A Large Chunk

Profil (06/11/ 2007)

Edith Meinhard

Restitution. Researchers found thousands of looted books in the huge book stacks of the University of Vienna. Now the search begins for heirs.

“More next time.” With these words, Professor of Romance Languages and Literature Elise Richter ended her lecture in March of 1938, one which proved to be her last. Two weeks later, the swastika hung on the façade of the Alma Mater Rudolphina. And “Miss Richter,” as the Neue Freie Presse once called the first woman ever to have received a PhD from an Austrian university, was expelled.

The Jewish scholar lived another four years with her sister Helene in Vienna’s Cottageviertel. Both of them had dedicated themselves to a life characterized by “the merry world of scholarship,” that was also the motto of the exlibris in all of their textbooks. But hardship set in and made life oppressive. In 1941 they considered even selling their fine library.  Elise did an inventory and came up with 8,000 volumes. “A really quite beautiful collection,” she noted in her diary in 1941.

The University and City Library of Cologne offered 4,000 Reichsmark for the voluminous romance titles. So, in April 1942, fourteen crates headed in the direction of Germany; the Richter sisters, however, never saw a single Reichsmark in exchange for the books. On March 12, 1942, they settled into a Jewish nursing home and seven months later were deported to Theresienstadt. Helene survived only one month while her sister, Elise, died on June 21, 1943.

For the first time, part of the collection was found among the six and a half million books in print in the University of Vienna’s library. Peter Malina, a historian of contemporary history, had been looking for the last two years for NS looted items in the enormous book stacks filled with books. He and his colleagues sorted through more than 100,000 volumes, rummaging through stacks of acquisition documents and files and interviewing witnesses. “Every little hint of suspicion is being recorded,” he says. Preliminary results reveal 33,000 volumes - the origins of which are now being researched - have been sorted out and separated from the rest. How many will have to be restituted in the end cannot be determined. Malina estimates that “it could be between 8,000 and 10,000 volumes.”

The search for heirs is archeological, heavy labor. Exlibris, dedications and notes scribbled on paper are the only traces which have a connection to the past, but they often end up leading nowhere. Nevertheless, there are also cases which are very clear-cut. Sometimes Malina has only to open a couple of pages in a book in order recognize that it was acquired illegally: some 862 books written in French were given to the University Library as a “gift” from the Gestapo between 1942 and 1944.

Without any Owner
Beginning in the 1950s, the University Library accepted 107,864 books in print, known as the “Tanzenberg Collection, which date from the past century.” Forty percent of this holding went to the National Library in Jerusalem, and the rest remained in Vienna. Provenance researchers discovered in the meantime some 4,712 volumes stamped with “Tanzenberg Collection 1951.” The wherabouts of the rest is to this day not clear.

The Collection belonged to the “Hohe Schule,” the name given to the NSDAP party’s college. Their library contained books they had stolen from sources throughout all of Europe. From September 1944 to May 1945, the booty was stored in the former Olivetaner monastery, located in Tanzenberg, Carinthia. Toward the end of the war, the British occupation tried to return many of the books. But even at that time it could not be explained to whom they belonged. After 1949, the “unowned” property landed in the National Library where “books were sorted out,” where the remaining Tanzenberger holdings soon mixed together with parts of Vienna’s Gestapo library as well as holdings from the Dorotheum and the National Library. That which didn’t fit into any particular category was distributed among Austria’s libraries. As of today, Malina has identified 4,600 volumes from the “Tanzenberg Collection 1951” in the university’s book stacks. According to historical records kept by the Gestapo, the University Library received another 2,932 volumes, of which Malina and his group have found only 236.

The longer the search continues of the book stacks, the clearer it becomes, that “our attempts are too short-reaching,” says the library’s director, Maria Seissel. In March 2006 Seissl included the 49 specialized libraries into the provenance project. Two-thirds of the material has already been secured, about 65,000 volumes inspected, among which the head of the project, Markus Stempf, has discovered to this day 1,300 cases of restitution. In a few libraries not a single looted book was found, whereas others proved to reveal “large chunks.” Some 150 books owned by the psychologist couple, Karl and Charlotte Bühler, were in any case acquired illegally.

Both taught at the university until their emigration. On March 23, 1938, he institute founded by Karl Bühler in 1922 was sealed. The Nazis accused the professor of having acted “philo-semitic,” and took him into “protective custody.” As a result the Bühlers dissolved their household and sold their private library containing approximately 5,000 volumes. The works were nonetheless looted because “the sale took place under pressure and is classified as illegal,” says Christiane Köstner, expert for coming to terms with organized NS looting of books.

Charlotte fled to Norway. With help from friends, she managed to have her husband set free from prison. This research couple also never saw any money from the sale of the library. On November, 1938 a librarian from the University Library estimated the value of their 900-volume part of the library at 500 Reichsmark. The Insitute for Psychology transferred 400 Reichsmark onto a blocked account, which Charlotte and Karl Bühler were unable to access. The 150 works from their estate, which have been tracked down, are now to be returned as soon as possible. Currently University Library colleagues are looking for their legal heirs.

Scouring the University’s book stacks will last until 2008. Until then the role of University Library should be investigated in more detail. The Gestapo’s “secured” books in prints were distributed throughout the entire area under German control by the office responsible for book usage in Vienna’s Dorotheum. The National Library officially snapped up the bargain. In comparison, the University Library reacted reluctantly. Nevertheless, it proves to Malina to be “all the more a nightmare that the University Library was also a beneficiary of the NS system of systematic looting throughout all of Europe.”