'Monuments Men' Were Even More Heroic in Real Life

The movie touches on only some of the treasures the team recovered from the Nazis.

Unlike the characters played in the movie by George Clooney and his co-stars, the real-life "Monuments Men" recovered not only priceless European paintings looted by the Nazis, but also some 2.5 million books. These were volumes reflecting an "un-German spirit" that were stolen from European libraries, many of these destroyed, by Hitler's troops.

The New Yorker magazine reports that the Center for Jewish History in New York has mounted an online exhibit of stamps from the looted books that shows the breadth of the Nazi operation. The books were written by, or about, or were owned by Jews, Freemasons, Jesuits, Communists and other persecuted groups.

Books are essential for political and social life, the fundaments or pillars of culture, noted Falk Wiesemann, a retired professor of German and Jewish history at the Heinrich Heine University in Dusseldorf. If you destroy books, you are destroying a whole culture.

The head of the rescue operation was U.S. Army Col. Jacob Pomrenze, a Jew and an archivist who had immigrated from Ukraine to Chicago after his father was killed in a pogrom. A collection point was set up in Offenbach, near Frankfurt, and Pomrenze and his staff began going through freight cars filled with books written in dozens of languages that came in daily from the Nazi caches. The Nazis had planned to use the books to fill a new library that would "prove, in their ideology, that they were right, said F. T. Hoogewoud, a former librarian at the Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana in Amsterdam.

Working from the library stamps, bookplates and signatures in the books, staffers of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program (the so-called Monuments Men) determined – in most cases – the books' owners and returned them. The books whose owners could not be identified were usually sent to Jewish institutions in Israel and the United States.