New chapter beckons for books lost or confiscated in Czechoslovakia during WW II

Photo: archive of Czech National Library

Over the past year and half, the Czech National Library has been carrying out a unique research project documenting books confiscated or dispossessed and brought to Czechoslovakia during World War II or shortly afterwards. Many of the books got lost, while others lay scattered in the archives all over the country for decades. Now, the National Library has uncovered at least part of the collection to map the books’ history and trace their original owners.

Photo: archive of Czech National Library
I spoke to Tomáš Foltýn and Marcela Strouhalová, who were involved in the Books Discovered Once Again project, and I first asked them about its main objectives:

Tomáš Foltýn: “To mention just one, main objective is very difficult, because there were many goals we wanted to achieve during the project. We started with mapping and cataloguing collections of the National Library stored in the Neratovice depot.

“The collection was located in the depot for more than 80 years and there was very little information as to what exactly is stored in there. The first impetus was to map the collection, choose some of the typical books that were stored there and make them available to our users.

However, during the project preparation we discovered that there were many interesting stories behind the cataloguing and mapping, so we opened a discussion about their presentation, about legal aspects and so on. So in the end the project grew in size.”

Why did you team up with the Norwegian institution Stiftelsen Arkivet?

“TF: There are two reasons: The first is that we were searching for some special institution that has experience with presenting the WWII period and the period just after the war.

“And second, we met with the representatives of the institution just before the project was launched and we persuaded them that the scope of the project was interested for Norway as well.

You focused on books brought to the Czech territory during WWII. How did these books actually get to the National Library?

Marcela Strouhalová,  photo: archive of Czech National Library
Marcela Strouhalová: “There are books that came to the Czech Republic in three different ways in our reserve funds. The first group are books coming from the Reich, confiscated by the Nazis to their supposed enemies not only in Germany but in the whole of the occupied Europe.

“The second group of books, confiscated under the presidential decrees, was a property of Czechoslovak enemies: Germans, Hungarians, traitors and collaborators. And the last group were books that came to the library not immediately after the war but later in the post-war period. They are outdated books excluded from ministerial or university libraries.”

What happened with these books after the war?

MS: “The books from the Third Reich were stored in four castles on the border area, in what used to be the Sudetenland. The books were confiscated by Czechoslovak authorities between May and June 1945. They were sorted by the National Library according to their provenance signs, stamps and ex libris. The books from elite countries were repatriated and the German books and those without provenance signs were sent to the National Library, where they are till today.

“The books confiscated under the presidential decrees were stored in various storage facilities. It was around 15 million confiscated books, and we don't know exactly how many of them ended up in the National Library, because many of them were distributed to other libraries, for instance the scientific or university ones.”

How did you approach the research? I am not sure how many books we are actually talking about.

Tomáš Foltýn,  photo: archive of Czech National Library
TF: “We are talking about an unbelievable amount of books, about more than 300,000 located in the depository. And we are now talking only about the so-called non-Bohemical books. So we are trying to map this non-Bohemical collection and sort it according to the provenance signs. We would like to find some books with the provenance signs and afterwards to think about their previous holders.”

Have you attempted to retrace some of the previous owners?

“We discovered almost 2,000 various owners, from freemasons, various fellowships and Nazi authorities from the Protectorate of Moravia and Bohemia, to ministries, schools and individual owners. So we want to make a deeper research into that in the future.”

Can you tell me at least about some of the most interesting cases?

MS: “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 Bostunitsch, 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.”

What will happen with the books that have already been processed?

TF: “Our first impetus was to catalogue the records, so all the records will be available in the catalogue of the national Library of the Czech Republic. So any user can browse this collection via the library catalogue. And afterwards, because we are a part of the librarianship, we would like to present out contents in the study rooms as well. Some of the books will also be digitised so they will also be available in the digital library of the Czech National Library.”

But I believe that is not the only outcome. There is also an online exhibition available on your website.

Photo: archive of Czech National Library
TF: “Yes of course. There are also other outputs of the project. We organised two seminars for the general public. The first one was held in Kristiansand in Norway and a week ago there was a seminar in Prague, focused on censorship the legal aspects and so on.

“Together with Stiftelsen Arkivet we created a virtual exhibition which is available at our website and we also created one physical exhibition at the Klementinum building. It is really interesting to walk along the corridor where the exhibition is located because many people are standing and looking at the exhibits. It is a great occasion to talk with the general public about our collection and our work. I think it is a great possibility to meet the people.”