Off the Shelf: Saving Jewish culture – and books – after WWII

After World War II, the European Jewish community was left in shambles. In addition to their attempt to exterminate the Jewish people, the Nazis sought to destroy Judaism’s heritage: the buildings, books and ritual objects that helped sustain the religion. Fortunately for the future of Jewish culture, the Nazis soon realized that many Jewish books, manuscripts and artifacts had monetary value. Jewish private and public collections of Judaica were gathered officially, and unofficially, by the Nazi Party and individual German citizens. After the war, more than four million Jewish items were recovered. As Elisabeth Gallas documents in “A Mortuary of Books: The Rescue of Jewish Culture After the Holocaust” (New York University Press), the Allies wished to restore these works to their original owners or their heirs. However, the question arose about who should receive the collections from public Jewish libraries that no longer existed. What if a family had no heirs – if generations and branches of a family were completely destroyed? Gallas examines the Jewish organizations and individuals who worked from 1948-52 to decide what should be done with these spoils of war.
“A Mortuary of Books” is an incredible historical work that will benefit scholars in upcoming generations, partly because this is one aspect of post-Holocaust life that has not received much attention. The sheer amount of detail about the numerous Jewish organizations and officials featured is amazing, even though it does make this work difficult for the layperson. At times, I was tempted to stop reading because it seemed impossible to retain the material and distinguish between the different organizations. However, the moral and ethical questions raised kept me reading, as did my desire to learn about how the material was finally distributed. Other readers will be intrigued to learn that four major Jewish figures – Lucy Dawidowicz, Hannah Arendt, Salo W. Baron and Gershom Scholem – were involved with making decisions about these items, something that is not often explored in biographical works written about them.
To explain the importance of the items – particularly the books – that were confiscated by the Nazis, Gallas notes that “books and the written word always played an outstanding role in the construction of the Jewish collective self-understanding and identity.” The books also served as concrete reminders of Jewish history. Since Jews lived across the globe and had frequently had to move, written works – which could be easily carried – became part of a shared identity, no matter in which nation people lived.
Once the war was over, the distribution of items began. Some were returned to their original owners, which was the simplest solution, although one not available for a large number of items. Some books were loaned to Jews in displaced persons camps, although this was controversial since people questioned whether the books – including prayer books, other religious works and fiction in Hebrew and Yiddish – would ever be returned. However, this distribution was supported to help those in DP camps. The books served as a way for the residents of the camps to recapture their Jewish heritage and also served as teaching tools.
The original legal requirements for restitution of ownerless objects called for them to be returned to the country from which they are confiscated. Although that worked for some groups, Jewish organizations objected to rewarding countries that had persecuted Jews. For example, there were no objections to returning books to Jews in France and the Netherlands, or even giving the books to those governments for use by their Jewish citizens. However, material that had been confiscated from German and Austrian Jews would then have been given to Germany and Austria. Jewish groups found that highly objectionable because the countries would benefit from their crimes. At first, some organizations and people believed that the material could be used to help rebuild the Jewish communities in those countries. However, after learning the extent of the exterminations in the camps, that was considered an unacceptable solution.
The organizations then had to determine who should receive the books and artifacts. There was no immediate consensus. The main debate was between those who wanted the material to go to Israel and those who thought countries in the Americas should receive them. In addition, the Jewish population of Great Britain believed it should receive a share. The machinations and politics that accompanied what occurred are too complex to go into detail, but the final results were that each group received a portion of the artifacts. Gallas notes that the committees “distributed just under five hundred thousand books and between eight thousand and ten thousand ritual objects to institutions and committees across the world in an effort to ensure the continuity of Jewish cultural and spiritual life, foster the development of new centers of research and commemoration and the ongoing development of existing ones, and support community activities.” The assumption that Jewish culture would flourish is one taken for granted in contemporary times, particularly since the establishment of the state of Israel. Those working in Europe at that time can be excused for being more cautious in their view of the future.
Their work in Europe had different effects on the four major figures Gallas discusses. Although Baron and Scholem’s scholarly works did not focus explicitly on the Holocaust, the author believes their work in Europe did influence them: Baron and Scholem “applied themselves with tremendous energy to the promotion of institutions of higher learning and the strengthening of the Jewish cultural infrastructure. In different ways, they sought to establish these institutions in the US and Israel as successors to their European forerunners and were deeply invested in securing and nurturing the intellectual, spiritual legacy of the European past.” Their research – Scholem’s on mysticism and Baron’s multi-volume works on Jewish history – were their way of continuing this Jewish legacy.
Dawidowicz and Arendt’s later work focused on the Holocaust itself. Arendt is best known for her controversial “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” which was criticized for universalizing the Holocaust and showing Jews only as victims. Gallas believes too much attention has focused on this one work, rather than her previous, more nuanced looks at what occurred in Europe. Dawidowicz has written several works on the Holocaust, although “The War Against the Jews: 1933-1945” is considered her most important book. According to Gallas, she also sought to “keep traditions and narratives from the Yiddish realm alive.”
While “A Mortuary of Books” will most benefit the dedicated scholar, the ideas Gallas raises should be of interest to anyone interested in Jewish history. Her greatest success is her ability to make clear that Jewish culture was gravely threatened after World War II. She also shows how the efforts of individuals and organizations made it possible for Jewish books and artifacts to be given to those who would best use them to continue Judaism’s legacy.