Erna Koopmann’s rediscovered book, or: What does provenance research have to do with teaching history?

by Jenka Fuchs

“I am holding this book. Its contents are not very interesting. Its story, however, is,” tweeted Laura Hilton, history professor at Muskingum University, in the US state of Ohio, on August 29, 2019 about an incident in one of her seminars on the history of the Shoah. She was referring to a copy of the 1928 book “Deutschland heute” (Germany Today) by the economist and journalist Alfons Goldschmidt (1879-1940), which the Stadtbibliothek (StB, or city library) Hannover listed in 1946 in its inventory as a gift from the Staatsarchiv (state archive) Hannover. Whether the book’s contents are really so uninteresting is beside the point. The book’s history and its symbolic importance as a carrier of remembrance make it especially important to the work of historical education.

The dedication to “Erna Koopmann on March 4, 1929” on its flyleaf refers to its former owner, a Jewish woman who was persecuted under National Socialism.

Cover of Alfons Goldschmidt’s book, Deutschland heute, Berlin: Ernst Rowohlt 1928. Signatur StB Hannover T 3182, access no. 46/2875. (© StB Hannover)
Dedication by an unknown individual to Erna Koopmann (married name Berg) on March 4, 1929, her birthday. (© StB Hannover)

Erna Koopmann, born on March 4, 1892 in Berne/Oldenburg, was a social worker. In the early 1920s she and her husband, Eduard Berg (1877-1951), lived in Hildesheim. In 1938 the couple fled with their daughter, Renate, to the Netherlands.  Since they escaped the German Reich without having paid the Reich Flight Tax, the Hildesheim tax office issued a warrant against Erna and Eduard Berg and confiscated their assets, evidently including their library.

The Bergs went into hiding in the Netherlands and survived the Shoah there. In 1946 the family immigrated to the USA. Erna (Berg) Koopmann died on March 3, 1979 in Chicago.

Erna Koopmann (married name Berg), 1946. (© Alisa Neeman)

After the confiscation, this book ended up in the NSDAP (National Socialist Party) archive in the district of South Hannover-Braunschweig. From there, it went to the City Library via the Hannover State Archive in 1946, along with several thousand other books and periodicals. In June 2019 the book was restituted to Erna Koopmann’s granddaughter, Alisa Neeman, who gave it to her colleague Laura Hilton, cited above. Hilton used the book in one of her seminars on teaching history.

The return of Erna Koopmann’s book was made possible through the research project on Nazi-era looted property – “Questionable Provenance in the Holdings of the Hannover City Library” – which commenced in August 2017. It is the first time this institution had conducted a systematic search for Nazi-era looted property in its holdings.

A main goal of the project is to return looted books to their original owners or their heirs. The cooperation of the provenance database of Looted Cultural Assets is of particular importance to the transparent and sustainable documentation of the collected research data.

The focus of the project, funded by the Stiftung Deutsches Zentrum Kulturgutverluste (German Lost Art Foundation, or DZK) with a research assistant position, is on two particularly suspect transfers of goods in the immediate post-war period: “gifts” from the Gestapo in the autumn of 1945, as well as a 1946 handover from the NSDAP archive in the district of South Hannover-Braunschweig, which, as mentioned above, was arranged by the Hannover State Archive.

Glimpse into the 1946 access log: Books from the NSDAP district archive are hidden behind the seemingly innocuous label “Staatsarchiv Hannover.” (© StB Hannover)

To date, 4,180 books and 19 assorted ex-libris bookplates have been examined. Of those, 1,427 have been categorized as suspected Nazi-era looted property – about 34% in all. Of the books, 1,137 have some hint of provenance that allows concrete conclusions to be drawn about their former owners. In 42 cases, these suspicions have already been confirmed, while extensive further research is necessary to clarify the provenance of 1,031 cases. In 7 of the 42 identified Nazi-era looted property cases, it was possible to identify the lawful former owners or their heirs, and return the objects to them.

The continuation of the StB Hannover research project is assured through the summer of 2020 thanks to the financial commitment of the DZK.

Clearly, even after the conclusion of the current research, much work remains to be done. Above all it is a desideratum to conduct systematic research for Nazi-era looted property among all StB Hannover acquisitions from 1933 to 1945.

With that in mind, an application for funding for a follow-up project was submitted to the DZK in early summer.

Further information is available on the project homepage.


This text is a slightly revised English translation of the original German article „Der Buchfund Erna Koopmann oder was Provenienzforschung mit historischer Bildungsarbeit verbindet“, which was published on RETOUR on 8 April 2020.

(Translation: Toby Anne Axelrod)


Bibliography

Erna Berg, Memoirs of life underground : A Jewish woman from the village of Berne hiding in Amsterdam 1943 – 1945. Ed. by Ursula Bernhold. Transl. Renate Neeman, Oldenburg 2010.

Hartmut Häger, Eduard Berg – als Bürger geachtet, als Jude geächtet, http://vernetztes-erinnern-hildesheim.de/pages/home/hildesheim/personen/opfer/eduard-berg.php (5.4.2020).

Karljosef Kreter, Geraubte Bücher im Stadtarchiv Hannover. Die Identifizierung von verfolgungsbedingt entzogenem Kulturgut aus dem „NSDAP-Gauarchiv und -museum“. In: Hannoversche Geschichtsblätter 60 (2006), pp. 105–134.


Jenka Fuchs is a provenance research assistant at the Stadtbibliothek Hannover (Hannover City Library) for the project “Questionable Provenance in the Holdings of the Hannover City Library.


Schreibe einen Kommentar

Deine E-Mail-Adresse wird nicht veröffentlicht. Erforderliche Felder sind mit * markiert.

Diese Website verwendet Akismet, um Spam zu reduzieren. Erfahre mehr darüber, wie deine Kommentardaten verarbeitet werden.