Jean Croker Petke

Plundered Libraries

Plundered Libraries

On my library excursion The Book Thieves caught my eye as I wandered past the new books shelves. I first thought it was The Book Thief, a novel by Markus Zusak. As I read the fly leaf, the back cover, a bit of the introduction, and scanned the table of contents, I realized this was a nonfiction account of Europe’s plundered libraries during the World War II era. I was intrigued enough to bring it home.

The full title is The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe’s Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance by Anders Rydell. The account is both chilling and disturbing. While there was a war of guns and bombs, there was also a war against ideologies that didn’t support the Nazi regime. In his introduction, Rydell writes:

But even the Nazis realized that if there was something that gave more power than merely destroying the word, it was owning and controlling it. There was a power in books. Words could act as weapons, resounding long after the rumbling of artillery had stopped. They are weapons not only as propaganda, but also in the form of memories. Whoever owns the word has the power to not only interpret it, but also to write history.

Their efforts to destroy libraries, literature, and historical documents were Herculean, but not complete. Thousands of books survived, though they are dispersed around the globe and nearly impossible to restore to their owners.

Near the end of his book, Rydell summarizes:

my parents’ ex libris of the same era

Many of these libraries were the results of decades, sometimes centuries, of careful collecting. There had been generations of learned collectors and readers. The books also said something about the people who owned and treasured them: what they read and what they thought and what they dreamed. Sometimes they left traces in the form of underlined passages, notations, notes in the margins, or short comments. The beautiful and personally designed ex librises that many readers had made for their books demonstrate the care and pride they took in their libraries. Each collection in its own right took form in a unique culture, a depiction of its creator’s world, which was lost when the library was broken up. The books are fragments of a library, of a world that once existed.

After I finished Rydell’s book, I browsed through Zusak’s novel, looking for the book-burning scene. Fact and fiction told the same story. Zusak writes:

“Today is a beautiful day,” he continued. “Not only is it our great leader’s birthday — but we also stop our enemies once again. We stop them reaching into our minds . . .”

The orange flames waved at the crowd as paper and print dissolved inside them. Burning words were torn from their sentences. On the other side, beyond the blurry heat, it was possible to see the brownshirts and swastikas joining hands. You didn’t see people. Only uniforms and signs.

I began to jot down my own notes and thoughts as these two books somehow became one in my mind. Here is some of what I wrote:

  • All of us who read and write and speak and listen know the power of words. We’ve hurt and been hurt, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.
  • If you obliterate the people and destroy their books, it’s as if they never existed on the planet.
  • Burning books — any books — is like burning the flag or our religious texts: sacrilege.
  • What do our books say about us? Why did I underline a particular text so many years ago? What did it mean to me then?

I’ve barely scratched the surface of the emotions I’ve experienced on my library tours and in the reading of these two books. I only hope this post will cause you to treasure again the books that have touched your life.

Until next Tuesday . . .