Mapping the Offenbach Archival Depot: A Collaborative Endeavor
by Melanie J. Meyers, M.S., Senior Reference Services Librarian, Special Collections, Center for Jewish History
As a reference librarian at the Center for Jewish History, one of my favorite items to show when I am asked to teach and lecture is a particular book from the YIVO Library. I choose this book—which is a history of the Jewish people in Russia, published in St. Petersburg circa 1877—because it contains four different stamps that denote ownership at various points in its history. It bears the mark of the owner who donated the book to the original YIVO library in the early 20th century, the mark of the YIVO library in Vilna, the stamp that shows Nazi confiscation during World War II, and the stamp of the YIVO library in New York (after it was repatriated here in the 1940s).
These four stamps tell an amazing and complex story of a book that made its way across war-torn Europe to finally find a home here in New York City. As a special collections librarian, I am fascinated by the path this plundered item took. It makes us consider questions that can help to frame a larger discussion of this particular chapter in book history. We often ask questions such as, who prints books, and why were certain books printed and not others? Who buys and sells them? Who collects them? But another question I think we need to add is, who steals them, and why?
It is common knowledge that Nazi forces looted cultural treasures from the countries they invaded and occupied. Paintings, sculptures, artifacts and anything that could be confiscated became the spoils of war. In addition, the violence of World War II and the incessant bombings that were overtaking the European continent destroyed locations of cultural significance. Museums, synagogues, churches, bridges and other buildings of historical import were frequently damaged and/or ruined by the ongoing military campaigns.
In an attempt to protect these valuable items and sites, the Allied commander, Dwight D. Eisenhower, issued a directive that was the first of its kind. It forbade looting, destruction and billeting of troops in structures deemed to be historically or culturally significant.
To assist in determining what was “culturally significant,” saving structures and repatriating stolen items, the Allied army created a division called the MFAA, or Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives division, composed of men and women trained in conservation, museum studies, library science and art history. This group, colloquially referred to as “The Monuments Men,” was charged with saving monuments and buildings and returning Nazi-confiscated materials to their original countries and owners. An upcoming movie directed by George Clooney dramatizes some of the adventures of this unlikely group of war heroes.
Many of the stories of “The Monuments Men” concentrate on stolen art and its subsequent return. Cases regarding looted art and artifacts are still being litigated to this day. A lesser known fact, however, is that books were frequently stolen by the Nazis; entire libraries were confiscated.
In 1946, the MFAA dispatched one of the Monuments Men, Colonel Seymour Pomrenze, to sort through the overwhelming numbers of looted books stored at the Offenbach Archival Depot, and he began an ambitious program to identify and repatriate these items to their libraries. Among the libraries saved by Pomrenze was the Library Rosenthaliana, which was returned to the Netherlands, and the YIVO collection, which was transferred to the new home of the YIVO Institute in New York City, as the previous home of the YIVO Library in Vilna, Lithuania, had been completely destroyed. YIVO is now one of the five partner organizations of the Center for Jewish History.
The American Jewish Historical Society—another of the Center’s partners—holds the papers of Colonel Pomrenze. Among the items in the collection are two scrapbooks of archival markings from the books sorted at the Offenbach Depot. These scrapbooks contain pictures of identifying plates and stamps of items stored in the Offenbach depot. The images are organized by country. Together, they comprise an exhaustive chronicle of Nazi book-looting.
While NARA (National Archives and Records Administration) has a copy of these books on microfilm, here at the Center we have Pomrenze’s original books (c/o AJHS), which have been digitized and are available online through the Seymour Pomrenze Collection (P-933). We also have a treasure trove of books in the various partner collections that have a variety of book stamps and plates from various collections. In my experience, showing the books with library markings alongside the Pomrenze scrapbooks has been a particularly effective teaching tool. Seeing how these books with their original ownership marks were then defiled by the Nazi stamp is visually powerful in demonstrating a moment in book history.
Recently I happened to mention the book stamps from the Pomrenze Collection with a history scholar from the University of Pennsylvania who was visiting the Center to do research in the collections. She was also working on a project involving looted books and print culture, and we discussed our mutual interest. She then did me the service of giving me the contact information for Mitchell Fraas, a scholar and special collections librarian also at Penn.
Dr. Fraas was doing his own work on the Offenbach stamps, using the Ardelia Hall microfilm at NARA and mapping the German stamps using View Share software. Dr. Fraas had mapped much of Germany, but hadn’t started the Russian/Baltic stamps. This seemed to be a project tailor-made for collaboration, so we discussed the possibilities. One of the Center interns, Ilya Slavutskiy, started translating the book stamps in Russian with an eye towards future mapping. We shared our data. As the Center had already digitized the stamps, we were able to repurpose this digital content ambitiously, creating an initial map that shows looted libraries in Latvia, Poland and Russia. Our goal is to continue developing a visually engaging representation of looted and stolen books throughout Europe, showing the travels of these displaced books through the post-World War II landscape.
I would like to thank Mitchell Fraas, David Rosenberg, Ilya Slavutskiy, Lauren Bradley, Rebecca Clark, Zachary Loeb, Kathy Peiss, and countless other Center staff members who graciously offered time and input to this project.
To learn more about The Monuments Men and looted books, see these resources:
The Monuments Men Foundation: www.monumentsmenfoundation.org
Offenbach Library Marks Map, by M. Fraas: viewshare.org/views/mfraas/offenbach-bookplates