Looted Books

This post dovetails coincidentally with Rory’s 10/22 post about the solidarity library in Bethlehem – looks like it’s Israel/Palestine week at Library Juice.

Hannah Mermelstein, a school librarian in New York City, is also a Palestine solidarity activist (and generally awesome person). She’s reworked her thesis into an article, “Overdue Books: Returning Palestine’s ‘Abandoned Property’ of 1948,” that’s been published in the Autumn 2011 issue of the Jerusalem Quarterly.

The article is about books as physical and symbolic pieces of cultural heritage. During times of war and occupation, they may be seized and, if not destroyed, repurposed for the benefit of the regime in power. However, the continued existence of and, often, detailed record-keeping for these books leaves open the possibility of restoration to the original owners, in the larger context of rights for the victimized peoples.

In 1948, much of the wealthy and formally educated Palestinian population was concentrated in Jerusalem and other urban centers. When Zionist militias swept through these neighborhoods, they physically pushed thousands of people from their homes and caused tens of thousands more to flee in fear. Many Palestinians left in haste, grabbing only what they could carry as they ran. Others thought they would return a few weeks later, once the fighting died down. In many cases, members of the educated class left behind some of their most prized possessions: books.

The soldiers raiding these West Jerusalem neighborhoods were closely followed by teams of librarians from the Jewish National and University Library at Hebrew University (later referred to as National Jewish Library or simply the National Library). They gathered approximately 30,000 books from private Palestinian libraries and, according to testimonies from those involved in the project, began to catalog books by subject and often by owners’ names. In the early 1960s, however, close to 6,000 of the books were revisited and labeled with the letters “AP” for “abandoned property”. […] To this day, the books’ call numbers begin with the letters “AP.” The National Library has thus maintained a likely unintentional collection of looted Palestinian books, easily identifiable to those who understand what “AP” means.

The article that originally inspired Hannah is Gish Amit’s “Ownerless Objects? The Story of the Books Palestinians Left Behind in 1948,” published in the Jerusalem Quarterly as well. There is also a related cultural memory project called The Great Book Robbery.

One comment on “Looted Books

  1. Thanks for posting Melissa! Great article. Who thinks about these things. Glad they were able to save the books!!!

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