Similar to how it is these days, with a labeled fashion line with one’s name, back in the old days, well-known artists would use an ex-libris instead (Including those who didn’t have such a talent for drawing).
Nazi Germany; Nazis’ victims, among them mostly Jews, are sent to the ghettos. Their houses are confiscated together with the property inside.
The first ones to loot the property were the Gestapo. Whatever they didn’t steal has been auctioned. But works of art and books were special – there was a specific order regarding these properties: universities and libraries had the right of veto for every work of such, and if they would declare its research need/uniqueness to the declaring institute – the work would be given to that institute immediately, without any required payment.
Subsequently, after the 2nd world war, Germany’s main universities held hundreds of thousands of books that have been looted from the houses and institutions of the Nazis’ victims. Most of the books and works of art haven’t been burnt, as we’ve been told by today’s history teaching clichés. The libraries, archives, and museums were the receivers of these books.
Furthermore, books that have been stolen from the victims’ homes, have been found in the hands of thousands of dealers and ordinary people, reaching them in various different ways. Some were even sold to these people by the Jews before fleeing Europe, in a “legit” way.
In Bremen, a prominent German port city, there was wide access to these confiscated books.
As a port city, many Jews have passed through it while escaping from Germany. But with the break of war, many German ships with the passengers’ property have been called back to the German port, to avoid the risk of being attacked by British vessels. All of their containing property has been placed in city warehouses. Then these properties were confiscated by the Gestapo.
That’s how many Jews who’ve escaped from Germany never got their property, which they’ve sent separately,
In 1942, the property was publicly auctioned. By exercising its veto right, Bremen’s main library got 40% of the books from this auction.
All of the books that have been received in this auction were marked as JPA – Jewish Public Auction.
In 2016, Maria Hermes, an employee of the main library of the free German city of Bremen, discovered a box full of orphaned ex-libris – without the books, for which they’ve served as an inner cover.
Back in 1998, 44 countries signed a treaty in Washington, calling to locate and return to their owners the works of art that have been looted in the 2nd world war. This initiative began in the United States, looking to locate works of art in Switzerland, that has been looted by the Nazis. It then followed by local initiatives in Germany to locate works of art, in museums and libraries, that have also been looted from the Nazis’ victims.
Many libraries started looking for books in their possession that have been received between 1933-1948. As a result of public pressure in the city of Bremen, a campaign to locate these books has begun in the early 90’s. The campaign focused primarily on 1600 books that have been marked with the letters JPA. Out of the 1600 books, 330 had an indication of who owned them, and 275 of them have been returned to their true owners.
Most of the books belonged to Jews living in the United States. Communicating with them wasn’t easy, especially during the pre-internet 90’s. Many thought it was a scam and didn’t reply to the letters from Bremen. Some asked to leave the past behind and let the books remain in the library that looted them. Others asked to donate the books to their cities of birth in Germany.
Volker Kirsovious, the person in charge of the campaign in Bremen, went over every single book with his students, identifying every possible clue, and locating the true owners in every possible way, trying to convince them that Germany is making an effort to locate the owner of every single book, regardless of how much it may be worth, in order to return every work of art that has been looted.
In our time, it seems unusual.
Back to 2016. Maria Hermes turns to the person in charge, in the main library of Bremen, with a question – “are the ex-librises themselves also considered stolen property?”
Volker checked the ex-librises and came across one that was especially unique: on the page was drawn a boy holding books, and he is sitting in the German island Helgoland. On the top was written, “from the library of Irma and George Baruch”.
Walker started investigating and discovered that the ex-libris came to the library on a book that was stolen from the library in the 60’s. According to the ex-libris, this book belonged to Irma and George Baruch from Hamburg.
Coincidentally, that same day, Ms. Hilgart Thieves visited the library in Bremen. Ms. Thieves is active in laying the stumbling blocks – the Stolperstein – in Hamburg, and she is writing part the biographies of those victims whose names respect those blocks. Walker tells her about the Baruch couple, which reminds her of the biography she wrote on them several years ago. She refers him to the history of the Baruch family in Hamburg and tells him one more detail – The Baruch couple’s great-grandson lives in Hamburg these days.
Walker immediately sends me an email.
At that time, I was busy working on the exhibition with the paintings of my grandmother’s younger sister Marion Baruch from 1936 in Hamburg.
Actually (and this is a topic for another post), the same week of the exhibition, which was supposed to be the highlight of the family research conducted in the last few years, 12 other books have been discovered in Stuttgart’s main library, in the same project, thanks to that ex-libris. On that same week, coincidentally, a copy of the same ex-libris has also been discovered in Bremen.
Every book matters
December 2017. I arrive at Bremen’s main library. In an intimate ceremony, I receive the ex-libris. Those in charge of the campaign feel moved: Here, We have returned another piece of property that has been looted by the Nazis. It isn’t even a book. Just the ex-libris that was stuck on it. A small piece of paper – with a significant emotional value.
As a gesture, they located another copy of the book that was stolen – a book that was printed in 1922. Guess what the topic of the book, on which the ex-libris was stamped, was? "ex-librises".
In my great grandfather’s library, there were 2000 books. Until now, 12 books have been located in Stuttgart, and 1 ex-libris in Bremen.
The campaign to search and locate every single book, tens of thousands of which are located across libraries all over Germany, giving significance to each, while most of them have no economic value whatsoever – is inspiring. Every book carries its glory, especially when we are dealing with that war. Every work symbolizes a different life – A life that happened a bit before every story from that time turned in to a story of death and sorrow.
And the legacy goes on – a few weeks ago my cousin decided to print a copy of that ex-libris and stick it on her personal library – a single copy on a library that contains thousands of books – her kindle.
I have the wish, to color (copy of) this ex-libris, with computer graphic colors that we can use these days, and bring it back to life, in my library.