were prepared for shipment. The Heidelberg books that we can assign to the group are exclusively Hebraica, which were signed Jc.

The corresponding catalog cards have been preserved in Prague and are available in digitized form, so that presumed books can be easily assigned. In the course of these investigations, we were also able to assign books that had been deposited in the LCA database by the Potsdam University Library to the Terezín catalog. According to the current state of knowledge, the books processed by the book acquisition group originate not only from the library of the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, but also from the libraries of the Berlin Jewish Community and the Berlin Rabbinical Seminary. The identification of further institutions that were forced to hand over items is to be expected. After the end of the war, thousands of Jc books were also distributed. The majority were shipped from Prague (where many of them are still located) to Jerusalem, where they can still be found today in the National Library. Duplicate copies from there were transferred to the Leo Baeck Institute in Jerusalem, where they were also transferred, so that books also found their way into the antiquarian book trade. The Jewish Theological Seminary in Cincinnati houses further Jc books, and there are also copies in other collections of the HfJS. In order to better understand the distribution channels, it is essential to record the signatures and publish them. Our references to these and other signatures should help other institutions to clarify the provenance of their old collections.

In addition to the above-mentioned Dr. Moses Woskin-Nahartabi and Dr. Tobias Jacobovits, the staff members of the book registration group also include Franz Fischhof, Otto Muneles, Rabbi Albert Schön, Isaak Leo Seeligmann, Willi Pless, Jakob Rand, Jenny Wilde and Wilhelm (Zeev) Scheck. There has not yet been an in-depth study of this work unit, nor is there an overview of the people involved, although this could be reconstructed from the archives of the Jewish Museum in Prague.

Soon after taking office (1939) as the new rector of the German Charles University in Prague, Wilhelm Saure made plans to institutionalize so-called Eastern Studies in Bohemia and Moravia. An institution closely linked to the university was to deal as comprehensively as possible with Slavic culture, language, history and geographical aspects of the region in question. Ultimately, the aim was to develop arguments and methods to prepare for the Germanization of the region. After Reinhard Heydrich was appointed deputy Reichsprotekor in Prague in 1941, he appointed the ethnologist Hans Joachim Beyer, who had previously worked in Poznan, to continue the planning for the future research facility and attached it to the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA). After the fatal assassination attempt on Heydrich in May 1942, he gave his name to the institution, which operated as a foundation.

One of the areas linked to the foundation was the Oriental Institute, which was headed by the Arabist and Semitist Adolf Grohmann. Grohmann also taught at the university and, like his colleagues, was keen to incorporate as many thematically relevant libraries as possible for the foundation and the university. The institute was also to deal with Bohemian and Moravian Jewry. A trip by Grohmann to Moravian Ostrava in March 1941 to inspect a "Jewish library comprising 4,000 volumes" is documented. This reference suggests that other attempts were also made to acquire liquidated Jewish libraries in the "Protectorate" for the institute and the university.