The Roman Tales (Library of Lost Books)

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Then, and continuingly, the art. Now the books are coming into sharper view. In addition to setting fire to 1, synagogues and shattering Jewish shop windows—the particular act that gave Kristallnacht its name—Nazi storm troopers relieved synagogues throughout Germany of their Torah scrolls, which they took into the streets.

Sometimes they trampled, kicked, drowned, or burned them; sometimes they forced Jews to. Spectators dressed up in the robes of rabbis and cantors and danced around the fire while military bands provided music to muffle the sobs of distraught onlookers. A parallel story was unfolding alongside all this flamboyant bibliocide, however.

As early as , even before Kristallnacht , officials of an agency known as the Reichssicherheitshauptamt , or RSHA Reich Security Head Office , planned to establish a library of Jewish books and began looting volumes from rabbinical seminaries throughout Germany. Between and it is estimated that the Nazis seized nearly 3 million books. In all this relentless looting, packing, transporting, organizing, categorizing, sequestering, and after the war returning of the calligraphed and printed word, the story of the library of Rome is one of the least explored—and most haunting.

It did not draw serious attention from the Italian government until , when the Tedeschi Commission was established. More recently, in February of this year, scholars gathered in New York for an evening sponsored by the Centro Primo Levi, whose purpose was to ask, once again, Where did the Roman library go?

While the role of the Vatican continues to be explored and reconsidered, that of ordinary Italians, whether open, implicit, passive, or through inflated claims of resistance, remains largely unplumbed. The sporadic nature of the attention to the missing library is simply one piece of a much more intricate puzzle.

Another reason that books present a particularly challenging case has to do with where their confiscation fits into the timeline of one of the most brutal seasons in two millennia of Roman Jewish history: They were taken two weeks after SS Lt. Understandably more significant matters than stolen books were on the minds of the witnesses and, after them, survivors, detectives, archivists, and scholars. What did the library consist of, and why do people care so passionately about it almost 75 years after it vanished?

The first, the Rabbinical College Library, was a larger teaching library that had come to Rome from Florence when the college transferred there in the s. It consisted of prayer books, liturgical texts, copies of the Talmud, and works of philosophy and literature amounting to perhaps 10, volumes in all and was largely though not entirely recovered and then returned to Rome after the war.

It contained precious early manuscripts and incunabula; volumes issued by the Soncino brothers, who printed the first Hebrew Bible; works by other early notable printers such as the Constantinople-based Bomberg, Bragadin, and Giustiniani; texts from 17th- and 18th-century Venice and Livorno; a rare Hebrew-Italian-Arabic Dictionary; nearly 50 editions printed in the Levant before ; and, of course, the two books that are now in New York.

These particulars are drawn from the inventory by Isaia Sonne, who at the time lamented that he had been permitted to see only the second-best items in the collection. His capsule summary nevertheless speaks to the erudition and wide-ranging connections of the community, which despite having been confined to a ghetto for years had survived in Rome continuously since envoys of Judah Maccabee came to the city in the 2nd century BC.

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Forgotten Books

The library was assembled and maintained, after all, in a country where censorship and Church-sponsored burnings of Jewish books were not infrequent historical occurrences. If there was no catalogue to pore over or pluck sacrificial victims from, there was a better chance that the core of the collection might survive. It would be interesting to know more about the strange figure who appears at the offices of the Jewish community on October While his men commence ransacking the libraries of the rabbinical college and the Jewish community, the officer, with hands as cautious and sensitive as those of the finest needlewoman, skims, touches, caresses papyri and incunabula, leafs through manuscripts and rare editions, peruses parchments and palimpsests.

The varying degrees of caution in his touch, the heedfulness of his gestures, are quickly adapted to the importance of each work. Later, it became known that the SS officer was a distinguished scholar of paleography and Semitic philology. And on Oct. In the meantime they threatened death to anyone who removed so much as a single volume. On Oct. Mayer oversaw the removal of all of the community library and a portion of the rabbinical library as the president, secretary, and sexton of the community looked on.

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Because there were so many books—the movers estimated 25, volumes in all, a figure that may be inflated—the Germans were unable to complete their pillaging in one day. It is possible that they ran out of time; but it is also possible that they were aware that more urgent dislocations were to follow two days later, namely the first roundup of Roman Jews 1, on Oct. Nevertheless the books were not forgotten: On Dec. When members of the community appealed to Italian authorities for help, they did not even respond to the request. In investigating the rumor, which Gilson repeats, that the freight train carrying them toward Germany was bombed by the Allies, the commission consulted the Italian State Railway, which was unable to offer any documentation on the subject—though a postwar report by American officers who visited the Hungen depot in April states that a trainload of materials from Italy had been expected but never arrived.

A train departs from Italy, yet never reaches its destination in Germany, and there is no record of its destruction? The commission combed through archives in Germany, France, Israel, and the United States and also sent requests to the Soviet Union, where their investigation was restricted on account of the inaccessibility of many documents there.

The topic of the Soviet Union seems particularly charged. Because Nazi plunder was distributed among such a wide range of cities, it fell under different jurisdictions at the end of the war.


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Cultural treasures under the control of the United States or English military zones received more meticulous attention than treasures that fell under the control of the Soviets, a fact that has produced divided ideas about where the books might be located today. Agnes Peresztegi, the executive director for Europe for the Commission of Art Recovery, helped investigate the history of the Gurlitt trove of art that was recovered in Munich in , and she was among the speakers at the February symposium in New York.

The Soviet troops carried everything away. By contrast Patricia Grimsted, a Harvard professor who has spent many years exploring the fate of the plunder and is cited in the Tedeschi Commission report, believes that it is all too easy to blame the lack of an answer on the cupidity of the Russians, or even on the notorious obscurity of their archives. One potential hypothesis, Grimsted believes, is that the community library was not evacuated from Frankfurt during the Allied bombing but stashed in one of two bomb shelters in the city that the Nazis were known to have retained.

If that is the case, it may have been partially or totally destroyed, or merely lost. The Offenbach records may still hold revealing surprises too, she feels. These discoveries are often driven by a gathering energy or a yearning on the part of the community for the puzzle to be solved. Getting the word out—through opening and sharing data bases or holding evenings such as the one organized by the Centro Primo Levi or mounting an exhibition on the subject of the kind planned by the Jewish Museum of Rome for Holocaust Remembrance Day in —may help. All books found must be copied.

So we really lost a lot with Alexandrian library. When exactly it disappeared and how, is also subject to discussion. Some blame Julius Caesar who started a fire during a battle that destroyed a large part of the library. Other people say that it still existed at the time of the Arab conquest, and was destroyed by the conquerors.

And many events in between are also mentioned.

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The fact is that Claudius Ptolemy astronomer, who probably worked in Alexandria in 2 century AD could read Hipparchus. And we cannot. In fact almost all work in astronomy before Ptolemy is lost. And all work in mathematics before Euclid is lost. We recently learned from secondary sources that there was highly developed combinatorics in the Hellenistic times Habsieger, L. Monthly , , None of the original work survived.


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  • We know the name of the great polymath Posidonius BC whose scientific output is comparable with that of Aristoteles. He wrote on all sciences. All his works are lost. Philosopher logician Chrysippus BC was regarded by contemporaries higher than Aristoteles.

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    None of his works survived. None of the works of the founder of scientific medicine, Herophilos , survived. The great engineer mechanic, hydraulic, pneumatic Ctesibius 3d century BC is credited for many inventions. All his work is lost.

    Several sources frequently mention enormous warships of Hellenistic era Tesserakonteres , Leontophoros are the largest mentioned whose crew could exceed the crew of modern aircraft carrier. Historians speculate for the last years how these ships looked and how could they be constructed. No clear description survives. What we know of mathematics before BC mostly comes from Euclid. Imagine that from our contemporary period only Bourbaki books survive There is a consensus among modern scientists that Democritus of Abdera was one of the greatest scientists who ever lived.

    All lost …. The Serapeum is actually a smaller "branch" of the original library, formally part of the Temple of Serapis. The temple was converted to a Christian church by Theophilus around AD, and it appears this is the reference you have noted above. This "branch" was not actually destroyed, but there is no doubt that many documents were destroyed during the conversion.

    The official library, known as the Royal Library of Alexandria , was much larger and housed over half a million documents at the height of its glory. There are three different claims to having destroyed the original library, but we may never know exactly who was responsible. The library at Alexandria was said to be one of the largest and most significant libraries of the ancient world.

    At it's peak the Library contained between 40, and , manuscripts, scrolls and employed more than staff to maintain the collection. While it's true that their was no single catastrophe or fire which took out the entire collection but rather the institution declined and eroded over time like the empires it belonged too. We can still speak of what lost treasures may have once been perserved in that collection.