DOCUMENTING NAZI LIBRARY PLUNDER IN OCCUPIED BELGIUM
   AND LIMITED POSTWAR RETRIEVAL (October 2020)

ERR HAG BelgNfr Display for Reichsleiter Rosenberg of Seized Books and other Objects from Belgian Masons, Jews, and the Jesuit Seminary

Library plunder in Belgium during the Second World War has never been adequately investigated, let alone publicized, while lack of documentation on seizures resulted in only minimal postwar retrieval. Many had heard about the horrendous war crime in May 1940 when the invading German Army completely destroyed the Louvain/Leuven University Library for the second time in half a century. Recently rebuilt after similar German devastation in the First World War, the library and its restocked bibliophile treasures, donated from all over the world, were left in "a heap of smoldering ashes."

German documents found in Belgium after the war mentioned the extensive Masonic library and archival seizures, some by the SD and Gestapo, others by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR). Only a few prominent Jewish leaders and other victims filed library claims. One claim noted total seizure of all books and archives from the fledgling National Institute of Social History (NISH). But no one realized those examples were among 150 numbered private library seizures by the ERR between August 1940 and February 1943. Few scattered ERR documents relevant to Belgium remained in Western Europe.

The collapse of the Soviet Union brought new possibilities of historical research which, since the early 1990s, could be pursued in international cooperation with Dr Patricia Kennedy Grimsted, leading specialist on Nazi-looted Western archives in the former Soviet Union. She was the first to reveal their existence in Moscow (1991) and their route to the USSR. Belgian archivist Michel Vermote was closely involved in identification and negotiations regarding the 40 fonds of ‘twice-seized’ archives that came home to Belgium in 2002. He prepared much of the Belgian chapter in the first significant compendium, Returned from Russia: Nazi Archival Plunder in Western Europe and Recent Restitution Issues, edited by Dr. Grimsted et al. (Institute of Art and Law, UK, 2007; 2013).

The fate of library materials seized with the private archives from Western Europe and then recaptured and long hidden in the USSR and Eastern Europe has been little known. Michel Vermote and Dr. Grimsted here reveal new details about the 150 library seizures in Belgium by the ERR (an estimated 250, to 300,000 volumes) and dispersal of the looted books, many of which ended up in the former USSR and its Eastern satellites. The library materials the Germans shipped out of Belgium may have been not even a third of those seized from neighboring France and the Netherlands. But thanks to the survival of many ERR Belgian office records, and their post-Soviet discovery in Ukraine, more comprehensive details about ERR Belgian seizures can be documented than for either French or Dutch looted-libraries.

DOCUMENTING NAZI LIBRARY PLUNDER IN OCCUPIED BELGIUM
    AND LIMITED POSTWAR RETRIEVAL

Michel Vermote, Amsab-Institute of Social History, Ghent, Belgium; and
Patricia Kennedy Grimsted, Ukrainian Research Institute and Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Harvard University; Honorary Fellow, International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam

First, presented here is an original survey of the ERR in Belgium with examples of the 150 named ERR library seizures during German occupation (1940–1944).

Second, researchers can access six digitized original lists prepared during occupation by the ERR Working Group for Belgium and Northern France (AG/HAG BelgNfr) – the most important, and now best-documented German agency of cultural plunder in Belgium. Five are from an ERR Belgian file in Kyiv (TsDAVO); a sixth (from the Bundesarchiv in Berlin-Lichterfelde) is a 1944 retrospective list of Jewish and Masonic seizure victims by the head of HAG BelgNfr.

Third, accompanying charts (in three tables) – specially prepared for this project – name and combine data in Table 1 on 150 sequentially numbered confiscations, which the ERR referred to as ‘work projects’ (Arbeitsvorhaben, AV). The subsequent tables sort data from these ‘work projects’ in two different ways: Table 2 presents 113 private individual victims alphabetically by family-name; and Table 3 organizes 32 institutional victims by subject category.

This entire original website presentation draws heavily on the long-secret office records of the ERR Belgian Working Group that surfaced in Kyiv, Ukraine, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The extensive ERR Collection there is now digitized online, thanks to the Claims Conference ERR Project in cooperation with Ukrainian archival colleagues. The compilers are exceedingly grateful to Ukrainian colleagues for their contribution to this endeavor.

Fourth, a survey about the ERR Collection in Kyiv, and details about types of Belgian-related ERR documents available, is followed by a new English-language 'Summary Register' describing Belgian-related ERR documents in 19 separate TsDAVO ERR files.


Still in preparation:

PART 2: LIMITED BELGIAN BOOK RETRIEVAL IN WESTERN EUROPE
    AND EASTERN POINTS OF NO RETURN

Michel Vermote, Amsab-Institute of Social History, Ghent, Belgium; and
Patricia Kennedy Grimsted, Ukrainian Research Institute and Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Harvard University; Honorary Fellow, International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam

ABSTRACT

Part 2 first surveys the limited postwar retrieval of seized books from U.S. and British library-restitution centers in Germany and Austria, with new details from U.S. and British sources in lieu of lacking Belgian records. While Poland returned ten crates in 1947–1948, and Czech documents suggest the 1947 return of nine crates of Belgian books, confirming Belgian receipts have not been found.

Second, following 1991 revelations about the extensive ‘twice-seized’ Belgian archives in Moscow, captured by Soviet authorities at the end of the war, note is made of 40 Belgian archival fonds returned to Belgium from the Russian Federation in 2002. However, many Nazi-looted books and other printed materials identified with those archives in Moscow were not released. Three symbolic Dutch-language books looted by the ERR from Belgium were returned from Moscow’s Foreign Literature Library (VGBIL) via Amsterdam, in 1992; but reportedly, thousands more remain in Russia. A few French-language books from Belgium have also been identified in another Moscow library. Identified examples of Nazi-looted Belgian books and archival manuscripts in Minsk suggest many more remain in Belarus, with little hope for restitution. While considerable library loot from Belgium has also been found in Poland, a few looted Belgian volumes have surfaced in the Czech Republic.

N.B. An expanded version of the above Charts (in preparation) will be released with Part 2, with references about now-available postwar claims, and a few Belgian lists of books looted from ERR and additional Belgian victims.


This original online publication – with auxiliary original documents and charts – and a new register of Belgian-related ERR documents online in Kyiv (TsDAVO) – now provides the most complete coverage to date of ERR wartime library plunder in Belgium, with minimal restitution to only a few victims. The two-part narrative, facsimiles of original ERR documents, and charts of seizure data from Belgian victims, should help identify specific ERR library victims and their losses. Related documents cited should encourage and provide a basis for further research, assist in locating, identifying, and documenting books still at large, and serve as a basis for possible claims.

Acknowledgements

The compilers are exceedingly grateful to CegeSoma, Brussels, and its director of research, Dirk Luyten, and to Amsab-Institute of Social History (Amsab-ISG/ISH), Ghent, and its director of research, Donald Weber. At a co-sponsored workshop at CegeSoma in June 2019, Dr Grimsted and Michel Vermote discussed some of their initial findings with a number of Belgian specialists. More recently, both Donald Weber and Dirk Luyten reviewed the final text of Part 1, as did former CegeSoma director, Dirk Martin, who had earlier written about the ERR in Belgium; their comments and suggestions are greatly appreciated. Tribute is also due to the earlier research on this subject by Wouter Steenhaut, former director at Amsab-ISG. Contributions by Jacques Lust, when he was dealing with Belgian wartime loss and restitution under the Ministry of Economic Affairs, also remain important.

Considerable research in the Belgian National Archives was of great benefit to this study, with special appreciation due particularly to archivists Filip Strubbe, Gertjan Desmet, Luc Vandeweyer, and Joachim Derwael, among others.

During the years of preparation, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference) has generously provided funding for the ERR Project, and many of Patricia Grimsted’s related travel and research expenses, including editorial work for this website. Research Director Wesley A. Fisher has had a key role in encouraging this production and our texts have benefitted from his scrutiny. Michelle Lawrence deserves tremendous credit for her key role in carefully editing, reediting, and assuring consistency during the editorial process in preparation for digital publication.

Finally, the compilers are extremely grateful to Michael Levy and staff of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum for implementing this Belgian website, and continuing technical assistance along the way.

More detailed acknowledgements accompany individual component texts.


This page last updated 2020-12-04