British Library instrumental in returning a book stolen by the nazis

German loot in WWII.
German loot in WWII.

As any police officer or detective can verify, a routine inquiry can lead to the unexpected.

Such is the case with a copy of ‘Die Goldenen Waffen,’ a play penned by Hans José Rehfisch that had been at the central London Library since 1988, when it was bought second hand.

Susan Reed, lead custodian for Germanic Studies at the library, said she was contacted by a Rehfisch descendant, who was especially interested in a newspaper clipping on the inside of the book.

It was a review of Doktor Semmelweis, another of the Rehfisch’s plays, performed in 1934.

Reed described in a blog: The British Library’s proprietary stamp disclosed that they had bought ‘Die Goldenen Waffen’ second hand in July 1988. She realized that for a book of that era, their archives would most likely reveal little more than the bookseller’s name and the purchase price, with no provenance provided.

Not willing to give up an inquiry, Reed searched online for the name K. Mayländer after noticing the name pasted inside the front cover on the assumption the former owner was known in some circles.

To her astonishment, a number of hits about Dr. Karl Mayländer were the same as the one in the book.  Reed’s satisfaction in making the discovery turned to concern when she realized why the name was known to the public.

He was a Viennese art collector and was a victim of the Holocaust.  In October 1941 he was deported to Lodz.  His surviving heir had been involved in a lengthy and recently-settled cultural compensation claim concerning five drawings by Egon Schiele (an artist known by Mayländer whom he supported) in Vienna’s Leopold Museum.

Reed continued her inquiry into the circumstances of the drawings which revealed that Mayländer’s collection was stolen by the Nazis prior to his deportation to the ghetto in Poland, then occupied by Germany.

The British Library contacted Israelitische Kultusgemeinde in Vienna, which acts as representatives of the city’s Jewish residents and offered to return the work.

The British Library. Photo Credit
The British Library. Photo Credit

She said the considerable time spent on the slim volume may seem excessive given the small monetary value, since restitution and cultural spoliation are usually associated with valuable items that are either unique or famous, The Huffington Post reported.

But, she points out, both cultural institutions such as the British Library and governments have recently become more cognizant of the responsibilities and issues relating to the restitution and spoliation of cultural artifacts from not only the Nazi era, the Holocaust and Second World War, but also from recent conflicts.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE