(The following is a post by Ann Brener, Hebraic Area Specialist in the Library’s African and Middle Eastern Division.)They probably didn’t seem like treasures at the time. They were for the most part in fact rather ordinary: books for study, or for reading to children; posters about upcoming protests, hastily printed; newspaper articles and torn-out clippings. But they were singed by the fires of World War II, and that makes them precious to us today: precious as witnesses to the past, as symbols of hope, as testimony to that inner something that says “no” to tyranny.
The image to the right makes a good place to start, for it exemplifies the Nazi campaign not only against the Jewish people but against Jewish books and culture. We have all of us read about the burning of Jewish books under the Nazi regime, but not all the books were destined for the flames; some – and this may be one of them – were earmarked for the Nazi’s contemplated museum of “extinct Jewish culture.” The book seen here is a volume of the Mishna, the ancient Hebrew code of laws going back to Moses, and set down in written form probably during the early third century in the Land of Israel. Like all classic Jewish texts, the Mishna has been reprinted many times over the last 500 years; the one shown here was printed in 19th-century Berlin. In itself, therefore, the book is not too remarkable. A Nazi stamp, however, defaces its dignified title-page, evoking an entire narrative of horror as we wonder how, exactly, it was torn from some Jewish home, and imagine what must have happened to the book’s owners.
Another interesting piece, evocative of the days before the US entered the war, is this dual-sided English-Yiddish poster promoting a rally in New York in support of President Franklin Roosevelt and his “policy of all aid to Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and China.”
The poster, which was printed on behalf of the “Jewish Peoples Committee,” a pro-Communist organization, declares “The determination of all loyal Americans to smash the anti-Semites and the appeasers – the Lindberghs, Coughlins, and America First leaders – Hitler’s Fifth Column in America.” As an interesting aside, we note the refusal of David Dubinsky, president of the International Ladies Garment Union, to attend this rally because he viewed the sponsoring group as Communist controlled.Hebrew prayers for the wellbeing of reigning monarchs are a known genre throughout Jewish history, and the Hebraic Section holds a number of interesting examples, including prayers for Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor; for William of Orange, Stadtholder of the Netherlands; and for Muhammad Pasha, King of Tunisia in the late 19th century. The small broadside seen here falls into this same category yet is even more interesting for being a tribute to V-Day as well as a most unusual example of Jewish micrography – the art of creating shapes and images through the use of miniscule Hebrew letters. The “V” and the Jewish star are composed of the Hebrew text for the prayer הנותן תשועה (“He who brings salvation”), the standard prayer for the leader of any country in which the Jews are dwelling. The text reads in part: “[May He] who gives salvation to President Roosevelt and whose kingdom is everlasting, protect, increase, and raise up all of the officials of America, and [may] the King of Kings exalt them and lengthen their days in office.”
Like the first book discussed in this blog, the following book also bears an official stamp, and though not made by the Nazis, it too offers heartrending testimony to Nazi brutality. The book shown here is a Yiddish version of Kipling’s famous “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,” one of the many rare children’s books in the Hebraic Section of the Library of Congress. The lovely illustrations by the Russian Jewish artist Mark Epshtein exemplify the Avante-Garde style of art so popular in Russia during the 1920s. This book bears the label of JEWISH CULTURAL RECONSTRUCTION – an organization established in 1947 to collect and redistribute heirless Jewish cultural property found in the American Zone of Germany. Financed by the Jewish Restitution Successor Organization, it was centered first in Offenbach and later in Wiesbaden. Over a period of five years, this organization distributed thousands of heirless books and Torah Scrolls to institutions around the world, particularly in the US and Israel.
Given the magnitude of the destruction we glimpse even through the two books mentioned in this blog, it is not surprising to find that in the aftermath of the war, the survivors found very little to sustain their spiritual needs even after liberation. Europe, the cradle of Hebrew printing and the home of so many Hebrew printers over the centuries, could not even offer the survivors a single complete set of the Babylonian Talmud, one of the cornerstones of any Jewish library. And so, with the help of the United States Army, survivors in the American Zone in Germany decided to print one for themselves. The volume we see here comes from a complete edition of the Talmud created for Jewish survivors of the Holocaust living in what had formerly been concentration camps, and were now camps for Jewish DPs [“displaced persons”] under the auspices of the American Army.
The illustration at the bottom of the title page shows a Nazi labor camp lined with barbed wire; the image at the top portrays the sun rising over the Land of Israel. The title page is splashed with yellow, as though to proclaim to the world that the color that had once symbolized the Nazi “badge of shame” was now a symbol of Jewish pride for all to see.
On the verso of the title-page is a moving dedication written by the Rabbinic Organization in the American sector, and dedicated “to the United States Army, who played a major role in the rescue of the Jewish people from total annihilation. The Jewish DPs,” as the dedication goes on to say, “will never forget the generous impulses and the unprecedented humanitarianism of the American forces, to whom they owe so much.”
As do we all.