Out Feb 7, 2017

The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe's Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance - Anders Rydell, Henning Koch

Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley.


                Recently, I attended the 2017 MLA conference.  There were several panels, more like hundreds and while some of them were a little dull, many of the ones I attended were awesome.  One of the best was a panel about the destruction or taking of the libraries those a nation conquers.  The focus was largely on the Israel/Palestine question in terms of those libraries (and the panel had to be hastily resembled apparently), but the points raised are good ones.  Want to control or destroy a people, want to control a narrative?  You must control the literature to do this.  You must control access and literary as well.


                It’s like art, and after all, literature is part of the arts.


                Over the past several years, there have been various movies and books about the Nazis obsession with art.  Usually that definition of art has been defined as the visual arts – paintings, sculptures -  yet some writers, such as Lynn H. Nicholas do mention and go into some detail about the Nazis confiscating of the Torah.  Outside of this, mention of the destruction of Jewish books, there has been little in general history, and perhaps just English, about the Nazis derive to get books, to raid libraries.  Anders Rydell’s book, The Book Thieves, addresses this.


                Rydell looks at the Nazi’s looting, not just of Jewish libraries, but of city and country libraries and archives.  He also looks at those libraries that gained volumes, sometimes huge collections because of the circumstances of invasion and looting.  The story starts as many book stories do – with a book that is at its heart a mystery.  Any buyer or reader of a previously owned or used book, there sometimes is a mystery about the previous owner – an inscription, a bookplate, underlining – something that is a clue about the before.   Rydell is part of returning this book to a descendent of the original owner.  


                The book itself traces not only the vanishing of private libraries but the battle to save and smuggle books to safety.  The books in danger include religious works, fiction, and old manuscripts.  The stories are at times inspiring - as the German librarians who are determined to trace the owners or their descendants of books that the library gain though less than moral means.    At times the stories are depressing, such as the Italian library that lost its treasures and has yet to find them.  There are the Dutch who brave death to save works.


                Rydell’s book adds another and important layer to the history of the Nazi attack on culture.