(photo credit: HANAN COHEN)
What books and manuscripts encapsulate and encompass cannot be better expressed than in the work of my father of blessed memory, Col. Seymour Pomrenze.
He served as one of the US Army Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Officers and was appointed by Gen. Dwight Eisenhower to set up the Offenbach Archival Depot in 1946 post-war Germany.
Faced with the millions of items looted by the Nazis during World War II and subsequently stored in the Offenbach Archival Depot, my father and his fellow depot workers were tasked with restitution of the vast warehouse of books, manuscripts and archival material to their countries of origin. He was granted the opportunity to both take part in as well as preserve history for generations to come – much as we are privileged to do in participating in the transformative renewal of the National Library of Israel, where the intellectual and cultural heritage of Israel and Jewish communities worldwide is being preserved and made accessible for the future.
My father, as the first director of the Offenbach Depot, did not think he and the other “Monuments Men” were heroes. He arrived unceremoniously at Offenbach in the midst of a howling snowstorm to find himself with a team of six to handle the then one million items stored. Within one month, he circumvented bureaucratic obstacles to bring in 200 additional personnel, who that month made the first shipment to restore more than 500 cases of materials to the Netherlands. In Offenbach, he organized the greatest book restoration project in history which resulted in the restitution of more than 3 million books and library collections, such as the YIVO and Etz Hayim libraries, as well as the return of Nazi-looted materials to countries including the Netherlands, France, Italy, Russia and Germany.
The volumes my father and his team encountered were the result of a highly structured Nazi campaign to eradicate any material that did not accord with their ideology. Their targets were as wide-ranging as their many enemies and included Judaism, Freemasonry, democracy and republicanism. In conducting this systematic confiscation campaign, the regime marked books and literature as a critical threat to their reign, and in this recognized the power books could and did wield.
It is precisely this understanding that drove my father’s passion for his work as a Monument Man, and in his later work as a civilian archivist: recognition of the deep and far-reaching impact and value of books and the written word. And it is this that we gather to discuss, deliberate and celebrate in the inaugural gathering of the Global Forum of the National Library of Israel taking place next week, and in the renewal enterprise of which the Global Forum is a critical part.
The treasures that books and archives hold, the richness of the past and the potential for the future, are the driving force behind the creation of the new National Library for the State of Israel. The government and the Knesset of Israel acknowledged the importance of this institution in enacting a law providing for the establishment of an independent National Library, and bestowing upon it the unique dual role of serving as the prime memory institution for the State of Israel and its diverse population, as well as for Jewish people across the globe. The National Library cultivates the connection to our collective heritage through fostering access to the riches of its collections.
What a dream it was for my father, the assiduous archivist originally from the small town of Brusilov, Ukraine. And what a vision it is for me, to gather together with the 75 global thinkers and leaders of the National Library’s newly established Global Forum to contemplate what books have meant, and continue to signify, for the People of the Book and the global community in which they play such a vital role.
My father’s story of rescuing the past and the renewed National Library’s mission which will preserve this past as well as newly created works for our future, represent the value that societies everywhere place on their cultural heritage embodied and articulated in books, in their rich and many forms.Jay Pomrenze, chairman of NLI USA and a member of the Global Forum of the National Library of Israel, lives with his family in Jerusalem.