Saving Vilna’s Jewish Books


In a White House ceremony earlier this month, President George W. Bush honored several Jewish intellectuals who are authors of prominent books, and one Jewish New Yorker who helped save thousands and thousands of Jewish books.

Seymore Pomrenze, a Riverdale resident, received a National Humanities Medal as a member of the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art, for his role after World War II in recovering Jewish books and other artifacts stolen by the Nazis. As a member of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s wartime staff and first director of the Allied occupation government’s Offenbach Archival Depot in postwar Germany, he established the procedures for returning some three million artifacts to their owners and to the wider Jewish community.

During the war, the Nazis melted down religious objects like candlesticks and burned untold numbers of books, reportedly the greatest loss and displacement of cultural treasures in history. In 1945, however, American troops discovered still-intact depots filled with million of books.

Pomrenze, now a retired colonel, played a major role in rescuing the Strashun Library, a Vilna repository that was the foremost such repository in Europe before the war, and shipping it to the YIVO Institute after the war.

After he discovered that the library’s contents had survived the Nazis’ destruction of Vilna’s Jewish community, he supervised the loading of the library’s collections in three freight cars and their shipping to the relocated YIVO here.

He set up the Offenbach depot in a five-story concrete building. “As I stood before a seemingly endless sea of crates and books,” he recalled a few years ago, “I thought what a horrible mess! What could I do with all these materials? The only possible action was to return the items to their owners as quickly as possible.”

“We are forever indebted to the men and women who, in an era of total war, rescued and preserved a precious portion of the world’s heritage,” Bush said.

Pomrenze in later years served as distinguished adjunct professor in records management at American University, records manager/archivist for the Department of the Army and archivist consultant for three dozen Jewish organizations.

Other members of the Jewish community who received 2007 National Humanities Medals, awarded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, were Stephen Balch, president of the National Association of Scholars; philanthropist Roger Hertog; novelist Cynthia Ozick; scholar Ruth Wisse and historian Richard Pipes. Recipients of the National Endowment’s of the Arts 2007 medal included Roy Neuberger of New York.