April 13, 2016
A collection of books confiscated during World War II is the subject of exhibitions and ongoing research
by Chad Felix
The Czech National Library has carried out an ambitious—not to mention totally fascinating—undertaking: cataloging the hundreds of thousands of books that ended up in Prague after they were confiscated and dispossessed during World War II.
Somewhat surprisingly, collecting the books was the easy part. While a great deal of these books are located in small archives throughout the world, and many more have been lost altogether, some 300,000 volumes were placed within the Neratovice Depot in Prague for safekeeping, and it’s this specific collection that’s the subject of the project. And while the Neratovice collection is sizable, it’s worth mentioning that it represents a mere fraction of the total number of books confiscated and dispossessed during World War II. A total collection would contain an estimated 15 million volumes.
Tomáš Foltýn, who was interviewed about the project alongside Marcela Strouhalová by Radio Prague, notes that the project’s first objective was to map and catalog the collection, and make much of it accessible to library patrons. Of course, given the nature of the work (it’s endlessly interesting), the fulfillment of this one objective has led to others, notably, programming—physical and digital exhibitions—based around the collection.
The first of the physical exhibitions, “Books Discovered Once Again,” is up now. The Czech National Library describes it as follows:
The exhibition concludes a project of the same name and features history of reserve collections of the National Library of the CR. The books came in the NL’s possession after World War II, when a large number of books were secured on the Czechoslovak territory, some of them confiscated, others dispossessed. Originally they were kept at libraries of different unions, institutions, or private owners. Twelve thousand volumes were selected to be provided with basic evidence and description in order to make them accessible to both professionals and memory institutions. Simultaneously, the archival and historical research was conducted that included also legal problems. The display presents the often complicated and long story of these documents.
In collaboration with the Norwegian institution Stiftelsen Arkivet, the library has also created an online exhibition.
Beyond this collection, of course, is another: the original owners of these books—and this one is no less fascinating or worthy of research. Asked about “some highlights” by Radio Prague’s Ruth Frankova, Strouhalová states:
We retraced for instance the so-called Devil from Malá strana in Prague, Jiří Arvet Smíchovský, who was an interesting figure of the first half of the 20th century. He was a Gestapo collaborator but he also collaborated with the secret police after the communist takeover in 1948. He was murdered in the Mírov jail by the prison guard.
But perhaps the most interesting books come from Gregor Schwarz Bostunic, a very well-situated Nazi who studied the alleged Judeo-masonic conspiracy. We know that he travelled from the protectorate to Poland in 1948. Why his books ended up in the National Library, we don’t really know.
Chad Felix is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House, and a former bookseller.