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The Nazi Plunder of Jewish Books
By Mark Glickman
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2016 Mark Glickman
All rights reserved.
Loading the Jewish Bookshelf
My son! Make your books your companions; let your book-cases and shelves be your pleasure grounds and gardens. Bask in their paradise, gather their fruit, pluck their roses, take their spices and their myrrh.
— Ethical will of Judah ibn Tibbon, Provence, twelfth century
The Nazi pillage of Jewish books was an assault on the very core of Jewish life. To understand the effect of the attack, we begin with an imaginary journey to a real place. The place is the Strashun Library in Vilna, Lithuania. It is early 1939.
Vilna is a bustling, lively city. Long the capital of Lithuania, sovereignty over the city bounced between Germany, Poland, Lithuania, and the Soviet Union during and after World War I. The Polish army seized Vilna in October 1920, and it has been under Polish leadership ever since.
As we approached the city a few minutes earlier, we came to the Vilna River and looked across to a sea of red-tile roofs covering buildings with white walls. We drove down wide boulevards lined with majestic palaces — some are grand neoclassical structures, others imposing medieval fortifications. We saw the pillared white façade and the sturdy bell tower of the Vilna Cathedral; the ornate, russet, Gothic-style steeples of the sixteenth-century St. Anne's Catholic Church; and the green onion-domes of the St. Michael and St. Konstantin Orthodox Church, erected only twenty-seven years ago.
The metropolis is home to more than two hundred thousand residents, and from the number of steeples, we would never guess that 30 percent of the city's population is Jewish. There are theaters, banks, and museums on the wide boulevards, and looking down the narrow side streets, we glimpse twisty lanes packed with small shops, peddlers, and cramped multistory apartment buildings.
Our guide explains that Vilna's Jewish community thrums as actively as the city itself. It is home to prominent Jewish scholars, artisans, poets, and educators. There are dozens of "mutual aid societies" in Vilna — among them organizations supporting Jewish orphans, Jewish brides, Jewish war veterans, and Jewish beggars. For the hungry, there is the famous "Inexpensive Restaurant," with a seven-hundred-seat dining room that serves hearty meals at minimal cost. There are Jewish theaters in Vilna, which stage a veritable Broadway's worth of plays in Yiddish, Hebrew, and Polish. There are two daily newspapers published in the city, Tag (Day) and Jüdische Zeitung (Jewish Times). There are Jewish writers' groups, art academies, and orchestras. There is even a Jewish opera company that has presented classics such as Aida and La Traviata in Yiddish. Vilna is home to more than one hundred synagogues, dozens of trade organizations run kloyzes (study houses), and there is a rabbinic court whose rulings the local government accepts as law.
It should be of no surprise, our guide continues, that Vilna has long been called Yerushalayim d'Lita — the Jerusalem of Lithuania.
Soon, we turn down a narrow street and arrive at the shulhoyf — synagogue courtyard. There are actually several small synagogues in this complex of buildings, but the largest by far is Vilna's Great Synagogue, a large, slant-roofed building built in the Baroque-Renaissance style that was popular back in the 1600s. Adjacent to the synagogue, we see a long two-story brick structure, its arched second-floor windows evoking images of the tablets from Mount Sinai. The building's front door swings open every few seconds; men, women, and children — lots of children — come and go, often holding one or more books under their arms. When the door shuts, we notice the sign: "The Library of Rabbi Mattityahu son of Rabbi Samuel Strashun."
Our guide tells us that the library's namesake, Mattityahu Strashun (1817–85), was a man with a life perfectly situated to create a literary study center of this size. His father, Samuel, one of the most renowned rabbis of mid-nineteenth-century Vilna, had left Mattityahu a huge collection of books, and as Mattityahu himself became a successful businessman, his growing fortune allowed him to enlarge the collection with purchases of his own. Mattityahu, who died childless, bequeathed his library to the Jewish community of Vilna. A catalogue compiled shortly after his death listed 5,700 items in the library, but it clearly contained far more — manuscripts, collections of rabbinic legal rulings, secular books, and thousands of volumes of Judaica in a variety different of languages.
It took years to organize the collection, and as the catalogue grew, Strashun's heirs feared that its secular literature would lure readers away from Judaism and were reluctant to open the library to the public. Finally, however, in 1892, in a building that was once the home of Mattityahu Strashun, the doors of the Strashun Library opened.
Almost immediately the collection grew even larger. The library received monetary donations and was able to purchase more books; educated Jews from Vilna and elsewhere commonly bequeathed their own books to the library. It was becoming a major institution.
By the late 1890s it had become clear that the collection had outgrown the home of its donor. Funds were raised, the site on the shulhoyf was selected, and in 1901 the Strashun Library moved to the building before us.
As soon as we arrive, a man in his late fifties comes out of the building to greet us. He is a short man, with a graying beard and a large friendly smile. He is neatly dressed, though his black gabardine suit is slightly faded and fraying at the edges. "Sholem aleykhem," he says. "Welcome."
Our guide introduces our host as Khaykl Lunski, the scholar who has served as the Strashun's librarian for the past forty-four years; he began working there in 1895, when he was fourteen years old. Lunski speaks quickly, exuberantly, and with a slight lisp. We have to listen closely to understand him.
"Welcome," Lunski says again. "I'm glad you're here. Please. Please, come this way. Let me show you around."
Lunski, it seems, is friends with everyone he sees. "Professor Gradstein," he says to a man entering the library, "I hope you're well today. I put the material about the Vilna Gaon on a table inside, and I added a few more books and articles I thought might be helpful ... Moshe, how is your research on early Yiddish novels progressing? Come later and I'll show you some material nobody's studied before ... Rabbi Kopnick, I heard that you'd like to be able to speak more loudly at shul. I have some material on elocution that you might want to see."
We walk through the Strashun Library's reading room. It is long and well lit, full of people sitting at tables looking at open books. There are men and women, old people and teenagers, bearded rabbis wearing black hats and young, fiery-eyed revolutionaries.
"I thought we would do our tour chronologically today," says Khaykl Lunski, "starting at the very beginning. Let's go over here to our collection of Bibles." He points to a set of bookshelves lining a short wall from floor to ceiling. There are hundreds of volumes of Jewish Scripture on those shelves. Some are very old; many are in Hebrew; others have been translated into a variety of different languages. It is a Babel of Bibles.
"As you know," Lunski explains, "the earliest Jewish texts weren't books. Nor were they even scrolls. Nor, for that matter, were they even written on paper. No, our first texts were inscribed in stone. And the very first of those stone texts began with the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet ..."
Lunski is called away mid-sentence, having been approached by a young, scholarly looking man with a question he seems anxious to have answered before our tour goes any further. We are on our own for a moment, left considering the start of Jewish literature.
What many believe to be the world's first Hebrew text, as Khaykl Lunski was about to tell us, opened with a bet, a letter whose name and shape once invoked the image of a house — bayit in Hebrew. A horizontal line to the right, another narrow one down to the baseline, and then a final rightward stroke along the bottom.
Moses is said to have inscribed that bet, chiseling it into the stone tablets that God had told him to bring to the mountaintop. More letters followed that bet, and soon the bet became part of a word — b'reishit, "in the beginning." Still more letters emerged from Moses's chisel, and the word became part of a verse, the verse part of a chapter, and the chapter part of a biblical book telling the story of Creation and of the formation of the Jewish people: Genesis. Moses chiseled still more words — 79,847 of them in all — and what resulted was the Torah, the complex, bewildering, and often baffling mix of narrative and law that has served as the basis for countless works of Jewish thought and literature ever since.
One letter. Three strokes. Across, down, across. In its wake came millions of other letters — billions, perhaps — composing vast storehouses of Jewish literature. It is doubtful whether Moses could have even imagined it.
There were, of course, two sets of tablets. The first was a set that God carved, which Moses smashed when he discovered the Israelites worshiping the Golden Calf. The second was the handiwork of Moses himself; it survived much longer. Those two sets of tablets were the first Jewish texts ever and are the stuff of Jewish legend. Legend has it that God conceived of the first set long before the creation of the world but actually formed it on the eve of the first Sabbath. Having made the tablets, God kept them safe for many centuries until it was time to give them to Moses. Originally, others taught, the tablets were not made of stone, but of fire — black fire written on white fire. They were heavenly, spiritual tablets, and it was only when God handed them to Moses that they assumed physical form.
When Moses brought the second set down to the Israelites, they remained intact. Soon the Israelites placed the second tablets, along with the shards of the first, in an ornate box called the Ark of the Covenant. They placed that sacred coffer in the innermost sanctuary of the Tabernacle, the portable Temple where God's presence manifested itself during the Israelite's desert wanderings. Yes, both sets of tablets were in the Ark — even the shattered ones. In Judaism sacred words remain sacred. Even when they seem broken; even when they no longer seem useful. Jews cherish words — the broken ones as well as those that are intact — and abandon them only when forced to do so.
That's why, when things settled down after the Israelites' desert wanderings, they placed the tablets holding their foundational text in the most sacred spot in the universe. To Jews, the center of the world is the city of Jerusalem, capital of the Land of Israel since King David first established it as such around 1000 BCE. In the center of that holy city stood the Temple, built by David's son, Solomon. In the center of the Temple was the Holy of Holies, a small chamber accessible only to the High Priest on the Jewish Day of Atonement; and inside the Holy of Holies was the Ark of the Covenant, holding the tablets from Sinai inside it. At the center of the universe sat a book — or at least the closest thing to a book that existed back in ancient times.
In 586 BCE Babylonian forces invaded the Land of Israel and destroyed Jerusalem's magnificent Temple. Soldiers carried away the Ark of the Covenant, plundering it and the holy text it held as war booty. It was a theft of sacred Jewish words, an eerie foreshadowing of what would happen to the descendants of these Jews in Europe two and a half millennia later. In the centuries to come, some would argue that the Babylonians hid the Ark somewhere in the Temple complex, where it still waits to be found. Others believe that today it is in a church in Ethiopia. And millions of movie fans think that the "Lost Ark" was discovered on the eve of World War II by Indiana Jones and now sits in a large warehouse somewhere in the United States.
Most historians, however, believe that the bejeweled Ark of the Covenant ended up in a Babylonian chop shop and that its captors simply threw away its old engraved tablets and focused instead on the precious materials adorning the box itself. The loss of such a sacred national treasure might have destroyed other nations or cultures, but by this time the Torah had been copied and recopied. Like many books of today, the Torah was able to survive even though its original copies had long since disappeared.
Within fifty years Babylonian dominance had waned, and the Persians who succeeded them allowed Jews to return to Israel and rebuild the Temple. Only a small number of Jews took the Persians up on the offer. Those who did decide to return immediately set about rebuilding the Temple. As soon as its foundations were laid, there was a grand ceremony of dedication, replete with trumpets, cymbals, and joyous songs of praise. "All the people raised a great shout ... because the foundation of the House of the Eternal had been laid" (Ezra 3:11). After fifty years of exile, finally the house of God could stand again. Finally Jewish life could be glorious just as it had been in the past.
But as the songs and sounds of celebration erupted, a group of old men stood off to the side — priests, Levites, and tribal leaders. They remembered the First Temple from their youth: the gigantic stones of its base, its rich cedar planks, its gleaming bronze pillars and altar. Here, however, lay a simple foundation roughly hewn into the ground. No sanctuary, no ornate carvings, and perhaps worst of all, no tablets from the mountaintop. When they saw this pitiful sight, the book of Ezra tells us, they wept.
Almost immediately, the sounds of their cries were drowned out by the far louder celebrations of the younger men around them. Evidently Jewish life could continue, even without the sacred stone tablets at its center. Evidently memories of the text would do just fine.
Having attended to the young man's query, Khaykl Lunski returns and continues our library tour. "Now step over here," he says. "I have something very special to show you." He walks through canyons of crowded bookshelves and enters a door near the back of the library. Holding it open, he lowers his volume to a stage whisper. "This room is not open to the public. You'll understand why in a moment."
It is a small room, lit by a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling and a reading lamp on a table against the wall to our right. To our left is a wall lined not with bookshelves, but with wooden cubbyholes of various sizes. A few of the cubbyholes are empty, but inside most of them, we see, are scrolls in various states of preservation. Some of the scrolls have one roller, others have two, and still others are simply coiled-up parchments that evidently lost their wooden centerpieces long ago.
"This is where we keep some of our greatest treasures," Lunski tells us. "This here, for example, is a Scroll of Esther. I believe it is from the eighteenth century. Persian, perhaps." From one of the cubbyholes he pulls out a small scroll wrapped around an ornately carved wooden roller extending into a handle beneath the scroll. He sets it on the table, gently unrolls it, and before us unfurls a parchment illuminated with bright, intricate pictures and designs in the margins of every page.
We're fascinated, but Lunski doesn't leave us much time to ooh and aah. He rerolls the scroll and keeps talking as he returns it to its place on the wall. "Some of the scrolls here are far older, of course, but they're usually incomplete." He pulls a tattered roll of parchment from another cubbyhole and carefully lays it flat on the table. It is about eighteen inches high and three feet wide. "Once — back in the seventeenth century, I think — this was part of a Torah scroll. Now all we have is this small section. If only I knew what happened to the rest of it.
Excerpted from Stolen Words by Mark Glickman. Copyright © 2016 Mark Glickman. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
1. Loading the Jewish Bookshelf,
2. Antisemites and the Jewish Written Word,
3. From Bonfires to Bookshelves,
4. Talmud Scholars, Hebraists, and Other Nazi Looters,
9. Looted Books in the New Jewish Landscape,
10. Jewish Cultural Reconstruction,
11. Where Are They Now?,