'This cannot be done by just a handful of experts'

Amateur detectives invited to join search for lost Jewish library looted by Nazis

Researchers from the Leo Baeck Institute seek to virtually reunite 60,000 texts from the modern liberal Higher Institute for Jewish Studies in Berlin, destroyed in the Holocaust

Bettina Farack, a research fellow at the Leo Baeck Institute in Jerusalem, speaks about the Library of Lost Books initiative during a  launch event in Berlin in November 2023. (Courtesy Weiner Library via JTA)
Bettina Farack, a research fellow at the Leo Baeck Institute in Jerusalem, speaks about the Library of Lost Books initiative during a launch event in Berlin in November 2023. (Courtesy Weiner Library via JTA)

JTA — On the eve of World War II, the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies in Berlin embodied an avant-garde era for the study of modern Judaism and philosophy, hosting students from the leading thinker Leo Baeck to Czech Jewish writer Franz Kafka to the first woman rabbi, Regina Jonas.

It was also home to one of the world’s largest and most important Jewish libraries — about 60,000 books of theology, history and literature that reflected the diversity of German-Jewish society before the Holocaust. Few traces remain of the institute, ​​known in German as the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, and its storied bookshelves: The Nazis shuttered the Hochschule, killed many of its members and plundered its library. After Germany’s defeat, the books were scattered across the world.

But a group of researchers believe they can track down those lost books — with help from the public. The Library of Lost Books, an international project from the Leo Baeck Institute, has created a series of online and physical exhibitions aimed at recruiting citizen scientists. The latest pop-up exhibition launched last month at London’s Wiener Holocaust Library, following similar events in Berlin and Prague, and runs until July 10.

“It’s a very vital part of the whole project to include the public in this search for the Nazi-looted books,” Bettina Farack, a research fellow at the Leo Baeck Institute in Jerusalem, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “Experts have been trying to locate those looted books over the last 20 years, and even though our colleagues have put a lot of effort into it and found quite a few books, there’s still so much more to do that cannot be done by just a handful of experts.”

So far, Farack and her colleagues have located 5,000 of the Hochschule’s 60,000 books. They are virtually uniting the volumes in a digital library, leaving the physical copies where they were discovered in institutions across Germany, Czechia, Britain, Israel, the United States, Mexico and South Africa. Without a successor to the Hochschule, there is no one to give the books back to.

Operating from 1872 to 1942, the Hochschule pioneered Jewish studies as a research discipline alongside rabbinical study and training. Previously, Germany had seminaries dedicated to ordaining rabbis, but no place for academic study of Jewish history and culture.

“That was partly due to the reluctance of German public universities to integrate Jewish Studies into their curriculum,” said Farack. “You could study Christian theology of course at the universities, but there was no way of studying Jewish Studies. And so you needed an institution that actually offered this possibility.”

Established in 1933 by Alfred Wiener, a German Jew decorated with the Iron Cross in World War I, the Wiener Holocaust Library in London is the world’s oldest Holocaust museum. (Courtesy)

The school’s vast library supported its intellectual range. Works on both Jewish and Christian theology were available to students who researched the relationship between religions. Close to rare manuscripts, readers could find contemporary literature for their entertainment. The reading room was a social space filled with intellectual debates and sometimes even doubled as a dance floor.

The Hochschule also advanced the modern movement of liberal Judaism in Germany, known as Reform Judaism in the United States. Its professors taught rabbinical students about Judaism as an avenue for questions about universal ethics, philosophy and social change.

Rabbi Dr. Leo Baeck, right, meets with then-New York mayor William O’Dwyer, left, and the president of American Hebrew Congregations, Dr. Maurice Eisendraht, in New York, January 13, 1948. (AP Photo/Str)

Among its students was Leo Baeck, ordained there as a rabbi in 1897. Baeck became a defining liberal Jewish theologian and the last leader of German Jewry under the Nazis, continuing his writings and lectures while imprisoned in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. He survived the Holocaust, moved to London and became the first president of the Leo Baeck Institute in 1955.

Women at the Hochschule set new standards as educational and religious leaders. Jenny Wilde, who became the library director in 1926, was likely the first woman to helm a scholarly library in Germany. Student Regina Jonas graduated in 1930 with a thesis titled, “Can women hold rabbinical office?” She answered her own question in 1935, when she was ordained as the first female rabbi in history. She was killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944.

Kafka also attended the school, taking classes in Hebrew and studying Talmud while living in Berlin during the last year of his life. He wrote to a friend in 1923, “To me the Academy for Jewish Studies is a refuge of peace in wild and woolly Berlin and in the wild and woolly regions of the mind.”

Looting Jewish libraries became a crucial part of Nazi Germany’s project to control narratives about Jewish history and culture. Though the Nazis may be better known for burning books than stealing them, book burnings took place earlier in their regime and were typically propaganda stunts destroying books they believed to have little value. Later, they developed an infrastructure of antisemitic studies, founding research institutes, departments and universities for Germans to rewrite Jewish history — and they needed primary sources.

German students burn the writings of some of Germany’s best known authors, including Franz Boas, for being ‘un-German’ in Berlin’s Opera Square, May 10, 1933. (AP Photo)

“There was actually an academic discipline in Nazi Germany to ‘study the enemy,’” said Kinga Bloch, deputy director of the Leo Baeck Institute in London. “There were lots of young scholars using these sources in what they considered at the time to be academic research into the ideological enemy of Nazi Germany — or what they considered to be their enemy, the Jews.”

The Wiener Library exhibition reveals how the London institution has become intertwined with the Hochschule’s history, said Barbara Warnock, senior curator at the Wiener Library. Founder Alfred Wiener was himself a student at the Hochschule. Like Baeck, he was driven from Germany to Britain by Nazism, arriving as a refugee in 1939. While preparing for the exhibition, researchers found Hochschule documents in the Wiener Library’s collections — including an original call slip from the Hochschule library.

Nazi book burning in Frankfurt’s Opernplatz, May 1933. (Bundesarchiv)

The exhibition commemorates the Hochschule and its lost library through photographs, original documents and a model of the original building. But it also instructs visitors, including young students, on how to identify Hochschule books by examining library stamps and other unique markings.

“There’s a notebook that we’re giving to people for free that has instructions about this, and pencils and pens,” Warnock told JTA. “And then there’s information about some of the missing books, like reproductions of front covers.”

The Leo Baeck Institute joins other groups seeking to recover fragments of Jewish culture that were destroyed by the Nazis. In Poland, researchers at the Grodzka Gate-NN Theater Center are searching for the lost library of the Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva, another famed Jewish school whose books were plundered while its students were murdered. They have cataloged 850 books worldwide, including 10 volumes that were actually returned to the building of the former Lublin Yeshiva.

The Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva was dedicated on June 24, 1930. A decade later, it would be defunct at the hands of the Nazis. (Courtesy Grodzka Gate-NN Theater Center)

But unlike Lublin’s researchers, the Leo Baeck Institute does not aim to physically reunite any books from the Hochschule library. According to Bloch, their displacement is an important part of their story.

She hopes that exhibition visitors will be inspired not only to document the missing books, but also to follow their journeys — the historical winds that blew them — with looters, refugees and restitution organizations across the globe. Though the Hochschule is gone, in some way she believes that detectives who trace the paths of its books can bring the school back to life.

“The more books we can find, the more we empower the Hochschule as a space, even though it doesn’t exist any longer,” said Bloch.

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