Millions of Books, Objects Held in Public, Private Collections; Restitution Urged

Jan. 26, 2009 — In a major first step to ensure that Jewish sacred items looted during the Holocaust era are identified and protected, Claims Conference Chairman Julius Berman announced that the Claims Conference has produced the “Descriptive Catalogue of Looted Judaica,” the first attempt ever to identify the locations of Judaica worldwide that were looted or lost during the Holocaust or immediately afterward. The catalogue is a listing of all known sources that can help locate and identify this Judaica.

“Identifying the locations of items will help communities and researchers attempting to trace lost and stolen Judaica, and may help stem the flow of trafficking of the more valuable pieces,” said Gideon Taylor, Claims Conference Executive Vice President.

“The Claims Conference is working to shed light on this area of restitution so that sacred items may be returned to their rightful Jewish communities or to the Jewish people,” said Claims Conference Chairman Julius Berman.

The catalogue is available at The definition of Judaica encompasses items used in prayer, such as prayerbooks and tefillin, ritual items such as candlesticks and Seder Plates used at Passover, and archives, libraries, and objects relating to Jewish life generally.

Although much media focus in recent years has been on art looted by the Nazis, the issue of looted Judaica is of perhaps even greater moral importance. At the end of World War II, after the theft and destruction of several million Jewish households and the Nazis’ attempt to wipe out Jewish culture, there remained in existence in Europe perhaps some ten thousand Torah scrolls, a few hundred thousand ritual items that had not been melted down, and some ten million Jewish books. At present it is believed that several thousand of these Torah scrolls, some tens of thousands of these ritual items, and several million of these books are not in Jewish hands, but in public and private collections around the world.

In order to call attention to the problem of looted Judaica, the Claims Conference and World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) are urging that the matter be treated as a priority. Plans for the intergovernmental Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets being hosted by the Czech Republic in June 2009, a decade after the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets, call for a separate discussion of Judaica and Jewish cultural property.

This catalogue is a continuation of efforts by the Claims Conference and WJRO to promote the restitution of Holocaust-era looted art and cultural property.

The Descriptive Catalogue of Looted Judaica does not list every individual piece of stolen Jewish cultural property, since in many cases the fate of individual items is not known, but it provides a starting point for communities, families, and researchers to identify where sacred and other objects of importance to the Jewish people may now be found. This catalogue is intended to make accessible and piece together information already available into a more readily searchable form. It also provides a starting point for discussions with and among the many countries involved.

Ritual and sacred items that were stolen from Jewish individuals and communities during the Shoah are known to be held in at least 24 countries. This includes countries such as the U.S., the U.K., and Austria, where databases listing individual items are available, and included in the Claims Conference catalogue. In addition, there are lists that have been compiled of Torah scrolls in public institutions in Poland, Ukraine, and elsewhere.

In other instances there are more general descriptions of looted collections as a whole. For example, Project Judaica has published a guide to the Jewish collections in the Russian State Military Archive that were brought to Moscow by the Soviet Army. In still other instances, the location of looted Judaica is known but no overall description has been made (e.g., the Jewish libraries taken from France that are now in Minsk).

In order to ensure orderliness in discussions of restitution of Torah scrolls, the Claims Conference/WJRO is working with the Universal Torah Registry to register Torah scrolls in Eastern Europe and the countries of the former Soviet Union.

The spoliation of Jewish cultural and religious property was an official part of the Nazis’ campaign against those labeled as “ideological enemies of the Reich.” Aside from objets d’art, a myriad number of Jewish cultural and religious objects were also looted from 1933 to 1945. The number of looted Jewish books was in the millions, with entire libraries and collections confiscated.

Numerous looting agencies, both within the Reich (including those territories that were annexed to Nazi Germany such as Austria, Poland, and parts of Czechoslovakia), as well as agencies operating outside of the Nazi-occupied territories were responsible for what can be called the greatest theft in the history of humanity. The cooperation among these organizations provided the framework for the extensive looting of Jewish cultural and religious property.

American attempts at restitution began even before the war’s end, with the first commission established in 1943 to protect items found or recovered. But after the war, the American intent to restitute items to countries from which they came could not be applied to the millions of Judaica objects, including 2.5 million books in addition to sacred objects, classified as stateless.

By mid-1946, after the American Allies had already distributed millions of objects from the Offenbach Archival Depot, there were still about 500,000 books, about 1,000 Torah scrolls and 17,000 ceremonial objects left for which no claims had been received, and no identification of prior ownership could be reasonably established. Jewish restitution agencies were formed and given responsibility for distributing these items to Jewish communities worldwide.