New Digital Project Details 150 Belgian Libraries Looted by the Nazis

During WWII, a special ideological unit stole some 250,000 to 300,000 books for research and propaganda purposes

Room filled with looted books in Riga, Latvia
The Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg looted books across occupied Europe. Pictured here is a room full of stolen texts in Riga, Latvia. Bundesarchiv via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0

Between August 1940 and February 1943, Nazi forces looted some 150 libraries across Belgium, stealing an estimated 250,000 to 300,000 books. Now, reports the Jerusalem Post, a new online repository is sharing information about the seized volumes with the public.

The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) created the project, titled “Documenting Nazi Library Plunder in Occupied Belgium and Limited Postwar Retrieval,” to spotlight a little-known chapter of Holocaust history. Visitors can peruse newly digitized lists, charts and registers detailing the looted texts.

“This new online publication represents years of knowledge that many thought were lost forever during the Holocaust in Belgium,” says Gideon Taylor, chairman of operations at WJRO and president of the Claims Conference’s Board of Directors, in a statement. “This work, which was researched and investigated by experts in the field, will be a powerful resource for Holocaust survivors and their families, the Belgian Jewish community and researchers around the world.”

A special German unit called the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) stole the texts during the invasion and occupation of Belgium. Created by Alfred Rosenberg, the Nazi Party’s head of ideological programs, in 1940, the ERR’s mission was to seize writings by Freemasons and Jews, preventing the Nazis’ enemies from reading them while preserving the papers for use in research and propaganda, per the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The current project has two parts, the first of which highlights files kept by the ERR on its work in Belgium. Particularly detailed, the accounts record the seizure of books from institutional and personal libraries alike. The second component, which is still in progress, will look at the retrieval of books stolen by the ERR after the war’s end. Researchers identify some of these texts as “twice looted”—seized first by German forces and again by Soviet soldiers after the war. Some were returned to Belgium in the 1990s and 2000s, but thousands more reportedly remain in Russia.

These stamps reflect the Jewish and Freemason origins of some of the books seized by the ERR. WJRO / Claims Conference

“Understanding where these books and cultural artifacts ended up not only offers a more accurate account of what happened, but also lays the beginning foundational work for individuals and organizations who seek to pursue possible claims in the future,” says Taylor in the statement.

Over the course of World War II, the Nazis notoriously stole or destroyed countless artworks, manuscripts and artifacts deemed “degenerate.” (Efforts to restitute Nazi-looted art remain ongoing.) At the same time, the ERR collected hundreds of thousands of books from across Europe, seizing volumes from Jewish institutions in Paris, hunting down texts that Amsterdam residents had attempted to hide from the Germans and taking books left behind by Jews who had fled from the Nazis.

Rosenberg hoped to feature these looted objects in the Hohe Schule, a planned educational and research center in Bavaria that would have housed 500,000 volumes and an auditorium. Other Nazi leaders prepared additional elements of the “university-level, ideologically oriented” institution, including a center for research “on the Jewish Question” in Frankfurt, according to the ERR Project.

The researchers behind the portal identified 136 of the 150 “work projects,” or library seizures, undertaken by the ERR. These looting sprees affected 113 individuals or families and 32 institutions. In addition to Jews and Masons, victims included socialists, communists, liberal professors, political elites and Francophile institutions like the Jesuits.

As Jewish Business News reports, the new publication is part of an ongoing series documenting looted cultural artifacts. The team previously published findings on French libraries, and it currently has another effort underway to document the ERR’s looting of Dutch libraries.

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