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Out of the Ashes: Jewish Cultural Reconstruction and its Legacy at the Library of Congress

(The following is a post by Ann Brener, Hebraic Specialist, African and Middle Eastern Division.)

A book label showing a design of Star of David surrounded by Hebrew text. English caption reads: "Jewish Cultural Reconstruction."

Figure 1. Jewish Cultural Reconstruction label.

For decades now, the Hebraic Section has been home to some 2,300 Hebrew and Yiddish books saved quite literally from the ashes of World War II. These books are a quiet lot: modest editions of classic Jewish titles; pamphlets dealing with ordinary aspects of everyday life; periodicals reflecting the incredible flowering of Hebrew and Yiddish culture across Europe in the years just before the Holocaust. They sit on the shelves with the rest of our collections, no different from any of the other books apart from one small label carefully pasted into each one, imprinted with a blue Star of David and the words Jewish Cultural Reconstruction in Hebrew and English. These are the books which reached the Library of Congress following the holocaust of European Jewry.

*  *  *

At the end of World War II, Europe was awash in Nazi loot Jewish and otherwise, and as the scope of Nazi plundering became increasingly clear, the US Army set up a central collecting point in Offenbach, Germany to try and restore the property to its original owners. The Offenbach Archival Depot, as it came to be known, was placed directly under the supervision of the now famous Land Monuments Offices and given first priority for restitution efforts. Colonel Seymour J. Pomrenze (1915-2011), the first director of the Offenbach Archival Depot, faced a daunting task, and in later years he recorded his initial impressions of the site following his first visit in February 1946:

My first impressions of the Offenbach collecting point were overwhelming and amazing at once. As I stood before a seemingly endless sea of crates and books, I thought what a horrible mess! Beyond the mess, however, was an even larger mission. Indeed, the only action possible was to return the items to their owners as quickly as possible.” (Pomrenze, 1998)

A scene of piles of books. Caption reads: "The initial step in the Depot operations. Books and other archival material as they arrive in the Depot."

Figure 2. Offenbach Archival Depot, 1946. Original caption handwritten in photo. Image courtesy of the National Archives, Ardelia Hall Collection: Offenbach Photographs. Image no. 232550426.

The Offenbach Depot ultimately served as the collecting point for more than 3 million looted cultural items. Restitution efforts were often successful, with entire caches taken from libraries across Europe found intact in marked crates and then shipped back to their original owners. Figure 3, for example, shows the repatriation of Soviet books found in the American Zone at the end of World War II, at the start of their journey from the Offenbach Depot.

Three men standing in front of a train.

Figure 3. Offenbach Archival Depot, 1946. Original caption handwritten in photo. Image courtesy of the National Archives, Ardelia Hall Collection: Offenbach Photographs. Image no. 232550494. Conferring with the two Soviet officers is Captain Isaac Benkowitz, second Director of the Offenbach Archival Depot.

The burning question, however, was what to do with the countless items that had clearly been looted from Jewish homes and synagogues? Their owners, if they were even known, had probably been murdered, and many of the items bore no ownership marks at all. According to international law, plunder such as this was supposed to be returned to the countries from which they came, but clearly, this was a solution world Jewry could not accept. And so the organization known as Jewish Cultural Reconstruction (JCR) was established to serve as a trustee for those items that could not be returned. In 1949, the American military government recognized JCR as the sole agency for collecting and distributing these heirless items to libraries and institutions across the globe.

By 1952, JCR had distributed some half a million books and objects of a Jewish nature: 40% to institutions in Israel, 40% to the United States, and the rest to other countries around the world. In the United States, JCR distributed some 160, 000 books. First priority was for institutions of a Jewish nature, large and small. Second priority went to non-Jewish institutions with important Jewish holdings. The Library of Congress belonged to this second tier of priorities. It received a total of 5, 708 books (Herman, “Hashevat Avodah”). Approximately 2,300 of these books were written in Hebrew or Yiddish and these went to the Hebraic Section of the Library of Congress, where they were given the book label recommended by Jewish Cultural Reconstruction. Some, though not all, of these books were catalogued by 1952 but the catalogue entries did not reflect their special provenance. In other words, you might find a book with the JCR label by chance in the Hebraic Section, but you would not find it by looking in the card catalogue.

Book cover of "Plunder and restitution: the U.S. and Holocaust Victims' Assets."

Figure 4. The Report of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States. December 2000.

Over the past several decades, the Hebraic Section has done much to remedy this situation and ensure the integrity of the collection. In 1999, the section took part in a special Presidential Advisory Commission designed to address concerns that some Holocaust-era assets in American institutions might have slipped through the restitution process (PL 105-186). The Commission received unanimous bipartisan vote in the U.S. Congress and was signed into law by then President Bill Clinton. In 1999, the Commission sent a team into the Hebraic Section, checking shelf by shelf for any books from Nazi-occupied Europe that might bear some trace of former ownership. Of the nearly 2,300 books this team found from Nazi-occupied Europe, no ownership marks came to light, and on December 5, 2000, the Commission presented its official report, “Plunder and Restitution,” to the President of the United States. The full report is now available online via the Hathi Trust.

Following the Commission’s report, the Library also created The Holocaust-Era Judaic Heritage Library, a virtual online library to highlight the special provenance of these books. Each title in this virtual library has a full bibliographic record as well as information relating to the provenance of each specific item. To date, there are some 1,600 separate titles in this database, but some of these titles include multiple volumes or issues. This fact goes a long way in reconciling the number of nearly 2,300 in the Commission’s report, because it was counting every individual volume.

*  *  *

Jewish Cultural Reconstruction ended up with some 500, 000 items in its custody: Torah scrolls and Jewish ritual objects; printed books and manuscripts in Hebrew or Yiddish, or in European languages on subjects pertaining to Judaism. 6,000 of these items were designed as “rare,” and of these, the Library of Congress received 107. The term “rare,” however, deserves a caveat. We are not talking here about valuable first editions or illuminated manuscripts. JCR appears to have given the term “rare book” almost entirely to anything printed before 1860, probably not the best criterion in the case of Hebrew books. But these 6,000 books printed before 1860 constituted just over 1% of the 500, 000 books in JCR custody, and in that sense they were rare. But only in that sense. When speaking of these 107 titles, therefore, it might be best to talk in terms of “earlier” imprints.

A page from one of the JCR Rare Book Lists.

Figure 5. Sample page from one of the JCR Rare Book Lists showing two of the titles chosen by the Library of Congress. Image courtesy of Stanford University Archives.

Be this as it may, JCR created Rare Book Lists and then invited the recipient libraries to select the books they wanted according to pre-determined quotas. These lists are found in the papers of Salo W. Baron (1895-1989), who headed the organization. On these lists, someone penned LC next to the titles chosen by the Library of Congress (Fig. 5). Most of the 107 titles chosen from these Rare Book Lists were printed during the 18th and 19th centuries. Ten date from the 17th century and only two from the 16th century. There are no incunabula among them, and no manuscripts, illuminated or otherwise.

The 107 books which JCR designated “rare” may not, therefore, be the rarest books in the Hebraic Section, nor are they really the stand-alone treasures that most visitors would choose to see. But we treasure them. They give greater depth to our collections, adding a different edition of a title we already own (Fig. 6):

Two book pages with Hebrew text.

Figure 6. מחזור ליום ראשון ושני של סוכות [Prayer Book for First and Second Nights of Sukkot]. Amsterdam, 1828. Offenbach Depot stamp; JCR label pasted on inside cover.

Or perhaps they provide the missing volume in a series of books or newspapers. In Fig. 7, for example, we see how a book received via JCR fills in the gap of a multi-volume set from the collected writings of Hebrew writer David Frischmann (1859-1922).

A picture of a set of Hebrew books.

Figure 7. כל כתבי דוד פרישמן [The Collected Writings of David Frischmann.] Hebrew. Warsaw, 1913. JCR label pasted on inside cover of special housing.

A page from a Hebrew children's book with text and an illustration of a little girl.

Figure 8. ריקי-טיקי-טאווי [Yiddish translation of Rudyard Kipling’s Rikki-Tikki-Tavi]. Kiev, 1924. JCR label pasted on inside cover.

Or maybe they even provide a welcome touch of Russian avant-garde, as this Yiddish translation of Kipling’s “Riki-Tiki-Tavi” does for our collection of rare children’s books:

In fulfilling these functions, perhaps the books also fulfill the goals of the organization that gave them to us and contribute to Jewish cultural reconstruction after the Holocaust in the best, most fundamental way.

Learn More:

  • The quotation from Colonel Seymour J. Pomrenze comes from his “Personal Reminiscences of the Offenbach Archival Depot, 1946-1949.” November 30, 1998. The text is available in full at the United States Holocaust Museum.
  • Figures 2 and 3 are only two of several thousand images documenting the work at the Offenbach Depot between 1946-1951. The albums containing these images (and their handwritten captions) are preserved in the National Archives as part of the Ardelia Hall Collection: Offenbach Photographs. These albums have been digitized in their entirety and are freely accessible.
  • There is a considerable research on Jewish Cultural Reconstruction and its work of restitution. Perhaps the best of these publications is “Hashevat Avodah: A History of Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Inc.,” a Ph.D. thesis written by Dana Herman of McGill University in 2008 under the supervision of Gershon David Hundert. This highly detailed and well-documented study is available online. The information regarding the distribution numbers comes from the JCR records held in Stanford University Archives (M580/232/10, SSC) and is cited on pp. 261-263 in “Hashevat Avodah.
  • Plunder and Restitution, the report issued by the Presidential Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States, was published in December 2000. It is freely available courtesy of the Hathi Trust.

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