The Provocation of Books

Caroline Jessen

Books play a prominent role in the discourse on Jewish “cultural heritage” destroyed in Germany after 1933. Especially in Israel, the remnants of personal libraries shipped to Palestine from Europe by Jewish citizens, symbolise a culture of reading in past tense – as well as a latent overload of memory.


Remnants: German language books. Photo: Caroline Jessen

His goal is to preserve books and make them useful again. For this reason, the Israeli entrepreneur Gabi Goldwein collects German books sorted from the collections of the municipal libraries and retirement homes in Haifa and Tel Aviv, picks up stray copies discarded at the side of the road, and places ads for books whose owners no longer want them. His plan is to ship the German-language books to Germany someday in a giant container and store them in a centrally located warehouse where they can serve to augment the library holdings in Germany. He could also imagine developing a small-scale installation and exhibition. But so far he hasn’t found a partner for his project.

After Goldwein contacted the Institut für Zeitgeschichte in Munich at the beginning of the year, the Institute’s library director Daniel Schlögl wrote to a number of libraries, museums and archives – including the German Literature Archive in Marbach – to discuss the project. The result can be summed up very briefly – the project would be of little use to the libraries.

Salvaged books make what was destroyed all the more visible

On my visit in Haifa, Goldwein showed me boxes of books piled up metres high in the unused rooms of a small synagogue. They are fetishes of memory, troublesome burdens and complex symbolic artefacts all in one. He asked me why no German library was interested in the books.

They represent something salvaged, which only makes what was destroyed all the more visible. They used to be portable, useful things, but are now mere souvenirs that mark a tangible loss. This explains the strange status of the faded Rilke booklets published by the Insel-Verlag, the disintegrating Zionistica, the massive copies of Werner Sombart’s Die Juden und das Wirtschaftsleben, once popular novels by Max Brod and countless tattered crime stories written in West Germany. A collection of relics, remnants and rubbish.

a heap of Books – a Memory overload

Their present value lies in the episodes of their history, their relationship to readers, to whom only dedications, marks of ownership or inserted letters cryptically refer, but do not allow us to deduce a history of emigration. One can hardly decipher what they convey as singular objects. Only a couple of Goldwein’s books are rare copies with valuable content. The pile of books represents an excess of information, an overload. Perhaps this is what makes it so meaningful.

The private Jewish libraries which were quietly shipped out of Germany after 1933 were salvaged property and emblems of a liberating ideal of education, a surrogate of political integration, complicated keepsakes of failed Jewish emancipation, and writings of empowerment. For their owners, the “German” (and often multilingual) libraries in Mandatory Palestine/Israel served as islands of familiarity in what felt like a foreign environment. They represented something missing, something brutally confiscated. Often they aroused suspicion that their owners were clinging to a “cultural life of their own built upon old memories” – as one anonymous contributor commented in the “Mitteilungsblatt” published by the organisation of German immigrants in 1941. Everything about them appears to be ambivalent.

Secured knowledge transfer in books

But all the knowledge conveyed and shipped via airlift to Palestine formed a storehouse which could be activated as long as one could reacquire what had long been taken for granted. The works by the pedagogue Ernst Simon, the publisher Moritz Spitzer, the translator Kitty Steinschneider, the poet Ludwig Strauss and the library director Curt Wormann are minor elements of a larger knowledge transfer from Germany to Israel, concealed in books and writings.

The books in the emigrés’ libraries were also commodities. This is most succinctly evidenced by the attempts of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv bookstores to purchase privately owned volumes in the 1940s in hopes of compensating for a lack of new books imported from abroad.

Commodities in high demand

The ideological differences of the European refugees were inconsequential for the book dealers. A want ad, placed by the Lehmann bookshop on Allenby Road, Tel Aviv in 1946 in its “Book Search List No. 1”, read: “We are urgently looking for luxury editions (classics, artworks etc.), commemorative publications, genealogies, national economics, Flavius Josephus old editions [sic], philosophy: Friedell, Husserl, Dilthey, Bergson, Fischer, Vorländer, Deussen, Spinoza, Kant, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer etc., everything about the Orient, new and old literature, archaeology, history, arts and crafts, Judaica, old Bible editions, Haggadot, old prayer books, Tanakh editions with the prophets [...]”. Numerous advertisements of this kind could be found in the improvised immigrant journals that were published in Palestine and are now awaiting researchers in archives.

And now Mr. Goldwein gathers the last existing remnants of this world of literature in Haifa. The sight of the cardboard boxes stacked all the way into the courtyard is oppressive. Perhaps the old collections at the National Library of Israel and the Tel Aviv Municipal Library better reflect the spectrum of what was read. But libraries have to cull their collections occasionally; the capacity of their stacks is limited. The majority of the books which arrived at the beginning of World War II has long found its way into recycling bins, onto the bookshelves of younger researchers and tourists, or into the international antiquarian market. There are still some remnants floating around. The ritual of perusing the used books and discovering treasures is still alive.

Movement of Books after 1945 has received little attention

In recent years, sombre attention and archival conservation measures have been directed at probing the materiality of emigration in order to reassess the history of relations between the German and Jewish identity in Israel. They find their richly experienced counterpart in the sobriety and pragmatism, with which the discovered libraries in Israel were integrated and newly arranged into the holdings of German collections since the 1950s, if not earlier, via the German and international antiquarian trade.

The market has always advocated circulation – be it out of historical awareness or historical ignorance. The catalogues of “German Literature in Exile 1933-1945” by the bookstore Amelang, listing new deliveries by the Tel Aviv antiquarian Walter Zadek, and the documented collection of German literature listed in the auction catalogues by the publisher Salman Schocken are just two highly cited examples of the still under-researched movement of books after 1945.

Library leftovers with no home

Only a handful of Israeli companies trade in German-language books today and help to gradually fill the research-relevant gaps in the holdings of German and international libraries. The only clues that hint at their complex acquisition history are the old pasted stickers of no-longer existent shops like “Logos” (Walter Zadek) and “Blumstein” or miscellaneous marks of ownership in the books. Users seldom learn anything about their provenance beyond the most prominent names and trails of Nazi-looted assets.

As a result, the library “leftovers”, which Goldwein would like to send to Germany, are a provocation. They force us to decide whether books, which do not fill any gaps in the collection holdings, still have a place in this world. On the other hand, what would it mean to preserve the entire collection or determine their provenance in view of the decade-long study of books in emigrant libraries stored in the existing research collections? Would preserving them in a museum-like environment correspond to their significance and function? Or should we make this latent overload of memory, which Goldwein’s collection so poignantly exemplifies, visible in a different way?

Caroline Jessen (DLA Marbach) is a research associate in the MWW research project “Writers’ Libraries” and investigates the history of libraries of emigrated German-Jewish authors. Her work also focuses on the question of the whereabouts and circulation of books from these collections after 1945.