- Elisabeth Gallas
Library in Transit: Offenbach Archival Depot 1946-1949
In the short time in which it existed, the Archival Depot established in 1946 by the American Military Government in Offenbach (near Frankfurt on Main, Germany) gathered together some three million books of Jewish provenance from all over Europe. The depot resembled a warehouse more than a library. The books not only bore witness to the level of destruction of Jewish culture perpetrated by the Nazis, they were often the only surviving relics of their former owners, whether individuals or institutions. In an unprecedented action, the staff of the Archival Depot, along with representatives of Jewish organizations and of the countries victimized by Nazi plundering, succeeded in identifying and ordering these holdings and preparing their restitution. The Offenbach Depot contained books in more than 20 languages from more than 15 countries. These holdings were eventually restored to their owners, or if that was no longer possible, distributed among the new centers of Jewish life outside Europe.
The Archival Depot was located on the former premises of an IG Farben chemicals plant in Offenbach. Books, manuscripts, incunabula, and other objects of Jewish origin plundered by the Nazis were piled there in tidy blocks (see photo above) or packed in crates. At the same time the American journal Jewish Social Studiespublished a 100-page list of every significant Jewish library, collection, and cultural institute that had existed in continental Europe before the National Socialist era. This proved of crucial importance. Taken together, these two aspects demonstrated, as if under a magnifying glass, the enormity of the destruction of Jewish life and culture executed by the Nazis. The extent and breadth of European Jewish knowledge and bibliophile culture was meticulously documented for twenty different countries in the Tentative List of Jewish Cultural Treasures in Axis Occupied Countries. This was one side of the picture; the other was the piles of books and treasures in the Offenbach factory buildings – the material remnants of a once vibrant cultural landscape.
Photo: © Yad Vashem
Before the war had even ended, a special American army group, the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Unit (MFA&A), was established to seek out and retrieve plundered cultural artifacts from all over Europe. Artworks, ritual objects, and library and archival holdings found in more than 1700 different hiding places were assembled at special collecting points. These served as bases from which, in mid-1945, the American Military Government launched one of the biggest cultural restitution projects history had seen.
Offenbach Archival Depot was set up as the central American collecting point for plundered Jewish cultural goods. In the course of its existence the depot harbored millions of books, journals and manuscripts, as well as thousands of Torah rolls, and quantities of textiles and silverware discovered by the soldiers. In fall 1945 the MFA&A found a large cache in Hungen, north-east of Frankfurt, where the notorious Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg had deposited much of the contents of the libraries they had plundered throughout Europe. This discovery made it necessary to establish a special collecting point just for books and manuscripts, and was the immediate reason for the Offenbach Depot, which opened in March 1946.
Photo: © Yad Vashem
A temporary library
The news of the Offenbach collection aroused great hopes in Jewish communities worldwide – many reports spoke of “the biggest Jewish library in Europe". Against this background the Herculean labor of restoring the collections to their rightful owners began. The Tentative List from New York was a great help in this respect, and its authors played a leading role in negotiating Jewish claims. However, the overall process also had to take account of the Allied Paris Reparations Agreement of 1946, which regulated the restitution of identifiable plunder to its country of origin in accordance with international norms.
Flea market find (photo: private)
It was relatively feasible to restore Western European collections in Offenbach – like the famous Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana from Amsterdam or the library of the École Rabbinique in Paris – to their original homes in line with ratified procedures. The countries concerned were manifestly making efforts to re-establish Jewish life irrespective of hindrances, and the orderly restitution of books and other cultural items was possible. However, this was not the case with the extensive holdings from Germany or the holdings from Central and Eastern Europe, which were often only with difficulty identifiable. The Jewish participants in the process were unwilling to grant the greatly reduced Jewish communities in Germany more than the minimum of this material, let alone transfer it other German libraries, where it might well serve to enrich former persecutors.
This book from the Offenbach Archival Depot is now in the library of the Israelitische Cultusgemeinde Zürich (picture: © ICZ)
Nor could it be assumed that items returned to Poland, the Soviet Union or Czechoslovakia (as it then was) would ever be restored to their Jewish owners: most survivors had fled these countries and almost the entire Jewish infrastructure had been destroyed. The asymmetry between the quantities of books held in Offenbach and the decimated Jewish communities of Eastern Europe was overwhelming, and the looming Cold War enhanced Western skepticism regarding cooperation with East European political representatives.
Nevertheless, a certain level of eastward restitution did take place from Offenbach. This stimulated leading rabbis and scholars like Leo Baeck, Gershom Scholem, Salo W. Baron and Cecil Roth to propose a different logical solution for unidentifiable holdings, or those with no evident heirs. They argued energetically that such collections – especially if they came from Eastern Europe – should be sent to countries where the Jewish refugees now lived.
Gershom Scholem was one of the scholars who campaigned for the Offenbach book treasure (picture: commons.wikimedia.org)
After all, it was those communities that would likely need and use them. This plan, however, also required negotiation. Finally, in February 1949, Salo Baron and his companions in New York managed to establish a trustee organization to receive holdings from Offenbach and pass these on to Israel, the USA, the United Kingdom, South America, South Africa, and Australia.
Books and memory
Just as Jewish survivors from across Europe found refuge after the war in the American zone of occupied Germany and briefly formed a transit center of Jewish life, so Offenbach’s “library in transit” represented a temporary center of Jewish scholarship on European soil, before the surviving collections were distributed worldwide. But, as many confronted with the depot related, Offenbach also bore striking witness to the recent history of annihilation. Visitors likened it to a memorial, or even a cemetery, rather than a place of learning. The MFAA officer Leslie Poste spoke for many when he wrote:
„These books and objects were what was left of the hundreds of Jewish institutions of learning, of Jewish communities, wiped out by the Holocaust of Hitlerism. Few can fathom the depth of the Jewish tragedy of which these remnants stood as sad memorial.”
At the same time, the rescue of the books associated with the name of Offenbach awakened definite hopes. As well as the work of remembrance, they stood for the continuity and future perspectives of Jewish cultural life after the rupture. Today books with the Offenbach Depot stamp can be found in every corner of the globe – a stamp that tells of destruction, rescue, and survival.
Dr. Elisabeth Gallas is Deputy Director and Head of the Research Unit “Law” at the Leibniz Institute for Jewish History and Culture – Simon Dubnow in Lepizig.
Further reading: Elisabeth Gallas, A Mortuary of Books. The Rescue of Jewish Culture after the Holocaust, New York, NY: New York University Press 2019
© Title image: Yad Vashem