The books’ paths
The ZLB is comprised of the Berliner Stadtbibliothek (Berlin City Library, BStB), founded in 1901, the Amerika-Gedenkbibliothek (America Memorial Library, AGB), established in West Berlin in 1954, and the Administrative Library of the Municipality of Greater Berlin, founded in 1948, which became the Senatsbibliothek Berlin (Berlin Senate Library, SeBi) in 1951. All three libraries have Nazi loot among their collection.
The loot arrived at the ZLB through various and still partly unknown ways. Because of the available source material and large amount of old stock at the BStB our research has so far concentrated on this library and its collections, as described in greater detail below.
The Berliner Stadtbibliothek
The Berliner Stadtbibliothek was long considered not important enough to have acquired much Nazi loot. Valuable private libraries and associated materials belonging to the persecuted and coming from the occupied territories were sent to other libraries. The BStB took charge of the rest of the loot: Books that no other establishment wanted, but which were still of use to a public library. Novels, travel guides, children’s books and non-fiction books were classified as ‘normal’ book resources. The origins and fate of their owners were of no interest. Correspondence (.pdf) from 1943, which was found in the library’s historic archives in 2007, reveals the full extent of the BStB’s complicity in the Holocaust-related crimes committed against Berlin’s Jews.
The books owned by those deported
In 1943, the BStB contacted the Berlin city treasurer and initiated the acquisition of “over 40,000 books from the private libraries of evacuated Jews” from the city's Public Pawn Office - books from the last residences of deported and murdered people.
Just under 2,000 of the approximately 40,000 books were recorded in a special accessions register entitled J (Digital media at the Berlin Regional Digital Library) until 20 April 1945. These books are identifiable by their accession numbers; each serial number is preceded by a “J”. All books labelled in this way are Nazi loot, yet only about 10% contain evidence that could help trace them back to their original owners. So far more than 1,500 of the items listed in accessions register “J” have been located in our stock.
After 1945: 20,000 “gifts”?
After the war ended, no attempts were made to return the stolen books to their owners, the owners’ heirs, or Berlin’s Jewish community. In August 1945, the BStB began logging all the original materials and thus also the rest of the deported people’s books. These were not entered in a separate accessions register as had been done previously, but were rather recorded as “gifts” along with other acquisitions. Between the summer of 1945 and the end of 1950, over 20,000 accession numbers were allocated for “gifts”, with 16,000 assigned to the three main suppliers – the Kulturamt (“Cultural Office”), the Bücherlager (“book depot”) and the Bergungsstelle (“salvageing organisation”). The books owned by people who had been deported were generally recorded under Kulturamt and Bücherlager. But there are exceptions, as legal accessions appear to have been mixed in, along with old unused stock dating back to before 1933.
In the post-war era, a vast amount of Nazi loot found its way to the Berliner Stadtbibliothek in deliveries from the "Bergungsstelle für wissenschaftliche Bibliotheken" (“Salvaging organisation for scientific libraries”). The "Bergungsstelle" existed from July 1945 to February 1946 as a municipal Berlin department, and its task was to collect books so that Berlin’s destroyed libraries could start to be used again as soon as possible. It took custody of the libraries of the disbanded Reich and state authorities and party organisations, the so-called “ownerless” stock, and the seized libraries of former Nazi members, including books from the repositories of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (Reich Main Security Office, RSHA) and other organisations involved in looting cultural assets. By the time the “Bergungsstelle” was shut down in February 1946, more than one million books had been salvaged, sorted and redistributed. Among the main recipients were the Ratsbibliothek Berlin, which took delivery of over 350,000 items (including the entire library of the Reich Ministry of the Interior), the BStB (approx. 60,000 volumes), Berlin’s Volksbüchereien (public libraries), and the Staatsbibliothek (Berlin State Library) (approx. 20,000 volumes). The Ratsbibliothek has been part of the BStB since 1955, and the Volksbüchereien have handed their old stock over to the BStB, meaning the salvaged books from there are now largely located at the ZLB.
The numbers of the salvage operations representing and locating the specific recovery sites are generally recorded in the books in pencil. Numbers 15 and 209, for instance, represent two RSHA repositories. The Bergungsstelle’s files are today kept at the Landesarchiv Berlin (Berlin State Archives), and have been published at bergungsstelle.de.
Other suspect accessions
Since 2010, the ZLB’s investigations have focused on the BStB’s stock, and thus on the 1943 acquisition and the post-war “gifts”, as the files and sample analyses have shown that most of the Nazi loot is likely to be found within here. But every book that was printed before 1945 and was recorded at the present-day ZLB after 1933 is generally considered a suspect accession insofar as its provenance is unknown – regardless of whether they were bought by the BStB between 1933 and 1945, or the original loot was only acquired later by the BStB or other predecessors of the ZLB.
Identifying looted books
The aim of the research is to not only identify the Nazi loot and investigate the historic events, but also to return the books to their original owners or the owners’ heirs. But provenance research at libraries involves particular challenges that are specific to books.
The special role of books
Books are not generally identifiable as unique copies. They are industrially manufactured and thus cannot be distinguished from others in the same edition. Only markings added in later visibly make them unique objects, and can through them, the books’ origins may be traced. Stamps, signatures and dedications are the only hints that can lead to the original owners – if they don’t exist, it is almost impossible to identify the book’s provenance. As the monetary value is usually quite low, generally there are no records.
The books’ provenances were of no relevance to libraries. It was only documented for particularly old books or special collections. Relabelling, trades and swaps, new bindings and deacquisition further complicate the provenance research.
The search process
While the accessions registers provide an initial point of reference, they do not contain any allocations or classifications by the Gestapo or other clear suppliers.
Every book is then located and examined for traces of previous owners. If there are none, the search ends here. Analysing this provenance information enables related items, previous owners, and ultimately perhaps also the original owners to be identified.
The search for previous owners
If the books contain names, addresses or other information, these details are recorded in the Looted Cultural Assets database. This way, books associated through their provenance can be identified first. In many cases, there are multiple persecuted people with the same name. If a book’s original owner can be identified, e.g. because there is a dedication with a date of birth and full name, this name is compared with the results of other research projects and various databases (such as the Gedenkbuch des Bundesarchivs (memorial book of the German Federal Archives) and YadVashem).
Examples of successful research and resolved cases can be found under Restitutions.