The Book Thieves by Anders Rydell
Anders Rydell illustrates the myriad ways in which the Nazis made book disappear: they were stolen, burned, or locked away in their private libraries to be studied in order to turn their truths against citizens who did not fit their concept of humanity. However, The Book Thieves is not entirely a tale of unremitting, historical woe. Rydell movingly carries us from the global level to the personal as he recounts how he was entrusted to return a single tome to its original owner’s family, a volume that was the last remaining possession of Richard Kobrak, who died with his wife at Auschwitz in 1944.
One picture captures a slice of the enormity of the crime: an image of two ranges of bookshelves in the Zentral- und Landesbibliothek in Berlin that shows books waiting to be identified and “repatriated” to the families who once treasured them. It shows perhaps a thousand books of the estimated millions that disappeared. They are difficult to identify because efforts were made to efface or tear out any personal identifying marks. Consider this small piece of information from the Berliner Stadtbibliothek’s data: from 2009 to 2014 about 500 books were identified and returned while it is estimated that 250,000 plundered books may still reside there. Add the lack of actual desire to solve the problem (After the war some former Nazi officials were put in charge of libraries!) and the lack of funding to the difficulty of identification, and one begins to see its magnitude.
Burning books is not unique to the Nazis, of course. History is replete with instances when those in charge confiscated and destroyed books from those who questioned them. Books are power; they lend a sense of permanence to our collective memory that might have faded in an oral tradition. Controlling what one reads in any field drives the conversation and creates a new reality (alternate facts, even) which power can embrace. Controlling access to information in any form is a powerful weapon and the Nazis were masters.
Books are still subject to efforts to suppress the free flow of information, whether it is Christian fundamentalists who consign rock and roll records or Harry Potter to the flames or Islamic fundamentalists who deface ancient monuments and texts. See The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer for a contemporary account. Novels such as The Book Thief by Markus Zusak have provided insight that parallels the more common knowledge of Nazis’ drive to control and collect art. The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel and the subsequent movie have certainly made us aware of the theft of artwork.
Rydell’s writing is intelligent and gripping as he leads us across Europe in an effort to track this story and bring it to the forefront of our consciousness. He argues that the Nazis were not anti-intellectual, as would seem apparent. Rather, by controlling access to the intellectual property available in books, they sought to create a new intellectual order that fit their vision of society. It was to create “a new sort of intellectual being” based on the values of “nation and race” rather than liberal humanism. Books, then, would become a potent weapon in destroying enemies on the battlefield and in thought. Rydell writes, “It was not by destroying the literary and cultural heritage of their enemies that the Nazis intended to prevail—rather, by stealing, owning, and twisting it, and by turning their libraries and archives, their history, inheritance, and memory against themselves.”
His account reminds each of us who reads and cares about reading that it is a very important, personal thing. I cannot imagine losing books in my collection that my parents, my grandparents, and my great, great grandfather owned. To hold those books and see their names inscribed fills me with pride that I come from a reading tradition that reverenced and saved books. What, then, must the descendants of Richard Kobrak have felt when his book was returned to them?