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'Spiritual Bulwarks against Annihilation': Libraries in Ghettos and Concentration Camps

Posted by Paula Oppermann, Thursday 5th February, 2015

collections staff blog

Yad Vashem Photo Archive

To mark National Libraries Day on Saturday 7 February 2015, I’m writing about the libraries which existed in nearly all ghettos and camps in the Nazi era. 

In addition to physically harming their victims by forcing them to do hard labour, the Nazis also tried to eliminate any kind of cultural and intellectual activity. The fact that despite all this, music, theatre, and literature were created in these places of horror is astonishing.

The inmates did not only create literature, but also consumed it. Libraries existed in nearly all ghettos and a large number of camps, and the Nazis not only accepted them, but often supported them. The books provided there were supposed to ‘re-educate’ the inmates. Additionally, the Nazis used the existence of these libraries to show the world the ‘humane’ conditions within the camps and ghettos. For the inmates, the libraries had an extremely important meaning; reading was a chance to escape the terrible living conditions and to find rest after hard labour. The libraries were also places to meet like-minded people and therefore were often cells for resistance and illegal activities.

Concentration Camps in Germany
In the early concentration camps like Dachau, where many political opponents were imprisoned, libraries developed on the initiative of the inmates. The camp administration in Dachau, for example, provided a room for a library, but did not provide any books or furniture. The inmates had to organise everything themselves. Books came to the library mainly via donations from the outside; prisoners' relatives would send them books in parcels, and local communities and churches collected books for the camp.

Of course, only certain literature was allowed to be kept at these libraries; Many books were propagandistic material or "harmless" fiction. The Dachau library was run mainly by former members of the Communist or Social Democratic parties, and they managed to smuggle in books which were not officially allowed. Viktor Matejka, who was one of the staff members of the library, remembers an occasion when the inmates were forced to sort and a collection of books which had been confiscated from a Jewish community library. They had to look for valuable books which high ranking Nazis would keep for themselves. Arguing that some of the books had to be repaired, the inmates managed to bring them into the camp, as well as papers which could later be used for plays and concerts.

The Theresienstadt Library (photograph above from Yad Vashem Photo Archives).
The Theresienstadt library was established about one year after the ghetto had been locked. Having intitally 4000 books, the library stock grew to about 200,000 books in 1944. Many books arrived together with their owners from Western European countries, especially from Westerbork in the Netherlands, from which many Jews were deported to Theresienstadt. Other books came from dissolved libraries of German Jewish associations. The library in Theresienstadt had an important propagandistic meaning for the Nazis; it was often presented to international journalists or members of the International Red Cross in order to convince the world that Jews were not incarcerated and humiliated in the ghettos, but that these places were ‘Jewish self-organised settlements’, providing good living conditions. 

Despite the fact that the library was of propagandistic value for the Nazis, it was of high importance for the inmates of the ghetto; similar to the libraries in other camps and ghettos, it was a place to escape the reality and harshness of everyday life. Under the eyes of the ghetto administration, the staff members of the library managed to support the inmates of the ghetto in various ways, often under risk of their own lives. Since many people in the ghetto were too weak or too old to go to the reading room themselves, the librarians created parcels of books which they would then circulate around hospitals or private houses, so that also these people got the chance to read. Emil Utitz, director of the library thoughout its time of existence, later recalled that they managed to keep illegal books for their readers and organised discussion evenings and lectures. Some members of staff taught the children of the ghetto although this was strictily forbidden. The Theresienstadt library  served as a place of cultural life and spiritual resistance.

The Vilna Library
The Vilna ghetto library was based on the former "Mefitse Haskalah", the biggest Jewish library in Vilna, founded in 1918. The library service within the ghetto started working within a few days of the closure of the ghetto and was thus one of the first and quickly became an important institution for culture and education. The library's reading room was visited by hundreds of people every day. Herman Kruk, the librarian of the ghetto, stated in 1942:"Due to the living conditions in the ghetto, the reading room has a special meaning; it is not only a place to read books, (...) but also it is a place where one can read without pressure of fear; it is a place of rest for the mind."

Kruk remembers that he and his staff members were sceptical when they opened the library - would anybody come to read the books? Did people not have many other things to worry about? But they were taught better once they opened the reading room;  in the first weeks around 15000 readers registered. People borrowed mainly fiction and detective stories, and significant numbers of children came to read the books in the library. 

The Vilnius Library also ran a hidden archive, where its staff members collected material to document the life in the ghetto. The documentation of the life in imprisonment was often done by people engaged in library work of ghettos and Vilnius was not the only place where people would risk their lives to inform the outside world - and future generations - about the crimes the Nazis committed against them. 

The Concentration and Extermination Camps in Auschwitz
Reading was not prohibited in Concentration Camps, and even in the part of Auschwitz known as "Auschwitz I" there was a small library with about 1500 books. In the extermination camp of Auschwitz Birkenau - also called "Auschwitz II" - books and reading were strictly prohibited; the pure posession of paper was punished. At the labour camp Auschwitz Monowitz or "Auschwitz III", labour was so hard and the living conditions so terrible that "one could not even think of reading books", as Thorsten Seela stated in his work about libraries in National Socialist camps. He gives one exceptional example, however, about books at Auschwitz Birkenau; Fredy Hirsch, a former inmate of the Theresienstadt ghetto, where he had already been teaching children, manged to convince the camp administration to move a group of children to a separate barrack and to provide books for them. The books were not suitable for children at all, many were scientific or philosophical works, but the children read them nevertheless.

The existence of libraries at places of Nazi terror should not diminish the cruelty of the Regime. As mentioned, many of the inmates were not even able to use of these libraries because they were too weakened by hunger, forced labour, cold, or illnesses caused by the brutal living conditions. The fact that the inmates and librarians nevertheless manged to make the libraries places of cultural activity, resistance, and education - or places to escape the brutality of everyday life - is therefore even more incredible.

The information for this article was taken from literature of the Wiener Library's collection. Visit the Library to have a look at them and to find out more.

Braun, Karl: Die Bibliothek in Theresienstadt 1942-1945. Zur Rolle einer Eseinstitution in der "Endlösung der Judenfrage", in Bohemia 1999, Vol 2.
Koeper, Carmen Renate: Zwischen Emigration und KZ - Fünf Leben (Interview with Viktor Matejka), Wien 2008.
Kruk, Hermann: Bibliothekar und Chronist im Ghetto Vilna, Hannover 1990.
Seela, Thorsten:Lesen und Literaturbenutzung in den Konzentrationslagern: das gedruckte Wort im antifaschistischen Widerstand der Häftlinge, Berlin 1989.


Title quote from Karl Braun, p386.

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