I can’t actually remember how Stolen Words: The Nazi Plunder of Jewish Books by Mark Glickman (The Jewish Publication Society, 2015) ended up on my TBR; likely a mention by one of the many Jewish pages I follow on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Books and reading have always been an important part of being Jewish (we are the People of the Book!), and so learning about and understanding what happened to Jewish books during and after World War II was something that piqued my interest. Boy, did I learn a LOT from this book!
So, almost everyone knows that the Nazi burned books. Most of us have seen pictures of people throwing books onto a huge bonfire, and we use Nazi book burning as a metaphor for the dangers of censorship. But most of us probably don’t know that their book burning phase didn’t last very long; they quickly moved on to collecting books. That’s right. The Nazis stole, then collected Jewish writings even as they mowed down the Jewish people during World War II. They planned to study the writings of the culture they had wiped out. Fortunately, they lost, and afterwards, one of the many questions to be answered at war’s end became, “Now what do we do with all these millions of books?”
In order to help the reader understand the importance of this question, Rabbi Mark Glickman begins the book with a fascinating look at the history of Jewish texts and the emphasis on reading and study that has always been central to Judaism. The second section segues into the many heartbreaking ways the Nazis stole and desecrated our texts; the third, how so many people worked for years to return said texts to their rightful owners, or, barring the ability to do that, to send the texts to the places they would again be loved and cherished. This was obviously a massive amount of work; millions upon millions of books and papers had been stolen and hidden away, or stored in places that ranged from caves to castles. Moving these books involved multiple organizations working tirelessly for years.
This is an incredible book that tells a story I hadn’t heard before. I had no idea about the Nazis stealing books; even with all the reading I’ve done about history, World War II, and the Shoah, I had been under the impression that they burned books and nothing else. I had no clue about the massive troves of Jewish literature that lay hidden after the war, nor of the incredible effort of so many people to return these books to communities and organizations that would recognize them for the treasures that they are. This book presented a brand-new understanding of history to me, and I’m grateful to Rabbi Glickman for having penned such an interested, eye-opening work. I always appreciate being able to be better informed about anything, but especially Judaism and Jewish history.