The Berlin Central and Regional Library has handed back ten books and three journal volumes stolen by the Nazis to the Berlin Jewish community. They were discovered among more than 200,000 volumes being examined by researchers as part of a project to establish their origin, with a focus on restitution. One of the books is from noted author Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and dates back to 1890. There is also a travel guide to Palestine from 1934 and a book on Jewish history "from the destruction of the First Temple to the present," that was published in 1913. Though experts say none of the books have significant monetary value, they offer a sobering glimpse of the country's history.
The German government has pledged to redouble its efforts to return cultural treasures plundered from Jews by the Nazis. German Culture Minister Bernd Neumann said: "The 13 books being returned today preserve the memory of the Berlin Jewish community which was decimated and its members murdered or driven out. That is why such projects are so important now and in the future."
The books returned at the event, which was held in the Centrum Judaicum cultural center at Berlin's New Synagogue, included 19th and 20th century novels, history books, poetry collections, travel guides and bound newspaper volumes. The pages bore fading stamps such as 'Jewish Reading Room and Library Berlin' or 'Jewish Community-Boys School Berlin'.
Many of the stamps had been simply covered over for more than six decades with the label of a German state institution. Although their monetary value is negligible, the returned books symbolize a commitment to systematically account for the countless cultural objects stolen by the Nazis, said the head of the Berlin Jewish community, Lala Süsskind. "This handover reminds us all that even after all these years, injustice has no statute of limitations," she said.
Jewish households, community centers and schools were routinely looted by the Nazis and thousands of books were burned. Some, however, were spared and archive records show that more than 40,000 looted books were sold to the Berlin Central and Regional Library in 1943. The library said the origin of about 200,000 of its volumes needed to be researched.
About 25,000 books have been investigated in the last 10 years and 5,100 of them categorized as likely stolen under the Nazis, who systematically looted Jewish homes, businesses, synagogues, schools and community centers. Those books that were not torched or lost often found their way to German libraries. More than 100 books have now been returned to their rightful owners but the library estimates it will take another 10 years to complete the detective work.
Annette Gerlach, who is spearheading the recovery efforts at the state library, described the case of Holocaust survivor Walter Lachmann, who now lives in California and was handed back a schoolbook given to him at Hanukkah in 1937 just three years ago.
After the book was recovered, a German magazine featured it prominently in an article about restitution efforts. A rabbi read the story and asked whether the book could be Lachmann's. His daughter came to Berlin to reclaim the volume, her father's only surviving memento from his German childhood, and Lachmann hopes to travel to the German capital himself later this year, Gerlach told AFP.
The Culture Ministry and the cultural foundation of the 16 German states contribute EUR 1.2 million (US$ 1.7 million) per year to provenance research.
Neumann said great progress had been made in the last three years, with 100 art historians in Germany now working full time on the issue, but called on the regional states to step up the investigation of their own holdings. "Too little time, effort and funds were committed to provenance research in the past for items stolen under the Nazis," he said. "That had to change.
Berlin's Free University said Wednesday it would begin the world's first degree program dedicated to researching the provenance of art works and cultural objects.
At a conference in Washington in 1998, 44 countries pledged to report cultural holdings stolen by the Nazis and not returned and identify their rightful owners. Germany made the same commitment the next year.