Who Knew? Did the Nazis burn the books of Lublin?

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Bar­bara Finkel­stein

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.”


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