In the spring of 1946, Zalman Grinberg and Josef Rosenzaft, representatives of Jewish Holocaust survivors and Displaced Persons (DPs) in the American and British zones of post-World War II Europe, respectively, visited the United States. “Bread alone is not enough,” they poignantly pleaded to American Jews, “Send us poets, writers and singers to show us that Jewish life is not dead.”
Reports from others close to the wreckage of post-Holocaust Europe also emphasized that despite the acute need for sustenance and shelter, the cultural hunger of survivors was often even greater than their physical hunger. According to the World Jewish Congress (WJC), survivors recognized that “courage and strength could only be found in the living wellspring of Jewish culture and learning.” As that wellspring had been all but depleted by the anti-Jewish pillage and murderous violence that characterized Hitler’s brutal reign, its revitalization would signify liberation from the crushing weight of fascism, and would satisfy the existential need for culture that exploded in the wake of the mass devastation.
Survivors had a voracious appetite for books in particular. Openly visiting a library or purchasing a book, reading and learning what, when, how and with whom one wishes, are emblematic activities of a free and civilized existence, one that European Jews were impatient to re-embark upon after having been deprived of liberty or normality for well over a decade.
Although the effort has been largely forgotten today, those concerned about the future of European Jewry had begun planning for the renewal of its vibrant cultural life even before it was possible for messages like that of Grinberg and Rosenzaft to be voiced or heard. Contrary to the widely held notion that virtually all surviving Jewish life and heritage fled or was shipped out of postwar Europe at the earliest possible opportunity, in fact vessels carrying Jewish texts were virtually passing each other, traveling to and from Europe and America, between about 1945 and 1951.
The WJC Book Supply Scheme, the American Joint Distribution Committee’s (JDC) S.O.S. (Supplies for Overseas Survivors) Books, and similar but smaller programs run by Agudas Israel World Organization, the American Jewish Committee, the United Jewish Educational and Cultural Organization, among others, had ambitious programs to provide books, libraries and education for surviving youth and adults in Europe. These were directed not only at the most visible and accessible Jewish population overflowing into and out of Allied-run DP camps, but also at Jewish survivors and surviving Jewish communities in virtually every war-impacted European country, from Belgium to Bulgaria, France to Romania.
Urgent appeals, such as, “Do You Have Jewish Books? The DPs Want Them Desperately” in the National Jewish Post, appeared throughout the Anglo-American Jewish press. While there is no one simple or standard definition of a “Jewish book,” to donors and recipients at the time, the books in question were either in Hebrew or Yiddish, or had specific Jewish content or context.
To illustrate, a WJC brochure requested specifically: “Hebrew and Yiddish classics; Books on Jewish History and Jewish social problems; Light Literature in Yiddish and Hebrew; Text-books for children in Hebrew; Song-books for Children and Adults in Yiddish and Hebrew; Books on Jewish topics in any European language; Text-books for Jewish University students.” Religious and reference books were also important, as were periodicals and professional literature.
In response, donations poured in from college and university students, synagogue sisterhoods, organizations such as Habonim, the National Jewish Workers Alliance and the Jewish Educational Committee, as well as from libraries and institutions. For years, librarian Gertrude Finkel at the Hamilton Fish Park Lower East Side branch of the New York Public Library managed a steady stream of donations from the library and its patrons.
By 1950, several hundred thousand books had been widely distributed to Jewish organizations, schools and libraries throughout Europe, which then gifted or loaned them to individuals and groups. The books were reported to be “literally devoured” and never sufficient in number. They offered survivors a means to connect with aspects of a traditional European Jewish past, virtually annihilated by the Nazis, as well as a means to begin looking toward and constructing a new future. Perhaps most importantly, the book projects acknowledged the continued existence and cultural needs of Jews in post-Holocaust Europe. A brief note from a survivor in Warsaw expressed the grateful sentiment that many felt, “Please accept our heartfelt thanks for remembering us and for sending the books. There can be no better gift.”
Much of the urgency to give and receive books stemmed from the pessimistic belief that European Jewry’s entire literary heritage had been wiped out. In January 1945, American Jewish community leader Arieh Tartakower stated, “There are no Hebrew or Yiddish books in the European countries.” A June 1945 press release quoted WJC President Rabbi Stephen Wise saying, “The Nazi barbarians have destroyed everything culturally Jewish ... Not only public libraries but libraries of private individuals have been made to disappear.” Similarly, in mid-1947 in Great Britain, Hester Roseman wrote, “In many countries it is now difficult to find anything in Hebrew script.” And as late as November 1948, Wolf Blattberg of the WJC wrote, “It seems that the destruction of books during the war was so complete that actually nothing was left.”
Such statements circulated even as Allied forces discovered stores of Hebraica and Judaica, Jewish cultural material stolen but not in fact destroyed by the Nazis, thanks in part to the trophy-collecting and “research” impulses of Hitler and his henchmen. While far too many Jewish books had been lost forever, those that could be were restituted as quickly as possible to their original institutional or individual owners, or to any surviving relations. For a significant portion, no such recipients could be identified or found.
These books were variously referred to as “unclaimed,” “heirless,” “unidentifiable” or, as in historian Lucy Dawidowicz’s preferred terminology, “without ascertainable ownership.” Out of these, JDC representatives, including Dawidowicz, selected 25,000 duplicates and general interest books for DPs. Most of world Jewry believed the remainder, and in particular any valuable, rare and unique items, should be transferred to institutions in the United States and Palestine, then Israel, the new centers of Jewish life. The enormous post-Holocaust Jewish migration to these countries of people and artifacts, including books, accelerated with the growing threat of Communism, but not, as commonly believed, entirely without question or contest.
In one little-known example of contestation, Jewish leaders and librarians representing the Jewish Community of Prague’s Library, Amsterdam’s Jewish Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana and the Jewish Bibliotheca Simonseniana of Copenhagen’s Royal Library, maintained that it was “desirable” for some portion of the heirless books to remain “accessible for Jewish studies in Europe.” Individually, each proposed a new central Jewish library be built within post-Holocaust Europe. Under the auspices of the nascent United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), it was hoped that the international and cooperative, and emphatically Jewish, character of such a library would be ensured.
Why should the surviving bulk of Europe’s rich and historic Jewish cultural heritage be removed from Europe, proponents asked, when Jewish communities and respectable Jewish institutions, including their own distinguished libraries, remained alive and dedicated to a future within Europe? Denmark, in particular, argued that it had protected the majority of its Jews during the Holocaust and had kept the Bibliotheca Simonseniana and other valuable Jewish collections out of Nazi hands. Nevertheless, for the leading organizations of world Jewry, as the site of the Holocaust and due to its drastically reduced and declining Jewish population, Europe was no longer and would never again be a Jewish center. As such, it had neither right to nor need for the books requested for the proposed library. The prevailing position was that European Jewry’s surviving cultural heritage should be accessible to the majority of the world’s surviving Jews where they were going to live, study and work, which was no longer in Europe.
Today, Jewish life and culture in Europe is on an upswing. The recently launched Judaica Europeana project, for example, led by a consortium of Jewish libraries, museums and historical societies throughout Europe, seeks to identify and centralize access to and knowledge about Jewish content in European collections. As the Jewish expansion in Europe continues to surprise and perplex many Jews elsewhere, it is worth remembering those who were committed to the renewal of European Jewry even in the immediate aftermath of its attempted annihilation. Their hope that books and libraries would contribute to the revival of former cultural and intellectual institutions and to the creation of new ones that would both honor European Jewry’s past and ensure its future, is perhaps finally coming to fruition.
Miriam Intrator is a doctoral candidate in modern European and Jewish history at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Her dissertation examines UNESCO's role in library and book-related cultural reconstruction projects in post-World War II Europe. She has a master's in library science.