The Mystery Behind The Lost Books Of A Cherished Lublin Yeshiva

This article originally appeared in the Yiddish Forverts.

S. Y. Stupnitsky, a forgotten twentieth-century Jewish journalist, made a prescient observation about the great historic Jewish structures in Europe: “Jews built them, and today non-Jews possess them.”

Stupnitsky’s words certainly ring true about Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin, the educational brainchild of Meir Shapiro, a Polish rabbi who also developed the daf yomi method of daily Gemara study. As Deutsche Jugend Zeitung, the official newspaper of Hitler Youth, related, German troops entered the six-story yeshiva on September 7, 1939, stripped the interior and burned the 30,000-volume library in the courtyard. The paper went on to say that the Jews stood and cried as the flames burned for twenty-four hours: “Their cries almost deafened us … We brought an army band and the joyous tones of the military music covered the cries of the Jews…”

Despite sounding plausible — the famous 1933 book burning by German university students was notable for bonfires and band music too — the account is highly dubious for at least two reasons: First, the Deutsche Jugend Zeitung did not publicize the purported book burning until February 1940, five months after the onset of the German occupation. Second, not one contemporary newspaper, including the Vőlkischer Beobachter, the official newspaper of the Third Reich, and Der Angriff, the personal newspaper of propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, ever confirmed the report. Surely a newsreel would have captured the optics of the occasion to profound and lasting effect, but no such newsreel exists.

Nevertheless the story about the burning of the yeshiva books has lived on. In 2000, Jacob Frank, a Lubliner who survived the liquidation of his city’s Jewish quarter, may inadvertently have furthered the Nazi narrative when he wrote in his book “Himmler’s Jewish Tailor” that all the books and torahs from the yeshiva were destroyed by the Nazis. Frank’s observation is suspect because he never witnessed the alleged destruction and likely based his assertion on the Deutsche Jugend Zeitung article. Eight years later, historian Stanislao G. Pugliese referred to the same Nazi news story in an essay about the destruction of books in the Roman ghetto. Even Zev T. Paretzky’s authoritative “Reservoirs of Faith: The Yeshiva Through the Ages” (1996) cited the Deutsche Jugend Zeitung account.

A Polish scholar says nay

“I don’t buy it,” says Adam Kopociowski, a Polish professor of Jewish history and culture at Lublin’s Marie Curie-Skłodowska University and a speaker at July’s Lubliner Reunion. “Maybe some part, maybe some newspapers, but not the most precious collection, ended up in a relatively small bonfire.”

Professor Kopociowski has long held that the burning of the yeshiva books was an act of propaganda designed to persuade German public opinion that Jews and Jewish culture must be rooted out of Europe. Anders Rydell, author of “The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe’s Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance,” agrees. He writes that Nazi book burnings were “ritual dramas” meant to excite the ideological fervor of students. Rydell observes further that Goebbels, who gave his blessing to such burnings, pursued a simultaneous covert literary policy to centralize valuable Jewish books in a “museum of an extinct race.”

Kopociowski too contends that the Germans preferred stealing surreptitiously from Jewish individuals and Jewish organizations. He has learned that they sent Lublin’s vast holdings to the so-called Lublin Staatsbibliothek, a German state library that served as a depot not only for the yeshiva books, but also books from the Jesuit College Bobolanum, the Municipal Public Library, the Catholic University of Lublin and the H. Lopacinski Memorial Library. H. Lopacinski, a provincial public library. To catalogue the seforim, the German-appointed Vasyl Kutschabsky recruited Rabbi Aron Lebwohl, a brilliant yeshiva student and one-time secretary to Rabbi Meir Shapiro.

From April 1941 to November 1942, Rabbi Lebwohl labored at his task. Well before completion, though, he was deported with the rest of the Lublin ghetto to Majdanek, the German concentration and extermination camp in Lublin province. According to Nazi records, Lebwohl went straight into the gas chambers.

His catalogue has never been found.

Possibly lost in the fog of war

Head librarian Kutschabsky planned on sending sixty boxes of Lebwohl’s curated library books to Berlin, but none have been found in the city.

That’s not to say they aren’t there.

In reply to my email query, the Berlin Landesarchiv’s Maximilian Hallmann, a research librarian, wrote: “I have to say that I could not find any traces of books from Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva in the stock or acquisition journals of the Landesarchiv Berlin. On the other hand, I have to say that I could not completely exclude the possibility that books from Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva ended up” in the library stock.

At the Lubliner Reunion, Kopociowski told me what he believes was the books’ ultimate fate:

“In my opinion, the majority of the books left Lublin shortly before the city was entered by the Soviet troops. They may have been headed toward Warsaw or Silesia, or, as I think, most credibly, to Prague, where the Germans planned to locate their museum of the extinct race.”

Anders Rydell has written, to the contrary, that the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), a special Nazi commando unit tasked with looting books and art from European institutions and private citizens, actually evacuated many of its purloined holdings to what is now Poland.

Could the books still be somewhere in Poland?

I am tempted to speculate that at least some yeshiva books were taken by students and teachers who left occupied Poland with the help of Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat who boldly secured Japanese visas for Jews escaping Poland via Vilna. But David Mandelbaum, who wrote “Lublin to Shanghai: The Miraculous Exile of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin,” argues that the “Nazis made sure that the talmudim would not take anything from the yeshivah library.”

Wherever the books might be, searching through library stacks would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Conservative estimates suggest that hundreds of thousands of books stolen by the Germans are still unaccounted for. And of course some books, presumed casualties of aerial bombings, really might be gone for good.

In short, the books of the Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin, amassed between 1923 and 1930 in a worldwide fundraising campaign that inspired millionaires and poor Jews alike, were lost in the fog of war.

And possibly preserved

An astonishing observation about the whereabouts of the yeshiva books comes from Shnayer (Sid) Leiman, a former professor of Jewish Studies at Brooklyn College and the owner of a private Judaica library in Queens, N.Y. Earlier this year, he told me via email: “Rest assured that a goodly portion of the library has survived.”

Professor Leiman sent me a gorgeous picture of a sefer called “Tuv Ta’am V’Daas” (2nd edition, Zhitomir, 1871). Four Lublin yeshiva book stamps are discernible on the upper portion of the image of the book. Leiman writes that he owns four such books. “I’ve seen over the years perhaps 25 such volumes in other collections. There are surely more that I have not seen.”

Books bearing the stamp of the yeshiva or of the yeshiva’s founder also have turned up at:

Auction houses: Bidspirit, an online portal of Israeli auction houses, closed an auction in May on an 1895 edition of “Z’chusa D’Avraham” by Rabbi Avraham of Sochatchov. An apparently authentic Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin stamp is visible in the lower right-hand corner.

Kedem Auctions started the bidding on Rabbi Meir Shapiro’s first edition of “Tractate Rosh Hashanah” (Babylonian Talmud, 1925) at $1,000. Earlier this year it sold for $7,380.

A sefer called “Chiddushei Aggadot” with handwritten comments by Rabbi Meir Shapiro opened at $3,000 and sold for $11,685.

Kedem also auctioned off a collection of six less expensive seforim published between 1827 and 1895 for $300.

Indeed, some books bearing Rabbi Shapiro’s stamp or the stamp of his yeshiva have relatively low opening bids. “Minchat Aharon”, for example, opened at $200 and sold for $344, even though the 1792 publication date must make it one of the library’s older volumes. Perhaps a missing leaf of the 23-leaf book and stained text diminished the book’s value. Consider the possibility, too, that buyer reluctance to pay a lot for a damaged copy suggests an abundance of comparable books in better condition.

State libraries: Alicja Koscian, a librarian at the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute, or JHI, in Warsaw, sent me a list of thirty seforim housed in the JHI stacks. Some of these titles have been digitized and reside in a JHI database. Koscian forwarded me scans of two valuable Judaic texts that bear the yeshiva stamps. One record is titled Roman Gadish (1788); the other Sefer Bnei Shmuel (1727). Yeshiva stamps are clearly visible on both records.

Expertise is not enough

I do not have the expertise to unravel the mystery of Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin’s lost books. Based on my reading and exchanges with academics and bibliophiles, though, I do not think the Germans burnt the books outright, especially as the books had resale value: According to Rydell, “Confiscated Jewish property, like a sort of self-financing project, was used to pay for deportations, concentration camps, and mass murder.”

It’s possible that a surviving remnant of books still exists in library storerooms in Poland, Germany or the former Czechoslovakia. It’s also possible that the Red Army had its turn plundering the books when it entered Lublin. Rydell writes that as many as 2 million books, including Jewish and Hebraic books and manuscripts, were taken to the Soviet Union.

And what’s to say that individual librarians did not enter into transactions with one of the 200 surviving Lubliners, who repossessed some of the books? What’s to say that Aron Lebwohl’s catalogue won’t turn up some day? Samuel Pepys’ diaries, written in shorthand between 1660 and 1669, went missing for about 140 years before they were discovered and decoded.

In any case, Rabbi Eliezer Katzman, a noted appraiser of Judaica and Hebrew books for auction house Kestenbaum & Company, told me that expertise is not enough to locate the lost books: “Unlike the books from Vilna that entered YIVO as one entity, the books from Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin were all over the place.”

Well, that’s just it: Books from Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin are all over the place. And yet one place they might not have passed through was the Offenbach Archival Depot, the U.S.-sponsored post-war collection point established in Germany with the mission, far from ever realized, to return Nazi plunder to its rightful owners. F. J. Hoogewoud, a former research librarian at the Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana in Amsterdam, perused his photocopy of the Offenbach Archival Depot book list for me and did find an image of a stamp belonging to a book owned by Aryeh Tzvi Fromer, Rabbi Meir Shapiro’s successor at Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin. “But take care!” Hoogewoud warned me. “It is only proof that (at least) ONE book in the Offenbach Archival Depot had this stamp.”

Rabbi Katzman surmises that the Lublin books must have passed through the Offenbach Depot — precisely the scenario that Hoogewoud says cannot be substantiated at this time.

Meanwhile, I came across a March 9, 2000 letter from Gene Sofer, deputy director of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States, to Alfred Gottschalk, chancellor of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, stating that some Jewish books that wound up in Offenbach were “unidentifiable,” and these were turned over to a group called the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction Organization for distribution to libraries and community institutions in the United States. Recipients included Brandeis University, the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Rabbi Schneersohn Library in Brooklyn and the Library of Congress, to name a handful. Maybe some of the yeshiva books landed in these libraries?

Anybody investigating the travels and travails of the Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin library is going to get sucked into a labyrinth of conjecture and semi-plausibility. Sadly, the big question remains unanswered: How is it that so many Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin books — destined for a museum of an extinct race — are still being bought and sold all over the world?

Descendants of Lublin yeshiva students — myself among them — would like to know.

So would Adam Kopociowski.

“I’m just curious,” says the soft-spoken professor, who has never laid hands on even one book from the library. “If nothing else, the re-emergence of Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin’s books in Lublin would return something of the Jewish presence to a city that is vastly poorer for its loss.”

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