Who Knew? Did the Nazis burn the books of Lublin?
According to Deutsche Jugend Zeitung, the official organ of the Hitler Youth, on September 7, 1938, German troops entered Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva, a six-story yeshiva in Lublin, stripped the interior and burned the 30,000-volume library in the courtyard. The paper went on to say that the Jews stood and cried as the flames burned for twenty-four hours: “Their cries almost deafened us... We brought an army band and the joyous tones of the military music covered the cries of the Jews.” But did this event actually happen? The account is highly dubious for at least two reasons: First, the Deutsche Jugend Zeitung did not publicize the purported book burning until February 1940, five months after the onset of the German occupation. Second, not one contemporary newspaper, including the Volkischer Beobachter, the official newspaper of the Third Reich, or Der Angriff, the personal newspaper of propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, ever confirmed the report. No newsreel of the purported event exists either.
Yet the story about the burning of the yeshiva’s books has lived on for years. In 2000, Jacob Frank, a Lubliner who survived the liquidation of his city’s Jewish quarter, may inadvertently have furthered the Nazi narrative when he wrote in “Himmler’s Jewish Tailor” that all the books and Torahs from the yeshiva were destroyed by the Nazis. Frank’s observation is suspect because he never witnessed the alleged destruction and may well have based his assertion on the Deutsche Jugend Zeitung article.
“I don’t buy it,” says Adam Kopociowski, a Polish professor of Jewish history and culture at Lublin’s Maria CurieSkłodowska University. “Maybe some part, maybe some newspapers, but not the most precious collection, ended up in a relatively small bonfire.”
Professor Kopociowski has long held that the burning of the yeshiva books was an act of propaganda designed to persuade German public opinion that Jews and Jewish culture must be rooted out of Europe. Anders Rydell, author of “The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe’s Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance,” agrees. He writes that Nazi book burnings were “ritual dramas” designed to excite the ideological fervor of students and that Nazi propagandist Goebbels, who gave his blessing to such burnings, pursued a simultaneous covert literary policy to centralize valuable Jewish books in a “museum of an extinct race.”
Kopociowski, too, contends that the Germans preferred stealing surreptitiously from Jewish individuals and Jewish organizations. He has learned that they sent Lublin’s vast holdings to the so-called Lublin Staatsbibliothek, a German state library. Rabbi Aron Lebwohl, a brilliant yeshiva student, was tasked with cataloging the books.
From April 1941 to November 1942, Rabbi Lebwohl labored at his task. Well before completion, though, he was deported with the rest of the Lublin ghetto to Majdanek, the German concentration and extermination camp in Lublin province. According to Nazi records, Lebwohl went straight into the gas chambers. His catalogue has never been found.
The head librarian planned on sending sixty boxes of Lebwohl’s curated library books to Berlin, but none have been found in the city. That’s not to say they aren’t there.
“In my opinion,” Kopociowski told me, “the majority of the books left Lublin shortly before the city was entered by the Soviet troops. They may have been headed toward Warsaw or Silesia, or, as I think, most credibly, to Prague, where the Germans planned to locate their museum of the extinct race.”
In ‘The Book Thieves,’ Rydell has written to the contrary that the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), a special Nazi commando unit tasked with looting books and art from European institutions and private citizens, actually evacuated many of its purloined holdings to what is now Poland. Could the books still be somewhere in Poland? Wherever the books might be, searching through library stacks would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Conservative estimates suggest that hundreds of thousands of books stolen by the Germans are still unaccounted for. And of course some books, presumed casualties of aerial bombings, really might be gone for good.
In short, the books of Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin, amassed between 1923 and 1930 in a worldwide fundraising campaign that inspired millionaires and poor Jews alike, were lost in the fog of war. Or were they?
An astonishing observation about the whereabouts of the yeshiva books comes from Shnayer (Sid) Leiman, a former professor of Jewish Studies at Brooklyn College and the owner of a private Judaica library in Queens, N.Y. Earlier this year, he told me via email: “Rest assured that a goodly portion of the library has survived.”
Professor Leiman sent me a gorgeous picture of an 1871 work called Tuv Ta’am V’Daas. Four Lublin yeshiva book stamps are discernible on the upper portion of the image. Leiman writes that he owns four such books. “I’ve seen over the years perhaps 25 such volumes in other collections. There are surely more that I have not seen.”
Books bearing the stamp of the yeshiva or of the yeshiva’s founder also have turned up at auction houses and state libraries. For example, Alicja Koscian, a librarian at the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, sent me a list of thirty books housed in the JHI stacks.
I do not have the expertise to unravel the mystery of Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva’s lost books. Based on my reading and exchanges with academics and bibliophiles, though, I do not think the Germans burnt the books outright, especially as the books had resale value. It’s possible that some of the books still exist in library storerooms in Poland, Germany or the former Czechoslovakia.
Anybody investigating the travels and travails of the Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin library is going to get sucked into a labyrinth of conjecture and semi-plausibility. Sadly, the big question remains unanswered: How is it that so many Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin books — destined for a museum of an extinct race — are still being bought and sold all over the world?
Descendants of Lublin yeshiva students — I among them — would like to know. And so would Adam Kopociowski. “I’m just curious,” says the soft-spoken professor, who has never laid hands on even one book from the library. “If nothing else, the re-emergence of Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin’s books in Lublin would return something of the Jewish presence to a city that is vastly poorer for its loss.”
STORIES THAT WILL MAKE YOU SAY, “WOW, I DIDN'T KNOW THAT.”