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Tablet. The Mystery of the Missing Jewish Books of Rome

Michael Frank

“This book is entirely the work of my hands, for I copied it for my own use. I am Nachman, son of Rabbi Samuel Foa. I copied it in the year 5315, when I was 15 years of age, in the house of the generous person Samuel, son of Moses Kazis.”A flash of the personal tucked into a colophon; the colophon framed with casual undulating lines; these doodles at odds with the meticulous pages of Italian-style Hebrew calligraphy that follow in young Nachman’s compilation of the work of Rabbi Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra, the great medieval Spanish grammarian and commentator on the Bible; the text, in several places, blacked out, FBI-style, by Vatican censors, as was commonplace in mid-16th-century Italy; the pages worm-eaten, almost translucent, and bound in creamy velum: Here is an early Hebrew manuscript like dozens—hundreds—of other early Hebrew manuscripts.

Well, not exactly. Sprinkled through the pages of Nachman’s book are a handful of diamond-shaped stamps identifying it as having once belonged to the library of the Jewish community of Rome, a collection confiscated by the Nazis on Oct. 14, 1943, loaded on a freight train headed for Germany, and not seen since.

So, what is this manuscript doing in the Jewish Theological Seminary Library in New York City, and why is there one other like it, an anthology of Kabbalistic and philosophical writings, on a nearby shelf? What happened between 1934, when these volumes were listed in a partial inventory of the Roman collection drawn up by a man called Isaia Sonne, and 1965, its date of accession to the JTS? How did it and its companion survive, these two books nearly alone, from a fabled library that dates back to the Middle Ages?

There are no definitive answers to these questions—not yet, anyway. But they do frame quite a story.


The aftermath of the Holocaust sometimes feels like a violent river whose waters have taken decades to recede. First there were the survivors. Then there was the property to be reckoned with. Then, and continuingly, the art. Now the books are coming into sharper view.

In his recent book on the HolocaustA World Without Jews, Alon Confino uses the word “bibliocide” to describe the public burning of books that began with the work of banned (and far from exclusively Jewish) authors in May 1933. The Reich’s focus soon narrowed to Jewish texts, culminating in the widespread destruction of Hebrew Bibles ordered by Hitler in November 1938. In addition to setting fire to 1,400 synagogues and shattering Jewish shop windows—the particular act that gave Kristallnacht its name—Nazi storm troopers relieved synagogues throughout Germany of their Torah scrolls, which they took into the streets. Sometimes they trampled, kicked, drowned, or burned them; sometimes they forced Jews to. Spectators dressed up in the robes of rabbis and cantors and danced around the fire while military bands provided music to muffle the sobs of distraught onlookers. “The Nazis showed panache in announcing their identity by burning books, before they burned people,” Confino observes dryly.

A parallel story was unfolding alongside all this flamboyant bibliocide, however. As early as 1937, even before Kristallnacht, officials of an agency known as the Reichssicherheitshauptamt, or RSHA (Reich Security Head Office), planned to establish a library of Jewish books and began looting volumes from rabbinical seminaries throughout Germany. A second agency, the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, or ERR, was active outside of the Reich’s borders and occupied itself with collecting artwork, ritual silver, and musical instruments; it also had a special unit dedicated to the vacuuming up of Jewish books. Some of these were to supply material for the Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question, which was founded by the Nazis’ chief racial theorist, Alfred Rosenberg, who intended to tell the “true” history of the Jews in Germany with the aim, in time, of justifying the Final Solution.

Rosenberg’s institute landed in the former Rothschild Library in Frankfurt; when the Allies began bombing the city in 1943, much of the library was transferred to the village of Hungen, where in 1945 six different repositories were later discovered to house 1,200,000 items. Between 1939 and 1945 it is estimated that the Nazis seized nearly 3 million books.

Jay Rovner, manuscripts bibliographer at the Jewish Theological Seminary Library in New York, examines a volume confirmed by internal stamps to have belonged to the Jewish library of Rome. (All photos: Michael Frank)

In all this relentless looting, packing, transporting, organizing, categorizing, sequestering, and (after the war) returning of the calligraphed and printed word, the story of the library of Rome is one of the least explored—and most haunting. The actual plundering appears to have been described in just one contemporaneous account, Giacomo Debenedetti’s taut October 16, 1943. It did not draw serious attention from the Italian government until 2002, when the Tedeschi Commission was established. Made up of historians, archivists, and government officials, the commission spent nine years probing the library’s fate, in the end producing a 43-page report that concluded by more or less throwing up its hands at the complexity of the problem.

More recently, in February of this year, scholars gathered in New York for an evening sponsored by the Centro Primo Levi, whose purpose was to ask, once again, Where did the Roman library go? The evening was part of a collaboration among several New York institutions known as Giorno della Memoria, which every year sponsors presentations on subjects relating to the experience of the Holocaust in Italy and always includes a reading of the names of the country’s 9,000-plus victims. This year, as in recent years, speakers drew attention to the fact that Italy has come late, later even than the French, to taking a hard, clear, and critical look at the ramifications of the country’s collaboration with the Nazis.

While the role of the Vatican continues to be explored and reconsidered, that of ordinary Italians, whether open, implicit, passive, or through inflated claims of resistance, remains largely unplumbed.  “We are still dealing with a powerful postwar taboo on the subject of Jewish persecution in Italy,” says Natalia Indrimi, the executive director of CPL.  “Picking it apart threatens to undo the cherished notion of il buon italiano. The sporadic nature of the attention to the missing library is simply one piece of a much more intricate puzzle.”

Another reason that books present a particularly challenging case has to do with where their confiscation fits into the timeline of one of the most brutal seasons in two millennia of Roman Jewish history: They were taken two weeks after SS Lt. Col. Herbert Kappler demanded that the community produce a tribute of 50 kilograms of gold within 36 hours, in exchange for which, he assured them, no harm would come to the city’s Jews, and two days before—despite the gold having been delivered—the first deportations began. Understandably more significant matters than stolen books were on the minds of the witnesses and, after them, survivors, detectives, archivists, and scholars.


What did the library consist of, and why do people care so passionately about it almost 75 years after it vanished? One helpful thing to know is that there were actually two separate Jewish libraries, both of which were housed in the upper floors of the synagogue building in Lungotevere de’ Cenci. The first, the Rabbinical College Library, was a larger teaching library that had come to Rome from Florence when the college transferred there in the 1930s. It consisted of prayer books, liturgical texts, copies of the Talmud, and works of philosophy and literature amounting to perhaps 10,000 volumes in all and was largely (though not entirely) recovered and then returned to Rome after the war.

The second, or community, library was assembled in the early 20th century from an array of private families, confraternities, and synagogues, among them Talmud Tora’, which alone contributed 4,728 of the estimated 7,000 total volumes. It contained precious early manuscripts and incunabula; volumes issued by the Soncino brothers, who printed the first Hebrew Bible; works by other early notable printers such as the Constantinople-based Bomberg, Bragadin, and Giustiniani; texts from 17th- and 18th-century Venice and Livorno; a rare 1488 Hebrew-Italian-Arabic Dictionary; nearly 50 editions printed in the Levant before 1614; and, of course, the two books that are now in New York.

These particulars are drawn from the 1934 inventory by Isaia Sonne, who at the time lamented that he had been permitted to see only the second-best items in the collection. His capsule summary nevertheless speaks to the erudition and wide-ranging connections of the community, which despite having been confined to a ghetto for 300 years had survived in Rome continuously since envoys of Judah Maccabee came to the city in the 2nd century BC. “According to testimony given by those who at the time worked with the collections,” the Tedeschi Commission said in their report, “the abundance and quality of the library was remarkable.”

The fact that the library was held collectively and was only partially catalogued—and not until 1934, at that—is very revealing of the community’s mindset, though whether this mindset was derived out of paranoia, foresight, or a robust survival instinct remains open to interpretation; it was likely a combination of all three. The library was assembled and maintained, after all, in a country where censorship and Church-sponsored burnings of Jewish books were not infrequent historical occurrences.  If there was no catalogue to pore over or pluck sacrificial victims from, there was a better chance that the core of the collection might survive.

Yet what was strategic in 1900 was beside the point in 1943 and in 2015, when it comes to the matter of recovery, is downright crippling: It’s not easy to track down books if you don’t even know what titles you’re looking for.


Debenedetti draws an acidic portrait of the events of that sober fall morning in 1943:

It would be interesting to know more about the strange figure who appears at the offices of the Jewish community on October 11. He too is escorted by SS troops and appears to be just another German officer, but with an extra dose of arrogance that comes from having a privileged and, regrettably, well-known “specialty.”

This elusive, dread-inducing character makes his way into the synagogue building:

While his men commence ransacking the libraries of the rabbinical college and the Jewish community, the officer, with hands as cautious and sensitive as those of the finest needlewoman, skims, touches, caresses papyri and incunabula, leafs through manuscripts and rare editions, peruses parchments and palimpsests. The varying degrees of caution in his touch, the heedfulness of his gestures, are quickly adapted to the importance of each work. … In those aristocratic hands, the books, as though subjected to the cruel and bloodless torture of an exquisite sadism, revealed everything. Later, it became known that the SS officer was a distinguished scholar of paleography and Semitic philology.

Debenedetti’s sensitive aristocrat was not the first Nazi to evaluate the books, either. In the preceding days two other uniformed officers who described themselves as Orientalists had come to inspect the library (and help themselves to cash from the community’s safe while they were at it). And on Oct. 2 they visited the chief rabbi’s home, where they examined and confiscated the books and papers they found there.

When these scholar-plunderers apprehended the extent of the libraries and learned it would require several freight cars to move them north, they engaged Otto & Rosoni, a firm of carriers, to organize the transport. In the meantime they threatened death to anyone who removed so much as a single volume.

On Oct. 14, a Capt. Mayer oversaw the removal of all of the community library and a portion of the rabbinical library as the president, secretary, and sexton of the community looked on. “Though the books, like all Holocaust victims, traveled in sealed cars bound for Germany,” Debenedetti’s translator Estelle Gilson reports in an afterword to October 16, 1943, “they were carefully treated—stacked in layers with corrugated sheets between and packed in wicker cases.”

Because there were so many books—the movers estimated 25,000 volumes in all, a figure that may be inflated—the Germans were unable to complete their pillaging in one day. It is possible that they ran out of time; but it is also possible that they were aware that more urgent dislocations were to follow two days later, namely the first roundup of Roman Jews (1,259 on Oct. 16 alone). Nevertheless the books were not forgotten: On Dec. 23 the officers returned to finish the job. When members of the community appealed to Italian authorities for help, they did not even respond to the request.


A diamond-shaped stamp identifying a book as having once belonged to the library of the Jewish community of Rome.

“History has made it poignantly clear,” Gilson says, “that Jewish books had a far better survival rate than did Jewish human beings.” Certainly this obtains for many other Nazi-seized libraries, but the community library of Rome would seem to be the exception. Even the Tedeschi Commission could only “draw up various theories,” as they put it, as to its fate.

In investigating the rumor, which Gilson repeats, that the freight train carrying them toward Germany was bombed by the Allies, the commission consulted the Italian State Railway, which was unable to offer any documentation on the subject—though a postwar report by American officers who visited the Hungen depot in April 1945 states that a trainload of materials from Italy had been expected but never arrived. A train departs from Italy, yet never reaches its destination in Germany, and there is no record of its destruction? Curious.

Rerouting remains an obvious possibility, and with this in mind the commission pursued what they call the “ERR trail.” As best they could, given the fragmented Nazi documentation of the stolen libraries, they retraced the movements of the books, both during and after the war, and managed only to conclude that the community library was not found at the Offenbach depots that the Americans used to organize the repatriation of the 3 million volumes confiscated by the Nazis. The commission combed through archives in Germany, France, Israel, and the United States and also sent requests to the Soviet Union, where their investigation was restricted on account of the inaccessibility of many documents there.

The topic of the Soviet Union seems particularly charged. Because Nazi plunder was distributed among such a wide range of cities, it fell under different jurisdictions at the end of the war. Cultural treasures under the control of the United States or English military zones received more meticulous attention than treasures that fell under the control of the Soviets, a fact that has produced divided ideas about where the books might be located today.

Agnes Peresztegi, the executive director for Europe for the Commission of Art Recovery, helped investigate the history of the Gurlitt trove of art that was recovered in Munich in 2012, and she was among the speakers at the February symposium in New York. “Leaders of the Soviet zone,” she said that evening, “were only occupied with collecting cultural treasures and did not consider restoring anything to their rightful owners. The Soviet troops carried everything away.”

By contrast Patricia Grimsted, a Harvard professor who has spent many years exploring the fate of the plunder and is cited in the Tedeschi Commission report, believes that it is all too easy to blame the lack of an answer on the cupidity of the Russians, or even on the notorious obscurity of their archives. “Russians were not interested in Hebraica in that time,” she says tartly. “They were leaving it out in the snow if they didn’t have places to keep it.”

One potential hypothesis, Grimsted believes, is that the community library was not evacuated from Frankfurt during the Allied bombing but stashed in one of two bomb shelters in the city that the Nazis were known to have retained. If that is the case, it may have been partially or totally destroyed, or merely lost. The Offenbach records may still hold revealing surprises too, she feels. And there is always the possibility that it fell into private hands: “An individual person could have portions of this library, absolutely. They’ll come forward a generation, two generations from now. These discoveries are often driven by a gathering energy or a yearning on the part of the community for the puzzle to be solved. Or, let’s face it, a recognition that the plunder has actual monetary value.”

Getting the word out—through opening and sharing data bases or holding evenings such as the one organized by the Centro Primo Levi or mounting an exhibition on the subject of the kind planned by the Jewish Museum of Rome for Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2016—may help. Certainly it’s hard to give up hope when, after seven years of inquiry, even the Tedeschi Commission members maintained that it was their conviction that the library could not utterly have vanished.


And now back to Nachman, son of Foa. So, how did his manuscript wash up out of this long river of time—time and space—onto Broadway and 122nd street, a world away from where it was written and housed for 400 years?

Estelle Gilson writes that, in defiance of the German officers’ orders, the president of the community and his associates did manage to salvage a few volumes of the community library. A 1485 commentary on the Bible was hidden in a garden. A handful of books remained undiscovered in the synagogue; several others were overlooked in cupboards in the rabbi’s office.

If Nachman’s manuscript were one of these stragglers, though, its arrival in New York would still be perplexing. Might it have slipped out of the original transport, having been pilfered by the sensitive aristocrat or his kind? Or is it, somehow, an escapee from the transport itself, which is lying in some German or Russian library basement or in a remote castle or a former bomb shelter or even a school? Or perhaps it was sold off from a hypothetical private collection … though of course if it were, one would want to know what sort of collector-cum-Hebrew-scholar would hold onto such a patrimony in secret.

“The truth is that after 70 years so little is known about the Holocaust as to be astounding,” Agnes Peresztegi said in February. Referring to The Monuments Men, the 2014 movie about the Army unit charged with saving and restoring Nazi plunder to its rightful owners, Peresztegi added, “The story of the lost library is so dramatic that it warrants a movie of its own.”


Text blacked out by Vatican censors, as was commonplace in mid-16th-century Italy.

Oct. 14, 1943, was two weeks after Rosh Hashanah. Four hundred and ten years earlier, on Sept. 9, 1553, on Rosh Hashanah itself, an early, one might even say pioneering, form of bibliocide was perpetrated in Rome, when a papal bull issued by Julius III ordered all copies of the Talmud that then existed in city, along with all literature based upon it, to be delivered to the Campo de’ Fiori, the same piazza where, in 1600, Giordano Bruno would be burnt alive for his freethinking ideas.

If he was living in Rome, it is altogether possible that young Nachman, who would have been 13 in 1553, witnessed what happened next. The Campo de’ Fiori was a meeting place, even then a market place, a direct link to the Vatican for pilgrims coming from the south. It was, and still is, also a 10-minute walk from the largely Jewish neighborhood by the Tiber where within two short years the Jews would be confined to the ghetto.

Picture Nachman heading north along a bend in the river as he makes his way to the piazza. Over the roofs of nearby buildings he sees an ominous cloud, a black bruise spreading in the sky. He hears the scene before he sees it: shouts; cries; the pop and crackle of burning paper. He approaches from the west, slipping in from the Piazza Farnese next door. He has to stand on his toes to see over the heads of the assembled crowd. Books and manuscripts, arriving by cart, in baskets, and in boxes, take easily, too easily, to flame.

Nachman is a student. He knows what goes into copying out a sacred a Torah scroll or an anthology of exegesis: weeks, months, bent over parchment, a quill grasped just so, a hand tightened by cramps. All this effort, all this time, vaporized in minutes. As he watches, his heart twisting, studious Nachman vows to himself to do what he can to recover this lost knowledge. He will go home and practice his calligraphy so that one day before long he will be able to sit down in the house of the generous person Samuel, son of Moses Kazis, and copy out the commentaries of ben Meir Ibn Ezra. Little does he know that with this act of defiance he will raise a phoenix that compels us to this day.

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