The Elise and Helene Richter Collection:The story of books is always the story of people
In 1942 the Viennese philologists Elise and Helene Richter sold part of their private library to the University and City Library of Cologne. Only a few months later the two sisters were deported to Theresienstadt (Terezin) Concentration Camp, where they died shortly afterward. For the next almost 70 years no one in the Cologne library realized that this particular acquisition counted as “cultural assets lost as a result of Nazi persecution” – i.e. Nazi plunder.
In the course of the 1950s, the library worked to catch up on the cataloging of its wartime acquisitions. However, the 1941 contract of purchase in the sum of 2700 reichsmarks between Elise Richter and Cologne Library Director Hermann Corsten – whose great interest was linguistics – was overlooked, and the books were listed as a gift. A bitter irony!
A humble file
As the librarian responsible for historical collections, I began in 2005 to comb our holdings for Nazi plunder. Cologne University and City Library has the biggest collection of historical books in the German Federal State of North Rhine-Westphalia, but the wartime loss of inventory accounts still hinders the search for plundered works. It took two years for me to track down some 550 books from the Richter sisters’ library. A key role in that process was played by a slender file kept all those decades in the head librarian’s office. It contained letters and – as we discovered in the course of our research – some incomplete book lists of the Richter collection. Further research in various archives enabled me to piece together and document the history of this particular case of Nazi plunder.
Reconstructing a library
Parallel to our search we launched a portal documenting the project: the Elise and Helene Richter virtual library. As well as the current catalog, this presents a short As well as the current catalog, this presents a short biography of the two sisters, an account of the sale of the books, and a list of sites in Germany and abroad where items from the collection have been found.
Some years later, in 2016, the next step could be taken, and works from the once extensive collection were restored to the Richter sisters’ heirs in the UK, who agreed that the books should continue, in accordance with Elise Richter’s wishes, to serve the interests of science and scholarship. The collection has now been reconstituted under the shelf mark “RICH” in the Cologne library’s “Historical Collections” reading room.
Elise and Helene Richter
When Elise Richter was granted the venia legendi by the University of Vienna in 1907, she became the first woman reader at an Austrian (or German) university. For many years she taught Romance studies and linguistics and was a pioneer of phonetics.
Elise (left) and Helene Richter (© public domain)
Her teaching career stopped abruptly with the Anschluss (annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany) in 1938, and she was dismissed from the university, where she had lectured for 31 years, without a pension. Books she had already ordered were no longer reserved for her.
Elise’s elder sister Helene was a well-known writer and theater critic, a member of the German Shakespeare and Goethe societies, “biographer of Vienna’s Burgtheater” with a box permanently reserved for her (and her sister), and since 1931 a Freewoman of the City of Vienna. In that same year the universities of Heidelberg and Erlangen awarded her honorary doctorates. Together with Elise she held one of Viennese society’s last salons, where writers and artists, scientists and scholars, friends and admirers would meet weekly at their house.
Compulsory book sale
By November 1938 the sisters faced financial ruin. To pay the wealth tax, they had to cash in their funeral insurance and sell 100 of their most valuable books. “The truck that bore them away was the first of the hearses,” Elise Richter wrote in her first letter to Cologne on August 24, 1941.
The International Federation of University Women – parent organization of the Austrian Association of Academic Women co-founded by Richter – offered to help the sisters emigrate to England, but apart from a lack of the necessary funds for such a journey, they declined the offer, as they could not at their advanced age face living abroad as impoverished recipients of other people’s alms. They hoped to fulfill all the obligations imposed on Jews and to remain in their beloved Vienna, however much they might be harassed and isolated.
Elise Richter was also involved in local politics (© ÖNB)
But their hope was doomed to failure. The sisters were evicted from their house on March 10, 1942 and taken to a so-called Jewish home for the elderly. Elise Richter continued to write letters to Cologne, but that same month Adolf Eichmann ordered deportations of Jews to begin: 20,000 from Prague and 18,000 from Vienna. In October Elise and Helene Richter were among the 1321 Jews on the last transport from Vienna to Theresienstadt (Terezin). The concentration camp then held 58,000 inmates, the highest number ever. Conditions were indescribable, and Helene Richter died six weeks later on November 8, 1942. The cause of death was recorded as intestinal catarrh. After her sister’s death, Elise endured the vermin, malnutrition, sickness and inner torment for another eight months. She died on June 21, 1943. Cause of death: intestinal catarrh and pneumonia.
The last letter in the file (dated March 16, 1943) is an invoice for 500 reichsmarks submitted to the Austrian National Library – for whom Hermann Corsten had acted (albeit without their knowledge) in the purchase of the sisters’ autograph collection – by the University and City Library of Cologne. The Viennese library paid up, but Elise and Helene Richter never received the money for their books.
The story of books is always also the story of people, and in this way the research of the Cologne librarians has led to the life-story of the Viennese sisters. The books from their once so wide and learned collection testify to the depth of their scholarship and the extent of their social network. Today, the story of the two women and their library is among the best known outcomes of provenience research of Nazi plunder in Austria and Germany.
Dr. Christiane Hoffrath is Head of Historical Holdings and Collections, Conservation and Digitization at the University and City Library of Cologne.
Literature: Christiane Hoffrath: Bücherspuren. Das Schicksal von Elise und Helene Richter und ihrer Bibliothek im Dritten Reich (Tracking down books. The fate of Elise and Helene Richter and their library in the Third Reich). Cologne: Böhlau, 2010.
Christiane Hoffrath: Bibliotheksdirektor im Nationalsozialismus. Hermann Corsten und die Universitäts- und Stadtbibliothek Köln (Library Director during the National Socialist era. Hermann Corsten and the University and City Library of Cologne). Cologne: USB, 2012.
© Title image: public domain