Don’t let the name fool you! Alfred Rosenberg was no Jew but the half-witted official philosopher of the Nazi Regime. He also served as the Reich Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories where his ruthless policies induced the conquered masses to hate Germany even more than they hated the Stalin regime, which took some doing. In July 1940, Rosenberg founded the Rosenberg Project (Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, ERR), whose goal was to amass books and cultural items of Germany’s enemies, Jewish or otherwise, to stock the shelves of museums and research centers. Rosenberg argued that once the Jews were gone, chas veshalom, a special museum of plundered seforim and Judaica loot would be a useful way to commemorate and justify their disappearance.
Since the initial Nazi book burning celebrated by the Nazis in May 1933, the Germans continued to take a fiendish joy in destroying Jewish books and seforim throughout the war.
“For us it is a matter of special pride to destroy the Talmudic Academy, which has been known as the greatest in Poland [Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin],” the Frankfurter Zeitung reported in March 1941.
“We threw out of the building the great Talmudic library and carted it to market. There we set fire to the books. The fire lasted for twenty hours. The Jews of Lublin were assembled around and cried bitterly. The cries almost silenced us. Then we summoned a military band, and the joyful shouts of the soldiers silenced the sounds of Jewish cries.”
In tandem with the Nazi war against Jewish books, Rosenberg founded a project to amass a huge library of Jewish books and Judaica art into a world library that would present the ideological basis for Nazi anti-Semitism and commemorate the destroyed enemy. In 1940, Hitler instructed Rosenberg to seize “all scientific and archival materials from the ideological foe.” Hohe Schules (schools of high learning) were established to store and study them. One school in Hamburg was for colonial research, another in Halle was for religion, a school in Kiel studied Lebensraum (Germany’s duty and necessity to conquer living space), another school in Stuttgart studied biology and race, while the Institute for Research on the Jewish Question (IEJ) was opened in Frankfort by Rosenberg in March 1941.
“In the New Order of European Organization,” Rosenberg boasted, “the library for the Jewish Question not only for Europe but for the world will arise in Frankfort.”
Books deemed fit to keep were sent to Frankfort where Jewish scholars sorted and catalogued them. Even though most books ended up being used for paper production or other purposes, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of books were collected, leading the Nazis to boast that their collection of Jewish books would comprise the largest Jewish library in the world. As Allied bombing of Germany increased towards the end of the war, huge quantities of books were moved from Germany to conquered territories or stored underground and vast numbers of them were destroyed in the bombing.
Rosenberg’s workers followed Nazi armies on their conquests to be ready to pounce upon the spoils. First, they plundered the cultural treasures of France where Hitler had authorized stealing from Jews, Masons, and other enemies of the Reich. Financially, the ERR’s greatest crime was art theft. Trainloads of paintings, antique furniture, carpets, tapestries, and suchlike were hauled to Germany to add to its museums and grace the private collections and homes of its corrupt leaders.
In January 1941, The New York Times reported that the Nazis were robbing not only Jewish and Masonic books, but French libraries as well.
“The latest advices from authentic neutral sources said that the Gestapo had seized the libraries of all the Masonic organizations in France,” the paper said. “The Biliotheque Nationale (the French National Library) there upon put in a claim for these books, but the latest word was that the Germans declined to hand them over, saying the material would be sent to Germany for purposes of study. The library of the Alliance Israelite in Paris, worth several million francs, also was said to have been seized and sent to Germany. From the Biliotheque Nationale- one of the world’s leading libraries- the Germans were reported to have received an inventory of manuscripts, rare books and similar material that had been stored elsewhere in France for security during the war.”
By April 1941 Rosenberg’s team had followed the army into the Balkans where they confiscated vast amounts of books and Judaica from the ancient Salonika kehillah. The team was directed by Dr. Johannes Pohl, director of the Hebrew Department of the Nazi Institute for Jewish Research in Frankfort. Although Rosenberg was head of the organization, its daily operations were headed by Dr. Pohl who had visited Palestine during the 30s under a false name to study Judaica at the Hebrew University. In addition to writing a book about the Talmud, he contributed regular articles to the virulently anti-Semitic Der Sturmer magazine, and was an avid spokesman for what he described as Judenforschung ohne Juden, Jewish Studies without Jews.
Between May and November, over thirty officers and German academics of the Rosenberg Sonderkommandos visited 49 shuls and other communal buildings, and over sixty homes in Greece.
The greatest robbery of cultural items, books, and seforim was in Eastern Europe where units of twenty to twenty-five Rosenberg men in special uniforms accompanied armies to despoil Jewish and non-Jewish cultural items. In the process, they raided 375 archives, 402 museums, 31 institutes, and 957 libraries.
A week after the capture of Vilna, on June 24, 1941, a representative of the Rosenberg Detail, Dr. Gotthardt arrived there to collect information and initiate the robbery of its libraries. Every day, two scholars, Eliyahu Yankev Goldschmidt, and Chaikl Lunski, the legendary head of the Strashun library, were dragged from a Gestapo cell to a local library to compile lists of rare books.
After Dr. Pohl and three Judenforschung specialists arrived in February 1942, the work pace increased. Books and documents were hauled from Kovno, Shavle, Mariapol, Volozhin, and elsewhere. The famous 40,000 volume Strashun library established by the son of the Rashash, Rav Matisyahu Strashun, and other collections including that of the Gra’s kloyz, were sent to a local university for sorting. A second work site was established at the YIVO (Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut, Yiddish Scientific Institute) building that had the largest library of Vilna.
Workers dragged their feet to prolong the process and smuggled many books back into the ghetto. German officials, who knew nothing about seforim, often graded the significance of books on the stateliness of their binding.
Altogether, Dr. Pohl selected 20,000 books from among 100,000 seforim collected from the surrounding towns and shuls, while the 80,000 remaining seforim were sold to a paper factory for about twenty marks a ton. He also sold the lead printing blocks of the famous Rohm printing house as scrap metal.
In September 1943, twenty Rosenberg officials examined the Roman Shul’s two libraries that contained seforim collected for the past 2,000 years. Librarian Rosina Sorani wrote in her diary at the time: “They turned to me and told me that they had seen very well how many books there were in the libraries and in what order. They declared the library under sequester, that within a few days they would come to get the books and that all was to be as they left it; if not, I would have to pay with my life.”
Two full-sized freight cars were loaded with 10,000 of Rome’s priceless seforim and Judaica and carried off to Germany. Jews correctly guessed that the violation of their seforim was a prelude to their own murder. “The population is half crazy,” a foreign journalist wrote. “Young men and families look desperately for hiding places, get them, then look for a better one… convents and seminaries have become the most sought after hideouts. Another one is the lunatic asylum. People have entered and filled it to bursting point.”
Deportations began two days after the theft of the libraries on October 16, 1943.
After the war it was payback time. The Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section (MFA&A) of the American military government collected many of the looted seforim at the central Offenbach Archival Depository (OAD) outside Frankfurt am Main where officials processed over three million books and documents and tried to return them to their owners or countries of origin. Much of the Strashun Library ended up in the hands of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research’s Library in New York, where it is the backbone of its Vilna collection.
Communist dominated countries were less generous. In addition to the Rosenberg Project depredations, the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA) of the SS collected two-three million books about Nazi enemies, including churches, Freemasons, Marxists, and Jews. The RSHA sent many Jewish books to the Theresienstadt ghetto, about forty miles from Prague, where Jews catalogued almost 30,000 volumes of 200,000 books that passed through.
After the war, the Hebrew University Library of Yerushalayim was negotiating with the Czech government for the release of 42 boxes holding 16,218 Theresienstadt books and thought it had a deal until the government suddenly demanded a ransom to the tune of 936,736 korunas (Czech crowns). To get around this hurdle, University officials resorted to a little trickery, switching boxes of less valuable books with boxes of the Thieresienstadt shipment. After two shipments, all that remained in Prague were 42 boxes containing mostly duplicates of books from other places.
As late as May 2010, the Austrian National Library agreed to pay 135,000 euros ($164,000) for thousands of books in its possession looted by Nazis from Jews during World War II, books that had been determined heirless. This was after the national library decided, 48 years after the war, in 2003, to return 52,403 books to their rightful owners.
The fight to right the wrongs of the Rosenberg Project has never ceased. The world must be taught that looting doesn’t pay.
(Symposium proceedings Confiscation of Jewish Property in Europe, 1933–1945, Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The Holocaust and the Book, edited by Jonathan Rose, University of Massachusetts Press, 2001.)