Edo Torkar: Tales of a Book Rescuer

This post is also available in Slovenian. / Ta objava je na voljo tudi v slovenščini.

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One day in the late 1980s, Miran Ivan Knez and Edo Torkar happened to arrive at the same time to one of the waste paper dumps in Ljubljana. Knez was already famous back then as the founder of Bukvarna, the “book asylum” for rescuing discarded books; Torkar was just starting out as a second-hand bookseller. That day, they had the same objective – rescuing a large shipment of old books which had just arrived to the dump. However, their approach was slightly different.

Knez first went up to the workers and began to lambast them for helping destroy the nation’s cultural heritage. Books are our greatest treasureif we stop reading, we’ll stop being – worthy sentiments, which Knez could weave into arbitrarily long impromptu speeches. Meanwhile, Torkar slid up and down the courtyard, sifted through the piles of paper, and quietly filled up the trunk of his car. By the time the trunk was full, Knez was still at the other side of the courtyard, hectoring anyone who wasn’t able to run away quickly enough. The next time a large amount of books arrived at the dump, only Torkar received a tip-off.

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Already as a kid, Torkar knew that he wanted to be his own boss one day and run a business. Nowadays, schools will go out of their way to instill an entrepreneurial spirit in their pupils, but back in the fifties this was a very obscure career choice, about as popular and encouraged as becoming a rabbi or a sexologist. Instead, Torkar graduated from metallurgical school, worked for some time as a sailor, wrote a few books of short stories, occasionally smuggled coffee across the border, and finally started making inroads into the world of business when the flea market in Ljubljana opened in the 1980s. For a time, he was supposedly the most popular seller of books there, thanks to his jovial personality and his crazy prices. After a few years of flea marketeering, he decided to go a level up and opened his own brick-and-mortar bookstore. He hasn’t left the business since then.

Nowadays, Torkar is technically retired, but he still spends most of the time at his second-hand store, the “Bukvarna Radovljica[1] in northwestern Slovenia. This is the home planet, from which he makes attempts to colonize the rest of the Gorenjska region. A store of his in Kranj recently went out of business, whereas another one in Jesenice is still holding out. Even if that one ultimately fails, though, his central location is more than enviable. The store’s name could easily also be “Antikvariat Linhart,” since it’s located inside the birth house of the eponymous author of the first Slovenian play. Three rooms are filled with books, plus a bookshelf-lined former corridor which feels like a time capsule from Linhart’s day. It isn’t all cold stone and 18th century, though – sitting on a chair close to the entrance, I was repeatedly assaulted by the most cuddle-loving cat I’ve ever met.

This is a different cat of theirs, but it looks just a cuddly.

There are plenty of antiquarian booksellers in this country, and with a few exceptions they all have cute stores. The real reason why Torkar is getting his own post is that unlike most book dealers, he isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty – in a good way. While most dealers are used to having books brought to them at the store, Torkar spent most of his career prowling around dumps and paper mills, trash collections and the occasional dumpster, rescuing and reselling many tons of books. He’s also a fellow blogger, and when I read a short post of his about his book-rescuing days, I figured my blog’s readership would be interested in what he has to say.

Torkar is quite frank that unlike yours truly, his approach to rescuing books is pragmatic. He always took what he could resell for a decent profit, and left behind the rest. He doesn’t really identify as a bibliophile or a collector; when people talk about books too much, it gets on his nerves. At the same time, he was often able to get inside dumps and paper mills that were barred to other, sneakier and shiftier booksellers. He says it was probably his naïve attitude which helped him gain the workers’ confidence. He wasn’t trying to rip anyone off or break the law; he was just looking for nice books.

I asked Torkar if he minded having his picture taken. “Oh no, not at all, actually my one weakness is that I’m very vain.”

When you spent over twenty years dumpster diving for waste paper, what are the most amazing finds that you can boast of? The first thing that came to Torkar’s mind was the archive of the Hygiene Foundation (Higienski zavod), a pre-war Ljubljana-based institution which did surveys of the Slovenian countryside. Inside were over a thousand original photographs of rural houses; many of these homes didn’t survive WWII, and of course very few of them still stand today. A dozen of these photos would have overjoyed any local-history collector, yet Torkar found himself with enough of the snapshots to open another store. Fortunately, the collection was bought en bloc by the Ethnography department at Ljubljana’s Faculty of Arts, a happy end to this particular dumpster story.

Another time, Torkar fished out a large pile of archives of National Liberation Councils (Narodnoosvobodilni odbori), local administrative bodies from the early post-war era, from the Slovenian littoral region. He offered the collection to a few institutions, but there wasn’t much interest, so he started selling them off piecemeal. It turned out there was a lot of interest for that: lots of people were curious about what their families and fellow villagers did during the transition from Nazism to socialism. Suddenly, Torkar got a call from the local archive in the Slovenian littoral. They were willing to have the documents back – for free. When Torkar objected to this very generous proposal, they threatened a lawsuit. He still didn’t budge, though, so they started haggling. In the end, the archives managed to return to the institution whose subsidiary had sent them to the paper mill.

What happened when Torkar was on holiday, or busy at the store? Did he have any helpers in the dumpster diving business? Sort of, but not really. A few of the workers from the dump would try bringing him books, but they didn’t know what was valuable and what wasn’t, so they were usually disappointed at the payment they received. In Ljubljana, you can often see Roma picking through piles of bulky waste, but apparently they don’t show up in the Gorenjska region that often. Torkar still has an old lady from town who does rounds on her bike, inspects waste paper containers and brings him two or three books at a time. The books are rarely worth much, but he buys them nonetheless, because she seems like she needs the money and because he doesn’t want to chase her away.

Torkar jokes that the above lady is the only person from whom he still buys small amounts of books. Like all dumpster divers (yours truly included), he’s a bit spoiled when it comes to spending money on things. Nowadays, he gets most of his books in bulk purchases from estates and libraries, where the price he pays per book is generally very small. It’s telling that when I mentioned some of my own amazing dumpster finds and bargain purchases, he merely nodded, unimpressed; however, when I mentioned an occasion when an online seller demanded 200 euros for a booklet worth perhaps 20, Torkar almost jumped off his chair.

If you want to sell him a dozen books, though, he is always willing to exchange them for store credit. He showed me the only book which has been sitting in the store from the very beginning: a large address-book, filled with names, dates and sums. You can acquire 30 euros of store credit and spend it ten years from now, if you want to. If Torkar started buying books for cash again, however, he says he’d probably have a line of people stretching from the door to the edge of town.

At least you have a large selection of books to buy with your store credit. Pictured are both halves of the room next to the entrance; the two other rooms, plus the former corridor, are further back.

There weren’t many dumpster divers in the Gorenjska region, apparently, but Torkar still got to know a few from Ljubljana. One of them once arrived with an eye-popping pile of papers: official mail sent out by Gorenjski odred, a WWII resistance unit operating in NW Slovenia. Slovenian resistance was extremely well organized: they had their own clandestine hospitals, schools, printing presses, radio stations, and a mail delivery system, all while the country was occupied by the Germans and Italians. Mail was delivered via couriers, usually young boys who were a popular hunting target for Nazis and their local collaborators. Nonetheless, this particular heap of papers made it through and Torkar offered them to various museums and archives. There was some interest, but mostly they wanted the archive for free or for a very modest sum. In the end, Torkar managed to find a serious buyer: the enfant terrible of Slovenian collecting, politician, provocator, gun nut and self-declared aristocrat, Zmago Jelinčič.

One of Jelinčič’s many weird contradictions is that he is a far-right politician who has occasionally threatened to shoot immigrants, yet he also praises the wartime communist resistance and despises their collaborationist opponents. I asked Torkar whether bookbuyers’ tastes have changed during his career. Now that the generation which fought WWII is almost gone, and it has been 30 years since the losers gained the right to voice their side of the story, is the demand for WWII-themed books declining? Surprisingly, Torkar’s answer is “no.” For better or worse, grandchildren are often just as interested in the war as the old belligerents themselves. At the same time, there is never a shortage of doofuses who cart off rarities directly to the dump. Torkar says he vividly remembers the time a guy brought a knee-high pile of wartime collaborationist material as waste paper – rare magazines such as Slovensko domobranstvo which rarely last more than a day in any bookstore before being grabbed up by collectors. I couldn’t help salivating a bit.

The guy with the beard is Leon Rupnik, “president” of the occupied Province of Ljubljana and personification of Slovenian collaboration during WWII.

It can be hard for a collector to understand how clueless some people can be about old books. “Do you really find that many banknotes inside?” a worker at the paper dump asked Torkar one day. “Huh?” … It turned out the poor man couldn’t understand why anyone would possibly be interested in these books, so he figured Torkar’s real objective must be the euros, francs and dollars that people accidentally leave inside. On one occasion, the worker’s naïve wisdom turned out to be correct, though. Torkar found a large sum of money in German marks, a currency which was already defunct then but which can even now be exchanged for euros at major banks in Germany. He made a trip to Munich and came back with over 1000 euros, a sum for which he would otherwise have needed to sell quite a few books.  

Even people who should know better sometimes send valuable books to the paper mill. Publishers, for example. In the Slovenian online bookselling world, where I regularly snoop around for antiquarian books, a few authors consistently sell like hotcakes. At the top of the list are JRR Tolkien, JK Rowling, Enid Blyton and Douglas Adams, all in Slovenian translation, of course. Well, Torkar once managed to arrive at the paper mill just as a consignment of Adams’ books was being unloaded, straight from the warehouse. If the publisher was unable to sell these books, what kind of books were they capable of selling then, for Christ’s sake? Torkar also found lots of other titles over the years that had come straight from the printing press to the paper mill. One of the occasions, when he came across a shipment of poems by Seamus Heaney, was mentioned on his blog – one small source for a history of book destruction in Slovenia…

Hitchhiker’s Guide and Dirk Gently: two perennial favourites of Slovenian bookworms.

Has the number of books that land in dumpsters changed in any way during the last few decades? Torkar thinks it has decreased somewhat, thanks to the shops run by local trash collecting companies. In his own Radovljica, the workers at the trash sorting facility supposedly stop anyone who arrives with trash to dispose of, and ask the visitors whether they have anything which might still be usable, such as books. The material then goes to the next-door shop, usually called komunalna trgovina, where it is sold for a modest price. In theory, the Center ponovne uporabe store in Ljubljana has the same system, and I have my doubts about how well it works, but I will agree that some books are spared this way.

I was looking forward to taking a few pictures of Torkar’s awesome trash finds, but he says he has already sold them all. He put his dumpster diving career on hold almost ten years ago, and he has barely acquired any books from the trash since then. He says he doesn’t really need to – he has first dibs on material brought to many of the abovementioned trash companies’ shops, as well as on donated material that is passed over by the regional libraries. On top of that, he is a household name in the region, so of course people offer him entire libraries all the time. Add to this a full warehouse and his advancing years, and it’s hard to begrudge him for not picking through the trash anymore. When he wrote about dumpster diving on his blog, though, he said he hoped his writing would inspire someone else to take up the mantle after his departure. There is profit, as well as a warm fuzzy feeling inside, to be made in diving for books. Let’s hope his words didn’t fall on deaf ears.

At the end of the day, Edo Torkar is first of all a pragmatist. He mentioned how some time ago, a lady stopped at his store and offered him a trunkload of old books. Torkar went out to inspect the books and recognized them at once, since he was the one who had thrown them into the dumpster… Of course, I can’t endorse him here, but I can’t really judge him either. The episode just goes to show that we need more non-profits (such as Bukvarna Ciproš) whose mission is to preserve old volumes and pass them on, regardless of their market value. Second-hand booksellers are great, but you can only expect so much from them. To paraphrase Adam Smith, it is not from the benevolence of the dumpster diver, or the bookseller, or the auctioneer that we expect our book collection, but from their regard to their own interest.

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Do I recommend visiting Bukvarna Radovljica? Well, not only does it have a great location and atmosphere, is it probably also the largest for-profit second-hand bookstore in the country. Most of the stock is listed online, so you needn’t come in person if you don’t have time. If you do visit, however, you can also rummage through the discounted books, which aren’t listed online, and if you buy several items, Torkar will probably give you an additional discount. He also claims to have the largest selection of English paperbacks in Slovenia, most of them going for 3 euros apiece. Radovljica might be a small town in the countryside, but it’s also located right next to the undisputed capital of Slovenian tourism, Bled. If you’re planning to visit Lake Bled, and if you enjoy snooping around for books, this is the place to stop at.

“Bukvarna: Open”

[1] In most cases, a “bukvarna” is a non-profit institution whose main objective is to preserve books; however, the term can also refer to an ordinary, for-profit second-hand bookstore, which would more commonly be called “antikvariat.” There is still a difference in prestige between both terms: an “antikvariat” will usually be pickier about the kinds of books it offers.

A Well-Armed Bibliophile: The Story of Vid Ambrožič

Today’s post is technically a book review, but I’ll be honest and admit right away that I did not read the entire volume in question. The title of the book is A Gendarme among Flowers and Books (Žandar med cvetjem in knjigami), and it’s a loosely organised memoir of Vid Ambrožič, a little-known figure who is usually remembered today as a poet and a “village chronicler.” Well, he also deserves to be remembered as a pretty impressive book collector. I don’t think there has ever been a Slovenian who would remain principally remembered as a book collector, and so it was also with Ambožič. For him, books were never more than a hobby, but it was a hobby that he took seriously and acquired an enviable collection under very difficult circumstances.

His memoirs are written in a light, chatty tone without any pretensions to serious literature, and the book’s cover art leaves much to be desired. However, the stories he has to tell are unexpectedly entertaining. He casts light not only on book collecting in the interwar era, but also on the general fate of books in Slovenia during the first half of the 20th century. Slovenian-speaking booklovers are highly advised to give Ambrožič’s memoir a try; for everyone else, at least there is this blog post.

To the extent that the book has a central theme, it’s Ambrožič’s recollections of serving as a gendarme in interwar Yugoslavia. While he keeps returning to this theme, he never stays put for more than a few pages, and keeps wandering off again to discuss local history, interesting villagers, his amorous adventures, and his interests as a collector. Obviously this last bit was most interesting to me, so I ended up skimming through some of the other passages. Then again, for the standards of book collectors, our protagonist had a fairly interesting life.

He served in the Austro-Hungarian army during WWI, and was present at the famous Judenburg uprising in 1918, which he somehow managed to survive. After the war, he became a gendarme in the area east and north of Ljubljana, and the pages are filled with stories of rapists, murderers, and shootouts between criminals and the police. Ambrožič narrates the hunts for his “birds” with remarkable coolness, making it sound almost as if it were a game. During WWII, the Germans fortunately retired him, but he stayed around for a while in order to be able to mediate between the occupiers, locals, and the resistance, and occasionally try to save people listed for execution. He was under suspicion as a potential communist before the war; after the war, he would get in trouble for his opposition to communism. It was a difficult life, but his various collecting hobbies would help keep him afloat.

Ambrožič as a handsome army officer in 1918.

Nowadays, when most people attend university, it’s hard to understand how someone could be as talented as Ambrožič and yet never advance beyond primary education. He learned to read early, and would beg around for money to buy books before he even entered school. Once he was there, he started his own handwritten newspaper (with two subscribers), wrote down poems on the barn walls, and took out books in German with him when he went to graze cows. He became the informal parish librarian, and when the priest was transferred to another parish, he left Ambrožič in charge. The library would later disappear during WWII, along with many others, while Ambrožič’s literary work was soon thrown into the cesspit by his adoptive father. In return, the son would pinch coins from the father’s purse, and when enough money was gathered, he bought a new book of Fran Levstik’s poems which was being advertised in the newspapers. Thus collectors are made.

When time came to send the prodigy off to high school, nobody made any moves, so he stayed behind. Instead, he was sent off to WWI, earned a medal for bravery, and started a career in the police upon his return. Soon after the war, his collecting career also began in earnest. A national exhibition was held in Ljubljana, with a cultural section that included a first edition of the national poet Prešeren’s poems (held today by the Slavic Library in Ljubljana). The edition had been inscribed by Prešeren to his boss’s daughter, and from later times, it bore the ownership markings of the poet Anton Aškerc. Ambrožič, by then already employed as a gendarme, felt the very unseemly urge to grab the book and run. He conquered the urge with the help of a muscular guard, but at that moment he decided to assemble a collection of signed editions and manuscripts himself.

The book that turns honest men into thieves: a first edition of Poezije by France Prešeren.

Most book collectors don’t wear a police uniform when they go around collecting signatures. Ambrožič must have scared quite a few famous writers when he appeared at their doors, but at least they didn’t dare ignore him. When he explained what he came for, they were usually relieved and he quickly got his books inscribed. The poet Oton Župančič used to occasion to tease his son: “if you don’t behave, the gendarme will come back and take you with him!” Ambrožič corresponded with several other more distantly located writers, and duly included their letters into his collection. When the writers in question were already dead, it was more difficult; in some cases he coaxed their manuscript from a surviving relative or friend, in some cases he traded with fellow collectors (for example, for stamps, his other collecting passion). Over time, his manuscript collection grew to include almost every major Slovenian writer of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Ambrožič was lucky to have another avenue for book acquisitions. One of his two police stations was in Vevče, and the other was near Količevo, which Slovenians may recognize as the locations of two of the country’s paper mills. The gendarme spent his lunch breaks at the mills, sifting through piles of waste paper for interesting stamps, old documents, but mostly for books and manuscripts. He mentions how he came across the library of Krumperk castle, an imposing Renaissance building northeast of Ljubljana. One day, a row of carts arrived at Količevo mill, carrying books from the castle. The last member of the resident noble family had died, after which the estate liquidators sold the library for scrap. Ambrožič managed to save some especially valuable books, though many were already damaged, having been loaded and unloaded with pitchforks… He laments that since the books are in German, which nobody reads anymore, they won’t outlive him for long. I wonder whether he was proven wrong, and where the books are now.

The paper mill at Vevče in 1933. It is not known whether any of the human figures in the picture represents Ambrožič.

Another way to merge work and leisure was to snoop around for books during patrols. Whoever has read William Blades’ The Enemies of Books can draw a number of parallels between Blades’ experiences in England and those of Ambrožič in Slovenia, many of which fall into the category “ignorant owners.” Fortunately, the patrolman frequently visited people in their homes and thus got a chance to save mistreated old volumes for a tiny price. One time, he saw a group of kids playing around with an old book, which turned out to be a first edition of Bishop Slomšek’s 1842 classic Blaže and Nežica at Sunday School, a highly desired collectors’ item. They let him have the book, since it wasn’t in “our letters” (it was printed in the archaic bohoričica script). Another prized Slomšek first edition, Christian Virginity, was found in the attic of a farmer who didn’t seem to be very interested in virginity.

Bishop Anton Martin Slomšek’s Blaže and Nežica: a rare and coveted book both in Ambrožič’s time and today.

In general, villagers of the patrolman’s native Lower Carniola (Dolenjska) are particularly singled out for their lack of respect for books and education. While many were subscribers of the phenomenally successful Hermagoras Society publishing house, the books themselves were treated badly. When Ambrožič searched for old volumes that his collection was missing, he found plenty of copies, but very few in anything resembling good condition. Writing 90 years later, I can only agree. At its heyday, something like 10% (!) of Slovenians were Hermagoras Society subscribers, but you’d never guess that when searching around for these books.

Not all ways to acquire books are desired by the collectors. When Yugoslavia was occupied in 1941 and divided between Italy, Hungary, and Germany, the largest sustained assault on Slovenian culture in history took place in the German-occupied zone. Hundreds of libraries were purged of Slovenian books, especially in Styria and Carinthia, where the Nazis did not recognize Slovenians as legitimate inhabitants. At first, these books were piled into bonfires, but soon afterwards economic considerations made the Nazis prefer recycling. One day, the paper mill in Količevo received a large shipment of bales of waste paper. One of them broke open during unloading and it turned out that under the genuine trash lay books from Styrian libraries. This time, the paper mill workers showed themselves as friends of the book. Risking arrest, they opened up all the bales, and together with Ambrožič, they saved what they could, including a number of rare volumes.

Ambrožič as a nerdy policeman in 1935.

Of course, Količevo itself also lay in the German-occupied zone. Later in 1941, Ambrožič sensed that things were becoming hot, both for himself and his books. At the time you could still travel to the nearby Italian zone, where the attitude towards Slovenian language was much milder. Ambrožič made a number of trips to Ljubljana, each time carrying a few of his most prized possessions in his pockets, and then deposited these books with different friends, to maximize the odds that at least some of the books would survive. Sometime later, the retired gendarme received permission to move to his native Lower Carniola, which was under Italian occupation. On his way, he stopped in Ljubljana, made a round trip to visit all his friends, and assembled the books that he had deposited. Thus he filled a large suitcase, took the train to Lower Carniola, got off at the local station and walked for another hour and a half to his village, with the huge suitcase in hand. Back pain is an affliction known to many bibliophiles.

For the rest of the occupation, Ambrožič would get to observe the horrors of war as a civilian. As mentioned above, Slovenian castles were already under assault before the war, due to the ignorance and neglect of their owners. In 1941, this simmer turned into a firestorm. Castles were, by definition, fortified buildings positioned in strategic locations in the countryside; hence, Germans, Italians and local Quislings began evicting the owners and repurposing the castles into military outposts. Not wanting to idly stand by, the resistance began a campaign of burning down castles and mansions. Sometimes the buildings in question had already been seized by the occupiers, sometimes they were burned down purely as a preventive measure, in case the Nazis might get ideas.

This time, even Ambrožič couldn’t save anything. He mentions Mirna castle near his village, which was burned down in late 1942. Hearing the news, Ambrožič and his adopted son rushed to what remained of the castle, but there was nothing left to save, and all the books and documents held inside the castle were gone. He mentions that some furniture from the castle could later be seen inside nearby peasant huts. The villages were themselves burned down by the Nazis in an offensive in 1943, so even these remnants probably didn’t survive.

The ruins of Mirna castle in 1947.

Ambrožič wrote down his recollections in the 1960s, when he was an old man and close to death. As it happens, both he and his books managed to survive the war, unlike many other books and people whose stories he narrates. His notes were published posthumously in 1998 by his adopted son Gordan. Incidentally, the latter’s biggest claim to fame is that in 1943, he discovered the body of Lojze Grozde, a young man who was killed by the resistance as a suspected Quisling spy, and who later became the first modern-day Slovenian to be beatified. Grozde was given away when several books published by Catholic Action, a far-right Catholic organization, were found on his body by his interrogators. It wasn’t just people who destroyed books during the war, it could also be the other way around.

Nazi book burnings, the fate of nobles’ libraries during WWII, and the “casual” destruction of books in paper mills during peacetime are all topics I plan to return to in separate blog posts. Ambrožič is a valuable source for all of these since he is never too concerned about what might be relevant to history, but simply writes down memories as they come down to him. A useful lesson from his writings is that acquiring a good collection doesn’t require a lot of money, or indeed hardly any money. On the other hand, it is paramount to be at the right place at the right time. Nowadays, collectors don’t need to hide their books from the Nazis anymore, but treasures can be found at the paper mill just as often as during Ambrožič’s time. You don’t even need to show up in uniform.

Sources:

The Book Thieves by Anders Rydell: A Review

I didn’t expect I would like The Book Thieves so much. I can’t resist books about books, especially if they’re about World War II, but most of the time they present their content in a very dry, academic way (something that I hope my blog is avoiding). By contrast, Rydell blends together history, travelogue, interview and pure bibliophilia into a mixture that keeps you hooked until the end. However, from the beginning, he is faced with a major problem. We are used to thinking of Nazis as destroyers of books, starting with the bonfires of 1933 and culminating in the destruction of several major European libraries, such as the one in Louvain and most of the great libraries of Warsaw. If instead of this one talks about how Nazis stole books for their own collections, wouldn’t that improve the image that most of us already have of them, and appear as a sort of vindication?

Rydell’s answer to this is somewhat disingenuous. Destroying books might be bad, he contends, but using them against their writers and owners is even worse. Of course, he has a point here. In many cases when the Nazis stole books from groups they hated, such as Jews, Slavs and freemasons, the purpose was to create special research libraries; foremost among these was the string of organizations led by chief Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg, such as the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (Reichsleiter Rosenberg Taskforce) and the Hohe Schule der NSDAP (Advanced School of the NSDAP). Such institutions would serve as an ideological weapon, allowing Germans to know their enemy in order to fight him all the more efficiently. Especially in the case of Jews, these libraries would also serve as a sort of retroactive justification of the Holocaust. After all the Jews would be gone, their books would continue to serve as evidence to future generations of the need for exterminating Jewry, or so at least the Nazis thought. Indeed, when ransacking libraries in occupied countries, a central preoccupation was finding “evidence” for anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. For example, when a special commissioner was sent to the library of the masonic lodge in Amsterdam, he was instructed to pay special attention to any documents indicating Jewish influence on the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and on the creation of the British secret service, events that Nazi ideologues considered part of the Jewish plot for world domination.

At the same time, isn’t gathering books in order to refute them what most intellectuals do, most of the time? If you want to understand a topic, you need to familiarize yourself with all the viewpoints on it, including the ones you oppose. I’m reminded of Umberto Eco who commented that reading and collecting books which contain the truth is boring, the interesting books are the ones which are full of falsehoods… It wouldn’t harm Rydell’s narrative to simply admit that while burning books is even worse, stealing them is still bad, especially if you kill their owners in the process. Most of the books stolen by the Nazis weren’t really connected with ideology, they were just regular book collections which were taken from owners as the latter were sent to the camps. These books were then sold or turned over to local libraries, where a number of them still are, and in many cases the profits were specifically earmarked to fund the Holocaust. The number of books collected in this way was even advertised publicly as a measure of the Nazis’ respect for popular education, as described in another book, Hitler’s Beneficiaries by Götz Aly.

In occupied Prague, the Nazis looted books from Jews and sent them to libraries back home. The poster boasts: “1.362.945 books have already been gathered. This is enough to fully equip 2.600 libraries.”

The project of returning these books is probably the most interesting of all the stories Rydell presents, and I’m really impressed by the effort German libraries have invested in identifying stolen books, photographing them and setting up databases with thousands of indexed items. (Searching for a stolen book yourself? You can check the database here.) Of all the stories presented, this one is also the most uplifting, as we encounter Holocaust survivors and their descendants around the world who are improbably reunited with their books after many decades of separation.

The other stories are gradually less cheerful. Many of the trails of lost libraries lead to Russia, and most of these trails reach a dead end. During and after the war, the Red Army confiscated millions of books which were considered compensation for books destroyed or looted by the Nazis after their invasion of the USSR. I don’t understand this at all: why would they want to fill Soviet libraries with books in German, many of which were highly foreign to the Soviet worldview, if not literally Nazi? Apparently, most local librarians didn’t understand it either. The majority of these books ended up rotting in huge warehouses or were discarded and pulped after it turned out that nobody in town was interested in reading German folk songs or guides to Frankfurt. Even when the books acquired were in Russian, they didn’t necessarily fare any better. After the Turgenev library of Paris, founded and run by Russian émigrés, was removed by the Nazis in 1940, it eventually found itself in the USSR after the war. Even though most of the books were in Russian and politically unproblematic, they were put into storage at a military base where they were eventually almost all burned for heating. Many others of these so-called “trophy” books are still scattered around the former Soviet Union, but locating them is difficult and their return is unlikely.

As it goes on, the book becomes increasingly depressing, since it is hard to discuss the topic of books separate from the wider context of the Holocaust. Of the two major Jewish libraries in Rome, one was mostly returned after the war, while the other one disappeared without a trace. So did most of its readers, who were rounded up in 1943 and sent to the camps after having been promised freedom in exchange for 50 kilograms of gold, which they duly gathered and handed over. While the stolen books from Rome at least had somewhere to return to after the war, this wasn’t the case with the Jewish community in Vilnius. Survivors coming back to the newly-Lithuanian town would discover that the Soviet occupiers had little use for Yiddish books, and intended to pulp even the small number of books that had survived until 1944. In any case, the number of surviving Jews was very low and most of them made off to other countries as soon as they could. As a result, the remainders of the pre-war Jewish libraries of Vilnius are now mostly located abroad.

A pile of books looted by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg in Riga, Latvia, in 1943.

Lastly comes the most depressing of these stories, from Salonika in Greece, where Nazis and Greeks together obliterated almost every trace of Jewish presence, down to bulldozing the cemetery. Nowadays it takes an archaeologist to recognize traces of what used to be one of the largest Jewish communities in the world just a century ago. Here, Rydell wanders somewhat off topic, as only a small part of the chapter is actually spent discussing books, but I can’t blame him since Salonika is probably the least-known of all the Jewish pre-war cultural centres, and deserves more publicity.

This still leaves out several countries which Rydell does not mention at all, among them Yugoslavia. Bosnia in particular had a notable Jewish community, and it would be interesting to know what happened to their books and where they ended up. I plan to get around to this on the blog, once I’ve collected enough material. If the review concludes with wishing that the book had been longer, this is very faint criticism indeed.

At the end of the day, the main reason why I liked The Book Thieves so much is that Rydell displays a genuine love of old books. He doesn’t care just for incunables and rare collectors’ objects, but also run-of-the-mill books, 19th century books on law and economics and textbooks which, apart from the fact that they were stolen from their owners, are otherwise completely unremarkable. On occasion this love even appears hopelessly naive. At the same time that German public libraries are restituting thousands of pre-WWII books to their owners, many millions of similar books are being weeded and discarded by libraries all over Europe, in some cases cut apart in order to be digitized and the originals discarded, and in other cases just sent to the paper mills directly, on account of their “outdatedness” and libraries’ “lack of space”. I was sometimes surprised while reading The Book Thieves that so many of these books had survived on the shelves long enough to await the beginning of the restitution process.

Of course, even if Rydell is aware of these modern book purges, he can’t afford to discuss them in the book, or else it would appear that Nazi librarians were actually better than their modern-day counterparts. Yet despite this noble lie, I have some hope that by pretending society already cares about old books, The Book Thieves might actually get people to care about them more. The main lesson of these three hundred pages is that books can be valuable even if their market price isn’t very high, what makes them valuable is the people and places they used to belong to, and the long path they have travelled to reach the present day. Such a sentiment is very close to the philosophy behind this blog.

Sources:

  • Aly, Götz. “Hitler’s Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State.” New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007.
  • Rydell, Anders. “The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe’s Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance.” New York: Penguin Books, 2015.