The cultural holocaust: The fate(s) of books
It was an “experience which probably changed my life”, says “Nazi hunter” Simon Wiesenthal: “Two or three months after we established our own office in Linz [in 1947], three rabbis visited me one day and told me they had information that in a castle in Carinthia, in the vicinity of Villach, there was a big Jewish library full of all kinds of books.
Together with the rabbis I went to the castle. From the basement to the attic there were maybe 10,000 or 15,000 books lying around in piles. Suddenly I heard a thump behind me. One of the rabbis lay on the floor sobbing. He had a prayer book in his hand and said: ‘Look, that’s a prayer book from my house. Here is a message from my sister: Whoever comes across this prayer book, please turn it over to my beloved brother Rabbi Hoschut Seitmann. The murderers are in our community. They are in the house next door. In a few minutes they’ll be here. Please, don’t forget us and don’t forget our murderers.” Although the story, told in 1982, cannot be entirely substantiated, the castle still exists…
Evelyn Adunka is the first scholar to do systematic research on the disappearance and destruction of libraries during the Nazi era in what was once the “Ostmark” and their restitution after 1945.
The Tanzenberg “Secret” Collection
When, in May 1945, occupying British forces entered a monastery at Tanzenberg in the southern Austrian province of Carinthia they stumbled across a “private” library or, to be more precise, a collection of something like half a million to 700,000 books. Books which had been stolen or confiscated in faraway places like Holland, France or the Soviet Union. Books which turned up after the war in the stacks of Austrian National Library and the Vienna University Library – some of which were later; in the early 1960s, to find their way to the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem.
In 1940, Rosenberg, granted special permission from the “Führer”, began to systematically “secure” – to quote the euphemism of the day – Jewish art and cultural property. When Berlin became the target of Allied bombing in 1942, it was decided to transfer the central library of the so-called “High School of the NSDAP”, the Nazi party, containing mainly stolen books, to the “stolen property depot” at Tanzenberg in Carinthia.
On 1 August, 1945, work began on dismantling the library. The British issued a clear order to the recruited librarians: all confiscated books were to be returned to their former owners. Although that proved to be easier said than done. In the dying days of the war, the former employees had been told to destroy all evidence, and that included the library catalogue. As it turns out, some of the libraries within the Tanzenberg collection had been legally acquired. Painstaking work was required to determine where they had, in fact, come from. The sources were many: France, the Soviet Union, the Netherlands, Belgium, Great Britain, Yugoslavia, Italy, Greece, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. By May 1947, 4,537 crates of books with a total weight of 340,000 kilograms had been returned. By 1948, the number totalled 450,000 volumes.
But that is by no means the end of the Tanzenberg story. Parts of the collection of books, whose ownership could not be traced and were otherwise part of the original central library were transferred to a local library in Klagenfurt as well as to the Austrian National Library and the University of Vienna Library. The university received the larger share, the reason being that its holdings had suffered greater damage from the war, but then, on the basis of a “tacit agreement” in 1960 – 25 years after the end of the war! – the books were split 5:3 between the Vienna University Library and the Jewish National and University Library. As late as 1988, the University Library in Klagenfurt denied there had ever been a library such as that in Tanzenberg during the Nazi era in Carinthia.
The National Library during the Nazi era
“On 15 March, 1938, he [Paul Heigl] showed up at the National Library in Vienna, had the current director-general Dr. Bick arrested and sent to a concentration camp and became director-general of the National Library.”
Innumerable libraries, public and private, were confiscated after German troops marched into Austria in mid-March 1938. What often appeared to be a spontaneous action, was the culmination of research done in Germany and Austria prior to the annexation on persons opposed to the Nazi regime – and their libraries. The National Library came to serve as a depository, something which was by no means discouraged by its Nazi head. Among the many stolen or confiscated libraries and book collections were those belonging to Sigmund Freud’s publishing firm, the Internationaler Pyschoanalytischer Verlag, and Heinrich Schnitzler, the son of the well-known Austrian writer and dramatist Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931).
National LibraryIn 1948, the books from the publishing company – deposited in the National Library by the firm’s liquidator Anton Sauerwald – were returned to the Freud family by the National Library. Heinrich Schnitzler had a more difficult time getting his library back, a sizeable collection which included parts of his father’s library. In 1940, while he was already in exile, his property was plundered in a raid and his library wound up in the National Library, but not as a “deposit”. The books were catalogued and became part of the library’s holdings.
When, in 1946, an understandably impatient Heinrich Schnitzler tried to get his property back, the library argued that there were “extraordinary difficulties” involved in separating books catalogued during the Nazi period. Schnitzler responded: “That a separation entails extraordinary difficulties is something I regret; but this will not stop me from insisting on the return of the stolen property, insofar as it can be ascertained. The gentlemen scarcely gave any thought to the ‘extraordinary difficulties’ they created for us in 1938. The books will have to be struck from the catalogues, that’s all there is to it.” Schnitzler soon tired of the bureaucratic euphemisms library officials used for what was nothing short of highway robbery. In 1946 he told them in a letter: “I prefer to call a spade a spade und will therefore use the term ‘stolen’, which is a more apt term for what has happened.” The library was returned in 1947.
Der Raub der Bücher. Über Verschwinden und Vernichten von Bibliotheken in der NS-Zeit und ihre Restitution nach 1945Understandably, it has not been possible to identify the former owners of all the books deposited in the National Library (or other libraries) – despite conscientious efforts. And a comprehensive history of this country’s number one library has yet to be written. Thus even today, a library user might just come across a book in the holdings which one day in the late 1930s or early 1940s was stolen, robbed or plundered.
Evelyn Adunka’s publication (“Der Raub der Bücher. Über Verschwinden und Vernichten von Bibliotheken in der NS-Zeit und ihre Restitution nach 1945”. Vienna: Czernin Verlag, 2002) reveals to what extent books have their own fate…
Article Author: Ao. Univ.-Prof. Dr. Murray G. Hall
Gesellschaft für Buchforschung in Österreich www.buchforschung.at