What the librarian saw

Yesterday's Welt Online has a chilling story about the efforts of Berlin's Central and Regional library headquarters to return books stolen by Nazis.

Apparently during the war, when Nazis looted the homes of Jews, freemasons, social democrats, and other persecuted minorities, they routinely helped themselves to their books and carted these off to public libraries.

Not surprisingly, trying to understand who once owned these books (which were confiscated between 1933 and 1945) and then locating the original owners or their families is a very difficult task. (Although Welt reports that about one quarter of the books do bear some sign of their previous owners.)

Some collections have already been restored (such as those of Berlin rabbi and theologian Leo Baeck and pianist Arthur Rubinstein) but library authorities agree that many stolen books will likely remain undetected. Although all books received during the war years will be regarded as suspicious, in many cases the mysteries behind these books are most likely to remain undiscovered.

It's a story that brings to mind Lynn H. Nicholas's nonfiction work, "The Rape of Europa," which tells the story of Hitler's plan to collect all the finest art of Europe for a master museum of his own.

But it also brings to mind a couple of more recent books, Geraldine Brooks's novel "People of the Book" about heroes (including a librarian) who risk all to save a sacred book and Asne Seierstad's "The Bookseller of Kabul," a nonfiction account of one man's struggle to keep some semblance of literary life alive in Kabul in 2002. (For a review of Seierstad's new book,"Angel of Grozny," check this site tomorrow.)

Although they are susceptible to misuse and abuse, it is still awesome to consider how often libraries and museums have survived war and kept their precious contents intact for the rest of us to sort out at conflict's end. Had there been no libraries in Berlin, one wonders, where would those looted books have landed?

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