The images are indelible: large bonfires fueled by books with Nazi soldiers and citizens tossing them into the flames.
Flames, of course, do not destroy information or ideas, and the Nazis understood this as well as anyone. That’s why the Nazis stole far more books than they burned.
Libraries of Jewish families who fell under the Nazi terror were major targets of this massive theft, but they were not the only ones. Nazis looted the libraries of dissenters and occupied countries. Many Nazis understood the value of books. Many, such as Heinrich Himmler, were book collectors.
Getting those books back to their rightful owners or to places that deserve them has been a multi-generational task that is continuing today. This recently published New York Times article by Milton Esterow outlines some of those efforts:
Given the scope of the looting, the task ahead remains mountainous. In Berlin, for example, at the Central and Regional Library, almost a third of the 3.5 million books are suspected to have been looted by the Nazis, according to Sebastian Finsterwalder, a provenance researcher there.
“Most major German libraries have books stolen by the Nazis,” he said. But researchers say there are signs they may be on the brink of making measurable progress in restitutions.
In the last 10 years, for example, libraries in Germany and Austria have returned about 30,000 books to 600 owners, heirs and institutions, according to researchers. In one instance in 2015, almost 700 books stolen from the library of Leopold Singer, an expert in the field of petroleum engineering, were returned to his heirs by the library of the Vienna University of Economics and Business. Source: The Hunt for the Nazi Loot Still Sitting on Library Shelves – The New York Times
Much has been made in recent years about the efforts to restore artwork stolen by the Nazis. More attention should be paid to the work in restoring stolen books to their rightful places. This article is a good start.
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