Friday, February 3, 2017

The Book Thieves

The Book Thieves by Anders Rydell, Henning Koch (Translator)
Penguin Publishing Group: 2/7/17
eBook review copy; 368 pages
ISBN-13: 9780735221222

The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe's Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance by Anders Rydell, Henning Koch (Translator) is a very highly recommended well researched account of the Nazis' systematic pillaging of Europe's libraries and the librarians that are now working to return the books to their rightful owners or heirs. This is a well-written, fascinating look at crimes of the past and how some people are working to rectify them. Rydell visited many of the libraries that are still in the process of sorting through the stolen books.

The Book Thieves
is a story of the looting and dispersal, as well as the burning and destruction, of of thousands of libraries and millions of individual books during WWII. As the description of The Book Thieves says: "In this secret war, the libraries of Jews, Communists, Liberal politicians, LGBT activists, Catholics, Freemasons, and many other opposition groups were appropriated for Nazi research, and used as an intellectual weapon against their owners. But when the war was over, most of the books were never returned. Instead many found their way into the public library system, where they remain to this day."

Libraries that were built up over generations helped form "the cultural, linguistic, and identity-defining heart of communities, families, and individuals. Libraries that were irreplaceable in their own right - a reflection of the people and societies that once created and nurtured them." When these collections were stolen, and dispersed or burned, it was stealing the cultural identity of families and groups. "Robbing people of words and narrative is a way of imprisoning them. Books are rarely unique in the same way as works of art, but they have a value that so many more people can understand. In our time, the book has retained a symbolic value that is almost spiritual. Discarding books is still considered sacrilegious. The burning of books is one of the strongest symbolic actions there is, correlating with cultural destruction. While mainly identified with the Nazi book pyres of 1933, the symbolic destruction of literature is as old as the book itself."

The Nazis understood that to control people and their beliefs, they needed to control the literature. Mind control, the quest for a hive-mind mentality, and punishing those who don't comply is nothing new. In contrast, there were people who risked their lives to try and save parts of their literary inheritance. They understood that "the theft of their literary culture was a way of robbing them of their history, their humanity, and, in the final analysis, any possibility of remembrance." These people hid old manuscripts, important religious works, and even diaries.

While this is about the history of the Nazis' looting, burning, and control of millions of books, it is also a hopeful account about the people who are currently trying to catalogue the vast number of these stolen books and find a way to return those they can (because of identifying marks, plates, notes, names, etc.) to their original owners. It is a daunting task, especially since over the years it is clear that librarians have cut out identifying pages or deface marks identifying original owners. It was heartening to see that Google is helping this effort - when people are searching for ancestors, they can come across information about their family's confiscated books. Even though many of the books have little monetary value, the personal value can be priceless.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Penguin Random House/Viking.

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