It was in July 1961. I was working part-time in the Jewish books department in the Manchester Central Library in England, preparing a catalog for the library’s books. One day I happened to come across a book in Hebrew bearing a swastika stamp inside a round stamp with the German eagle. That’s how I discovered some 3,000 books that were stored in 10 large wooden crates in the basement of the library building.
It turned out that those books were a small part of a collection of millions of books that the Germans confiscated throughout Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II. Most of the books bore a swastika stamp, and another one stated: “The Reich Institute for Researching the History of the New Germany and Studying the Jewish Problem.” This institute was part of an “education plan” that was designed to prepare the Final Solution and establish an archive that would preserve the memory of the Jewish people who were to be destroyed.
Some of the books bore the stamp of Offenbach am Main (Offenbach is a town near Frankfurt). Other books were stamped with “The Reich Office For the Study of the Jewish Problem, Frankfurt-am-Main.” Other stamps that I found were “Property of the Jewish Community of Berlin,” “Property of the Jewish Community of Hanover,” Koln, Koenigsberg, Frankfurt and others.
About half the books were in Yiddish: The books of Shalom Aleichem, Mendele Mocher Seforim, I. L. Peretz, and writers who wrote after the October Revolution, like Itzik Pfeffer, David Bergelson. M. Daniel and Peretz Markish. Some of the books were translations into Yiddish from various languages, such as an almanac for farmers and industrialists, and Communist propaganda books and books that attacked capitalism, religion and their “servants,” the rabbis.
There were also books in Hebrew, mainly sacred texts printed in the first half of the 20th century in Krakow, Kiev and Minsk. The propaganda books were printed in Moscow and Odessa, and some had stamps such as “The Workers’ Library in Kiev, 85 Komsomolka Street.”
It was clear that the books had gone through many hands. They had borrowing cards, theater tickets used as bookmarks, and so on. The cards of borrowed books were attached to the inner binding. Some of the books had handwritten notes in Yiddish and some notes were by the authors themselves. Those that were used as textbooks were identified according to grade, from first to eighth. The subjects of study were literature, mathematics, history, geography and mineralogy. All those books were in Yiddish. At the bottom of one of the crates there were fliers from the Communist Party inviting their “Ukrainian brothers” (the Jews) who participated in the revolution to cooperate with them.
In those crates I found about 1,000 ancient sacred texts in Hebrew that came from German libraries. They included books from the 17th and 18th centuries up to 1935, and were printed in Lisbon, London, Amsterdam and St. Petersburg. I also found textbooks in Hebrew, brochures from the Jewish National Fund and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and books by Haim Nahman Bialik, Shaul Tchernichovsky, David Frishman and Isaac Babel.
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The books in German discussed Judaism, culture, history, religion, customs and other topics. They included several translations of the Bible and several books about the history of Hebrew publishing. Here, too, I found books of propaganda, this time Nazi propaganda, as well as propaganda newspapers in German, French, Polish and Dutch from 1936.
Several periodicals were entitled “Know the Jew,” and contained articles that included antisemitic caricatures. One moving book was a beautifully bound volume that contained war letters of German Jewish soldiers who fell during World War I. The book was printed by the Organization of German Jewish Soldiers who Fought in the Ranks of the Reich. The first page contained the inscription: “We gave our lives for the Reich homeland.”
In the pages of the books I found official forms that were used to confiscate Jewish property. The form included an original and a copy, and the Jew’s name and address had to be filled in. In the center of the page was an empty space for a description of the details of the confiscated property and its price, and at the end, the signature of the confiscator. A copy of the form was apparently supposed to be given to the person from whom the property was confiscated – order must be preserved.
To this day it’s not clear how and when the books reached the basement of the Manchester library. The library journals had no records of receiving the shipment of crates and none of the library employees knew anything about it. Based on a newspaper that I found in one of crates labeled “The British Jewish committee for the aid of displaced persons from Germany” from 1947, I concluded that the books were brought that year and kept without inspection until 1961. It’s possible that the Jewish organization received the books and gave them to the Manchester library, which had a Jewish books department.
In recent years it was discovered that in Offenbach, Germany, the U.S. Army collected millions of books found stored in the building of IG Farben, the company that produced the gas for the extermination camps, in the city. Most of the books were sent to the United States and an effort was made to locate their owners. A substantial percentage was given to the U.S. Library of Congress.