Louis Sachs & Herr Mai – provenance research as a means to empower remembrance

by Sebastian Finsterwalder

This text is based on a presentation for the conference „Libri in fuga“, Dec. 1st, 2019 – in Nonantola, Italy.

The Central and Regional Library of Berlin (Zentral- und Landesbibliothek Berlin, ZLB) is Germany’s largest public library. It is a foundation that includes a number of different collections and now defunct libraries and their stocks.1

In ca. 2002 Detlef Bockenkamm found a number of books that he immediately was able to identify as part of a library that had been looted. They were books of the “Karl Marx House Trier”, a library that had been assembled by the Social Democratic Party of Germany in Berlin in 1933 to be placed in Marx’ birthplace, but that in fact was confiscated right after the transfer of power to the NSDAP. Detlef found about 70 books and they were returned.2 After this, he stuck with researching the library’s stock in regard to the provenances, something that had not been done before. It was him and him alone that cared, and over the course of seven years, he uncovered a history that no one had wanted to know for decades. This approach and the fact that the subject of Nazi-looted books was brought up by an individual interested employee is rather common in libraries, many of them starting around the year 2000.3

Stamp of the Karl Marx House Trier (Looted Cultural Assets, CC-BY-NC)

The Berlin City Library, the only one of our three main libraries to be around before 1945, had been no bystander when Jewish Berliners were persecuted. The library’s director, Wilhelm Schuster, had been a member of the Nazi Party since May 1st 1933, was a contributor to the lists of forbidden literature and a fierce supporter of obliterating “non-German” literature from the shelves of public libraries.4

In 1943 the Berlin City Library contacted Berlin’s City Pawn Shop (Städtische Pfandleihanstalt) and bought ~40.000 books for a bargain price. These books had been confiscated from the last homes of Jewish Berliners before they were deported and murdered. The phone memo documenting the first contact between the City Pawn Shop and the Library clearly shows that nothing was veiled in this exchange. Right away there is talk of “Judenbücher” – “Jew books”. The following written correspondence between the library and the City also shows that this deal was made not only in full knowledge of where the books came from, but also what the money the library paid for the books will be used for – the “solution of the Jewish question”.5

“Judenbücher / Städt. Pfandleihanstalt, Elsasserstr. 74 (Stadtamtmann Wieser, Stadt 2901) / ca 20000 Bd.” (ZLB)

This was by no means the only acquisition of Nazi-looted books the City Library made, but the one that is best documented. We still are dealing with a large number of books of which we are not sure if they might be looted or not, and an even larger number of marks like dedications, signatures, exlibris etc. that are leading us to people who, in most cases, we know nothing about. To somehow be able to tackle the amount of data and also return books as quickly as possible, we set up a database (today the cooperatively operated Looted Cultural Assets) that allows us to publish all our findings online in the hope that families, heirs, or anybody else who knows more about the people whose books we find are able to find us before we find them.6

There is steady progress in making the subject relevant for libraries and the general public. The reason for this can be found not so much in the objects themselves when considered as cultural objects, but rather in the life stories and biographies that these books are able to unearth and transmit.

Take for example Louis Sachs. Over the last ~15 years we again and again have found books with a very distinctive signature in them. Lois Sachs Berlin. The more books we found, the more we learned about Louis. He lived at Prenzlauer Allee 222 in Berlin. He was born on December 29th 1872 in Hammerstein, Prussia. He was Jewish. On January 13th, 1942 Louis Sachs was deported from Berlin to the Riga Ghetto from where he did not return. The date and circumstances of his death are not known.7

Signatures of Louis Sachs (Looted Cultural Assets, CC-BY-NC)

We have searched archives, physical and digital, have leafed through memorial books, employed a researcher – still all that we were able to find on Louis were these few dates: name, birth, address, deportation. Nothing on his family, nothing on his life, his interests and passions, his troubles and joys. The only way we are able to get at least some insight into him as a person are up to now his books. We can tell that Louis had a very diverse library, so he probably had a multitude of interests. In some of his books we also found little notes that allow us to get little glimpses into his life:

This last entry is particularly interesting, because it connects Louis Sachs to another of our cases. In 2018 we were contacted by a Berlin researcher who is organizing trips to Berlin for Holocaust survivors with roots in the city. She had identified a person named in a dedication in one of our books as someone she knew:

“To my kind patron and fatherly friend, Mr. Max Mai with the most sincere wishes on 11/17/07 Captain (retired) Heinrich Peters” (Looted Cultural Assets, CC-BY-NC)

Max Mai was born on November 17th 1841 in Berlin. He was a bookseller and antiquarian and ran the family business Antiquariat Emanuel Mai, named after his father. In 1869 Max was married to Fanny Hirschberg (ca. 1847 – 1888). In 1873 their son Ulrich was born. Like his father, he became a bookseller and went into the family business. He married Gertrud Neustadt in 1901. After the death of Max in 1909, Ulrich was the sole owner of the bookshop. He was in all likelihood the man who gave Louis Sachs his book.

In Nazi Germany, Gertrud and Ulrich Mai were persecuted as Jewish. They emigrated via Southampton to the United States in 1938 and later lived in New Zealand. Gertrud died in 1953, Ulrich in 1964. We were able to get in touch with one of their daughters and could return the book that previously had belonged first to Max and later to Ulrich. In the course of the restitution we learned about another branch of the family, stemming from a brother of Ulrich who had emigrated to Argentina in the early 1920s, because he did not want to work in a bookshop. In Argentina he bred rabbits and apparently did not keep in touch with his family.

These two examples can show what our work and our efforts are intrinsically about. The provenance marks of Louis Sachs make it possible to remember him by more than a couple of basic dates. Through a dedication it was possible to connect families in New Zealand, Argentina and Berlin and inform various generations about their heritage.


1 The America Memorial Library, est. 1954, a gift of the United States to the city of West-Berlin that introduced the concept of the public library to Berliners, the Library of the Berlin Senate, est. 1946 and the Berlin City Library, est. 1901, Berlin’s former central library. Included in these stocks are, among many others the Library of the Prussian Ministry of the Interior, the Library of the Berlin Magistrate, the Central Reference Library Berlin-Dahlem and dozens of former private libraries, either bought or donated at some point in the last 100+ years.

2 Detlef Bockenkamm: Geraubt. Die Bücher der Berliner Juden. Berlin, 2008.

3 Frank Möbus in Göttingen, Jürgen Babendreier in Bremen, Markus Stumpf in Vienna, Leibl Rosenberg in Nuremberg, to name but a few.

4 For more on Schuster see Angela Graf: „Wer ein Deutscher ist, der folgt dem Ruf!“. Wilhelm Schuster, Vorsitzender des Verbandes Deutscher Volksbibliothekare. In: Sven Kuttner and Peter Vodosek (Ed.): Volksbibliothekare im Nationalsozialismus. Wiesbaden, 2017, p. 37 ff.

5 See Bockenkamm: Geraubt and Peter Prölß: Buchwege. Projektergebnisse der Zentral- und Landesbibliothek Berlin. In: Regine Dehnel (Ed.): NS-Raubgut in Museen, Bibliotheken und Archiven. Viertes Hannoversches Symposium. Frankfurt am Main, 2012, p. 455 ff.

6 See Sebastian Finsterwalder and Ringo Narewski: Looted Cultural Assets : Werkzeug kooperativer Provenienzforschung. In: Markus Helmut Lenhart and Birgit Scholz (Ed.): Was bleibt? Bibliothekarische NS-Provenienzforschung und der Umgang mit ihren Ergebnissen. Graz, 2018, p. 95 ff.

7 See his entry in the Memorial Book of the German Federal Archives and his entry on Mapping the Lives.


Sebastian Finsterwalder was born in Berlin in 1982. He’s a Specialist for Media and Information Services and has been working at the Central and Regional Library of Berlin (“Zentral- und Landesbibliothek Berlin”) since 2006. Since its formation in 2010 he has been part of the library’s Department for Provenance Research and is responsible for the documentation and restitution of Nazi-looted assets. He is a member of the “Arbeitskreis Provenienzforschung e.V.”, the Arbeitskreis’ “Arbeitsgruppe Provenienzforschung in Bibliotheken” as well as the “Arbeitskreis Provenienzforschung und Restitution – Bibliotheken”. He is also a founding member and treasurer of “Tracing the Past“, a non-profit organization dedicated to the research and memorialization of the persecuted in Europe 1933-1945.


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