“A Mortuary of Books: The Rescue of Jewish Culture after the Holocaust” by Elizabeth Gallas and translated by Alex Skinner— Rescuing Jewish Cultural Treasures

Gallas, Elizabeth. “A Mortuary of Books: The Rescue of Jewish Culture after the Holocaust”, translated by Alex Skinner, (Goldstein-Goren Series in American Jewish History), NYU Press,  2019.

Rescuing Jewish Cultural Treasures

Amos Lassen

Alex Skinner has beautifully translated Elizabeth Gallas’ German study of the efforts of scholars and activists to rescue Jewish cultural treasures after the Holocaust.

 In March 1946 the American Military Government for Germany established the Offenbach Archival Depot near Frankfurt as a place to store, identify, and restore the tremendous quantities of Nazi-looted books, archival material, and ritual objects that Army members had found hidden in many German caches. These objects of lootings and theft  bore testimony to the cultural genocide that was part of the Nazis’ systematic acts of mass murder. The depot built a short-lived “mortuary of books with over three million books of Jewish origin coming from nineteen different European countries, all were awaiting restitution. 

This is the miraculous story of the many Jewish organizations and individuals who, after the war, sought to recover this looted cultural property and return the millions of treasured objects to their rightful owners. Some of the most outstanding Jewish intellectuals of the twentieth century, including Dawidowicz, Hannah Arendt, Salo W. Baron, and Gershom Scholem, were involved in this effort. This eventually led to the creation of Jewish Cultural Reconstruction Inc., an international body that acted as the Jewish trustee for heirless property in the American Zone and transferred hundreds of thousands of objects from the Depot to the new centers of Jewish life after the Holocaust. 

 These individuals were committed to the restitution of cultural property revealed the importance of cultural objects as symbols of the enduring legacy of those who could not be saved. It also fostered Jewish culture and scholarly life in the postwar world.

Gallas writes with great detail after using archival sources, memoirs, correspondence, and histories to get the information needed and presents us with “a comprehensive history of efforts to recover, identify, and restore artifacts of Jewish culture and scholarship.”

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