By Mark Glickman, rabbi of two synagogues in the Seattle area and a religion columnist for the Seattle Times. His book Burnt Pearls: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Nazi Jewish Library, will be published by the Jewish Publication Society next year.
My wife is a past-president of the Rotary Club of Duvall, Washington, USA, and I’ve had the opportunity to participate as her sidekick ever since she joined. During those years, I’ve come to know Rotary as a group of wonderful people doing important work and showing deep commitment to bettering their communities and the world.
That’s why I was surprised to see Rotary listed as a subversive organization and an enemy of human progress.
At least, that’s what the Nazis said.
I’m now doing research for a book about the largest Jewish “library” in history – the tens-of-millions of Jewish books that members of the Nazi party looted from homes and communities during World War II. Ostensibly, the Nazis’ plan was to open a series of research institutes after the war devoted to the study of enemy groups – groups that by then they hoped would no longer exist.
The institutes would need libraries; the libraries would need books; archival material would help too. Soon after the war began, the looting started.
Jews were at the top of the Nazi target-list, but the Reich also set its sights on Communists, the Masons, Catholics, literary and humanitarian organizations, and in the eyes of some Nazi officials, Rotary.
In the summer of 1940, Nazi forces conquered the Netherlands, and immediately afterward, teams of soldiers fanned out through the country to confiscate books and papers belonging to these “enemy” groups. Before long, the looters proudly reported to Berlin that their haul included archives of many different organizations, including those of Rotary clubs in Haarlem, Amsterdam, Leiden, and a dozen other cities throughout the country.
Imagine being a Rotary officer in wartime Holland. At work one day, a small group of uniformed men walk into your office. Their pants are crisply pressed; their shiny boots clack smartly on the floor; the heavy black swastikas on their armbands make it clear who they are.
“Good day, sir. Are you Mr. Van Dyke?” Yes. “Are you president of the local Rotary club?” Yes. “Sir, we have an order here to confiscate the club’s files. If you could get them for us immediately, we’ll be on our way.”
The files were shipped to a collecting point – perhaps a converted castle or monastery in Nazi-held lands – where Allied forces discovered them at war’s end. Soon, at least some of these files were re-looted and brought to the Soviet Union, where they remained until Moscow returned them to the west about a decade ago. Today, 234 looted files dated 1924-1940 sit safely in the possession of the Netherlands Rotary Foundation in Amsterdam.
The Nazis felt Rotary belonged to a cabal of subversive organizations bent on human destruction. But if being associated with the Rotary I’ve come to know means being subversive, then I’ll wear “subversive” as a badge of pride.
You can contact Glickman at firstname.lastname@example.org