Overdue Books: Returning Palestine’s “Abandoned Property” of 1948, Part 2

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[This is Part 2 – That means you might want to read Part 1 first for context!]

While researching the Palestinian books now in Israeli custody, I looked at past examples of cultural property stolen during times of war and occupation. I was planning to use case studies from different times and places, but as I began to research Jewish property stolen by Nazis, I realized that there was a wealth of examples simply within that context.

The Nazi Holocaust, which happened only a few years before the Palestinian Nakba (and is not entirely unrelated), is one of the most studied cases of physical and cultural destruction of a people. I did not have to look far for stories of looted cultural property, and even books in particular, from Austria to Belarus, from the Czech Republic to Germany. The governments and museums of Austria and Germany, perhaps because they can be seen as the most culpable, have undergone incredible efforts in recent years to research the provenance (former ownership) of cultural property, and to return as much of it as possible. Belarus, on the other hand, has taken the stance that what is won in war is legitimately taken, and only recently has begun to distinguish a small fraction of the half million looted books in its national library as “rare books.”

For me, perhaps the most relevant parallel to the AP books that can be found in the cases of Nazi looting is the question of collective return to a community dispersed throughout the globe. The standards that existed before the Nazi Holocaust – that books and other property should be returned to their country of origin after a war – no longer made sense in places where the community of the former owners (in this case, mostly Jews) was decimated. Similarly, one must ask how to return books in which individuals’ names are not found to a Palestinian collective body with no clear representative or central location. More on this in a couple weeks, but for now, I’d like to tell a story I find particularly moving that I first came across in an article by Miriam Intrator. Like last week, I’ll quote from my article, and you can read the whole article here:

In 1941, the Nazis established Theresienstadt concentration camp in a town called Terezin on the outskirts of Prague. This camp housed wealthy and prominent Jews from various countries and served as a “model camp” to show the world that the Nazis’ treatment of Jews was humane. Therefore, those in the camp were, at least at the beginning, permitted many of the amenities not usually provided to concentration camp inhabitants.16 One such amenity was a community library and bookmobile.

Many people arriving in Theresienstadt brought books with them, and thus a collection was established. Nazi authorities soon supplemented this collection with libraries stolen from Jewish institutions throughout Europe. The books had no common language or subject, and were cataloged by professionals in the library. Eventually, the Nazis’ motivation for the operations in the library became much more insidious: Jews were to catalog materials for future inclusion in the “Museum of the Extinct Race.”17

Eventually, the vast majority of Theresienstadt residents were deported and killed. The head librarian and one other staff member survived, and voluntarily remained in the camp for three months after liberation until they could fully organize and catalog the 100,000 volumes in the library. The books then found their new home in the Jewish Museum in Prague.18

In the years immediately following World War II, the Jewish Museum in Prague underwent a massive process of restoring materials to their prior owners. Of more than 190,000 volumes that the museum acquired during and immediately after the war, 158,000 were returned.19 In 2000, the Czech Republic passed a restitution act that required all state institutions to return art obtained illegally between 1938 and 1945. Although not a state institution, the Jewish Museum committed itself to the spirit of the act and began provenance research on many of the items in its collection. Additionally, the museum has a section on its website called “Terms for the filing of claims for the restitution of books from the library collection of the Jewish Museum in Prague which were unlawfully seized from natural persons during the period of Nazi occupation.” Explaining that all books “shall be transferred free of charge to the natural person who owned them prior to the seizure,”20 the website lists specific instructions on how to file claims, which descendants and relatives may do so, and the documents required.

Thinking about this story both haunts and inspires me. I am amazed that the few surviving librarians stayed in the camp after they could have left in order to catalog the collection. In this act, as in the act of building the library and providing services to camp inhabitants, the librarians danced the fine line between submission and resistance. On the one hand, the librarians had been ordered to perform their job, both to make the camp look good and to begin work on the insidiously named “Museum of the Extinct Race.” On the other hand, the collection and maintenance of a library comprised of people’s most prized possessions, the operation of a bookmobile and encouragement to read for pleasure, the insistence on life in the midst of death – these are strongest kinds of resistance I know. I am reminded now of Palestinian spoken word artist Rafeef Ziadeh who, in response to people who ask her why Palestinians teach hate, declares, “We teach life, sir. We Palestinians wake up every morning to teach the rest of the world life, sir.”

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