Rare Book Monthly

Articles - February - 2023 Issue

Books Looted 80 Years Ago Returned

Heinrich Klang.

It is always good news when books, stolen long ago, are finally returned to their rightful owners. A few weeks back, four such books were returned 80 years after they were looted. However, it highlights just how massive the problem is and how hard it is to make significant progress, particularly when the thefts occurred long ago.


These four books were looted from an Austrian Jewish judge and associate professor by Nazis after Germany annexed Austria in 1938. They belonged to Dr. Heinrich Klang, the judge and instructor, having inherited them from his father in 1914. Klang had his teaching license revoked by the Nazis and was forced to retire. He had little choice but to sell his books to the notorious Nazi bookseller, the Antiquarian and Export Bookstore of Alfred Wolf in Vienna.


Wolf specialized in selling books looted from people sent to concentration camps. He had worked for Hans Peter Kraus, a dealer in Vienna. After the annexation, Wolf denounced Kraus, who was Jewish, to authorities, leading to his deportation to the concentration camps at Dachau and Buchenwald. Wolf took over his shop and inventory. After eight months in concentration camps, Kraus was released on the condition he leave the country (this was 1939 before the beginning of the mass exterminations in the camps). He came to America, his books left behind, settled in New York, again started a bookselling business, and became one of the most important booksellers of the twentieth century, H. P. Kraus.


In an earlier case, the Art Restitution Advisory Board quoted Klang as saying, “So as not to suddenly find myself in an impossible position, I began slowly to liquidate my possessions. The most difficult was to part with my library, which my father had already started compiling...” In 1942, he was sent to the Theresienstadt ghetto in Czechoslovakia. Around 33,000 people died there but Dr. Klang was not one of them. He survived the war, returning to Vienna in 1945. He died in 1954 but never reclaimed his books, which would have been beyond difficult at that time. Authorities had little interest and the books were dispersed to parts unknown.


These books were finally located in the Bremen State and University Library in Germany. They were discovered as part of the Looted Cultural Property project. Volker Cirsovius examined library acquisitions made between 1933-1948. These books contained ownership labels of James Klang, Heinrich Klang's father who bequeathed them to his son. Eight libraries in Austria and Germany have banded together to conduct this research and return as many books as possible to their rightful owners.


While it is a noble task, attempting to right terrible wrongs, the reality is that success here is likely to be very limited compared to the number of books looted by the Nazis. In 2008, Der Spiegel published an article on the process. At the time, they said there were hundreds of thousands of such books, perhaps a million. In 2019, the New York Times also described the situation. They said in the previous 10 years around 30,000 books had been returned to owners, heirs and institutions. However, the Times also estimated there could be 3.5 million stolen books. Four at a time will hardly make a dent in the problem. A great many of these books are hiding in plain sight, in German libraries. Some were taken after the war by the Soviets. Now we learn that the Russians are at it again in Ukraine. When Kherson was liberated recently, Ukrainians discovered valuable books and art missing from their libraries and museums.


Der Spiegel said in 2008 that many libraries had shown little interest in dealing with the issue. When you have possessed someone else's property for a long time, you come to think of it as your own. However, even if there is interest, the task is still daunting. Libraries are often understaffed, making additional responsibilities difficult. Many books do not have ownership identifying markings, or perhaps once did but they were removed. Even if they do, identifying the person of that name can be difficult, and if there is an address, the person or family is unlikely still to be there. A great many of the owners were murdered by the Nazis, and of those who did survive the concentration camps, very few would still be alive today. That requires tracking down the heirs, but identifying and locating them is also very difficult. Survivors and heirs of German and other European Jews often left for other countries. They could be anywhere, scattered in different places, and trying to identify all of them and get them to agree on what to do with the books presents additional challenges. The efforts are worthy and justice is always the right ending, but accomplishing the return of millions of books to rightful owners 80 years later is virtually impossible. Even returning a small percentage is difficult, but justice requires every effort be made.


In the case of Dr. Klang's books, the heirs agreed to have the books turned over to a private individual. That person will, in turn, give them to the Supreme Court of Vienna.

Posted On: 2023-02-16 19:28
User Name: Bkwoman

The looting was appalling, but the burning of books was even worse.

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