Stolen Words: The Nazi Plunder of Jewish Books

Stolen Words: The Nazi Plunder of Jewish Books

Stolen Words: The Nazi Plunder of Jewish Books

Stolen Words: The Nazi Plunder of Jewish Books


Stolen Words is an epic story about the largest collection of Jewish books in the world--tens of millions of books that the Nazis looted from European Jewish families and institutions. Nazi soldiers and civilians emptied Jewish communal libraries, confiscated volumes from government collections, and stole from Jewish individuals, schools, and synagogues. Early in their regime the Nazis burned some books in spectacular bonfires, but most they saved, stashing the literary loot in castles, abandoned mine shafts, and warehouses throughout Europe. It was the largest and most extensive book-looting campaign in history. After the war, Allied forces discovered these troves of stolen books but quickly found themselves facing a barrage of questions. How could the books be identified? Where should they go? Who had the authority to make such decisions? Eventually the military turned the books over to an organization of leading Jewish scholars called Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Inc.--whose chairman was the acclaimed historian Salo Baron and whose on-the-ground director was the philosopher Hannah Arendt--with the charge to establish restitution protocols. Stolen Words is the story of how a free civilization decides what to do with the material remains of a world torn asunder, and how those remains connect survivors with their past. It is the story of Jews struggling to understand the new realities of their post-Holocaust world and of Western society's gradual realization of the magnitude of devastation wrought by World War II. Most of all, it is the story of people --of Nazi leaders, ideologues, and Judaica experts; of Allied soldiers, scholars, and scoundrels; and of Jewish communities, librarians, and readers around the world.


In the fall of 2004 a deliveryman came to my home and handed me what would prove to be one of the most fascinating packages I’ve ever received. It was a heavy cardboard box—about the size of a large briefcase— and clearly it had traveled far on its way to my doorstep in suburban Seattle. It bore a patchwork of frayed brown packing tape, my name in large handwritten letters, and a generous spray of American and Israeli customs stamps. The return address indicated that it had come from an antiquarian bookseller in Jerusalem.

“Glad you’re here!” I said to the man in brown. “I’ve been expecting you.”

“Lemme guess,” he said. “eBay?”

“Yep,” I responded. “eBay. They haven’t failed me yet.”

I carried the box to the kitchen table, opened a pair of scissors, and using only the tip of one side, carefully cut along the seams. Slowly, I pulled back the cardboard flaps, and there, nestled in a protective frame of crumpled packing paper, was what I had been waiting for. My Alfasi had arrived.

Hilkhot Alfasi, to be precise—a work whose title literally means “Jewish Laws of the Guy from Fez.” Its author was Rabbi Isaac ben Jacob Alfasi, a prominent eleventh-century Moroccan sage who is still renowned as one of the greatest Jewish legal scholars in history. Born in a small . . .

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