The rhombicuboctahedronal National Library of Belarus sits on the northwest edge of Minsk, elevated above the surrounding landscape like a Brutalist disco ball. Few passersby would suspect that it’s home to some of the finest Jewish libraries of pre-war Paris, housing thousands of rare volumes that once inhabited the elegant studies and drawing rooms of the French capital.
While the saga of the Nazis’ plunder of Europe’s visual art and Germany’s subsequent efforts at restitution has garnered attention, even inspiring multiple feature films, the Third Reich’s similarly destructive attempt to dominate the continent’s literary culture is little known. Now, the Wall Street Journal has brought that neglected history to public attention with a recent report that looks into the search for the 1.2 million books stolen, which include 500,000 taken from the Jews of France.
Historian Francoise Basch, the granddaughter of a French Jewish intellectual whose library was seized after he was killed by the Nazis, told the Journal, “I am terribly excited that his books are somewhere within reach and I might someday look at them, but there isn’t much time.”
“I am 87. I mean, this is such a slow process and the books are in Minsk.”
Interest in the plundered books is on the rise. Germany’s “Initial Check” program is seeking to reconnect books with their proper heirs, while Swedish journalist Anders Rydel’s book, “The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe’s Libraries and a Return to Literary Inheritance,” was published in an English translation earlier this year.
History, however, makes the matter of restitution rather delicate.
While Germany has been willing to make reparations, a great share of the books it seized ended up in the hands of the victorious Red Army, whose “trophy brigades” secured them and brought them East. Thoroughly decimated by World War II, the Soviets were categorically uninterested in foregoing any of its spoils. The USSR, rightfully proud of its victory over the Germans, was largely unwilling to admit wrongdoing in any aspect of its heroic war effort, and its successor states have largely followed suit. They, too, have reason to count themselves among the war’s victims. While Hitler had considerable respect for the culture of his Western adversaries, his forces were instructed to destroy the high culture of their Slavic enemies in order to subjugate them more completely. According to a report in Haaretz, the Nazis emptied the Lenin Library in Minsk to the tune of 17 train cars worth of books.
These circumstances complicate the possibility of the books being returned in full. However, communication is underway. On the topic of restitutions, Aliaksandr Susha, deputy director of the National Library of Belarus, told the Journal, “We are ready for such discussions.” At present, Belarusian authorities have opened the collections to visiting scholars. For the time being, if the books’ heirs wish to see them, they may have to do so within the confines of Minsk’s vaguely extraterrestrial library.
Correction, September 1, 1:45pm: An earlier version of this article misquoted Aliaksander Susha, deputy director of the National Library of Belarus, as saying, “We are not ready for such discussions.” He in fact said the opposite: “We are ready for such discussions.” The author apologizes for the error.
*Daniel Witkin is the Forward’s Arts and Culture Intern. Reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter, @dzwitkin