Melanie J. Meyers and David P. Rosenberg 2014-02-12 14:24:13
Nazi forces extensively looted cultural treasures from the countries they invaded and occupied during the Second World War. Paintings, sculptures, artifacts— anything that could be plundered was confiscated and added to the spoils of war. The armed conflict that was overtaking Europe also was destroying locations of cultural significance; museums, synagogues, churches, bridges, and other structures of historical import were frequently damaged or ruined by the ongoing military campaigns. A lesser-known fact, however, is that books were frequently plundered by the Nazis, entire libraries confiscated for the German cause. Allied commander Dwight D. Eisenhower issued a directive that was the first of its kind, forbidding troops of looting, destroying, or billeting in structures deemed historically or culturally significant. To assist in making these determinations and to eventually repatriate the ill-gotten gains, the Allied army created a division called the MFAA, or Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives division. This group was comprised of approximately four hundred men and women trained in conservation, museum studies, library science, and art history. Colloquially referred to as the “Monuments Men,” these individuals were charged with saving monuments and buildings and returning stolen materials to their owners. Stamps that Tell a Story In 1946, the MFAA dispatched one of the Monuments Men, Colonel Seymour Pomrenze, to sort through the looted books stored at the Offenbach Archival Depot—located just outside Frankfurt, Germany—and to identify and repatriate items to their libraries. Among the libraries saved by Pomrenze was the Library Rosenthaliana, which was returned to the Netherlands, and the YIVO collection (currently housed here at The Center for Jewish History [CJH]), which was transferred to a new home in New York City, as the previous YIVO location in Vilna, Lithuania, had been completely destroyed. The American Jewish Historical Society (also housed at CJH) holds the papers of Colonel Pomrenze. Among the items in the collection are two scrapbooks of archival markings from the books sorted at the Offenbach Depot. These books contain pictures of identifying plates and marks of items stored in the Offenbach, organized by country; together, they compose an exhaustive chronicle of book plunder. CJH also holds items in various partner collections that boast a variety of book stamps represented at the Offenbach. For example, the YIVO library has a book featuring four stamps: the mark of the original owner who donated the book to the YIVO library in the early twentieth century, the mark of the YIVO library in Vilna, the stamp that shows German confiscation, and the stamp of the YIVO library in America, after it was repatriated in the 1940s. The four stamps tell a complex story of a book that made its way across war-torn Europe to New York City. Mapping the Books Thanks to a scholar who visited the CJH reading room, we discovered the work of Dr. Mitchell Fraas, a scholar and special collections librarian at The University of Pennsylvania. Fraas was doing his own work on the Offenbach stamps using microfilm from the National Archives and Records Administration to map German stamps using the Viewshare platform. While he mapped much of Germany, he hadn’t started the Russian/Baltic stamps. This seemed to be a project tailor-made for collaboration, so we started discussing our mutual interests and how we could make the project more comprehensive. Although we tinkered with the format in the past—for instance, we considered mapping cookbooks in a regional cookbook collection—this seemed like the ideal candidate for geo-mapping for a number of reasons: the archival material was already digitized, it was large in scope but could also be split up into regional datasets, the locations were easy to read and understand, and, perhaps most importantly, the scale of looting is much easier to grasp with a map of locations. There was a real purpose and visual advantage to using this format. We explored several online platforms that were designed to facilitate this type of work. We took a sample set of images that were more complex than the book stamps so we could test variables, such as color versus black-and-white images, to assess both functionality and aesthetics. The images for this sample set were already on our Flickr page (http://www.flickr.com/photos/center_ for_jewish_history/), and the first step in this process was to download them and assign locations. We then made a simple Excel spreadsheet with the appropriate metadata: title, description, parent collection, and location. Next came the testing phase. We developed a rubric for assessing the platforms. Ease of use and aesthetics—a platform that would have a unique look but that wouldn’t have to involve our web designer—were criteria at the top of our list. We also considered cost of the product and the amount of advertising on the pages. Each of the platforms had strengths and weaknesses. Viewshare, for instance, was easy to use but would have required modification to meet our aesthetic requirements. Geostoryteller, which was initially designed for walking tours, was a helpful tool for displaying information but was not useful for our purposes. We had difficulty with image display with GoogleMaps, which we felt detracted from the experience, and it was challenging for CartoDB to express the locations within our parameters. We had learned about Flickr’s mapping tool through our previous work with the site. After preliminary web research, we learned it’s possible to encode locations into image headers using Picasa, specifically through the EXIF header (Exchangeable Image File Format) function. We simply had to customize the settings in Flickr to automatically generate the maps. The maps created were large and clear, and the header was already customized with our logo. We removed the photographs from our proprietary digital asset manager and cropped, edited, and geotagged them using Picasa. All that was required from there was to upload the images with appropriate descriptions. We already had the German data courtesy of Fraas, but we wanted to create new data for our map and for Fraas to work with as well. A CJH intern who is fluent in Russian translated the stamps from the Baltic region, and we developed an initial map that shows looted libraries in Latvia, Poland, and Russia. Working in tandem and sharing our data enabled us to create a visually engaging representation of looted and stolen books throughout Europe taken from archival materials. The CJH hopes this project brings this history to life and inspires new interest in these fascinating books.
Published by Society of American Archivists. View All Articles.