French Libraries Seized by the ERR during Wartime Occupation

For many postwar decades, there were no significant studies of German library seizures during the occupation of France (1940–1944). One of the difficulties for research on wartime seizures (or spoliation, the term most often used in France) is that few original German library-seizure lists have been available in France. Starting in 1947, the French government issued a multi-volume series, Répertoire des biens spoliés en France durant la guerre 1939–1945, with the added English title List of Property Removed from France during the War 1939–1945 (See http://www.culture.gouv.fr/documentation/mnr/RBS/T_7.pdf). Based entirely on postwar claims submitted to the government Office des biens et intérêts privés (OBIP – Office of Private Property and Interests), the seventh volume, devoted to Archives, manuscripts and rare books, listed many library collections seized during occupation, but it was not widely available to the public nor hardly gave a complete account of wartime library losses.

Postwar restitution of looted books discovered in France and those repatriated from abroad with few exceptions was also based on postwar claims by French victims of seizure. Only two incomplete German seizure lists were available to the French Subcommission on Books (Sous-Commission des livres – SCL) of the Commission on Art Recovery (Commission de récupération artistique – CRA), the government agency in charge of restitution processing. Most research on the subject has likewise been based on claims and postwar restitution files, but even related SCL files were inaccessible to the public before the 1990s, many of them not open for research before 2009/2010. Research on cultural spoliation and restitution in France has nonetheless intensified since the collapse of the Soviet Union, when more archival sources held in Soviet archives became available in the West, and especially since issues of wartime cultural losses and inadequate restitution to Holocaust and other victims rose to international concern in the 1990s.

Retired French library director Martine Poulain broke new ground with her prize-winning 2008 study of French libraries during the war, Livres pillés, lectures surveillées, les bibliothèques françaises sous l’Occupation. In one of her appendices, Poulain named the 90 individual and institutional victims that appeared on the only two ERR seizure lists available in France. The Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), it should be pointed out, was only one of the most important, but hardly the only agency of library plunder in France, in addition to its major plunder of Jewish-owned art collections. Similar seizure lists for other Nazi agents of cultural plunder have not been found.

Subsequently Martine Poulain utilized data from OBIP and CRA claims files, together with French SCL library restitution files, in tables naming over 2750 French victims of wartime library seizure and indicating those to whom books were returned. Her most recent tables name 2,342 individual victims and 412 institutions who filed postwar claims for books. As apparent in these charts, many of those individuals received back only a small portion of their lost books, others received none:

In contrast and to supplement sources relating to restitution, the ERR Project sponsored by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference), presented on this website with the assistance of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, has concentrated on presenting original data from one of the leading Nazi agencies of seizure, the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR). In addition to the ERR seizures indicated here, many private Jewish libraries were seized together with major French Jewish collections of art, and many manuscripts and rare books are included in the Database of Art Objects at the Jeu de Paume; there such library seizures do not appear in a separate listing, but rather as an integral part of the ERR inventories of over 200 named collections of art objects. See also the Guide to the Dispersed Archives of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) and the Postwar Retrieval of ERR Loot.

In her research, Patricia Kennedy Grimsted has discovered ten original lists of library seizures in France carried out by the ERR, the Nazi agency led by Reichsleiter Alfred Rosenberg. These represent close to 250 priority seizures, most of them taken during the first year and a half of German occupation, with listings for 184 individuals and 59 institutions. Presented here, first, is an updated English-language version of Dr. Grimsted’s article in which she explains the background and context of ERR library seizures in France; the provenance and current archival location of each of the ten ERR documents; and pertinent details about each list and the circumstances of its creation:

Second, researchers can now access digitized facsimiles of these ten original documents through hyperlinks provided within her article. Additional hyperlinks are also provided in the following separate listing of the ten individual ERR documents.

Third, as further aid to research on N-S library plunder in France, Excel charts combine the names of ERR seizure victims appearing on all these ten lists, together with dates, quantity of seizure, and other explanatory data from the individual lists. The two charts form a single PDF file available for complimentary downloading, the first representing individuals or families and a second listing institutions or organizations.

A French-language version of much of the information on this website regarding France is now available on the website of the Commission française des archives juives (CFAJ):

Fourth, information on the fate of libraries that were plundered in France but not restituted or repatriated may be found in the article by Dr. Grimsted. Many of the hundreds of thousands of books seized by the ERR from France were found by a Red Army trophy brigade in 1945 in warehouses near an abandoned ERR research and library center in Silesia. That trophy brigade also found many books in the same place that the ERR had seized from the Soviet Republic of Belorussia. In the fall of 1945 a Soviet convoy of 54 railroad freight cars carried an estimated 1.2 million books directly to Minsk. While perhaps two-thirds of the books were from libraries in Belorussia and the Soviet Baltic republics, a third or more of them were books from France and other countries of Europe. The largest number of the looted books of foreign provenance are still today held by the National Library of Belarus.

In 2011 the Belarus Library published a CD ROM entitled (in Russian) French Autographs in the Holdings of the National Library of Belarus, displaying the title pages of 66 books from Paris with autograph dedications by and/or to famous French politicians, writers, and other cultural leaders, together with photographs of the individuals named. Full texts appear of four notable books. Almost all the names to whom the dedications pictured on the CD ROM are addressed appear on the ERR seizure lists presented on this site, and many other books from the same French libraries are to be found in the library. (When Dr. Grimsted verified the Excel Charts of ERR library-seizure victims with card catalogues of provenance in the Rare-Book Department in the National Library of Belarus, she found well over 100 French individual and institutional private libraries represented.) With permission from the National Library of Belarus, most of the contents of the CD-ROM, which are in Russian and French, are presented here with an English-language translation of the intriguing Introduction by Belarus Professor Vladimir V. Makarov.

Acknowledgements

This project on France was initially accomplished in Paris through close cooperation between Jean-Claude Kuperminc, president of the CFAJ, head of the Library and Archive of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, and Patricia Kennedy Grimsted, Senior Research Associate of the Ukrainian Research Institute and Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University, Cambridge MA, and Honourary Fellow of the International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam, and with the support of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and the assistance of its Director of Research, Wesley A. Fisher.

Mathilde Heitmann and Frederike Mulot deciphered the ten German ERR lists with translation into French and were responsible for initial compilation of the charts under the direction of Grimsted and Kuperminc. Website implementation was by the CFAJ webmaster Eric Bensimon. Patricia Grimsted supervised the English adaptation of ERR documents and charts and her article with the editorial assistance of Michelle Lawrence and Ruth Weinberger. Website implementation is by Michael Levy, Director of Digital Collections, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

We are very grateful to the several archives referenced as holders of the original documents that kindly furnished digital copies with permission for use on this website. These include:


1Many thanks to Kyrylo Vyslobokov for arranging quality digitized copies of the TsDAVO lists.


This page last updated 2017-03-17

ERR sorting books in the Baltic states.  – US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Yad Vashem Photo Archives.
ERR sorting books in the Baltic states. – US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Yad Vashem Photo Archives.
(The Offenbach Archival Depot album from which this image was taken mistakenly identified "Reval" [Estonian Tallinn] with Latvia.)