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Holocaust Restitution: Library of Congress Acquisitions in Post-War Germany

(November 24, 1999)

During the U.S. military occupation of Germany, the Library of Congress (LOC) acquired tens of thousands of volumes from Germany. Most of these were Nazi materials seized by the Allied occupation authorities. Others had been looted by the Nazis from their Jewish owners and later captured by the Allies. At a meeting of U.S. Government officials in December 1996, an allegation was made that during the U.S. occupation, the LOC Mission in Germany may have improperly taken some looted Jewish books from a U.S.-controlled archive in Germany, before they could be restituted.

In 1997, the Office of Special Investigations (OSI) of the Department of Justice, concerned that this allegation might have merit,1 began a comprehensive study of the records of the U.S. military government in Germany and of the LOC to determine if the Library had improperly acquired Holocaust-era looted books. During this investigation, no evidence was found suggesting that the LOC had acted improperly in acquiring books or other materials in Germany. The 55-page OSI report of this investigation (September 1999) concludes that the LOC acted both legally and ethically in these acquisitions. The staff of the President's Commission on Holocaust-Era Assets in the United States (PCHA) concurs in this conclusion.2 All parties agree, however, that the LOC collection includes books – most notably some 5700 acquired through the agency of Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Inc – looted by the Nazis from Jews, which could not be restituted because there was no evidence of rightful ownership. Discussions continue between the PCHA and the LOC on how to acknowledge these holdings.3 The introductory and concluding sections of the OSI report are reproduced, below.4

At a meeting of the Interagency Working Group on Nazi Assets in December 1996, the fate of books looted by the Nazis from their Jewish owners and captured by American armed forces late in the war was raised. Soldiers from the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section of the First U.S. Army controlled these materials and routed them to a collection center near Frankfurt, the Offenbach Archival Depot, for processing. According to an agreement among the victorious Allied nations, these cultural items were to be returned to the country of origin and subsequently to their rightful owners. At the December [1996] meeting, it was suggested that Lester Born, an archivist serving in the U.S. Army and connected to the Offenbach Archival Depot, had in the late 1940s written a memorandum on activities of representatives of the Library of Congress (LOC). He had allegedly maintained that some members of the LOC Mission examined the books held in Offenbach and removed for its collection items before the materials could be restituted. Following the end of the Second World War a delegation from the Library of Congress was based in Germany where its main function was the purchase of books and periodicals.

To determine if the LOC Mission had in fact taken manuscripts, rare and valuable books, or any other publications before the possible restitution of them a search of the records of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section of the U.S. military government in Germany (OMGUS) at the National Archives and the records of the Library of Congress Mission at the Library of Congress was undertaken.5

This investigation had the following objectives: (1) describe the procedure by which the books looted by the Nazis from their Jewish owners were handled by the American military government in Germany, (2) determine the procedure adopted for the restoration of the materials to their country of origin and ultimately to the proper owners, (3) ascertain if the Library of Congress Mission had in fact identified and removed for its collections books looted by the Nazis before they could be properly restituted, (4) locate any memorandum prepared by Major Lester Born relevant to this issue, and (5) identify other organizations that expressed interest in the unrestituted books, particularly material whose owners could not be identified, the so-called heirless property. As the research progressed additional objectives were added, including: (6) describe how the issue of the heirless books was resolved, (7) discuss the procedure for distributing the heirless books and the organizations that participated, and (8) identify those institutions that received these materials....

Conclusion: By 1951 the efforts to find the owners of Jewish cultural and religious materials looted by the Nazis and the restitution of these items had largely been completed in Europe. The remaining books were turned over to the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction Commission for distribution to libraries and institutions where they would continue to benefit Jewish communities.6 Judging from the available documentation in the National Archives and in the archives of the Library of Congress, the restitution of books to their proper owners was handled with diligence, care, and respect, and characterized by close attention to existing regulations.

Throughout, the Library of Congress and its Mission in Germany was called upon to play an important role. It had long represented American libraries in Europe and following the war gained new responsibilities. The cables, letters and memoranda produced by the Mission and Luther Evans, the Librarian of Congress, reveal the care with which his organization approached the matter of looted books and Jewish cultural items seized by the Nazis. In particular, Evans stated repeatedly that the Library of Congress would not accept any such books. The materials received from the Offenbach Archival Depot in the Spring of 1946, books from the working library of the [Nazi] Institute for Research on the Jewish Question, came only after clearance from the [office of] General Lucius Clay, the Deputy Military Governor, and after a thorough review. The Library of Congress Mission in Germany was more interested in obtaining materials generated by the Nazis, materials that were not to be left in Germany on orders of the occupation government and which otherwise [would have been] destroyed.

During the course of research for this report, no documentation was located in the records of the MFA&A at the National Archives or of the Library of Congress Mission at the Library of Congress that suggested or stated that agents or representatives of the Library of Congress had acted inappropriately in securing books and other materials before they could be restituted to their proper owners.

The disposition of the books that could not be restituted, the heirless or unidentifiable materials, came after long negotiations and serious thought by the responsible military authorities and interested civilian institutions. The transfer of the remaining books to the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Inc. was a fair and thoughtful resolution, one that ensured that the texts and cultural items stolen by the Nazis from Jewish libraries and collections throughout occupied Europe, centers of Judaism that had been wiped out by the Nazis, would continue to serve their intended purpose. Of the more than 150,000 items distributed in the United States by the JCR, the Library of Congress received 5,708. The new centers of Jewish life and learning in the United States and Israel, the communities they served, and a couple [of] dozen Jewish libraries were the benefactors of this operation.

*Prepared by Stuart D. Goldman, Specialist in Russian Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division.

1Conversation with Dr. Robert G. Waite, Senior Historian and principal OSI investigator in this matter, November 18, 1999.

2Conversation with Kenneth Klothen, Executive Director, PCHA, November 18, 1999.

3Discussions with PCHA and LOC officials, November 1999.

4The Handling of Looted Books in the American Zone of Occupation, 1944-1951: A Draft Report Prepared by the Office of Special Investigations, U.S. Department of Justice, September 1999, p. 1-2, 53-55, reproduced with permission of the author, Robert G. Waite.

5The records of the Monuments, Fine Arts & Archives Section are part of Record Group 260 of the collections of the National Archives, Washington, DC, and the materials from the Mission are held as the "European Mission and Cooperative Acquisitions Project," Library of Congress, Manuscript Division , Washington, D.C.

6On the end of these operations, see "Subject: Liquidation of Property Division," Office of the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, June 27, 1951, NA RG 260, Box 66.

Source: Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress for the U.S. House International Relations Committee.