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STOLEN WORDS Tells the Story of the Jewish Books Plundered by the Nazis and What Became of Them.

July 18, 2017


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Rabbi Mark Glickman delights once again with his latest book Stolen Words. This book recounts the saga of an overlooked group of survivors. The Jewish people are known as “People of the Book”. For millennia we have cherished the written word. Before the era of printing, scrolls were painstakingly compiled. Much love and care was put into the composition of documents. The generous contents of the Cairo Genizah indicate that Medieval Mediterranean Jews were often loathe to part with writings, even with those of a mundane nature.

Rabbi Glickman leads the reader into the saga of Jewish books that survived the savage Nazi onslaught by recounting his acquisition of a rare copy of the Laws of Rabbi Isaac Alfasi. Inside he discovered a strange marking which puzzled him. The stamp bore the legend “Jewish Cultural Reconstruction”. Some more digging opened up an entire portal into a story not often told, of post-war reconstruction and rehabilitation of the Jewish people.

The Nazis, unlike their medieval Jew-hating predecessors, were determined to get their hands on all the literary treasures of the Jewish nation. If their Jew-hating forbears were in the habit of looting and burning the precious holy books of the Jews, the Nazis had other plans. In Glickman’s words “Nazi Germany worked hard NOT to destroy Jewish books but to save them”…They weren’t interested in editing or censoring..they wanted to study the volumes in their original form…they weren’t scared of Jewish books; they were fascinated by them…their efforts to preserve Jewish literature would have been utterly baffling to European leaders of the past..
The question, of course is, why? Why were the Nazis determined to preserve the Jewish literary riches?

Since the days of Luther, Goethe and Kant, the Germans were a bookish and book-loving people. For instance the Frankfurt Book Fair which began in the Middle Ages still continues going strong today.

By sequestering the Jewish books, the Nazis would not only accomplish the complete destruction of the flesh and blood Jew, but would also be in full control of everything that shaped his identity. In fact Glickman writes that the Nazis were even interested in the Yiddish language; a linguist named Franz Beranzek argued that Germans should “reclaim” the study of Yiddish, claiming that it was actually a dialect of German and it could reveal “the racial and unique cultural foundation of Jewry”.

A grandiose scheme was hatched whereas several different Nazi agencies under the directorships of Alfred Rosenberg and Heinrich Himmler were to to collect all these items and eventually sort them and exhibit them in what was to become the Museum of the Extinct Jewish Nation.

Tons of books and precious ritual items were looted from both Municipal as well as private-owned libraries (such as the famed Vilna Strashun Library), from the centers of Ashkenazi Jewry to Salonika, Greece, known as “Jerusalem of the Balkans”, precious and priceless items such as incunabula and documents from the Cairo Genizah (pages from the ancient thought to be lost hebrew Book of ben Sira) that once belonged to the private library of Edmund Rothschild were shipped to various depots in Germany (Especially to the town of Offenbach) and Nazi-occupied eastern Europe.

The Nazis selected Jewish scholars to sort and organize what amounted to the detritus of a millennium of physical Jewish history of European Jewry. These Jews, scholars and librarians in their “former life, often risked their lives to hide and smuggle out their wares. A courageous Muslim curator at the Bosnian National Museum spirited the famed magnificent Sarajevo Haggada to safety.

The devastation of war resulted in the permanent disappearance of many of these items but there were tons of them still left once the smoke cleared.
Various organizations sent scholars to asses the items that were sitting in warehouses now under American military administration. Great Jewish historians and scholars like Salo Baron, Gershom Scholem, and Lucy Dawidowicz spent hours poring over books and manuscripts and sometimes resorted to subterfuge in order to spirit the documents out of the lands that have become so drenched with Jewish blood.

The book abounds with interesting facts and anecdotes. For instance:

*In 1559, partly to quell the rise of Protestant sedition, Pope Paul IV issued something called Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Index of Prohibited Books). It included the Talmud as well as other Jewish books. Later Popes issued revised lists but as late as 1948 Pope Piux XII issued a final version which included large sections of the Talmud, and the writings of Maimonides. It was only in 1965 that Pope Paul VI abolished the list altogether.

*In Medieval times destruction of what was deemed objectionable Jewish material was also accomplished via less radical means than burning. In the late 13th century, King James I of Aragon introduced the Jewish book censor,history’s first official censor of Jewish books-Glickman informs us- was a Dominican priest by the name of Ramon Marti or Raymond Martini. Many documents that have come down from that period show instances where texts that were find offensive by the church were simply blacked out with ink or cut out.

It is worth noting a great irony of history here. By engaging in intense study of Jewish texts (in order to refute them but also often attempting to demonstrate the truth of the Christian faith from within them), the Dominican did the Jewish people and the world of scholarship a great favor by inadvertently leaving us a wealth of ancient Jewish material that was otherwise lost of censored into oblivion. According to Alexander Fidora in his THE LATIN TALMUD AND ITS INFLUENCE ON JEWISH-CHRISTIAN POLEMIC, “Martini completed (in ca. 1280) his magisterial Pugio fidei (‘Dagger of Faith’) containing
innumerable citations from the Talmud and further rabbinical writings proving
that the Messiah had already come. Unlike his earlier work, the Capistrum Iudaeorum (‘Muzzle of the Jews’),where he also included Latin quotations from
the Talmud, here he first cites the texts in their original language and then provides Latin translations, which in their entirety constitute a considerable corpus
that is also deserving of our close attention”.
See here:…/…/files/LATTAL.pdf


The last page of STOLEN WORDS features a photo which provides the story with a fitting bookend. It shows Rabbi Glickman with his edition of Alfasi-the one that propelled him on this journey- surrounded by curious Jewish youngsters. Words can never truly be stolen.

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One Comment
  1. David Bar-Cohn permalink

    Fascinating piece of history! Thanks for posting.

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