Since the beginning of my work in the provenance research dept. of the Central and Regional Library Berlin back in 2010, two names and exlibris have been following me in some way: Martha and Benno Mühsam. Their exlibris could be found in books that were part of the so called Zugang J i, the exlibris-collection of the Berliner Stadtbibliothek, in books that had never been accessioned and were still stored in a depot as a reserve and also in books that were accessioned shortly after the end of WWII as „gifts“. In a way, the books of Benno and Martha Mühsam perfectly show the scattering of private libraries just within a larger library’s stock, and with that the complete disregard for provenance for so many years.
The research into this particular provenance was done in small portions over the last ten years. I can’t even begin to try to recount which piece of the puzzle fell into place when and why. Not all marks were detected immediately, access to certain resources like databases or archival resources has not been available from the go, time still is always scarce and of course there are literally hundreds of thousands of other objects, stamps, signatures etc. that demand attention. I only mention this to lend one more voice to the choir of researchers that time and time again have to explain that provenance research with the sincere aim of restitution is not a short-term ‘project’.
Now, who were Benno and Martha Mühsam?
Benno Mühsam was born on 6 November 1855 in Pitschen (Kreuzburg district, Silesia). He was a lawyer and lived and worked in Berlin since at least 1889. An exact date of death for Benno Mühsam has not yet been determined. Based on address directory entries, it can be assumed that Benno Mühsam died around 1926.
The Mühsam family was large and well known, it’s most prominent member today being the writer, poet and anarchist Erich Mühsam who was murdered in Oranienburg concentration camp in 1934. Both him and Benno were present at the first Mühsam family day on 12 November 1911, a gathering of 50 family members that was held at the “Wine Restaurant Rheingold” near Potsdamer Platz in Berlin. Benno was voted into the archive-commission and tasked with holding the family archive until the next gathering.ii
Martha Cohn was born in Poznan on 13 March 1860 to Götz Cohn and Lidi Zippert. In 1887, she married Benno Mühsam in Berlin. Sadly, that is about all we know about her. From the books that bear her exlibris, we can assume that she had a penchant for English literature. The couple had two children, Anna Charlotte (b. 23 June 1889) and Ernst Julius Max (b. 30 August 1896). Martha Mühsam died in Berlin on 20 December 1916.
Ernst Mühsam lived in Berlin all of his life. He is listed at the same address as his father Benno until 1927, from 1928 onward, only Ernst can be found there. He was a merchant and lived at Genthiner Str. 5 – the street was was renamed Woyrischstr. from 1935-1947 – until 27 November 1941, when he was deported to the Riga ghetto and murdered there on 30 November 1941. It can be assumed that Ernst Mühsam was the last owner of the books and bookplates before their confiscation. We found no indication that Ernst Mühsam was married or had children.
Charlotte Mühsam also lived at Genthiner Str. 5 until at least 1909. In September of that year, she married Dr. Carlo Moreschi, a physician from Milan, in Berlin. It is likely that she then soon moved to Italy with Carlo; in the years after 1909, no one named Moreschi is listed in Berlin address registries.
The couple had two children, Silvia and Elsa. Carlo Moreschi died near Milan in 1921. Charlotte, now known as Anna Moreschi, survived the Holocaust in Italy, she died in 1966.
One note on the books themselves: while the identified volumes are surely only a fragment of the original library, and we do expect to find further volumes in the coming years as our work continues, what can be said is that they belonged to a multilingual family. As mentioned above, Martha Mühsam owned several books in English, among them a rare numbered Roycrofters-edition of Alfred Tennyson‘s epic poem „This then is Maud“, as well as at least one book in Italian. Benno owned books in German and a French volume of Chateaubriand. Most of the books are marked with an exlibris, except for one volume that was given to Benno as a gift from the author. In 1901 Ferdinand von Strantziii dedicated a volume of his memoirs to Benno: „To the most amiable, distinguished lawyer of Berlin, Dr. Benno Mühsam, for him to remember the grateful author. B. July 31, 1901. FvStrantz.“. One book also has a Stamp of Benno, and Martha marked at least one book with her initials on the lower right of the front cover.iv
In 2020, the books were finally connected to Benno and Martha Mühsam beyond doubt. Fortunately, it now did not take a long time to identify and get in touch with the family – the books were given back to the heirs of Anna Moreschi in early 2021.
The author is indebted to the heirs for allowing him to share the story and the photos of the Mühsam/Moreschi family in this blogpost.
i In 1943, the Berlin City Library (Berliner Stadtbibliothek, BStB) a predecessor of today‘s Central and Regional Library Berlin (Zentral- und Landesbibliothek Berlin), contacted the Berlin city treasurer and asked if the Public Pawn Office inquiring about “over 40,000 books from the private libraries of evacuated Jews”, i.e. books from the final residences of deported and murdered people. The library subsequently bought these books from the city of Berlin. Just under 2,000 of the 40,000 books were recorded in a special accessions register entitled „J“ until 20 April 1945. These books are identifiable by their accession numbers; each serial number is preceded by a “J”. After the war ended, no attempts were made to return the stolen books to their owners, the owners’ heirs, or Berlin’s Jewish community. In August 1945, the BStB began logging all the original materials and thus also the rest of the deported people’s books. These were not entered in a separate accessions register as had been done previously, but were rather recorded as “gifts” along with other acquisitions. For more details, see https://www.zlb.de/en/subject-information/special-area/provenienzforschung/the-books-paths.html
ii A printed and annotated record of the Mühsam family day is available online: Familienstammbuch Muehsam zu Charlottenburg, 1913-1914, Box: 7, Folder: 23. Leo Baeck Institute. https://archives.cjh.org/repositories/5/archival_objects/842418
iii Ferdinand von Strantz (1821 – 1909), was an actor, singer, theatre intendant and director of the Berlin Royal Opera.
Sebastian Finsterwalder is a provenance researcher at the Central and Regional Library Berlin (Zentral- und Landesbibliothek Berlin) and a member of the non-profit Tracing the Past.