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Robbery and Restitution

ERR Ratibor Depot and Jewish Cultural Property after 1945

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Somewhere between 1943 and 1944, Alfred Rosenberg, one of the highest-ranking officers and the most influential ideologues of the Nazi party as well as the leader of the special unit dedicated to plundering cultural property (ERR, Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg), must have asked his subordinates to take a picture of the new depot in Ratibor, a small town in what was then the German province of Upper Silesia. It was not an unusual request. Over the course of the World War II, the ERR documented meticulously its cultural operations in all Nazi-controlled territories. The visual materials gathered from museums, galleries and libraries which fell prey to the Nazi plunder not only testified to the unit’s activity but were also used in various propaganda campaigns. A photograph from Ratibor was most probably taken for similar purposes. It depicts an impressive number of boxes in a storage room, waiting to be open and classified by the workers.

Fig. 1. Ratibor, Germany, books confiscated by the ERR unit (1939–1945). © FA 1 73/74, Yad Vashem.
Fig. 1. Ratibor, Germany, books confiscated by the ERR unit (1939–1945). © FA 1 73/74, Yad Vashem.
Fig. 2. Cover of the album prepared by Captain Isaac Bencowitz, which includes a photograph of the ERR depot in Ratibor, 1946. Courtesy of The American Jewish Historical Society.
Fig. 2. Cover of the album prepared by Captain Isaac Bencowitz, which includes a photograph of the ERR depot in Ratibor, 1946. Courtesy of The American Jewish Historical Society.

Indeed, the photographed scene emphasizes the enormous scope of the ERR operations. However, it probably did not reach a broader audience before the end of the war. The photograph became known in the framework of postwar restitution efforts, after it was published in 1946 by the Captain Isaac Bencowitz, the director of the Offenbach Archival Depot (OAD) in Germany, where the Nazi-looted books were collected, sorted and prepared for a future return to their rightful owners by American forces (fig. 2). Within this new context, the meaning of the photograph changed significantly. It became both a testimony to Nazi crimes and a part of the commemoration of postwar cultural reconstruction. Furthermore, since Ratibor fell within the Soviet sphere of influence, where restitution took a very different direction than in Western Europe, the photograph turned into a visible reminder of what had been lost not only in the wake of the war but also as a result of the new geopolitical order.

Following the capitulation of Nazi Germany, the fate of the material remains of Jewish culture that survived until 1945 varied significantly, depending on their geographical location. The Allied occupying forces in Germany and, for instance, the postwar governments of the Netherlands and France began to register the Nazi plunder, collecting the dispersed artifacts and initiating various attempts at restitution to their prewar owners or potential successors. The Offenbach Archival Depot was one of the best-known endeavors of this kind. The situation in the areas occupied by the Soviet Union proved quite different. Towards the end of the war, the Red Army Trophy Brigades began hunting for the hidden cultural treasures and transferring them as spoils of war to multiple institutions in the Soviet Union. The remaining objects often were found by local populations and subsequently sold to private individuals or taken over by state authorities. A great bulk of these artifacts underwent nationalization and were eventually incorporated into national museums and archives. Although there were some post-war Jewish initiatives – both local and international – aiming to reclaim Jewish cultural property, they were hardly considered by the communist regimes. Finally, following the traumatic experiences of wartime violence, ethnic cleansing, population transfers, and genocide that resulted in the radical homogenization of Eastern-European countries, the local populations of Eastern Europe seem to have developed a singular indifference and detachment to the remains of Jewish culture, which eventually fell into oblivion.

The history of the Ratibor depot reflects these socio-political transformations and seems to be emblematic of Jewish cultural property in Eastern Europe after 1945. Ratibor joined the network of ERR depots relatively late, having been established in the wake of the Allied bombings of Berlin in the spring of 1943. Over the course of the next two years, more than two million books and archival documents were collected in multiple buildings in the town, including the local synagogue and ritual bath. The loot came from all over Europe, from Paris in the west to Dnipropetrovsk in the east. It included mostly Masonic, communist and Jewish libraries and archives. This isolated and provincial town, from which a small Jewish community had been entirely wiped out by 1942, soon became a peculiar center for Nazi-looted cultural property. At the end of 1944, as the Red Army advanced towards Berlin, the ERR members prepared detailed evacuation plans for the holdings, but due to the shortage of rolling stock only a small part of the collections reached Germany. The rest disappeared without a trace after the arrival of the Red Army by the end of January 1945. It may have been destroyed by the bombings, plundered by the Soviet soldiers, or hastily taken by the fleeing inhabitants. It may have been appropriated by the 20,000 new settlers transferred to Ratibor in 1946 after it was officially assigned to post-war Poland and changed its name to Racibórz. It may have been found by the local officials in charge of reconstruction and Polonization of the area. It may have been stolen or collected for the new Polish cultural institutions. It may have been reduced to ashes. In the post-war period, all these practices were common. German and Israeli public opinion took some interest in the Ratibor depot in the beginning of 1960s, but at that point no one knew anything about the whereabouts of the stolen books. »Is it situated outside the world«? asked bitterly German Israeli journalist Shalom Ben Horin when wondering how many Jewish treasures had been lost in this area. But for the post-war inhabitants of the town, the wartime events were indeed so remote they may as well have been placed outside this world. Until today, Racibórz holds no memory of the depot and its collections. The Nazi photograph is probably the last record of these materials. A testimony to both robbery and restitution, it emphasizes how much cultural heritage was lost not only during the war but also in the postwar period, simultaneously a reminder of how much may yet be discovered.

Anna Holzer-Kawałko is a PhD student at the Department of History of the Jewish People and Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her doctoral dissertation deals with German-Jewish book collections and nation-building in Czechoslovakia between 1918 and 1948. Currently she is a visiting scholar at the Dubnow Institute and co-organizes the Colloquium on “Jewish Material Cultures in East Central Europe in the 20th Century”. | kawalko(at)dubnow.de

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