One of the main aims pursued by the founders of the Leo Baeck Institute (LBI) established in Jerusalem in May 1955 was to preserve the cultural and intellectual legacy of German Jewry after its destruction by the Nazi regime in Germany. Over the first few decades of its activity, the LBI received a great variety of materials – mainly books and archival documents – from private individuals and cultural institutions in Israel. These donations laid the foundation for the institute’s research library, which, although unsystematic, has emerged as a unique and authentic expression of the fate of German-Jewish culture in Israel. Simultaneously, many of the books found today on the shelves of the LBI originated in some of the most important German-Jewish communal and cultural institutions.
Provenance Research and Jewish History
The Centralverein Library at the Leo Baeck Institute in Jerusalemby Bettina Farack & Anna Holzer-Kawalko
One of the recently identified volumes – an 1834 apologetic pamphlet by nineteenth-century German-Jewish scholar Moritz Freystadt (1810–1870) entitled Das Recht der Juden gegen das Unrecht des Prof. Buchholz – bears several especially interesting marks of provenance that reveal the circumstances of its acquisition by the Centralverein deutscher Staatsbürger jüdischen Glaubens as well as its postwar transfer to Jerusalem. As such, the volume is a unique source for the examination of both the pre- and postwar cultural history of German Jewry.
A Cosmos in a Nutshell. Tracing the Journey of a Book through Prewar Berlin
The story of LBI’s copy of Freystadt’s book begins in Königsberg, where it was published in 1834. Although the remainders of a paper label that was pasted onto the verso side of the flyleaf might point to a private first owner, no textual information is left to pursue this avenue of research because the label has been torn out. However, we do know that the book was acquired by the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin shortly thereafter. The shape of the stamp and its text indicate that it was acquired between 1872 and 1882. It was then given as a gift to the library of the Centralverein deutscher Staatsbürger jüdischen Glaubens sometime between 1905 and 1930. The book remained there until early 1939, when the Nazis confiscated the library of the Centralverein.
The trajectory of this book reflects the characteristic fate of German-Jewish cultural property in the twentieth century serving as a reminder of the vibrant Jewish library cosmos that the Nazis destroyed and shedding light on the history of the library of the Centralverein deutscher Staatsbürger Jüdischen Glaubens in particular.
The Centralverein was founded to counter antisemitism. To support this mission, a research library of recent Judaica and Antisemitica was established. After ten years of activity, the Centralverein proudly reported in 1903 that its archive and library were being widely used in the fight against antisemitism and requested donations of books to continue its mission. The copy in question shows that the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums was one of the donors. Founded in 1872, the Hochschule was a vital research hub and an institution for the training of liberal rabbis in the German Empire. The Hochschule and the Centralverein had a strong relationship, as demonstrated when the Centralverein sent a representative, Eugen Fuchs (1856–1923), to attend the Hochschule’s celebrations on the occasion of the inauguration of its new building in 1907. In his speech, Fuchs got straight to the heart of the matter already in his introductory words:
»I may say that both organizations [the Centralverein and the Verband der deutschen Juden], who have appointed me to interpret their wishes, share the same warmth and interest in the prosperity of the Hochschule, which is visibly expressed in the creation of its own home. […] We are aware that institutions, in which Jewish scholarship is cultivated and knowledge of Judaism is increased, regardless of their orientation, whether strictly orthodox or liberal, have a high and significant mission to fulfil. Their work and creation benefit not only scholarship and the religious community but also the country and the entire cultural community.«Bericht der Hochschule für die Wissenschaft 26 (1908), 54, https://sammlungen.ub.uni-frankfurt.de/cm/periodical/pageview/2275158 (6 April 2023) (transl. by Bettina Farack).
The Hochschule and the Centralverein were just two of the many Jewish institutions in prewar Berlin that formed a network regardless of specific denominations. As the copy of this book shows, this network becomes tangible if we examine the transfer of books between the libraries of these institutions. Correspondence, but even more clearly provenance marks, tell us about a busy system of interlibrary loans, book donations, and exchanges of publications.
Although we cannot pinpoint exactly when this copy of Freystadt’s book was passed from the Hochschule to the Centralverein, it was clearly a gift that was well-meant and well-received. Written by Moritz Freystadt, one of the first Jews granted a doctorate in philosophy at the university of Königsberg in 1832, the book was a direct response to an antisemitic article by Friedrich Buchholz. When Freystadt wrote the book at the age of 24, he was forty years younger than the esteemed Friedrich Buchholz, a professor at Berlin University, which may have been why he chose to open his work with a quote from the Book of Job: »But it is the spirit in a person, the breath of the Almighty, that gives them understanding. It is not only the old who are wise, not only the aged who understand what is right.«
While Freystadt’s struggle was still fought on a personal basis, a hundred years later, in the 1930s, the struggle had become universal, and all institutions found themselves active in the fight against antisemitism. The Centralverein, in particular, was at the forefront of this fight. Exactly for this reason the library of the Centralverein was confiscated by the Nazis in 1939. Although the Centralverein itself had already been forced to shut down immediately following the November Pogrom in late 1938, the fate of its library was not yet decided. On 28 February 1939, representatives of the Reich Ministry of Propaganda, the Gestapo, and the Security Service of the SS inspected the library and found books written by Konstantin Brunner, Vladimir Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, and Lion Feuchtwanger. This sealed the library’s fate. The Nazis concluded: »Even a brief random sample revealed a considerable number of books catalogued and shelved that pose a threat to public safety and order and therefore have to be designated as hostile to the state.« On this basis the book collection of the Centralverein was to be confiscated.
Less than two weeks later, between 9 and 13 March, the collection of about 6,300 books was packed into boxes and transferred to Eisenacher Straße 13 in Berlin-Schöneberg. At this location, the Security Service of the SS was amassing the most extensive library of books stolen from Jewish collections throughout Europe. The books of the Centralverein were incorporated into this Nazi library to serve antisemitic research on the so-called »Jewish question.« Many more Jewish book collections were subsequently stolen, transferred to Berlin, and incorporated into the library of the Security Service. However, the collection of the Centralverein was the first to be entirely swallowed up and to become part of the foundation of the so-called Judenbibliothek of the Security Service at the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA). Its end marked the beginning of the vanishing of a whole library cosmos, a cosmos which was, at the same time, becoming obsolete due to the annihilation of the readers it had served.
Lost and Found. On the Transfer of the Centralverein Library to Israel
Before its arrival to Israel, the given copy of Freystadt’s book had quite a turbulent history in the Nazi and postwar Germany. In 1943, due to intensified bombing by the Allies, the bulk of the plundered Centralverein book collections was evacuated, together with other valuable Jewish libraries, from the RSHA in Berlin to several castles in the Sudetenland – annexed by the Nazis in 1938 – where they remained until the German surrender. However, a small part of the library, including the above-mentioned copy of Das Recht der Juden gegen das Unrecht des Prof. Buchholz, must have been left in Berlin, as it was found there after the war by the Allied soldiers. These books were then moved to the Offenbach Archival Depot, established in March 1946 by the US Military Government to collect looted Jewish cultural assets and return them to their owners. In July 1946, 132 books from the Centralverein library were registered in the depot and then awaited a decision on their restitution. In the meantime, two prewar leaders of the Centralverein – Hans Reichmann (1900–1964) and Kurt Alexander (1892–1962) – came to know about the whereabouts of the organization’s book collections in the Sudetenland and demanded from the Czechoslovak authorities, who had taken over the administration there again, that they restitute the books to London, where both men had found refuge in 1939. Reichmann explained in his claim:
»The books in question deal mainly with the subjects of antisemitism and German-Jewish history. They are needed here in connection with research on antisemitism carried out by Jewish and other scholars, and we intend to incorporate these books into a library dealing with this subject, sponsored by the leading Jewish bodies in this country [the United Kingdom].«NLI, Box AC–3382 (uncatalogued materials), Hans Reichmann to the Council of Jewish Communities of Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia, 2 July 1947.
However, their demand was vehemently opposed by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, whose representatives lobbied the Czechoslovak authorities to transfer the plundered Jewish collections to Palestine. In the agreement that followed, the parties decided to transfer the Centralverein books to Jerusalem, on the condition that the university hold them in trust for the successors of the Centralverein and put the books at their disposal when required.
Two years later, a similar solution was applied to the Centralverein collection at the Offenbach depot, from where the books were retrieved by the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Inc., a New-York based Jewish restitution agency that served as a trustee of heirless Jewish libraries in the American Zone of Occupation in Germany.
As it happened in the case of collections transferred from Czechoslovakia, the bulk of the retrieved Centralverein books, among them the copy of Das Recht der Juden gegen das Unrecht des Prof. Buchholz, was placed under the custody of the Hebrew University and the Jewish National and University Library.
The transfer of the books and their subsequent redistribution were executed under particularly difficult circumstances. The collections arrived in Jerusalem precisely when a violent political conflict was escalating in Palestine. The adoption of the Palestinian Partition Plan by the United Nations on 29 November 1947 was followed by increasingly brutal domestic unrest that developed into the 1948 war following the establishment of the State of Israel. The violence heavily affected the Hebrew University, whose activity was disrupted by riots as early as January 1948. As a result, the university was forced to abandon its seat on Mount Scopus and move to the city center, where it was scattered between thirty different locations. The vast majority of its library holdings remained on the hill, where they would stay, inaccessible, until 1958. The retrieved Jewish books that arrived from Europe in this period, including the Centralverein library, had to be stored in several temporary premises. Due to the shortage of librarians, many of whom were drafted to the defense forces, their cataloguing was delayed while new collections from Europe kept arriving. As the number of books grew exponentially, so did the pressure of other Israeli institutions demanding their share in the retrieved Jewish collections. Until 1960, when the books were finally reunited in the new library building on Givat Ram in central Jerusalem, their cataloguing and redistribution proceeded quite chaotically and with little regard for the integrity of the original collections.
As a result, the retrieved part of the Centralverein library was lost once again, dispersed among various Israeli institutions that received the Nazi-looted Jewish books from the National Library – among them the Leo Baeck Institute. The lack of provenance research in Israel in the following decades pushed them further into oblivion. Against that backdrop, and committed to the mission that motivated the founders of the LBI, the recently launched »German-Jewish Cultural Heritage Abroad« project conducted together by the LBI and the Leibniz Institute for Jewish History and Culture – Simon Dubnow in Leipzig aims to turn these tides of oblivion and bring German-Jewish cultural heritage back to the forefront of the Israeli public debate. It was in the framework of this project that Das Recht der Juden gegen das Unrecht des Prof. Buchholz was discovered on the shelves of the LBI library. This is one of our first important findings, and we are positive that it will not be the last.
Anna Holzer-Kawalko is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Leo Baeck Institute in Jerusalem within the project »German-Jewish Cultural Heritage Abroad. The Material and Intellectual Legacy of the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies in Berlin«. She specializes in the history of Jewish material culture, in particular libraries and book collections, in Central and Eastern Europe in the twentieth century | kawalko(at)leobaeck.org.
Bettina Farack is a doctoral candidate at the University of Erfurt, specializing in the study of library history, collection theory, and provenance research. Her dissertation focuses on the library of the Leo Baeck Institute Jerusalem and is part of the »German-Jewish Cultural Heritage Abroad« project | farack(at)leobaeck.org.
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