A Culture Returned

By studying and identifying the millions of Jewish books once thought destroyed by the Nazis, one group of Jewish scholars made it their duty to return the texts to the people who had already lost so much.

| August 2016

  • A seventeenth-century volume of Hilkhot Rav Alfasi (Alfasi).
    Photo by Shoshana Glickman
  • Title page of Hilkhot Raf Alfas (or Alfasi) written in the eleventh century and published in Sulzbach, Germany, in 1764.
    Photo by Jeff Hersh
  • Bookplate inside the front cover of Hilkhot Alfasi.
    Photo by Shoshana Glickman
  • “Words: The Nazi Plunder of Jewish Books” by Mark Glickman
    Photo courtesy of University of Nebraska Press

During the course of World War II, Nazis looted millions of books from Jewish families and communities. While a large number of those stolen texts were burned or destroyed, even more were stored away. When the war ended and the troves of literature were found, the main question that the Allies faced was how to begin deciding what to do with them. The answer lay in an organization of Jewish scholars called Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Inc. The story of those texts — looted, thought to be lost, and painstakingly returned to their proper places — is told in Mark Glickman’s book, Stolen Words (University of Nebraska Press). This book is the story of the people tied to those texts, from the thieves to the rightful owners to the readers. It is the story of the devastation of a culture, and the attempts to restore what was taken.

To find more books that pique our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.


In the fall of 2004 a deliveryman came to my home and handed me what would prove to be one of the most fascinating packages I’ve ever received. It was a heavy cardboard box — about the size of a large briefcase — and clearly it had traveled far on its way to my doorstep in suburban Seattle. It bore a patchwork of frayed brown packing tape, my name in large handwritten letters, and a generous spray of American and Israeli customs stamps. The return address indicated that it had come from an antiquarian bookseller in Jerusalem.

“Glad you’re here!” I said to the man in brown. “I’ve been expecting you.”

“Lemme guess,” he said. “eBay?”

“Yep,” I responded. “eBay. They haven’t failed me yet.”

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