Cook Library’s Connection to the Movie “Monuments Men”

February 11, 2014 at 1:10 pm Leave a comment

RBR217v3-4_BookplateOADstamp_300dpiThe recent “Monuments Men” film directed by George Clooney and Grant Heslov tells the story of the experiences of just a few of the more than 300 Monuments, Fine Arts, & Archives (MFA&A) program men and women who worked during and after World War II to safeguard Europe’s historic and cultural monuments from war damage. Longtime archivist at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Seymour J. Pomrenze, was one of many so-called Monuments Men.

Pomrenze and his older brother immigrated with their mother to the United States from the Ukraine after their father was killed during the anti-Jewish pogroms of 1919. He received a Master’s degree in history at the University of Chicago, later followed by a PhD in Jewish history. He worked for NARA as a reference assistant for approximately a year, from July 1941 to May 1942, before joining the United States Army. In December 1945, he was sent to Europe to help reorganize German archives under the auspices of the Office of Military Government, Wurttemberg-Baden.

With his background in Jewish history and his knowledge of German, Hebrew, and Yiddish, Pomrenze was given a special assignment as director of the Offenbach Archival Depot, a clearinghouse established by the U. S. Army to identify and restore books and archival material also seized by the Nazis to their rightful owners.  Upon arriving at the Depot, Pomrenze described these cultural heritage materials as “… the literary remains of a decimated Jewish civilization. And if a collection of stolen books could properly be called a library, then at the time it was the largest Jewish library ever assembled.[1]

The OAD restituted approximately three million items to their original owners. Unfortunately, because of massive loss of life or lack of marks of ownership, half a million unidentifiable items remained heirless. The U. S. Army transferred custodianship of these to the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Inc., the cultural arm of the Jewish Restitution Successor Organization. In turn, JCR distributed them to religious, cultural, and educational institutions in the United States, including the Baltimore Hebrew College, now known as the Baltimore Hebrew Institute at Towson University (BHI). From September 1949 to August 1951 BHI received approximately twelve shipments of Judaica, including books, rare books, pamphlets, and periodicals. Based on distribution reports from JCR it is estimated that BHC received as many as 4,562 items altogether. In 2009, when the BHI collections were moved under the custodianship of the Albert S. Cook Library, the JCR books came, too.

When the BHI collection first arrived at Towson University, the JCR books were located in part among the circulating collection on the second floor or among the rare and special books located on the 5th floor of Cook Library in Special Collections and Archives. In most cases JCR books are identified by a JCR bookplate, usually located on the inside front cover of the book, as well as the round stamp of the Offenbach Archival Depot. Other marks of ownership reflect use of the books by libraries, schools, synagogues, and private individuals located all over Europe. In recent years the University Archivist and other Library staff have been working on transferring all JCR books to Special Collections & Archives to ensure their long term preservation. Additionally, they have developed programs to raise awareness of the collection and demonstrate their potential for use in the classroom. In addition to standing as artifacts of European Jewish Cultural heritage and the Holocaust, the books are useful for exploring the history of book publishing, the book arts, and to gain a better understanding the plunder of cultural heritage materials in modern times.

On Monday, April 28th (in commemoration of Holocaust Remembrance Day) from 12-1pm in front of the College of Liberal Arts Room 4200, University Archivist & Digital Collections Librarian Nadia Nasr and Jewish Studies Librarian Elaine Mael will conduct a White Gloves Session whereby they give a brief overview of the history of the JCR books, discuss the significance of some related photographs, and give participants the opportunity to don a pair of white archival gloves so they can more closely examine the books for themselves and ask questions.

For more information about this collection, the schedule a White Gloves Session, or to view some of the JCR books please contact Special Collections & Archives at spcoll@towson.edu or 410-704-2093.


[1] Glickman, Mark. S. Col. Seymour Pomrenze: caretaker of the world’s largest Jewish library. JTNews: the Voice of Jewish Washington (September 26, 2011).

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