In The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe’s Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance (translated by Henning Koch), Anders Rydell takes a counter-clockwise journey across Europe to learn more about the lesser known theft of books by Nazis during the Second World War. Rydell begins in Berlin before heading off to Amsterdam, Paris, Rome, Thessaloniki, and Vilnius. Along the way, he visits libraries—primarily Jewish libraries—that are still trying to reclaim books that were stolen over 70 years ago. As Rydell depicts matters, returning books to their rightful owners is a nearly futile task no matter how worthwhile.
The Book Thieves is a meandering book. Often, the libraries Rydell visits are just a launching point for a long discussion about the origins of the libraries, pre-World War II Jewish communities, and the evolution of Nazi ideology. Early in the book, Rydell answers questions about why the Nazis were so keen to pack up entire Jewish and émigré libraries and ship them back to Germany. During the 1933s, prominent Nazis like Heinrich Himmler and Alfred Rosenberg were working to create an environment of total information control. What people would know was what the government would allow them to know. In order to do that, they had to make sure that no one would have access to other points of view. So they would steal libraries and erase the collected histories of entire communities. On top of that, the Nazis deposited many of the books in places like the Institute for Study of the Jewish Question in Frankfurt, where Nazi “scientists” would alter actual history, culture, literature, and so on to create an entirely new version of reality.
Very little of The Book Thieves is about actually returning books because it’s so difficult to trace ownership. In many cases, librarians working in German libraries would remove owners’ marks when they added stolen books to their collections. Sometimes an ex libris bookplate or some initials would remain that modern librarians could trace back to their original owners. The scenes Rydell includes about owners or the owners’ descendants received a stolen book were truly touching and served as a powerful reminder that, no matter how hopeless it might seem, it is absolutely worthwhile to try and make restitution even after all these years.
I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 7 February 2017.