In late February 1946, Captain Seymour Pomrenze of the United States Army rode in a Jeep through Frankfurt, Germany. A blizzard howled through the city, and through the snow, Pomrenze could see bullet-ridden walls and the bombed-out remains of a war-torn city.
His driver that day was Lieutenant Leslie Poste, a librarian and archivist whom the army had charged with the task of processing books and archival material looted by the Nazis during the war. Poste told Capt. Pomrenze their destination that day was Offenbach, a small city just across the river from Frankfurt. There, in an old warehouse once owned by the I.G. Farben chemical company, was a collecting point where the army gathered looted books and papers the Allies had discovered at war’s end.
There was, Poste explained, a lot of material to process. It was a well-known fact that the Nazis had a penchant for burning Jewish books (as well as those of other oppressed groups). Less known, however, was that the Nazis had also saved many of these works, and some of what they saved was quite valuable.
The Nazi campaign to preserve Jewish books was largely the brainchild of Alfred Rosenberg, a leading Nazi intellectual, ideologue, and military leader. In early 1940, Hitler announced that Rosenberg would be assembling material for the “Hohe Schule,” a research institute for the study of Jews and Judaism to be established in Bavaria after the war, with a library of 500,000 volumes. As the Nazi rampage gathered steam, the idea grew to a chain of 10 or more institutes located in cities throughout the Nazi empire. Soon afterward, the Einsatzab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (Rosenberg task force) was formally established as the organization in charge of confiscating books and papers in newly conquered Nazi territories.
Poste explained that Allied forces had recently sent such material discovered in American-held areas of the former Third Reich to Offenbach. Poste had overseen the initial processing himself, but to date, no books had been returned to their owners. Now it was up to the more senior-ranking and experienced Pomrenze to take over.
The Jeep carrying the two men pulled up to a heavily guarded concrete building. Pomrenze may have glimpsed some bookcases through the doorway as he approached, but when he entered and beheld the full scope of the building’s contents, what he saw astounded him.
“My first impressions of the Offenbach Collecting Point were overwhelming and amazing at once,” he said in a 2002 speech for the Association of Jewish Libraries. “As I stood before a seemingly endless sea of crates and books, I thought what a horrible mess! What could I do with all these materials? How could I carry out my assignment successfully?”
The “seemingly endless sea of crates and books” that greeted Seymour Pomrenze in the old warehouse consisted of of more than 1.5 million volumes looted from hundreds of Jewish libraries throughout Europe, and by the end of the decade, a total of more than 3 million volumes would pass through the warehouse doors. Some came from major collections, such as the Rothschild Museum in Frankfurt, the Jewish Theological Seminary in Breslau, and the Alliance Israelite Universelle in Paris. Others were from small-town libraries — shtetls with names like Bedzin, Chelm, and Plock. There were old sets of Talmud, modern secular novels, and archives documenting the history of Jewish communities throughout Europe. There were medieval manuscripts, centuries-old Torah scrolls, and prayerbooks with pages thumbed gray from years of use.
It was the literary remains of a decimated Jewish civilization. And if a collection of stolen books could properly be called a library, then at the time it was the largest Jewish library ever assembled.
Immediately, Pomrenze realized his mission. Unaware of the extent of the Nazi murder of Europe’s Jews, he concluded that “the only action possible was to return the items to their owners, as quickly as possible.” He hired a military and civilian staff, and immediately the team got to work. In short order, the workers identified many of the books and shipped them back to their original owners. In March 1946, they shipped 371 crates of material to libraries in the Netherlands. Later, 137 crates went to Yugoslavia, 41 to Greece, and 115 to Austria. Pomrenze directed the Offenbach Archival depot for only a few months, but the shipments continued throughout much of the rest of the 1940s.
In 1949, the army turned over much of the remaining restitution work to Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Inc. (JCR), an organization of leading Jewish historians chaired by Salo Baron of Columbia University, and directed by the renowned philosopher Hannah Arendt. JCR concluded most of its work during the 1950s, but continued to exist on paper until it officially closed its doors in 1977.
One of the books it processed was a volume of Jewish law called Hilchot Alfasi, published in Sulzbach Germany in 1765. JCR sent it to a library in Israel, which later “deacquisitioned” it and sold it to an antiquarian book dealer in Jerusalem, who later sold it to me.
It is a large black tome, and it sits on my shelf just a few feet away as I type these words. If only I could know who perused its pages and studied its wisdom over the centuries. I consider myself not its owner, but its caretaker.
As for Seymour Pomrenze, he later rose to the rank of colonel, and served as a leading archivist and records manager for the U.S. Army until he retired in 1976. Over the years, he spoke widely about his wartime activities, and in 2007, President George W. Bush awarded him the National Humanities Medal for his work.
On August 25 of this year, one week before what would have been his 96th birthday, Seymour Pomrenze died in New York.
Many original owners of these books died in a massive act of unspeakable violence. Their legacy — one that survives today thanks to people such as Col. Pomrenze — can thus remind us of the greatness of their world, and also of the tragedy of their deaths.
At this season of zichronot — memories — may the memory of Seymour Pomrenze and the millions of people whose words he worked to restore, endure as a lasting blessing for us all.