The Jewish Books That Were Plundered by the Nazis

Millions of books were stolen by the Nazis during World War II. These books were utilized by the Nazis to "investigate" the "Jewish problem."

ERR operatives arrange stolen books in Eastern Europe (Photo: Yad Vashem)

During World War II, the Nazi forces confiscated millions of books from institutions and archives across Europe from “enemies of the regime” which included Bolsheviks, Freemasons, Jews, and others. According to one estimate, approximately five million books were taken from Jewish libraries and Jewish collections over the course of the war. The stolen publications included books on Jewish studies, poetry, and Hebrew literature along with sacred books, manuscripts, and books on science and culture that were written in several languages including Hebrew, Yiddish, Polish, and German.

The Reich Institute for the History of New Germany (Reichinstituts für Geschichte des Neuen Deutschlands), was founded in 1935 and was one of the most significant destinations for stolen books – Jewish books in particular.  The director of the institute was the Nazi historian Walter Frank. Some of his writings published by the institute can be found in the National Library.


Walter Frank, Deutsche Wissenschaft und Judenfrage, Hamburg, 1937

The two main bodies that collected Jewish books were the Reich Main Security Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt) and the Advanced School of the Nazi Party (Hohe Schule der NSDAP). The Reich Main Security Office was founded by Heinrich Himmler and was considered to be the strongest branch of the Third Reich as it included the Gestapo forces, the police, the Einsatzgruppen, and other departments. The ministry was responsible for identifying security threats to the country from its enemies within a jurisdiction that included all occupied countries. One of the departments of the institution, headed by Dr. Franz Alfred Six, worked to collect entire libraries from various parts of Europe for the purpose of investigating the ideological enemies of the Nazi regime.

In 1933, the same year that the Nazi party rose to power, the book confiscations began. The first stage focused on the Freemasons and later grew to include Jewish libraries. With the annexation of Austria, the Jewish collection of the Reich Main Security Office grew to eighty-five thousand volumes. Twenty-four thousand of these books eventually found their way to the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem, what later became the National Library of Israel. As more Eastern European countries were occupied, more public and private libraries were raided and their contents were sent to the central library in Berlin.

Books and treasures confiscated by the Nazis in Ratibor. Photo: Yad Vashem

Nearly two million books accumulated in the central depository of the ministry, but the Reich Main Security Office focused most of its attention on archival material including personal documents, community books, and other information – documents that could help them investigate, identify and annihilate their enemies including the Jews.

With the start of the American bombing of Berlin in 1943, much of the collection was transferred to Silesia and Bavaria for safekeeping. Some sixty thousand Jewish books were sent to the Theresienstadt ghetto where they were cataloged and kept separately from the ghetto library. After the war, the Theresienstadt books were turned over to the Jewish Museum in Prague. The books that remained in the Reich Main Security Office in Berlin were discovered by the Soviet and American forces, respectively (there were two separate buildings for the library in Berlin).

In the end, most of the collection (including many Jewish books and archival documents) fell into the hands of the Soviet Army. It was only with the collapse of the Soviet Union that these books were allowed to be examined by the Russian authorities. A relatively small amount of the materials were returned to previous owners and the fate of the majority of the material confiscated by the Russians is unknown.

The other entity that competed with the Reich Institute for the History of New Germany and the Reich Main Security Office in obtaining the books was the book confiscation unit established by Alfred Rosenberg called the ERR. Though, in terms of the quantity of material stolen, this organization had no real ability to compete with the Nazi security services.

In 1939, Alfred Rosenberg, the chief ideologue of the Nazi party, began laying the foundations for the establishment of the Advanced School of the Nazi Party (Hohe Schule der NSDAP). This institution was set to become the center of Nazi academic studies. Hitler planned to open the school after Germany’s victory in the war and ordered Rosenberg to carry out the preparatory work with a focus on research and the establishment of a library.

Alfred Rosenberg at the ERR headquarters. (Photo: Yad Vashem)

The Advanced School of the Nazi Party was meant to include eleven research institutes throughout Germany, specializing in the fields of religion, race, folklore, German studies and more. In reality, the only research institute that was ever established was the Institut zur Erforschung der Judenfrage (IEJ). This institute was opened in Frankfurt and, as every academic institution does, it needed a respectable library. When establishing a library of this sort, books are typically purchased by the institution or received as donations – but the Nazis had a different method.

Rosenberg established a special unit that he named after himself. The Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) was tasked with touring the major libraries of occupied countries and organizing shipments of the important books back to Germany. The ERR focused mainly on France and the Netherlands at the start of the war, robbing many famous libraries and several Jewish collections including the Rosentiliana Collection, the Etz Chaim collection in Amsterdam, the Library of the Rabbinical Seminary and the Alliance organization in Paris.

When Germany invaded Russia and Rosenberg became responsible for the collection of publications in the occupied territories in the east, many additional Jewish libraries fell into his grasp. The ERR confiscated every collection that appeared significant to its operatives and the rest were sent off to be destroyed. Books destined for the Institute for the Study of the Jewish Problem were sent to Frankfurt and books intended for the other institutes of the Nazi Party’s Advanced School (for a later time when the institute would be opened) as well as books with an unclear destination, were sent to the Central Library in Berlin. Books that arrived in Berlin and were deemed unnecessary for academic purposes were distributed to libraries of universities and other institutions in Germany. Some remain there to this today.

The books at the Institute in Frankfurt were found by the US military after the war. The military and, later, the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction Organization, actively returned books to their former owners and worked to find new homes for the “orphaned” books, like the National Library.

A map describing the ERR’s field of activity. Collection centers for stolen books were established in several cities in Europe.

The Institute for the Study of the Jewish Problem regularly published an academic journal called “Weltkampf.” Some of the researchers who published articles in the journal were assisted by the large library that had been accumulated there. In the summer issue of 1941, the list of authors includes Alfred Rosenberg himself who, in the same issue, published an article on the connection between Nazism and science. The issue also includes two articles published by the Institute’s director, Wilhelm Grau. Grau was director of the Department for the Study of the Jewish Problem at the Reich Institute for the History of New Germany until the director of the institute, Walter Frank, was dismissed and Grau took his place.

Weltkampf die judenfrage in Geschichte und Gegenwart, Frankfurt am Main 1941

A list of new books published on the subject appears at the end of each issue of this journal. It is quite astonishing to go over the list and see how many publications (books and articles) about Jews were written in the midst of the war and the Holocaust. In 1944, as the Germans suffered painful defeats in the east and as the Allies bombed German cities and prepared to invade the West, anti-Semitic academics continued to sit in the ivory tower, researching and publishing on the “Jewish problem.” It is even more astonishing to see that some of the books that came to the Institute in these years originated in the United States and England. How did they arrive in Germany from enemy states? Perhaps through a neutral state?

The Weltkampf periodicals came to the National Library after the Holocaust via Austria where many of the collections of the Advanced School of the Nazi Party were sent. They were kept at the monastery of Tenzenberg and found there after the war by British forces. Later, many other books were found and donated to the survivors of the Jewish community in Vienna. In turn, the community decided to donate these books to the National Library in Jerusalem. A few thousand books were sent to Israel in the late 1940s and about eighty thousand more books arrived in 1955. All of these books have been labeled to indicate their origins.


Some of the books that came from Austria to Jerusalem feature the stamp of the Advanced School of the Nazi Party – the institution that sponsored the “study of Jews without Jews” (Judenforschung ohne Juden) – alongside the stamp of the National Library of Israel.




The First Jewish Translation of the Book of Books into Spanish

As many conversos began to return to their heritage after the Inquisition, several Jewish cultural books were translated into Spanish for their use - including the Book of Books.

With the decree to expel the Jews from Spain in 1492, many Jews chose to remain in the Spanish kingdom and live as Christians while others accepted the invitation of the King of Portugal, King Manuel I, to emigrate to the neighboring realm where they could live openly as Jews. When the King of Portugal married the Princess of Spain, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, he changed his policies and forced the conversion of the newly arrived Jews of Portugal.

Towards the end of the 16th-century and into the 17th-century, thousands of “New Christians” took advantage of the newly eased travel restrictions between the Iberian Peninsula and the countries beyond it and emigrated to Western Europe and the New World. Upon arrival in their new communities, many chose to openly return to Judaism and the tradition of their forefathers. Those who returned to the old faith dealt with many questions on their journey, including: How does one revive a once forbidden culture, relearn lost religious practices and revive a language that has been long forgotten?

With the return of many Spanish Jews to their heritage, there was a sudden demand for translation of Jewish texts.  A great number of Jewish texts, including Halakhic and ethical treatises, prayer books and even the “Book of Books,” the Hebrew Bible, were translated into Spanish and Portuguese over the course of the 16th and 17th centuries. One major project of this sort was the first complete Jewish translation of the Hebrew Bible into Spanish, printed in Ferrara in 1553.

Making the Books of Jewish Heritage Accessible 

“The Holy Bible in the Spanish tongue. Translated word for word from the true Hebrew by very excellent literati . . . with the privilege of the most illustrious Lord Duke of Ferrara.”

(Subtitle of the Ferrara Bible, the first complete Jewish translation of the Bible into Spanish, printed in 1553)

Safely ensconced in their new home in the Duchy of Ferrara in Italy, far from the reach of the long arm of the Spanish Inquisition, the translator Abraham ben Salomon Usque and the typographer Yom-Tob ben Levi Athias — themselves ex-conversos who had escaped from Spain and Portugal — labored together to translate and print twenty-seven titles of Jewish books in Spanish and Portuguese. The Ferrara Bible was their most important work. It was a new translation and revision of earlier, partial translations of the Bible into Spanish.

The original printed edition of the Ferrara Bible of 1553. Click here to access the item in the library catalog.

The revised and translated Bible became an important Judeo-Spanish text in Western Europe and the New World. It was first printed and distributed in Ferrara which, in the second half of the 16th century, was an important stop along the route for conversos emigrating from the Iberian Peninsula.


Join our group to learn more about Jewish life in Europe:


The Ferrara Bible had multiple printings and editions including an edition published in Amsterdam in 1726 when the city became the preferred destination for conversos returning to Judaism in the 17th century.

Chapter One, Genesis, from the Ferrara Bible, printed in Amsterdam. Click here to access the item in the library catalog.

The Ferrara Bible filled a central need in the Spanish Catholic world as well. Researchers posit that the new translation influenced Catholic religious thought and many Christian authors quoted directly from the translated text. None the less, anyone caught by the Inquisition with a copy of the Ferrara Bible in his possession opened himself up to real danger.

Spanish translation of the Bible published in 1945 in Argentina, based mainly on the Ferrara Bible. Click here to access the item in the library catalog.

The Ferrara Bible – A Bridge across the Generations

This book became a bridge between the glorious culture of the Jews of Spain and Portugal prior to their expulsion and their descendants who, hundreds of years after they were torn from their country, preserved that precious culture in their new homes.

This article was written with the help of Dr. Aliza Moreno of the National Library of Israel.


A Shattered Childhood: Memories of Kristallnacht

When the Gestapo knocked on 12-year-old Lilli Tauber’s door in November of 1938, her life was forever changed.


Lilli Tauber in 1938, courtesy of Centropa

Lilli Tauber woke up to a typical cloudy November morning in 1938, in Wiener Neustadt, a town located just south of Vienna. She went about her routine, ate breakfast, brushed her teeth, kissed her mother goodbye and headed out on her walk to Hebrew school as usual, not knowing that in a few hours, everything would change.

Early in the day, during morning lessons, someone entered the classroom where 12-year-old Lilli and her classmates studied. The visitor whispered urgently in the teacher’s ear. The teacher in turn immediately dismissed the children and told them to rush home – something was happening and they needed to go home immediately. At once, Lilli understood that something wasn’t right.

The town of Wiener Neustadt, Austria. The Folklore Research Center, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Click to enlarge.

As it turned out, Kristallnacht had found its way to Lilli’s hometown.

Soon after she arrived home, the doorbell rang at the Tauber home. Gestapo personnel in full uniform entered the house and arrested Lilli’s father with no explanation served to his astonished family. The Gestapo vandalized the Tauber home, smashing the front gates and ransacking the front porch and the rooms inside the house. It was only later in the day that they found out that other Jewish men in the neighborhood had also been arrested in the round up and sent to prison.

The Jewish men from Wiener Neustadt were taken to a prison holding cell that was so small that there was no room to sit. There they stayed until the Nazis divided the group, deciding who would be sent to the Dachau work camp and who would be allowed to return home.

German citizens walk past ransacked Jewish shops in Berlin on the day after Kristallnacht

After the men were removed from the area, the remaining women and children were rounded up and stripped of their belongings. The women were forced to sign over the deeds to their houses on threat of violence and Lilli witnessed her friend’s mother, Mrs. Gerstl, get physically beaten by the Gestapo forces until she agreed to sign over her home.

As evening fell over the ransacked neighborhood, the women and children were led to the community synagogue and forced inside where they were locked in for the night. The floors were covered in hay to serve as beds for the prisoners who were given the curtains from the Aron Kodesh (the place where the Torah scrolls are kept) and the covers from the Torahs to use as blankets.


The synagogue of Wiener Neustadt before its destruction during Kristallnacht in 1938 ,courtest of Centropa. Click to enlarge.

Lilli and the rest of the prisoners were forced to remain inside the synagogue for three days, unsure of what had become of their fathers, sons and brothers, and unsure of what the future held. At one point, Lilli glanced through the windows of the synagogue and saw a crowd gathered just outside the iron gates of the building. The crowd of people peered through the bars on the gates to watch the imprisoned Jews with a look of amusement on their faces.

Within the three days of forced imprisonment inside the stuffy synagogue, there was an outbreak of scarlet fever. Lilli was among the sick and was allowed to leave the house of prayer for the hospital along with her mother. They were accompanied by a Nazi officer to ensure they didn’t escape. The doctors at the hospital treated the Jews with the same level of care as they did their non-Jewish patients and the nuns working the hospital floors snuck some food to Lilli and her mother.

The women and children in the synagogue were eventually released and taken by bus to the Jewish community in Vienna. Lilli was allowed to leave the hospital after six weeks and was brought by her father who had been released from prison to join her family in Vienna. They never returned to their home and never retrieved their stolen possessions.

After the horrific events of Kristallnacht and the difficulties that befell the Tauber family, the focus quickly shifted to a plan of escape. For Lilli’s parents, it meant making the choice to send their child away in order to protect her.

Lilli Tauber’s parents Johanna and Wilhelm Schischa, courtesy of Centropa. Click to enlarge.


Certificate stating Lilli Tauber’s father Wilhelm Schischa’s right of domecile in Wiener Neuastadt, courtesy of Centropa. Click to enlarge.

In June of 1939, Lilli’s parents took her to the Vienna train station. Among the crowds were many people wearing uniforms with swastikas on their sleeves. Soldiers in German uniforms crowded the station, a sure sign that Vienna was no longer the free city it once was.

Boys and girls wearing red tags around their necks and identification numbers boarded the Kindertransport heading for England. Lilli, number 39, leaned out the windows and waved a final farewell to her parents. Despite her troubles acclimating to a new language and culture and the difficulties of life without her parents, Lilli survived the war in England. Her parents, unfortunately did not.


These articles may also interest you:

The Night of Broken Glass and Broken Hearts

Hate in Nazi Germany as Photographed from the Back of a Motorcycle

When Buchenwald Was Liberated: A First Glimpse of the Holocaust

The Cooking Accident that Destroyed a Jewish Greek Community

The inferno that decimated Thessalonica left 70,000 people, including 52,000 Jews, homeless and penniless.

Salonika homeless

A Jewish family left homeless by the fire that was relocated to a temporary tent camp. Photograph from the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

The fire started on a Saturday afternoon.

What began with a small spark quickly became a massive inferno that, in just a few hours, managed to destroy a large section of the city. While Thessalonica had suffered fires in the past, local officials did nothing to prepare the residents for the colossal damage this fire would cause.

According to official reports, the cause was completely accidental. A woman was roasting eggplants in her home at 3 Olympiados Street on August 18, 1917, when a spark from the flame caught on the walls of the house and quickly grew to a full-fledged blaze. A small cooking accident quickly evolved into a widespread fire that lasted for 32 hours. Strong winds spread the flames through the cramped and narrow alleyways, igniting the wooden homes that served as kindle for the growing fire that engulfed the Jewish quarter of the second largest metropolis in Greece.

The destroyed Jewish quarter of Thessalonica after the fire of 1917. Photograph from the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The local firefighters did their best to quell the flames but found themselves hindered by a shortage of water. The city had suffered a severe drought the previous summer and the consumption of water had gone up considerably due to the allied forces taking up residence around Thessalonica and its harbor. With no water to come to its defense, the city burned as the fire continued to spread freely from the poor neighborhoods on its fringes, down to the city center, turning building after building to piles of ash.

Tiring, a Jewish store that sold clothing, shoes and hoisery was destroyed by the 1917 fire in Salonika. Photograph from the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Tiring, a Jewish store that sold clothing, shoes, and hosiery was destroyed by the 1917 fire in Thessalonica. The name of the store is written on the building in Hebrew lettering. Photograph from the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

On the evening of August 19, 1917, the flames were finally brought under control but the damage had been done. Forty-five percent of the population of Thessalonica (also known by the name Salonika), approximately 70,000 people, were left homeless with nothing left to show for the lives they had built other than the smoking embers of the 9,500 homes that had found themselves in the destructive path of the insatiable blaze.

For the Jews of Thessalonica, the majority population in the city, the devastating rampage of the fire proved catastrophic. Before the fire, the city was considered to be the “Jerusalem of the Balkans,” with a rich, thriving and educated melting pot of Jews from different countries and cultures who came together to build a new life. Along with the local post offices, banks and newspaper offices, the local Jewish schools, community centers, the Jewish college, and thirty-two synagogues were completely destroyed along with the entirety of the archives of the community which held records of a centuries-long history of Jewish presence in Thessalonica.

A group of Jews from Salonika left homeless by the fire are seen sitting in the streets with their few remaining belongings. Photograph from the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
A group of Jews from Thessalonica left homeless by the fire are seen sitting in the streets with their few remaining belongings. Photograph from the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The 70,000 newly homeless people were forced to find quick solutions to their predicaments. With the help of the Greek, British and French authorities, a portion of the homeless were given temporary housing. Parts of the Jewish community were rehomed in temporary tent encampments which provided little more than a roof over their heads and basic protection from the elements. With over 20,000 still without even temporary shelter, many Jews were forced to emigrate and left their home for Athens, the United States, France and the Land of Israel in the hopes of starting over.

With the destruction of the community archives and registry, the Jewish community had to start from scratch. The Jews who remained in the city following the wave of emigration had to build a new community register in order to properly obtain their civil status and file their claims to receive compensation and their land following the fire.

A page from the new registry of the Jewish community of Thessalonica created after the fire of 1917 now held by the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. Families and individuals registered their personal information and provided a photograph of each family member for the records. Click to enlarge.

One by one the community members came forward to register themselves and their families and one by one their registration forms were filled out in handwritten Hebrew and Ladino. Each registration was accompanied by small photos of each family member to match the new records that made up the recreated community registry.

Salonika community registry
A page from the new registry of the Jewish community of Thessalonica created after the fire of 1917 now held by the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. Click to enlarge.

After previous fires in the city the government had allowed for people to simply rebuild, but after the great fire of 1917, the government decided to use this as an opportunity to take the newly conquered territory and build a fully modernized, Hellenized city from the ashes. As part of the planning process, the government revoked the old rights and deeds to the land and the old owners were given an opportunity to bid on their plots of land at auction.  Using this methodology, the government seriously hindered the ability of the Jewish community to reestablish itself.

Despite the government’s best efforts and the rising air of anti-Semitism across the country, the Jews fought against the odds and worked to rebuild what had been lost. The community succeeded in rebuilding several synagogues, hospitals, and community centers, though many of the institutions were moved to the outskirts of the city due to the new building plans. The community also rebuilt a successful Jewish press which had three different newspapers in circulation written in Judeo-Spanish, and in French with a daily distribution rate of 25,000 copies.

A Jewish hospital in Salonika that began functioning in 1907. The photograph is from before the fire in 1917. From the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
A Jewish hospital in Thessalonica that began functioning in 1907. The photograph is from before the fire in 1917. From the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

On the eve of World War II, the Jewish community, once a majority, made up just 40% of the city. When the Germans occupied Thessalonica in the early 1940s they systematically destroyed the Jewish cemetery and more than 50,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz and Treblinka where over 90% of the once thriving community perished at the hands of the Nazis. Following the war, a handful of survivors returned to their homes and tried to once again reestablish the Jewish community.

The Jewish Cemetery of Salonika
The Jewish cemetery of Thessalonica in the early 20th century. Photograph from the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

A large portion of the remaining archives of the Jewish community of Thessalonica is now preserved in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish people in Jerusalem, a priceless remnant of a nearly lost culture.